It is easy to find engravings in the Egyptian Mesopotamia instruments similar to the Harp , like also in several towns such as Greece, China, Asiria, Persia, Siberia; whose harps although they have not directly influenced on the Irish, gave the asirian harp more acceptance amongstthe bards of century XVI,for being small and light weighted, extending thus a tradition that goes back to pre Christian Ireland and to the primitive civilizations extensive to the Bronze Age.
Through legends we can track the Celtic Harp hundreds of years ago, but one of the earliest representations of it is one on a Scottish cross of the VIII Century . Around year 1000 A.C., early models of the celtic harp were spread in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.After years of repeling and absorbing Viking, Roman, and Norman invations, the English began to appear like a problem for the Irish town and its culture.
Their warlike power not only persecuted the submission. The English insisted on the idea that the Irish "barbarians" should have to eliminate the custom of which kings and gentlemen shared the table with juglars, harpists and crew members; custom that according to the registries, the Irish finished eradicating (but only when there were English presents...). With the gradual weakness of the kings in their sovereign power, began the fall of the leadership of the bards and the harpists by the end of the XVI Century. The harp finds refuge in Scotland, there, many noble were dedicated to it´s performance, even kings like James IV.
Between 1494 and 1503, extensive were the companies of harpists who settled on the Highlands. Thus the Harp tended to become the national instrument of Scotland. Each clan had its harpist, but after several years of feudal expansion and fights for the power, the importance of the harp decayed by the end of the XVII Century and gradually it was replaced by the Scottish bagpipe (Highland Bagpipe). Ironically, while the Irish bards and harpists were persecuted and executed and their harps destroyed, Isabel I delighted with harpists at her court, who used to play jigs, strathspeys and hornpipes for her. The times went away becoming still more hard.
Between 1650 and 1660 Oliver Cromwell orders to destroy harps and organs either in catholic or protestant circles. Five hundred harps were confiscated and burned in the city of Dublin only, in another opportunity a number of 2000 in all Eire. Like the Highland Bagpipe, the harp began to become a forbidden instrument and origin of revolt against the Crown. Throughout the XVII and XVIII centuries the poetry and music of the bards decayed as a result of innumerable exiles and fears. This deliberate destruction and persecution finished with Oliver Cromwell; soon the Enclosure Laws in Scotland and the extreme hunger in Ireland, would again force these gaelic people to emigrate.
By the end of the XVIII a sudden resurgence of interest begins in Ireland for his long denied tradition. By then harpists were shorlty counted and only few of them performed pieces in the traditional way. In 1790 the Belfast Meeting is organized, intending to promote the music of traditional roots, being the competition between harpists awarded with an important sum of money. Only ten harpists between 15 and 97 years appeared. The elder,Dennis Hempson, was the unique one who performed on the old way with plectres for each finger, all the others only touched with the yolks, possibly influenced by the Pedal Harp with Gut Strings. Edward Bunting, copyist of the event, hardly intended to transcribe these unusual ways of performance in pentagrama , and the opportunity to preserve the tradition was lost with time. No traditional harps of metal cords were cosntructed. Little was the demand due to the hard life of the harpist and the political troubles.
Some struggles began in Dublin and Belfast to teach young blind to the art of the harp, but they failed shortly after the 1800. Between 1890 and the beginning of the 1900 small harps beganto be constructed in Ireland, but they sounded far from the old celtic. Between 1950 and 1960 new studies allowed to construct harps with metal chords as in the old ways. The harp of gut chords and the neo-celtic (of nylon cords) as well , began to expand either in Scotland or Ireland. Thus it is as Eire adopts hte harp as national instrument in the XVII Century, Wales does the same with the triple strunged harp (three rows of cords) developed by the Italians unlike the doubled strunged harp of the Hispanics. We might say that the historical circle is closed nowadays. That Bardic Order created by the Irish king Brian Boru in the X Century , at present extended its inheritance and tradition over 500 years,from Ireland till the West Coast of the United States, where a large amount of celtic harp constructors are settled . Harpist Clubs and even newspapers are dedicated exclusively to it. developing an everlasting tradition that will echoe from now onwards...
You may find further information about this marvellous instrument and it's history on my eBook "The Celtic Harp" Now Available at Amazon.com!