Celtic Music, Ancient and Modern, Part II

Celtic Music, Part II: The Poet and the Celtic Harp

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher continues looking at Celtic music with Part II—the harp and the importance it played in ancient, Celtic Ireland. (Click here for Part I.)


Celtic Harpist

Celtic Harpers and Celtic Poets Had High Status

Harpists were the most respected musicians of the ancient Celtic world. A harpist, accompanied by a poet, held a place of honor in Celtic society, ranking so high they were considered equal with aristocracy. A chief poet had equal status with a bishop and the ruler of a tuath, or clan. Skill with the harp and poetry automatically classified both as freemen.

Best Seats at the Banquet

Celtic harpers and poets ranked so high in Celtic society that the twelfth century Book of Leinster records an imaginary seating chart of the great banquet hall of Tara as it might have appeared of old. It describes a seating protocol, with closer proximity to the king and larger portions of meat depending on the guest’s status.  From The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin:

“The door faces east, and beside it are the king’s bodyguard of four mercenary soldiers:
‘The personal surely for the king’s base vassals west of these . . . Envoys are placed to the west of him; guest-companies after them; then poets; then harpers.’”

So poets and harpists had seats at the table opposite the king. Note that pipers, horn players, and jugglers were seated at the corner by the door, beside the mercenaries. And their skills did not even earn them status as freemen.

Harp Factoids

  • Two kinds of harps were in use. A smaller harp was easily carried and was called a cruit. A larger harp, called the clairseach, could have 30 strings.
  • Metal strings made for a clearer, louder sound, but also required a strong shoulder and neck. It’s unclear when metal strings replaced animal gut strings.
  • The harp was so pervasive as a Celtic musical instrument that it’s featured on the Guinness Brewery label and is a chief symbol of Ireland.
  • Irish harp music all but died out in the 19th century, but revived in the 20th.

Let’s Hear It

Turlough O’Carolan was a blind 18th century harpist, sometimes thought of as the unofficial national composer of Ireland. Follow this link to hear Mark Harmer playing “Carolan’s Dream”. After listening to this, you can see why a Celtic harp, well-played, accompanied by a poet, could be a powerfully enchanting instrument:

To access the first video in a different way, click here.

Here’s another one that starts out with two harpists. Just let it play while you read the next section …

To access the second video in a different way, click here.

What Was the Experience Like?

In his novel, Taliesin, Stephen Lawhead presents a scene in which Charis is drawn to hear the young man, Taliesin, as he plays the harp. Neither can return to their homelands. In the end, both are drawn to each other. I present the scene here as a view into what it might have been like in the ancient world to be in the presence of a master harpist:

“Although many of the words were unfamiliar, Charis gathered that he sang about a beautiful valley and all the trees and flowers and animals there. It was a simple melody, strongly evocative, and she was drawn by it. She crossed the threshold into the hall, half-hidden by one of the columns.

“The young man stood erect, tall and lean, his head up, eyes closed, the harp nestled against his shoulder, his hands moving deftly over the harpstrings, summoning each silver note from the heart of the harp. His mouth formed the words, but the music came from beyond him; he was merely a conduit through which it might pass into the world of men, pouring up and up like a fountain from the hidden depths of his soul to spread in glimmering rings around him. Charis listened, hardly daring to breathe lest she disturb the singular beauty of the moment.

“It was a sad song, a heartbreaking song, wild and proud, a song about a lost valley, a lost land, about all the losses a human heart might hold dear and remember. As the song spun out, Charis gave herself wholly to its spell, letting the ache of her own wash over her in a sweet, dark flood. As the last, trembling notes of the song faded away, she saw glistening drops on the young man’s cheeks.

“We are alike, you and I, she thought, homeless wayfarers in a world that is not our own.”

We’ll continue our look into Celtic music next time, with Part III, and a look at the Irish tin whistle, an amazingly versatile instrument, accompanied, of course, by the bodhrán, the Irish hand-held drum.

Sources for this post were The Course of Irish History, by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin; St. Patrick of Ireland, by Philip Freeman; Taliesin, by Stephen Lawhead, and Wikipedia.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.