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The "Brian Boru" Harp reviewed by Grainne Yeats

It was in the nineties when I first get acquainted of the magnificent playing of Grainne Yeats, while looking after ancient irish harp tunes.

Thanks to the suggestion of my friend harpist Sylvia Woods, I purchased through her the only recording by Grainne, a double vinyl album entitled "Grainne Yeats: Belfast Harp Festival," issued by the irish Gael Linn label , on 1994.

It came along with an interesting research book regarding this historical gathering.
On this work Grainne has done an extensive research on the Irish harpers, and has recorded some 40 of their songs and harp solos using both wire and gut harps.

Besides, she wrote and researched the history and music of the Clársach (wire-strung harp), and she was one of the first professional musicians to revive and record this ancient traditional instrument, with a particular interest in the wire-strung harp, and has written extensively about its history and music.

Grainne Yeats was the first professional musician to revive and record this ancient traditional instrument.
Hereby I share with you an interesting article of her previously posted on The Wire Branch of the Clarsach Society, which throws new light on the "Trinity College Harp" aka the "Brian Boru" Harp © Gráinne Yeats 2003. All rights reserved by the author.

The Brian Boru Harp

The Brian Boru, or Trinity College harp is probably the oldest intact wire-strung frame harp in existence. It is the national symbol of Ireland, and is depicted on coins, passports and all Government documents.

Thought to date from about 1400 A.D., it is difficult to determine its early history with any accuracy; facts tend to be obscured by a mist of romantic tradition. It is not possible to say where it was made, or by whom, or even for whom. One thing at least is certain: the instrument could not have belonged to High King Brian Boru, for whom it is named, because he died in the year 1014, some 400 years before it was made. It is likely, however, that the harp was made for a member of an important family, for it is skilfully constructed and intricately ornamented.

According to a persistent tradition it passed from Ireland to Rome, where it was preserved by the Popes until it was presented to King Charles II. It was then sent back to Ireland, and after various obscure transactions it is said to have been sold to a Lady Henley "for twenty lambs and as many ewes." It passed from her to her son-in-law, Henry McMahon, of Co.Clare, and finally to the Rt. Hon. William Conyngham, who presented it to Trinity College in Dublin around 1760. One hundred years later some rather clumsy repairs were made which helped to preserve the instrument, but changed its shape somewhat. Finally, in the late 1950s, the harp was displayed at an exhibition in London, after which Trinity College sent it to the British Museum for assessment and repair.

There the instrument was photographed, and then x-rayed in order to identify stray screws or nails. It was then dismantled and examined. It was found that the earlier repairs had not been well done; putty used to repair cracks had obscured some of the ornamentation, while at some stage the forepillar had been extended, thus altering the symmetry of the harp. Much of the wood was decayed or worm eaten, while many pegs or shoes were missing. The Museum restored the forepillar to its probable original form, and replaced decayed and missing parts. All parts were cleaned and polished, and the instrument put together again.

At this point Joan Rimmer, an expert in this field, was called in to restring the harp, after which it was tuned, and then Mary Rowland - who occasionally played her gut-strung harp with nails - was invited to play it. She gave much thought to the question of how the harp should be positioned. There are wear marks on both sides of the soundbox, and she found that she could only match these while playing, by sitting on a low stool, leaning the harp on her chest, and holding it with one knee and both wrists - a somewhat cramping position for the hands, though she found it comfortable enough. She said playing the instrument was "intoxicating, despite its condition." This is a remarkable compliment, considering the harp's age, and that it had been silent for 200 years before this. Joan Rimmer described the sound as bell-like, with some characteristics of the guitar and harpsichord. These descriptions are much as the Irish harp has been described throughout many centuries.

After the harp had been played for some time, a crack appeared in the soundbox. This was repaired, and some strings were replaced by thinner ones tuned to the lowest practicable tension. When played again the tone was smaller, but still retained its unique quality. Eventually it was decided that the harp was too fragile to be kept up to pitch, so the strings were slackened and this unique occasion was over. This last playing of the Brian Boru harp was recorded by the BBC. On the recording Mary Rowland can be heard playing Is umbo agus éiriú from the Bunting Collection, and Jolivete, a French dance arranged by Joan Rimmer. She also played some harmonics, and in general tried out the capabilities of the harp.

There has been one last adventure in the long history of the Brian Boru harp. Some years after it had returned to Trinity College, the harp was stolen, and a ransom was demanded for its return. The College authorities, however, refused to pay, and after some months a senior Professor turned detective, and tracked the instrument down to where it had been buried in a heap of sand. It was then sent back to the British Museum, where it was confirmed that miraculously it had suffered little damage. The Brian Boru harp now leads a quiet life in the Library of Trinity College.

A quote from Celtic Sprite: Joan Rimmer has written a magnificent book "The Irish Harp" issued on 1984.

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