HAIR RAISING HARP HISTORY ©2004 Deborah Henson-Conant
Deborah queries harp-historian and performer Nancy Thym-Hochrein about the harp and it's terrifying history

YOU THINK YOU GOT QUESTIONS? So do I! I don't even know much about the history of my own instrument! So when I want to know more, I go to my friends, like performer & historian Nancy Thym-Hochrein at the Historial Harp Archives in Germany. The "Archive & Museum for Harp History" is housed in an an old army building in Freising, Germany and received the Cultural Award for the County of Freising in the year 2000.

Here are excerpts from an email conversation between Nancy & me when I was researching for my “Hip Harp Fantasies” show in 2001. I came back to this correspondence recently, when I started writing the “Celtic Minstrel” pieces for my “Celtic Celebrations” with the Syracuse and West Virginia Symphonies in 2004 -- and now I want to know even more!

DHC: Dear Nancy, What's this I hear about harps & harpers being banned and suppressed sometime in the last 6 centuries? When did that happen? And where, and why???

NTH: The Irish harpers began to be suppressed after the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century, which broke down the old cultural systems. The kings, who always had their own personal harpers, who were of very high standing, were replaced with English nobles. The Irish harpers began an existence of wandering from court to court. The English accused them of being spies. Queen Elizabeth decreed in 1603 that all Irish harp players should be hung and their harps burned. Interestingly, the British loved Irish harp music and usually employed harp players of their own. Queen Elizabeth had one. I guess he was immune. Cromwell was even more radical than Elizabeth and pretty much finished them off. Of course the harp tradition didn't die out all at once. Turlough O'Carolan, the most famous of the Irish harpers we have on record lived from 1670-1738. But 1792 was the last harp meeting in Belfast and by the beginning of the 19th century harp playing had pretty much died out. In Scotland the harp players were able to hide out in the Highlands, but the Battle of Culloden (1745?) pretty much finished off Scottish Highland culture and with it the harp players.

DHC: OK, I keep hearing that the LAST “Belfast Harp Meeting” was in 1792 -- but what about before then? Was it some sort of tradition, to have this meeting? Was it like the Olympics, or something?

NTH: No, it wasn't an old tradition. What seems to have happened is that a certain Irish gentleman living in Copenhagen, Mr. James Dungan, realized that the harp was on the decline. Only a few harpers were left and no one had composed new music for the instrument since TurloughO'Carolan. He [Dungan] established a competition with prizes and a ball as entertainment in his home town in Granard. In 1781 only 6 harpers attended, 8 came the next year and 10 the year after. The same is true of Belfast. It wasn't an ancient tradition of competitions but a desperate attempt to gather together and record what was left, one time and one time only. That was why Edward Bunting, an organist, was hired to write down all the music played. 10 harpers attended.

DHC: Oh ... another question -- were there women harpers? If not, why not?

NTH: Ah, the big question. Of the 10 harpers in Belfast only one of them was a woman, Rose Mooney. This is something I'm just writing an article on - harp and gender. I have my own private theories about this. If you were to examine only the official records, it would look like only men played the harp in the Middle Ages anywhere in Europe. There are only records of payments to men. But this doesn't mean women did not play the harp. Luckily I am not only a musicologist, but also a folklorist. In the folktales and ballads many, many women play the harp. My theory is that they were not professionals so there is no record of their existence. Again - this is my own theory I've put together after gathering together and analyzing all the folktales and ballads about harps that I have been able to find.

DHC: And how come so many harpers were blind?

NTH: Of the 10 harpers in Belfast, 6 were blind. O'Carolan was blind. Many of the Scottish harpers were also blind. Robert BruceArmstrong (The Irish and Highland Harps, 1904) writes "That the Irish Harp was an instrument of great power and sweetness cannont be doubted, and it is equally certain that it was an exceptionally difficult instrument to learn, particularly as the profession was almost entirely reserved for those of either sex who had lost their sight when young. To be proficient, it was necessary for the pupil to begin at the early age of ten or twelve." Smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, were rampant in those days and many children went blind from the diseases. There was really no other way for them to make a living than to play an instrument.

DHC: And I heard harpers were third in line of 'power / importance" to Kings & Judges. What about that? What does that mean?

NTH: OK, this is more difficult. I know what people are trying to get at by saying this, but it's not quite that simple. It's not as if, if the king and judge were to die that the harper would take over the country. But there was definitely an order of power. Also the term "bard" is very problematical and fits in here as well. The highest rank was, of course, the Druid (philosopher, priest, magician, judge). I would put the king beside all this, because sometimes the Druid and the Ollamh, who comes next, were more powerful than the king. The latter was expendable, not Druids and Ollamhs. The Ollamhs were the highest class of Fili - poets, philosophers and historians. Next came the Reacaire. They were the reciters of what the Ollamh poets wrote. Then came the harpers who accompanied the reciters. Last came the bards, who were just nobodies with no proper learning but who wrote fine poetry. This is the order of power and the cultural structure that was destroyed by the English, which I mentioned in my last email. Everything got mixed up after this, the borders between the different levels of learning were muddied, the word "bard" became for the Romanticists the catch-all term for all of the above. This is an extremely complicated subject and I have read and re-read every treatise and ancient law and ancient legend containing these levels I could find and a lot of it seems very contradictory. Basically what you can say is that the harpers were powerful. Whenever they are described in the ancient stories, there are many of them, they are dressed in wonderful clothing, decorated with much jewelry and their harps are splendid. This is a poetic device for describing the wealth and power of a king - showing how impressive his harp players were. An Ollamh or Druid could bring down a king. A Reacaire or harper could not.

DHC: Any other juicy tidbits (although the Queen Elizabeth decree is pretty hair-raising! Did it really happen??!?! Did harpers really get hung and their harps burnt?)

NTH: Yes, I'm afraid so. That is why there aren't really that many harps from this period left, and why, when the Scots attempted to revive their instrument in the middle of the 19th century, they turned to pedal harp builders like Morley to build small versions of pedal harps, rather than the ancient wire-strung harps. There was nothing to go on.

DHC: The more you tell me about these ancient harpers, the more I realize that what I'm doing, far from being GROUNDBREAKING is actually intensely RETRO!! I travel around, I tell stories, I play the harp strapped to my back … well, OK, to my front.

NTH: Yep, that's it. Probably why I can relate so well to the wandering harp ladies of the 19th century.

[DHC note to self: ask Nancy more about these wandering harp ladies sometime!]

DHC: But I want them to be aware of the POWER that the harper has held and can still hold so they'll stop thinking about the harp as a WUSSY INSTRUMENT!!!!

NTH: Yeah, that's what I've been working on all these years. Too bad you can't read the articles I've written on this very subject in German. Most of the folktales are about just this power. In every single one of them the harp is an instrument of immense power. The Irish and Scottish harpers were expected to be able to play three types of music: geantraigh, goltraigh and suantraigh - music to laugh, music to weep and music to sleep. They would set their audiences to laughing, even to dancing so that they couldn't stop. Then they would set them to weeping. Then they would put them to sleep and many a harper escaped in this way from a very difficult or dangerous situation! The Scandinavian harpers could play even more types of music. There's even a medieval Scandinavian ballad called "Harpanskraft" - The Power of the Harp. God, I love this stuff. But I think I better stop, or you won't know where to start. And it's already 1 AM. Oh dear. Last night it was 3AM. I just get so wrapped up in this stuff. Good luck with everything, Deborah. Wish I could see the performance. Love, Nancy


(© Deborah Henson-Conant / 2004)