The HHSI was founded to return to the world the true sound of the oldest Irish music, lost to the living tradition 200 years ago. Using applied research and hands-on artistic work on copies of early Irish harps, we are restoring Ireland's iconic, historical instrument and its repertory to contemporary Irish culture.
Would you like to hear the sound of the brass wire strings, played with long fingernails, on the medieval Brian Boru harp depicted in the Irish national emblem? Would you be interested to know what the famous Irish harper, Turlough Carolan’s eighteenth-century songs and harp melodies might have sounded like on his larger version of a similar kind of instrument? Then you’ve come to the right place!
The early Irish harp lies at the core of Gaelic music, played in Ireland – and the Scottish highlands and islands – for the best part of a millennium. It was the pinnacle of medieval Gaelic music culture: harpers were highly-accomplished, high-status musicians at Gaelic – and also foreign – royal courts, and later in the Great Houses of Ireland, from at least the eleventh- until the early nineteenth century.
With a resonating chamber usually carved from a single log – traditionally willow – and strung with brass wire, the extraordinary sweetness of this instrument was described in glowing terms by early writers.
It was replaced in the early-nineteenth century by the modern Irish harp, a different instrument. Also called ‘Celtic' harp, ‘clarsach' and 'lever' harp, this has its own distinct traditions, some of which lie within contemporary Irish traditional music.
The Historical Harp Society of Ireland promotes research-led performance, and practice-led research, of the music, traditions and aesthetics of the early Irish harp, using measured copies of historic instruments held in museum and private collections.
The instrument depicted on the right is part of the HHSI Rental Harp Collection: an undecorated copy of the medieval-Scottish Queen Mary harp; the original is housed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was commissioned from Natalie Surina of Eriu Harps, made possible by funding from The Music Capital Scheme, supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and managed by Music Network.
The HHSI’s mission is to return to the Irish soundscape a unique aspect of Irish traditional music: the oldest part, lost to the living tradition 200 years ago. With rigorous application, study, and hands-on artistic work, this is being partially restored. The Arts Council’s 2014 Report on the Harping Tradition in Ireland noted that:
In a short number of years, the HHSI has made a significant contribution to Irish musical life…[the] HHSI has focused on illuminating the qualities of the early Irish harp, and researching and contextualising this music. Its summer school and concert series are rich musical experiences.
Since 2003, the HHSI has had a clear artistic vision and distinctive goal with regard to our remit: we use international research-led-practice and practice-based-research approaches to guide all aspects of our work.This means that we use historical evidence to help amateurs, students and professionals – children to adults, from all walks of life – to turn fragmentary historical material back into living music. We are passing on ancient skills to the first large-scale generation of new performers on the instrument for 200 years.
We are also interested in related streams of Gaelic music, including vocal music and piping. We aim to integrate the embedded knowledge of significant living Gaelic music masters to help bring historical Irish harp repertory to life in as an authentic and vibrant way as we can.
We have developed a Research Network of some of the world’s leading scholars, performers, historical instrument builders and tutors in the field. We enable the sharing of cutting-edge research between these groups by facilitating virtual and in-person communication. The effect of all this is a raising of the bar in research, performance and harp-building standards, internationally.
We support – and collaborate with – established artists and enable them to make work of ambition and quality, which in turn allows us to offer high-quality programming. We enable the passing on of expertise, skills and traditions from established artists to emerging artists; to beginner-to-professional performers; amongst academics and tutors in the field, to children and adults. We mentor and support emerging artists and our programmes provide significant opportunities for professional development in the field.
The cultural importance of the HHSI’s work has been acknowledged in the honour given to us in March 2018 by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, who is now our Patron.