Historic Records of Wire Harp Strings

From Patrick Murney 1882

I think the last of the pupils of the Belfast Harp Society was the well-known Pat Murney, who when he was stringing harps for me on the second of July 1882, requested me to write down the rules for stringing the Irish harp—36 strings of wire. These rules—perhaps the traditions of a remote past—are—

Rules for Stringing the Irish Harp of Thirty–Six Strings

Use hard drawn wire
No. 18 in the 8 strings nearest to the pillar.
No. 20 in the 7 following.
No. 22 in the 7 following.
No. 24 in the 7 following.
No. 25 in the 7 following which are the shortest.

This is quoted from The Irish Harp by Rev. James O’Laverty, P.P., M.R.I.A. (1828 — 1906). Published in Denvir’s Monthly Irish Library, Volume 19, (1903). The harper involved seems at one time to have been a protege of Dr James MacDonnell; — Mr Price is the gentleman at present, fondest of the instrument. He gave my little harper, Pat Murney, a guinea the other day, and has sent for him again, where I have consigned him to Captain King and the ladies, who are all taken with him, and although you took so little notice of him, I predict that he will do’. [1] He was also noticed by John Bell among the snippets of information from his notebook. ‘Patrick Murnay is a harper. He plays in Little Donegal St, Belfast, in his own house. He is a little fellow of about 25 years old. 27 Augt 1849. [2]

[1] Letter from Dr MacDonnell to Edward Bunting, Sept. 10th 1839, quoted in C. M. Fox, Annals of the Irish Harpers, page 277.

[2] Farmer H G, Some notes on the Irish Harp, Music and Letters, vol 24, (1943), p 106. which has ‘Patrick Murray’ corrected to ‘Murney’ from Bells original notebook, now part of the Farmer Collection in Glasgow University Library.

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From Patrick Byrne noted down by John Bell on the 9th July 1848

Longest wire to be got in Flower the wire drawers, Church St, Dublin.
5 wires of this
3 wires of the next size
6 of the next
6 [overwritten with 7] of the next, Say 7,
6 [crossed out and 5 written beside it] of the next, Say 5,
7 [overwritten with 8] of the next, Say 8,
34 in all.
Another reference to strings occurs later in the notebook;—
½ lib each of the 3 first numbers of brass wire
¼ lib of next which will string the tennor
Then there are 2 oz of course &
2 oz of fine treble wire.
This constitutes the whole wire.

From the notebook of John Bell of Dungannon, (acquired by Henry George Farmer in 1941 and used for his article ‘Some notes on the Irish Harp’ in Music and Letters, (April 1943). Now part of the Farmer Collection, Glasgow University Library MS Farmer 332.

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William MacMurchy on source of harp wire for strings — circa 1750 to 1770

In a manuscript volume of Gaelic verse and other miscellaneous material by William MacMurchy the Kintyre Poet, Musician and Scribe he noted the dimensions of a harp. [1] As a footnote he included the information that;—

Widow black who keeps a pinnery in Frances Street Sells all kinds of harp wire [2]

Black is an Argyle surname but in this case it is likely, given the considerable shipping connections between Campbeltown and Northern Ireland at that period that an Ulster Scots connection was involved. A pinnery could just indicate she was a pin maker, but pinner was also a term, (old Scots–Pynor), for the ladies hats held on with pins, so she may have been a hat maker.

[1] National Library of Scotland, MS Adv 72.2.15

[2] A facsimile of the relevant page was published in Sanger K and Kinnaird A, Tree of Strings; Crann nan teud. (1992), 167

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Drogheda Customs —July 1683

According to the Drogheda Customs records for July 1683 a ship called the Diamond from Liverpool arrived carrying goods for two local merchants. As was common at that time merchants tended not to be specialists so the cargo covered a very wide range of goods, anything from “5 pairs of womens sleeves” to “box locks and Horse collars”. For customs purposes the total value of the cargo was compiled and then a duty of 5% was charged.

The merchant called James Stennons received “3 lb Harp Wyre” valued at £0–3–0, (three shillings in other words), while merchant John Gilmore received “1 lb Harp Wire” valued at £0–2–0, (two shillings).

This means that the harp wire for one merchant was twice the value of the other. It may be the case that both of them stocked harp wires and simply were replacing rolls of a particular size. The more expensive wire was likely of a smaller gauge and therefore the labour cost for multiple drawing raised the price. It would be the labor involved in drawing the wire driving the price, unlike the situation in modern times, when the labor would be mechanized and so one might expect to see a discount applied to a high–volume purchase.

It may also be observed that the value of the harp wire, even with the labor costs included, was a small amount. One may then conclude that the metal in question was a base metal such as brass or bronze, and not a precious metal.

The whole customs accounts for that year have been transcribed and published in “The County Louth Archaeological Journal, vol 3. No 1”. December 1912.

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Ballinderry Fragment — circa 16th or 17th century

A short length of drawn wire 4.78 mm long and 0.7 mm diameter in the drilled hole of the tuning pin then in the 10th position from the bass, was notice by Robert Evans while examining the Ballinderry Fragments. Subsequent analysis showed it to be an alloy of Copper with about 10% Zinc. [1] For further information on this harp and a note of caution relating to this piece of wire see Ballinderry Harp — A Reassessment (particularly the section on tuning pins).

[1] Evans Robert, A Copy of the Downhill Harp, Galpin Society Journal, volume 50, (March 1997), p124.

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Fitzwilliam MSS, a purchase of Wire Harp Strings — 1591

Sir William Fitzwilliam was at various times, Treasurer, Lord Justice and then Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1558 to 1599. His manuscripts have been surveyed and partially transcribed on behalf of the Irish Manuscripts Commission and the report was published in Analecta Hibernica, number 4, (1932). Sir William employed the harper called Plunket and among the various transcribed extracts from these papers are several relating to music and to the harp in particular. In a section headed ‘Charges of Divers Kinds’ falling into 1591 are the expenses for ‘making a case for his lordship’s two harps’ while at Dublin and the items of relevance to stringing incurred apparently while at Kilmainham;—

½ lb wire for the harp, 2s, drawing it, 18d. (Analecta Hibernica; 4, page 310).

This reference does provide sufficient information to provide a basis for a comparative calculation so far as determining the possible nature of the metal involved. However, this requires a brief look at the general background and context starting with the weight, as it falls within the period when there was no standard system of weights. At some point under the late Tudor period attempts were made to standardise the two main measurements used in England with the Avoidupois system being used for everything except Gold, Silver and Brass, which along with coins remained on the Troy scale. A division which was finally confirmed by an Act of the UK Parliament in 1878.

The basic unit of both ‘scales’ was the grain, but they differed in that one used the weight of grains of barley while the other used grains of wheat. Furthermore the Avoidupois pound was divided into the more familiar 16 ounces to the pound; while the Troy pound only had 12 ounces to one pound. In both cases the pound being abbreviated with the symbol ‘lb’. As the harp wire would most probably have been weighed on the Troy scale then half a pound of wire breaks down into 6 ounces at a cost of 2 shillings. There were 12 pence to a shilling so 2 shillings is 24 pence which divided by the 6 ounces gives a unit cost of 4 pence per ounce of metal.

In order to relate that cost to the likely composition of the metal it is possible to use as a reference point that value related to the value of the silver coins. In a period when coins were supposed to actually represent the real value of the money a silver shilling should have been close to sterling silver. In fact coinages could be debased, clipped and so on, which is why most merchants seem to have carried ‘money scales’ and why the Troy scale with its larger division of units continued in use.

Therefore turning to the Elizabethan shilling we have to make at least two calculations. When Elizabeth first came to the throne, her currency continued the heavily debased shilling of her predecessors, which was only 0.250 fine. That shilling weighed 144 grains Troy so 144 divided into the Troy ounce which was 480 grains becomes roughly 3 shillings and 4 pence per ounce of coin metal. But to allow for the debasement that sum would need to be adjusted upwards by the ratio of 0.250 fine to 0.916 fine to reach the real value of an ounce of sterling silver.

However, in 1561 the new ‘Fine’ Elizabethan shillings appeared and they were 11 ounces of silver to the 12 ounce Troy pound, or 0.916 fine. The currency did not get debased again until 1600, but as that is after the date of the harp string purchase can safely be ignored. So if we repeat the calculation using the new shillings, as they weighed 72 grains Troy we get 480 divided by 72 equals 6 shillings and 8 pence as the cost of an ounce of sterling silver.

When that is compared to the price of 4 pence an ounce paid for the harp wire it is clear that it would have been a much lower value metal than silver. Probably what at that time would have been called brass, although it should be remembered that as the word ‘bronze’ only appears in the 18th century, the word 'brass' at that time covered a wider range than now and it is safer to refer to it in modern archaeological terms as a ‘copper alloy’.

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Submitted by Keith Sanger, 25 September, 2010
addition of the information on the 1591 wire made on 29 November, 2011
information on Murney, Byrne, MacMurchy, and Ballinderry wire fragment made on 5 December, 2011
Ballinderry wire fragment updated September 2015

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