Late in 2013, I attended a lecture about the Irish harp by Ann and Charlie Heymann. Ann has become well noted since then for reviving how music was traditionally played on the Irish harp. In addition to playing music on a gold-stringed harp, she shared a traditional origin story for the Irish harp, or what she calls the Gaelic Harp, because its playing was often accompanied by the old Gaelic tradition of singing epic poems and songs.
I was writing Aching Prosperity at the time, and thought I should work the origin story into the book. It’s now in Chapter 24 when one of the main characters tells a version of the origin story. I can’t recall Ann’s version of it anymore, but I remember it had a love story at its center, which may speak for one of the harp’s names in Irish language, cláirseach [pronounced “clahr-shok”]. It sounds much like the Irish version of “Love Harp or Box” from a word for love, searc [“shark”], and clár or cláir [“clahr”], meaning a box or flat board, which would describe the harp’s sound box at the base.
The exact origins of the word, cláirseach, is unclear, but it’s not a stretch to say its musical origins in epic poetry, which often includes love poetry, could have come from calling it a “clár searc” or “musical love box,” which contracted into cláirseach later.
The origin story of the Gaelic Harp has a love story at its center, as I said. It begins with a husband and wife, but it doesn’t start well. The husband was a lazy and dim-witted sort, who often made his wife angry, because he couldn’t make enough money to keep the house running. But one day, thinking he would be clever and make his wife happy, he went and sold their only milking cow.
“Look,” he tells her and hands her a few coins. “I sold our cow and now we’ve money for this month’s food!”
Her face turns sour and she yells at him, “You sold her for half her worth!”
And that was the last she’d have of her husband’s foolishness. She ran out the door saying she’d never return, and ran from field to town, and hill to beach, until she crossed the whole of the isle and rested on a beach at Coleraine on the North Sea.
She was so distraught the whole time, she never slept a wink, and on the beach, she just stared out to sea with fumes of anger rising over her head. The sea brought stiff winds and blew through a right whale skeleton not far away. They vibrated the stringy teeth in the whale skull to make melodies that soothed her heart and soon she fell asleep.
But unknown to her, her husband, loving her so, followed her the whole way to make sure she was safe. And he saw how the windblown teeth gave his wife peace, so he ran into the forest and carved up a likeness of the whale skull and strung it with the teeth.
He sat by his wife playing music on this very first of Irish harps, and when she woke seeing him making music, her spirit joyed and she forgave his foolish ways and confessed her love. They went home together and soon after, he became the most renown harpist in the isle and they never had want of anything again.
That’s more or less how the origin story went, and so let’s see how well the Irish harp looks like a right whale skull (images below).
Plausible? Or maybe fanciful horse’s hoof? God knows how the Gaelic Harp came be…