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Inside ‘A history of Ireland in 100 words’: Cláirseach

Ever heard of music bringing everything to life? In early Irish tales, it can – with a little help from the Otherworld. Read more in today’s entry on the harp.

To celebrate Seachtain na Gaeilge we’re letting you take a peek inside our book A history of Ireland in 100 words. Today’s entry is cláirseach.

The harp has become one of the most distinctive national symbols of Ireland, appearing on government crests, coins and passports, and decorating many a glass of ‘the black stuff ’ as part of the Guinness logo. The images on these objects generally reflect the shape of the ‘Brian Boru Harp’, which is housed in the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin. Despite its name, this famous harp, the oldest in existence in Ireland, seems to have been made in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and so was never owned or played by Brian, who died at the battle of Clontarf in 1014.

The word cláirseach ‘harp’ only begins to appear in our sources, both Irish and English, in the fifteenth century and its appearance may herald some new development in the construction of the instrument. The first part of the word appears to be clár ‘board’, which must refer to the sound board used to amplify its music. Cruit (earlier crott) is an older word and may have originally designated some kind of lyre such as those depicted on high crosses and in manuscript illustrations. Surviving texts do not give much detail on the exact shape of these instruments—whether they had four sides like a lyre or three as in a harp—but we are evidently dealing with a stringed instrument played with the finger-nails or with a plectrum. Cruit also means ‘hump’, which is suggestive of a three-sided harp, but this sense comes through only in late sources and so tells us very little about the earliest form of the instrument.

While tales cannot be relied upon for evidence about actual harps and harp-playing in early Ireland, elaborate descriptions of the instrument and its performance are interesting in themselves as illustrations of the imaginative powers of native story-tellers. ‘The cattle-raid of Fróech’ depicts harpists from the Otherworld in a colourful passage, which in translation runs:

They had harp-bags (crottbolg) of otter-skin decorated
with Parthian leather and gold and silver. They
had the skin of she-goats as white as snow around
the middle with dark spots in the middle of them.
The strings had linen coverings as white as the feathers
of swans. The harps (crota) were made of gold
and silver … they had figures of snakes and birds
and greyhounds in gold and silver and as the strings
moved, those figures would circle around the men
sitting nearby.

What early Irish harp music might have sounded like is difficult to say. Particularly from the sixteenth century onwards, patronage for the arts in general was in short supply. Many harpists became itinerant musicians, and those in Munster were caught up in an edict of 1603 requiring the marshal to ‘execute by martial law in and throughout the whole province of Munster all Idle men, sturdie beggers, vagabonds, harpers, Rhymers, bardes’ who could not produce evidence to prove that they were in service. Fortunately, in 1792, nineteen-year-old Edward Bunting collected some of the tunes and terminology associated with harping at a festival in Belfast, and so preserved a certain amount of the music, which probably would have been lost otherwise.

A history of Ireland in 100 words is a book, a banner campaign and an exhibition. Find our more at