A Touch of Folklore: The Harp

Historian Jonathan Smyth delivers the latest in his series of popular column 'Times Past' - this week looking at the role of the harp in Irish folklore...

The shamrock and the harp are two of the emblems we take for granted as symbols of Irish culture. Ancient lore holds a fascination for us, and when possible, I like to find time to read about it. A few years ago, at the Cavan Fleadh I listened to a great musician called Kavan Donohoe play the harp. He made it sing as the strings sounded each note to perfection. Sometimes we inadvertently forget the beauty of our own great traditions.

The Harp

The Harp, Padraic Colum once wrote, ‘is a genuine Irish emblem’, an emblem that was ‘represented on the coins of our own day, it has a place in the oldest strata of Irish tradition where it is given a cosmic significance.’ In ancient times, the Dagda mór MacEithenn of ancient times had three prized possessions, a big club, to symbolise war and cracking some unfortunate across the skull; a cauldron, from which the Celtic spirit was brewed and a harp, to play music and recite mystical poems to its tunes. The Dagda was the main chief in the pantheon of Gaelic gods, the ‘father of all’ or Ruad Rofessa, the lord of perfect knowledge. It was Dagda who brought the Tuatha Dé Danann to Ireland to take on and defeat the Fir Bolg under Eochid; who out of respect were permitted by the victors to remain in Connaught.

The Dagda did not have it so easy all of the time, for there was an occasion when the Formorians, a hostile set of giants, stole the harp by some dark magic using the powers of ‘cold and darkness’. Luckily, for Dagda his harp was recovered with the help of two ‘divinities’ named Lugh of the light and Ogma, the embodiment of the world of art. The two lads found a way into the Formorians stronghold where they saw the harp hung on a wall. They quickly swiped it from the giant ogres and took it back to Dagda.

The harp was unable to utter any of its melodies and remained muted until its owner uttered the two passwords required to unlock it. Accordingly, Dagda called out the secret words, ‘Come Summer, Come winter!’ and suddenly it burst into song delighting all the ‘divine folk’ in its presence while causing emotions to be stirred. Altering its tune, the harp played a cheerful melody that then made the women and children laugh. The magical harp had an array of strange powers that when it came to finish playing, it played a ‘sleep strain’ causing all to fall into a slumber. Legend says that the harp had three aspects to its character, that it could cause ‘sorrow, gladness and repose.’

Cavan Harping

In Cavan, there is the townland of Kilnacrott whose name in Irish, Coill na Cruithe translates to English as wood of the harp. A surer indication than not, that harps were made locally.

One of the eighteenth centuries travelling harpists, Arthur O’Neill from Tyrone looked upon Cavan as his chief haunt ‘and permanent quarters’ before he became master of the Belfast Harp School. He had spent his time at Colonel Southwell’s Castlehamilton residence in Killeshandra, and before the move to Belfast, O’Neill had spent 18 Christmas seasons at his friend Philip O’Reilly’s home at ‘Mullough’, Co Cavan. Another contemporary of O’Neill was Charles Fanning from Mayo, who also named Cavan as one of his main haunts. In ‘The Ancient Music of Ireland arranged for Piano’, by Edward Bunting, mention is made of Mr Pratt of Kingscourt who allowed Fanning ‘a free house and farm.’

Born in 1635, Miles Reilly of Killincarra, Co. Cavan was a prominent Cavan harpist who it was said by the Belfast Assembly to have been the true composer of a beautifully composed air called ‘Locaber.’ A book by Michael Conran, called ‘The National Music of Ireland: containing the history of the Irish Bards’ thought that the melody was supposedly carried to Scotland by a bard called Thomas O’Connallon, ‘born five years later in Sligo.’

An 18th-century harpist named Catherine (Kate) Martin was born in Cavan. In Nora Joan Clark’s ‘The Story of the Irish Harp’ I read Arthur O’Neill’s account of Kate Martin who was born at Lurgan, Co. Cavan to a poor family. Although she was almost blind, it is said she could walk unaided without the assistance of a guide. O’Neill’s account recalled that ‘she was taught the harp by a man named Owen Corr’, with whom O’Neill ‘had no acquaintance’ and that ‘Kate played very handsomely but had a strong partiality for playing tunes composed by Parson Sterling who was celebrated for his performance on the bagpipes … she seldom or never travelled out of the bounds of Cavan.’


It ought to be noted in the annals of local history that in the year 1829 the people of Cootehill managed successfully to have road toll-charges banned during Fair Days. It was not an amicable change of practice especially for the toll mongers and was an issue, which managed to unite both Catholic and Protestant farmers against the practise regardless of any ‘political feeling’. A report on a Fair Day, in the Freeman’s Journal on December 18, 1829, described the usual manner with which the grasping toll-men blocked-off all the roads leading to the town and demanded their self-appointed fee.

Totally fed-up, the farmers banded together in unison and drove their animals forward at the toll-mongers, who were not for moving. Disregarding their pleas, the farmers marched the cattle past them. However, while victory was assured on the day for the farmers, it was reported that the poor cattle had been ‘severely handled’ as they poured in from every road leading to Cootehill. The farmers wisely avoided causing any physical harm to toll-men knowing that the constabulary were watching on.

Deeply aggrieved the toll-mongers scurried away, making no further attempt to impose charges. When the matter was brought before Mr Coote, with the suggestion that tolls should be removed at future Fair Days, he allowed for the odious charge to be dropped, in order to preserve public peace.

More from this Topic