Paul Dooley

“Bass-hand-wise I’m trying to leave as much in the background as possible. I try not to draw too much attention to it. Some harp players have very inventive and very intricate bass hands. I find that can distract from the tune. Well from a traditional music standpoint, the tune is sacred so anything that camouflages the tune is… trouble, for me anyway. But I suppose that’s just a question of approach.”
– Paul Dooley

Words & images:  Mícheál Ó Catháin

Paul Dooley’s recording Rip the Calico – traditional Irish dance music and slow airs played on an early Irish harp – struck a chord in me when I first listened to the tape cassette as a teenager in the 1990s. The bell-like notes immediately settled comfortably in my ears, echoing all the richness of traditional Irish music I had heard till then while also surprising and delighting me with something more fundamental – a sound or resonance which I hadn’t realised had been missing. My fascination with the early Irish harp grew from that experience.

Follow Paul’s work online at:


In this conversation
1. Paul Dooley plays the Jointure & Jigg, and shares how he went about his arrangement. This piece is arranged and played by each artist in this early Irish harp: the State of the Art series, providing a rich and comparable showcase of each of their individual styles.
2. Paul illustrates a similar approach or style which he applies to many other pieces, especially Irish reels and jigs.
3. Paul’s musical journey and how he first arrived at the wire-strung or early Irish harp
4. Harp-making
5. How to choose a harp
6. Tuning for traditional music sessions
7. Practice
8. Ornamentation for dance tunes
9. The Robert Ap Huw manuscript as a source of technique and repertoire

For a selection of links to things mentioned during the interview, scroll to the bottom of this page.


Mícheál Ó Catháin:
Can we start by talking about the Jointure – it will be good to use it as an example, taking a few techniques and talking about the bass and treble hands, and ornamentation as well perhaps. From speaking earlier it’s an interesting piece as it’s a slow tune followed by a jig.

Paul Dooley:
Well traditional Irish dance music on the harp is my thing really. That’s the reason I started playing the harp in the first place. I heard Alan Stivell play jigs in the 70s and that’s what I’ve wanted to do ever since. I wasn’t really interested in the old harpers and all that kind of stuff… 17th century and 18th century, medieval and what have you. As I went on I discovered more about it and then I became interested. But in my younger days jigs and reels was all I was after really! So it was interesting to discover that jigs were played on the harp for as long as they’ve existed – jigs that is not harps. Now they probably didn’t play them exactly in the same way we are playing them today, more stately maybe, but this one seems to fit the bill pretty well. It was taken from O’Hampsey by Bunting [based on where it sits in MS4.29] so it was played with nails on a harp with metal strings.

We were talking about this piece appearing in the 1724 Neal collection as well.
Well it’s interesting because there’s at least three versions of the Jointure and Jigg going. There is the one published by Bunting in 1796 [in E] and the one in the manuscript that he got from O’Hampsey – ever so slightly different from the published version [in G], and there is the one in the Neal collection [in F]. The slow tune in the Neal version is also different, not quite the same as what Bunting has. So you’d wonder is that down to actual mistakes or were the harpers and musicians at the time of Neal and O’Hampsey a bit loose about how they played the tunes, or both. It was composed by Thomas Connellan (d. 1698) sometime in the late 1600s and it was still on the go a hundred years later, when O’Hampsey played it for Bunting, so it might well have changed along the way a bit. Anyway, the version I learned is the one from Bunting’s manuscript 29.

If you could play it through that’d be great! And as you’re tuning Paul could you talk us through the approach you have to tuning the harp for this piece?
I use a few different approaches. One of them is to use an electronic tuner and sometimes that works well but more times it doesn’t. It’s important to understand that things are never fully in tune anyway for a start! On the metal-strung harp everything rings on and the harmonics are very strong, so if you don’t use the tuner you’ll tend to gravitate towards ‘just’ intonation, or if you tuned only in fifths it would be Pythagorean tuning.

Are there two comhluí G’s on this harp?
No, when started playing I wasn’t aware of the ‘sister strings’ tuning, or the left shoulder thing either. When I did find out about it, it was too late to change. Neither of those things make any real difference to what you can and can’t play on a harp and after playing for years with one set up the readjustment would be huge, for me anyway.

What is your first note to start tuning?
That all depends. I’d suspect that compared to what my equal-tempered electronic tuner says, the A here is going to be slightly sharp to the D, and the F [sharp] is a good bit flat. But that’s how it sounds good, so away you go from there! If I was using the electronic tuner the tuning wouldn’t be quite like this. But the harp can go out of tune quite a bit anyway, especially if it gets very cold or hot very quickly. The harp doesn’t like sudden changes in temperature or humidity. It will stay perfectly stable if the temperature or humidity doesn’t change. It tends to tighten up with increased humidity and go sharp, and flatten with heat. So if you get a hot humid day or a cold dry day it doesn’t know where it’s going!

Is tuning by fifths is your approach generally?
Well I tune certain fifths to be pure, or stable I should say. For example, this tune will have the fifth from D to A in it, so that I’ll tune that pretty good. And since there is a lot of D in this piece, the F-sharps are going to be a bit flat, to give a sweet major third from the D. And then the B’s are going have to be flat to make the B-F-sharp fifths, because the F-sharps are flat, and so on. But depending on what tune you’re going to play that doesn’t necessarily work, but for the Jointure [in D] it does, it kinda does anyway!

Thanks for talking through your tuning. That sets us nicely to hear you playing the Jointure and Jigg!

That’s quite a piece, there is a lot in it. Could you explain your approach to arranging the Jointure?
Well the melody is as it is and …[music]… except for there I put in …[music]… where I put in that F …[music]… and again, there.

And instead of …[music] … I’ve added the chord there – B with the D …[music]. Of course the Jointure is written in G, but I’m playing it in D here, lower than this, So all that …[music].

So the bass hand just goes down …[music]… in the opposite direction to the treble …[music]… and so I kinda do this is climb up …[music]. Then …[music]… now those little cuts or mordents – I don’t know what they’re called – there is just an X [or a cross rather] over the note in the in the manuscript. So sometimes I put them in, more times I don’t …[music]. I’m just assuming that that’s what they mean, but there’s really no indication of what they should be. So the first part again …[music].

And then the second part. The second part has two bass notes in it, which is unusual. There is a very great shortage of bass notes in the Bunting manuscripts as everyone knows! (laughing). But there are two …[music]… I think it is the B and the A there are written in the manuscript – I can’t remember now – I wove them in now to the arrangement so I forget which is which …[music]. So those little notes …[music]… they are all grouped together in the manuscript so they just fall in like that …[music].

So that’s the approach I used to arrange this piece. It’s not really an arrangement, more like a style. I learned how to do one tune like that at the beginning and I’ve done them all more or less like that since. It’s a method, for better or worse. At the time I started playing the harp I read an article in Ceol magazine by Gráinne Yeats where she talked about a fragment of a book, from 1742 I think – it’s in the National Library. It had compositions of O’Carolan with a bass line and his son was involved in the publication. She said that the bass line moved in single notes that it didn’t seem to make much sense according to conventional harmony. So I thought that’s a great idea – just move in single notes. Then I started trying that and it was a bit “thin”! So I thought maybe I would move in octaves instead. The piece I was working on at the time was the hornpipe The Rights of Man.

Can you give an example of the single note method and then the octave method?
So the single note method on the Rights of Man is …[music]… then in octaves …[music]…

Now I don’t play everything exactly like that anymore but that’s more or less how it started. And then doing the damping in places where you can’t damp legato you end up with a nice sort of syncopated rhythm, and I just left that alone.

It would be really nice to talk about the Jigg section of this as well, because you have a unique angle on playing jigs on the harp, having played so much Irish dance music over the years on the fiddle as well.
For the Jigg …[music]… that’s as it’s written.

And the ornaments there …[music]… sometimes I do the two of them, sometimes not. [Music]… that’s what’s written but then I tend to put a B roll in …[music]. So, the plain version is …[music]… with the roll then …[music]… and then the second part …[music]… so the same thing again, {after playing a plain version}, I tend to put rolls in …[music]… I don’t put them everywhere, but I pick and choose my moments. [music].

The bass hand in the Jigg is a very natural sound.  It doesn’t sound contrived
Like what you’d expect almost?! It’s not very different from Bunting’s arrangement I think. I remember putting it on the computer and playing that back and thinking “right okay, I’m there or thereabouts”. Sometimes his arrangements are a bit… I wouldn’t like them. Other times there’s just too many accidentals in there so I just couldn’t attempt them.

You mean the published version of the Jointure and Jigg is not that different to the manuscript?

Yeah, well the actual melody is the same as the manuscript, for the jig anyway. But what I meant was his added bass in the printed publication is not a million miles away from what I’m doing there, or it has a very similar feel at least – they are probably quite different in reality.

Would you take a similar approach to most jigs, in how you play your bass hand?
In the jig what I used was very simple …[music]… so I use much the same in ordinary, or everyday jigs. This is one I composed actually, called the Harper’s Fancy or the Millenium Jig …[music].

Bass-hand-wise I’m trying to leave as much in the background as possible. I try not to draw too much attention to it. Some harp players have very inventive and very intricate bass hands. I find that can distract from the tune. Well from a traditional music standpoint, the tune is sacred so anything that camouflages the tune is… trouble, for me anyway. But I suppose that’s just a question of approach. I mean to someone outside the tradition, it could be that the more excitement or entertainment value there is in the bass-hand the better. It depends on your point of view.

Do you see that there’s any particular differences in playing the neo-Irish or nylon-strung lever harp in the bass hand, versus the early Irish or wire-strung harp?

Well, as dance music is played more and more on harps, players of the ‘neo-Irish’ harp have developed a whole new way of playing the bass. They do a lot of damping – every bit as much as we would do on metal strings. But their strings are not as close together and that wider spacing can allow for very interesting bass-hand accompaniment. As well as that, the neo-Irish harps have a much more powerful sound. There’s more of a kind of boom sound from the lower strings so it can make for a very active… oumphy… bass line. This could be quite good if you’re playing in a big session, playing with melody instruments that are also carrying the tune. The heavy bass may be too strong for your own melody line, but if you are playing with other melody instruments as well, then that is counterbalanced. In that case the bass doesn’t obscure the tune anymore – other people are loud enough – so that overall the balance between the melody and bass is at the right level.


Paul I’d love if you could you talk about your own musical journey, how you arrived at the harp.
Or how did the harp arrive at me! Well, growing up in Canada I used to play the guitar, I used to like rock and roll and all kinds of things. One time my father brought home a record of Alan Stivell playing the harp. It was his Renaissance of the Celtic harp and I was just blown away by the sound of it, and especially the sound of jigs played on the harp. I’ve just been fascinated by the harp ever since.

How long did it take from the time you first heard that Alan Stivell record to when you began playing yourself?
Oh I was about 10 when that came out, my father actually made a harp around that time. He got a kit from a mail order place, in California I think, and he made the harp and we played with it for a bit. Then there was a loud bang in the middle of the night and the thing collapsed because it was under too much tension. It wasn’t a great design anyway.

Was this a metal-strung harp?
No. Maybe it should have been metal-strung right enough. It had a type of nylon strings, like the bass strings on a classical guitar. It sounded quite nice for the time it lasted. Anyway so that was that. My brother played classical music on the guitar and he ended up learning the concert harp for a while. I didn’t do any music then for a few years. I left home as you do, and eventually found my way to Dublin. I always had in my mind that I’d like to make a harp, as I liked that sound. I would go to Trinity – it was free that time – you’d go into the Long Room where the book of Kells and the harp was. I’d be looking at it, the shape of it, fascinated. I realised that once your tuning pegs worked, your harp could be in tune and that whatever other flaws it might have, it would be playable. It wouldn’t be like a flute with a hole in the wrong place or a guitar with a fret in the wrong place – which could never work ever. You could make a harp that would work very easily, and quickly. So I made my first harp and got into it a bit more. I had the view to maybe try to make a living at making instruments but I found out very soon that it wasn’t going to be possible.

Was this at a time when you were in Trinity as a student?
No no, I used to just go in as a tourist, at that time I was working in a restaurant in Dublin.

And so had you made furniture or other instruments?
Not really no. You know, there were tools at home, and I’d make goal posts or a basketball stand or the like from time to time.

So you’re naturally very good with your hands. Not everyone would feel that they could just pick up a set of tools and make a harp!
Well I had made a window and a couple of other things – I had basic skills, but nothing fancy. My first harp was a very crude affair. The soundbox was made of plywood and the frame was made out of four by two’s that were cut roughly in the shape of a harp. But it very quickly came under too much pressure and didn’t last very long. But it sounded great. I lived in a Georgian building that had lovely window surrounds – with shutters and a low platform. So I had the harp up on that and once it was sitting on that, there was a lovely bass sound­ – almost as if the whole window surround acted as a soundbox. To compensate for my poor plywood! Once you lifted it off the thing sounded really dull! But I managed to get Brian Ború’s March and a couple of other things out of it.


Was the harp design based on the Trinity harp?
Yeah, roughly. As much as you could by looking at the back of a ten pence or a fifty pence coin at the time – that was the biggest one there was!

And even if you were able to get your hands on the original harp sitting in Trinity, that has got parts missing down around the bottom of the fore-pillar.
Yes that area is missing. The Trinity harp doesn’t sit quite right, but it’s not very wrong either as it turns out. I’ve done quite a bit of research on that a few years ago now.

The dimensions of the fore-pillar impacts the length of the strings and maybe even the number of strings doesn’t it?
Well this is it. The first harp I made looked like the one on the back of the money just about. It sounded… just about okay! It had guitar strings all the way to top because I didn’t know where you’d get harp strings. I really didn’t know anything about harps at all – I mean the nearest I would have really been to a working harp would have been looking in the window in Waltons. These harps were very expensive. I didn’t really twig that their strings were coloured, or were gut. It didn’t occur to me because Alan Stivell’s harp definitely sounded like it had metal strings so I just assumed all small Irish harps had metal strings. I hadn’t really given the concert harp any thought at all.

So anyway, as I went on I discovered that it’s just not good enough to make a pretty curve here on the neck and a pretty curve there on the fore-pillar. That’s not how it works, there’s a lot more to it than that. I realised that the lengths of the strings have to relate to each other in a certain way because otherwise they might start breaking, or some of them would be too loose.

Has this ratio of string lengths got to do with distributing the loading on the soundbox?
Not so much that. The ‘loading’ [the total amount of tension] comes from a different thing. It’s from the string gauges you use. If you replace a string with a thicker one, you’ll have to put a lot more tension on that thicker string to reach the same note. Because the strength of the string is proportional to the area of its cross-section – the bigger that is, the stronger the string – it would still break at the same note more or less, so it can reach the same pitch but it’s just not going to sound the same. It might even sound like it wants to go higher – even if that’s not possible – before it starts sounding right.

Is this because it just has to vibrate at a given frequency?
Not quite, it’s because it won’t sound true – or not great – unless it’s tuned high enough. If it’s too low [loose] it makes harmonics that aren’t really in tune with other notes you might want to play. So the more taut the string is the more those harmonics are in tune. They’ll be still sharp but not quite as much. As you loosen the strings or as the metal is stiffer and harder – there’s a lots of variables – they’ll be sharper and sharper, so basically the string should be as taut as possible to get the best sound possible.

So quite a narrow string could be the best could be the optimum?
Yes! It is counterintuitive. For instance, if your bass string isn’t working great, a thinner string [of the same material] will probably do a better job than a thicker one, whereas you would assume that it is the other way around. That’s because the thinner string is going to be more flexible.

I would have thought that the thicker the strings, the longer your harp is going last but that’s not necessarily true is it?
It could be the opposite even if tension is the issue. The thicker string will just pull more, it will demand more tension to give you the same note.

Back to the design of the harp. It takes a bit of figuring out but basically by experiment you know that a string of a certain length will make you that note nicely, and if it is shorter than that it is not going to be as nice, whereas if it’s too long it’s going to break. From that, theoretically you can also work out what length each string on the harp needs to be with mathematical ratios. How they did it in the old days, I don’t know, but they did it! They worked out the lengths of strings to make a harp that was balanced properly, so that the strings wouldn’t break. It is not good enough to just copy a harp because it looks a certain way. You have to understand what drove the design in the first place. So to copy the one in Trinity exactly may not be the best thing to do because it is sitting with a load of resin here and there. Figuring out the original design needs a bit of work but as I said earlier, it so happens that it’s near enough.

My good friend Paddy Cafferky who makes fantastic gut-strung harps, answers that question most succinctly: how would you determine the shape of the harp? “Basically you get the strings and you build a harp around it.” That’s the easiest way to answer it.

In other words you decide what notes you want, you decide what lengths they need to be to sound nice, and you fit the harp around that. So if you get brass strings, you know if the string is the length of this table it’ll be such a note. It needs to be longer to be a note lower or shorter for a note higher. And just go from there, and depending on the kind of tensions your going for you’ll end up with something that looks like a Trinity or a Queen Mary harp or similar.

In your own journey as a harp maker, was there anybody else making early Irish harps at that time you were starting out, or was it just out of necessity for your own playing that you began making harps?
Well for me it was out of necessity because I couldn’t possibly afford one of Walton’s harps, and they weren’t metal-strung anyway. There were other people making them I’m sure. Peter Kilroy in Kenmare would have been making harps, at the same time or even before that. Paul Doyle in Strokestown was making harps, also Michael Billinge in Cork. I don’t think anyone else in Ireland was making them then, I’m talking about metal-strung harps now and we’re talking pre-internet times here so there was no instant way of accessing anything like now. You would have to get the 07/09 phonebook to get the Roscommon harp maker’s number. You know, we forget how all that was back in the day! So I just plowed ahead and did my own thing anyway.

You mentioned Peter Kilroy. There was a documentary called Hands in which he featured, and a book following that.
Yes, that’s right. His harps were excellently made, I actually did the music for that documentary and played one of them.

You also mentioned Michael Billinge. I remember seeing him, together with Seamus O’Kane, making a replica of the Downhill harp played by Nollaig Brolly, in a documentary made a few years ago called Banríon an Cheoil. I’m now realising his background goes quite a bit further?
Yes, Michael Billinge was in that documentary and made a beautiful replica of the Downhill with Séaus Ó’Kane. Michael had been researching and making harps for a long long time before that came out. Himself and Bonnie Shaljean have done a lot of work on the chromatic Irish harps. They published an article on that years ago. Paul Doyle was making harps back then too, and to this day he still makes bouzoukis, guitars and all sorts of instruments. His workshop is in Galway now on Dominic Street. The back of this harp in front of me here came from a piece of wood that was for the front of a cello and I bought that off Paul.

You have made a number of Trinity models now. How many have you made?
The harp I’m playing here is a sort of augmented Trinity – it’s more or less like the Trinity plus four strings in the bass. The main idea of this particular design was to have the same range of notes as the [neo-Irish] harps you see in sessions [from bass C upwards], and the idea in a way was to compete with that. So this harp is probably more like the size of the Castle Otway harp than the Trinity harp. But I made a few Trinity’s over the years, and some recently, the one in the Irish Traditional Music Archive is the first willow one I made, back in 1984 or 1985.

Is there an approach to the selecting material for the metal strings themselves – is there a material that you consider the best, and you wouldn’t really change again?
No, I couldn’t really say that because the strings on my harp are all different. That’s because when you replace a broken string you get what you have at hand – could be someone else’s spare strings – and the chances are that’s going to be different from what was on the harp when it was made first. So some metals can be interchangeable and I couldn’t say one’s better than another. As I said it all depends what note you need to get from what length of string.

But there are differences in copper alloys, phosphor bronze [and similarly with historical bronzes] is a great material because it can get very hard and makes very nice crispy higher notes. Yellow brass is similar that way. Different grades of brass like red brass or gilding metal are that bit softer and when it gets near the high strings not quite as bright or as strong. With the higher notes red brass doesn’t carry that well, but it has a very nice low to mid-range. The state of the metal also makes a big difference, the harder it is the stronger it is so the higher it can be tuned. This becomes important especially on harps that have lower strings are on the short side [low-headed harps].

Have you a theory on how strings were made without modern techniques
Well the technique hasn’t changed really, some of the equipment has of course but the principles are the same. You just melt your metal and cast it into a rod first and then beat it up smaller and smaller until it gets thin enough – maybe 3mm or less – so you can pull it through a drawplate or a die or something like that. From there on you just pull it through smaller and smaller holes. Every time you hit the metal or as you work it, it gets harder so you have to anneal it regularly to stop small cracks and defects from forming during that process. But you also need to anneal it because with every pass it becomes physically harder to get it through the next hole in the drawplate [or the next die] and then it’s also harder on the tools. I’d imagine the tools would have been precious back then. So anyway when the wire gets to maybe 1.5–1.2mm, you would anneal it for the last time. At that point the wire can be drawn small enough without causing defects.

Thinking about the basics of drawing metal strings, why is the lower range likely to be that bit softer without the same number of annealing processes as the higher range?
In that sequence I described it would have the same amount of annealing, but the treble has more cold working, which hardens the metal. As it gets thinner and thinner you don’t have to anneal it anymore because the percentage of squeezing that goes on – or reduction – is still the same relatively speaking but there is much less metal getting squashed. Of course it’s possible to have the lower range drawn really hard as well. It would just mean the last annealing needs to take place earlier. But that also means you would have to draw separate coils for each gauge [the fully-hardened thick wire could not be drawn thinner without becoming brittle].

What would you think of the idea of spiral cutting a string out of a sheet of metal?  Ann Heymann experimented with wires made in this way with historical wire-smith Daniel Tokar.
Mmm, would it be viable for strings? Well it might be. I’m just thinking about how would you go about that. It would be very finicky, unnecessarily so I would say. Wire was made like that for jewellery in the early Middle Ages but I’d be surprised if you could make wire thin enough and reliable for treble strings [0.5-0.4mm]. Anyway, the drawplate predates the harps by at least a few hundred years so I imagine that it would have superseded that kind of method. And, regardless, the net effect of the cold working will be the same no matter what method is used. As time went on, when keyboard instruments became popular, you could get very fine [good quality] wire from England, France, Germany or wherever and it would be imported. There would be no need to make it in your back yard then.

We probably underestimate how connected Ireland was with other parts of Europe right back to medieval times.
You have to remember this was a high class high art. There would have been be no expense spared. With the amount of work that went into decorating these harps, they would have been show pieces. If the guy wanted to get wire from abroad, that’s what would have happenned I imagine… if that was where wire was available at that stage.

Do you think these harps would have been serious pieces of art just visually, as well as to be played?
Without all the decorations these harps would have sounded exactly the same. So the decorations, like on the Kildare harp, that was there to impress the neighbours.

In a conversation I had with the late Tristram Robson some years ago, he explained his research into how the harp was played between 1550 and 1650 in the English Court. This was played by Irish harpers initially, with this Irish harp being adopted as a court instrument played by English musicians towards the latter part of that period.  Tristram explained that it became more of a chromatic instrument (twelve notes in an octave) as it was adopted.
Yes and then the keyboard took over from it, which was much easier to play. There’s a quote from around that time from John Evelyn about his friend, a Mr Clarke, ‘… who makes it [the chromatic Irish harp] execute lute, viol, and all the harmony an instrument is capable of. Pity it is [Clarke said] that it is not more in use; but indeed, to play well takes up the whole man…’, meaning that if you were going to be learning a chromatic Irish harp you couldn’t do anything else really! There’s so many more mistakes on the harp if you have a chromatic scale, it would demand the person’s the whole attention. Things are bad enough on a diatonic [seven notes in an octave] harp! Apparently Mr Clarke had been playing since the age of five!

We’re only touching on your harp making here. For someone reading this interview with a deeper interest in harp-making, is there a way for them to follow your work or connect with you?
Well some day I might get around to updating my website and put something on there, in the meantime I can always be contacted via email.


Can we talk about choosing a harp?
When choosing a harp you need to figure out first what kind of music it is you want to play on it. Then you need to get a harp that suits that music. If you get a nice small 22-string harp beginning at around tenor G in the bass [fiddle G] you’ll be able play very nice medieval music on it, and it’s going to be very portable. If that’s what you want to do then that’s the one to get. But it’ll be very frustrating if you want to branch into Irish dance music, because you would have a lot of high notes that are no good to you and you wouldn’t have the bass notes you need. Having said that, you could play all the tunes you want on 22 strings, but they just wouldn’t be in the usual keys. If you wanted to play O’Carolan’s music for example you’d probably need to get a high-headed model that goes down quite low in the bass. It’s possible to play any kind of music on any harp but you’d want to satisfy yourself first that you’re going to have the right kind of scale and range of notes if you’re going to be playing with other people.

So what do you say if students ask “I like the sound of the early Irish harp, where can I get one”?
I’d say take your time and shop around. Try it out first, go to festivals, hire one out if you can. Most importantly for anybody, buy one that’s already made and that you like the sound of.

You took a deep interest in Irish dance music when very few playing the early Irish harp were doing that. Is it possible to play if you join in a session? That seems like a very difficult thing to do with a diatonically tuned harp.
It depends on the repertoire. In some fiddle sessions you just wouldn’t attempt it, because if they play in flat keys you could be in B-flat one minute and in A the next minute, that’s just not going to work out. It is difficult enough for a harp with a semitone system. If you play the piping repertoire, pretty much the standard repertoire, you would be there or thereabouts. When I used to play in sessions – I don’t do it quite as much now – I used to have the harp tuned in G, and I would just change the C to C-sharp [below the high D] if I needed to play in D, because I wouldn’t use the C’s in the bass in D. So I’d have all the ‘keys’ [or modes rather] with one sharp A minor [Dorian], E minor [Aeolian], G major [Ionian], and D Mixolydian. Then with the one C-sharp I’d have B minor, D major etc., so by just changing one string you could have almost all the common keys. If there was a flute or whistle playing you would have all of those keys. More and more, it is not realistic to expect to be able to walk in to any session with a wire-strung harp and be able to play all the tunes with everybody. That doesn’t even work with a fiddle, unless you know thousands of tunes. So really, you need to pick your sessions. You have to know the repertoire, and who you are going to be playing with. If you go to the same session every week you end up learning all those tunes, and they’ll learn some of yours. That’s how it works.

You have added a few strings onto this Trinity harp. Is that to allow you to play with other musicians?
The reason for those four extra strings was because they were on other lever harps. The bottom notes at the moment are F-sharp, D, and B. It was to give the same bass range, so I could play the same arrangements as other harps. As it turns out I never did, they are very seldom used. F-sharp is the lowest I go usually. For effect now and again I’ll use the big bass B.

For someone interested in playing dance music on the early Irish harp together with other musicians, would you recommend these additional strings?
You wouldn’t really need those four strings. But you need to have at least an octave below the D to make some sort of a bass line – otherwise you have to climb over your melody line too much. I think of it like this – the treble range is like a tin whistle and the bass range is like a guitar. So you don’t want the two to be on top of each other, at least I find that awkward. But I suppose if you learn like this [combining accompaniment and melody in the same range] to begin with it is no problem.


Do you have a particular approach to practice, say the speed at which you learn a new tune? You do you seem to play at incredible speeds very accurately. In a few concerts I have seen you go from a slow piece to a fast reel – it is extraordinary to see the dexterity. I’m wondering how you go from that phase of learning a piece, to then bringing it up to your performance speed.
Well if I’m learning a reel I wouldn’t practice at full tilt. Usually I have the tune in my head already, and that’s a problem on the harp because you could play the harp with one finger and all the notes would sound fine. The question is to hit the right note. So the more the jumping from one note to another without placing your fingers in advance the more chance you will hit the wrong one. So my approach is not necessarily to actually place fingers on the strings and then play. If you were going to play a reel that wouldn’t work. Instead I sort of walk my fingers on the harp, with certain fingering shapes trained into my hand.

Ideally when you’re learning the harp you should learn tunes in blocks of fingering rather than chunks of melody. Sometimes it doesn’t make much sense at first to hear a block of four notes in a row, followed by another four, followed by three. But then when it does come together it’s not going to falter. As regards the speed, when I started playing the harp I took that on as a bit of a challenge, because at the time people thought dance music couldn’t be played on the harp at the proper [dancing] speed. So I probably overdid it in challenging myself to play very fast. It’s not necessarily nicer when it’s faster. You can play slow reels and they’re just fine as pieces of music – they can be very nice.

I think of how pipers learn tunes. At the Willy Clancy summer school for example, young pipers are invited each year to perform during the lunchtime concerts, and they will often play a slow reel into a hornpipe. And you hear them then a year or two later and they are playing at the speed of Patsy Tuohy – just amazing. Clearly they learn their techniques at quite a leisurely speed and then all that technique remains in place and there is perfectly tight playing at much higher speeds.
Well that’s exactly what you need to do on the harp. You need to learn those blocks of notes. Except that when you learn one ornament on the harp it fits anywhere, whereas on the pipes when you learn an “A-C-A” triplet for example, that’s where it is on the chanter all the time.

So yeah, if you were starting off now that’s what I’d recommend you should do, but it’s not necessarily what I do! There is a danger of playing it “any way at all”. I guess the best thing to do is to play the tune off the top of your head for a while first and find out where it breaks down and then isolate those places that you need to do something about and sort out the fingering. Otherwise you may get away with it for so long – you might get it right half the time or two thirds of the time – but when it matters you might not! So the longer you leave it before you do something about it, the harder it is to correct. It can become a bad habit very quickly. So it’s good to get into good habits from the beginning. But unfortunately when I started learning I was doing my own thing and I had no idea where it was going!

This is why it is exciting that the early Irish harp is becoming more common as an instrument and it’s possible for the likes of myself to avoid reinventing the wheel.
Hopefully everyone adds a little bit to the pot and then in a few generations people will just play it at the same level as the pipes are being played today. That would be fantastic.

Can you give an example of breaking a tune down into blocks of notes?
Ok say for a reel like Miss Lyons. How would I follow my own advice, practicing in blocks of fingering?

This kind of pattern, the idea is to learn it in blocks …[music]… and then …[music]. So you would basically play …[music]… now that becomes quick because you know exactly where the notes are. You have four in a row there, so you keep your hand in that position …[music]. It flows better that way …[music].

So the second part then …[music]… you have all these root position things which are really easy to handle with with two or three fingers there …[music]… so those four notes together …[music]… and back to …[music]… that’s all root position stuff. Then the same thing …[music]… then that position there with thumb, gap, two fingers, gap, and four …[music]… so that gets you out of trouble going down that run of notes …[music]. The whole part then …[music].

Given the harp has such a long sustain, you don’t seem to let the bass hand strings ring out for very long. You seem to damp them quite quickly.
Well sometimes I will let it go …[music].

In the bass hand, is it a one- two-chord kind of a thing you are playing?
As with the Rights of Man it is basically one note in theory, so you’d have two D’s …[music].

If there is going to another note it’s going to be the A in between …[music]. And very
seldom is it going to be …[music]… any combination of that (a full D triad). But sometimes I’ll have …[music].

What is that chord in the second half?
So that’s A-A and then E …[music]. It’s just reiteration of the same octave or the fifth in between.


Can you explain your approach to ornamentation for reels and other dance tunes?
A lot of the minor tunes [as we call them] are based on two adjacent triads. In other words these tunes often go forward and backwards between two triads – for example, between A-minor and G-major triads – in various fingering patterns.

And then in terms of our ornamentation what comes up very often is …[music]. This is a sort of imitation of a roll on the flute …[music].

So what you’re playing really is three B’s …[music]… barely playing the A underneath to make it sound like it’s a roll …[music].

If you hit the lower note really loud …[music]… the ornamentation becomes more like an
accordion triplet …[music]. So it’s kind of forgiving as an ornament because it’ll give you give you different shades of different effects depending on how well you execute the one you mean to, or not!

Then it’s the same fingering for a full triplet …[music]. So for the same fingering pattern you get three different ornaments, or even more if you end up hitting the bottom string first …[music]. That works sometimes, for some things. Yeah so that’s really long and short of the
ornamentation I use in dance music – various incarnations of that triplet.

It sounded like the reel Toss the Feathers at one point there. Is this a tune you ornament in this way, with triplets, or “flute” and “accordion” rolls?
Yeah, so I’d play it along these lines …[music].

So you have nice simple chords there – a basic E, and a basic D …[music]. It starts off …[music]… so that pattern there with the B roll off the E first, and then off the high D …[music]. You could do a roll on the bottom …[music]. To make it crispier you could do a triplet on the E …[music]. Then a change of chord …[music]… then your familiar gapped scale with the your fourth finger …[music].

Then in the second part you could start …[music]… depending on what instruments you want to emulate. On the fiddle you would have no option to roll on the E there of course. So you would have to go …[music]. But a flute would probably do …[music]… and you can do …[music]. Would you do all those rolls? You wouldn’t. You would put gaps in it rather than roll roll roll everywhere in it. Once you know where they are you can just change them around every time through a part …[music].

As you play ornaments in a “flute style” there, it is almost like you are allowing a gap for an imaginary breath. Is this intentional?
Well in theory you could play triplets and notes everywhere on the harp, because you don’t have to breathe, but it just doesn’t sound natural if you fill in all the gaps all the time. So you have to pick and choose where you do it …[music]… that kind of thing.

If you do in different places next time round the tune, it kinda makes it interesting for the listener as well. Because you are playing the same tune but you aren’t playing the gaps in exactly the same places.


In discussing the Jointure & Jigg early we touched on both the Bunting manuscripts and the Neal collection. Could we talk about another manuscript you are very familiar with – the Robert ap Huw manuscript? I have a basic understanding of the significance of the manuscript and I’d love to understand some of your deep insights into what this manuscript of early Welsh harp music tells us about our Irish equivalent.

Well for starters, there are not many people who actually play from the Ap Huw manuscript. There’s been a few different interpretations of it going over the years. But the way I play it comes from the work of Peter Greenhill, who wrote a monumental series of dissertations on it. This takes account of all the latest research into the manuscript and his interpretation is quite simple in the end but the crucial thing is that it’s consistent, and it works everywhere.

As to the significance of it, it was copied in 1613 by Robert ap Huw from earlier stuff. There were two or three different sources [maybe more], it’s not all from one source. The tablature it’s written in probably originates from at least 1550 or earlier. The composers that are named in the manuscript can be dated from 1350 to 1480. But there are lists of pieces for which there is no music, but that existed, and the composers of some of those pieces and people who had pieces named after them go back to 1320 and earlier. For instance, one is a lament for William of Scotland (d. 1214). You can easily go back to the 1100s with other titles. So some of it is probably very old. You could argue that some of these pieces could have been written in honour of the same people in the 1500s but that seems unlikely.

The most important thing about the manuscript is that it has all the chords, all the lower hand and upper hand are all written there in black on white. So we know exactly what they did with their bass hand, whereas with the Irish stuff we’re only guessing. And then as well as that the fingering for the upper hand is explained in great detail – what finger played a note, and what finger they damped with. There’s a list of two-, three-, and four-note finger movements on page 35 of the manuscript that explains all that. Usually the first note of a movement is damped. So it stands to reason that the accent is on the second note, and usually the chord that goes with it will harmonise with that accented note. So by extension we know the timing of a whole piece.

So in the Ap Huw manuscript we have music that is older than O’Carolan for sure and possibly as old as what Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales] heard when he came to Ireland, the music he raved about in his writings. Very likely as old as that, or certainly the style would be, so “important” really doesn’t begin to describe it!

That said, as far as technique for playing the 17th and 18th century music goes, it is not really that useful. It’s really a separate body of music, but its harmony operates on the same kind of principles as traditional music still does.

I have heard the Ap Huw harmony referred to as a double tonic or home and way. And that the notation looks a like binary computer code! Can you shed some light on this?
So the music follows a system of measures and each measure is notated in ones or zeros, and the ones and zeros correspond to, we’ll say, contrasting chords. So a basic example of that would be for Brian Ború’s march. Let’s say if that was a one …[music]… and that was a zero …[music]… so you could have …[music].

So that pattern is 1 1 0 0 1 1 1 1 …[music]. Then the second part …[music]… third part …[music]. So in that same way the Welsh pieces followed the chord pattern that could be notated in ones and zeros like that. But the measures were much longer than that, some of them.

This pattern is an officially named measure called Mak y Mwn Byr, which we could translate loosely as “the short measure of Munster” or “the men of Munster”. Funnily enough Brian Ború was King of Munster.

So that’s an example of one measure in the Ap Huw manuscript. How many other measures are there?
There are 24 of these measures in the official canon, and each has a strange name, sometimes combining Irish and Welsh words. Relating them to tunes, every piece is in a measure, or in a combination of measures sometimes. You could have a type of chorus [diwedd section] in a different measure to the main tune. So the whole sequence becomes longer again. So you could have something like two rounds of 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 [Corffiniwr] and then a round of 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 [Tytyr Bach] at the end of that, all forming one part [or section]. And if we had twelve parts or more, a piece could easily be 20 minutes long. So they kept track of the parts, knowing the measures like that. It’s a bit like the Old Grey Goose multiplied by the Old Grey Goose, if you want to think of it in traditional music terms! Or the Old Grey Goose multiplied by Doctor O’Neill’s!

Is the Ap Huw manuscript difficult to read?
No. The tablature does look completely alien at the start, but once you get around Ap Huw’s handwriting it becomes much easier to read than dots in staff notation. This is because you can recognise chords or whole phrases as blocks.

Is the Ap Huw manuscript online, and how long would it take to get your head around the notation of pieces?
If you do a search, you can find it online. From there there’s two ways you could go. You could try to decipher it all yourself which I wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re into Rubik’s cubes and things like that! Peter Greenhill’s work, who as I said passed it all on to me, is also available online. There’s an earlier thesis by Paul Whittaker which is also available online. That can give a good background before reading Greenhill’s work.

To get to play the music it actually doesn’t take that long. The technique is very different so it’s a bit of a commitment. When Peter passed on the music to me he said to me that I might not want to play the way he recommended because I already had my own technique. First of all I thought I would just learn it with the left hand treble [I normally play left hand bass] but it was too difficult for me, too finicky. So I ended up doing my own thing a bit. But if I was doing it again – if I knew then what I know now – I would follow the fingering the way he has deciphered it because it makes perfect sense to me.

Does it specify what shoulder the harp is played on?
Not really, but the pictures of Welsh harps show the harp on the left shoulder, and some of the figuration and symbols in the Ap Huw manuscript hint that you’re looking at strings and fingers on the left side. But which shoulder it is played on doesn’t really make much difference because your hands are symmetrical anyway, so it’s not like you need to fundamentally change anything either way. Originally, or before you see depictions of harps, you see lyres on high crosses and in medieval illuminations. The lyre was held against the left shoulder with the right hand strumming, and with the left hand fingers blocking strings and shaping chords. This left hand function probably became more complicated later [plucking as well as blocking], while the right hand was acting only as a plectrum. So that right hand becomes the bow on a fiddle or the strumming hand on a guitar, while the left hand did the more dexterous fingering. This is probably how the harp ended up being played on the left shoulder. When keyboard instruments came in the treble was on the right hand side, so it eventually migrated to the right hand on the harp also. That’s my theory on it anyway!

Can you play a favourite piece of yours from the Ap Huw manuscript?
This is a piece called Gosteg Dafydd Athro. The pattern for this is 11001011, repeated for each section …[music, translation by Peter Greenhill].

And this goes on for another ten minutes or so.

One of the techniques I noticed is that you use the back of your nail.
Yeah, well in the Ap Huw manuscript it says clearly that you use the back your nail in some cases [there’s a separate symbol for back-strikes with each finger, and one for the thumb].

I have found an expedient way of doing this particular one [Tafliad y Bys] using my forefinger, it’s not quite the way Peter Greenhill has it, but it is the only way I found that I was able to do it quickly and reliably. It uses the right fingers in the right direction with the proper damping but the hand position is different.

Can you show another Ap Huw piece where this back of the nail technique turns up, and give an idea of how much it turns up?
Well it turns up throughout the Ap Huw pieces. For instance another piece from the manuscript called Caniad San Silin uses this quite a lot. Again, it is a fairly long piece, following a combinition of the measure Mak y Mwn Byr [1100 1111] and Tytyr bach [0011 0011], and takes over 15 minutes to play the whole thing – here is some of it

As you are tuning up can you explain your tuning system for this piece?
Ok, If you tune like this you get:

…[music]… G B D, and from the D we get D F A …[music]… with the D octave again. Then we get F A C …[music]… and A C E …[music]. So we have got all these beautiful chords. But what we haven’t got is …[music]… a C G that’s useable, or a E B that’s useable …[music]… so the piece will skirt around these chords and we won’t know, hopefully! …[Music, translation by Peter Greenhill].

In a nutshell, that’s what my PhD research on harp tuning was about.

Do these back of nail techniques and other Ap Huw techniques point towards techniques which could have been used later on in Irish music in the sixteenth and seventeenth century?
When I read Bunting’s fingerings first I thought they were a bit strange – I wondered did he
make it all up. He gives some damping on his ornaments page [1840, p. 24], but they are mostly trills anyway. It looks to me like Bunting’s page 24 was very influenced by Ap Huw’s page 35. There was a transliteration of this in the Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales [1807] and Bunting was in contact with the editors about it. So he was well aware of the Ap Huw manuscript and that it included a collection of ‘ornaments or figures’. So in a way Bunting might have been under pressure to compete with the Welsh material. That said it wasn’t known what the fingering for those was that time, and it turns that Bunting’s fingering patterns are very similar [to the Ap Huw], so that has to count for something.

It sounds like although there are definite links with Irish harp music in the medieval period, but we shouldn’t read too much into how it informs later Irish harp music in the 17th and 18th centuries. Would you agree?
Let’s just say that O’Carolan’s music comes from a different stable altogether. But it might have been influenced by something that was related to what’s in the Ap Huw manuscript somewhere along the way. There is no question that the music that was played in Ireland or Wales or Scoltand, maybe in the 12th, 13th or 14th century, was very similar all around. According to Gerald of Wales’ account, they all imitated Ireland to rival each other in musical style. But how long did this last? Other influences came from the continent and everywhere else. We are where we are today because all these influences came and did what they did.

But there’s also the huge difference between the music that came from Denis O’Hampsey and the other harpers at the 1792 Belfast harp meeting.
I don’t know about that, but there is diefinitely not as much difference between the Ap Huw music and traditional Irish music now as there is between the music in Ap Huw and Bunting, I would say.

Absolutely and what I was also getting at was that even in a generation quite a lot of the music had died, the fact that O’Hampsey was the only musician at the Belfast harp meeting who played with his fingernails.
Yeah absolutely.

And O’Hampsey had an older repertoire which could have stretched quite a way back.
Which he didn’t share by all accounts! He said to Bunting that it pained him too much to play the old tunes, that he wouldn’t bother! It’s a very frustrating thing. He played that little prelude Féach an gléas. He was giving out that the harpers of the day didn’t really understand the old music. So this older music he is talking about, we only have a snippet of it in what Bunting got from him. Under the hood the prelude doesn’t work like the Ap Huw music, but on the face of it the chords are similar to some of the pieces [profiadau in particular]. The way it is ornamented, you couldn’t justify changing the timing from the way Bunting has written it because he is consistent there. It is funny because Bunting says in the 1840 [p. 27] that all the chords were arpeggiated downwards. But he arpeggiated the prelude upwards twice in the original notebook [MS 29], but it’s downwards in one of his later arrangements [MS 12], and he blamed his engraver in a footnote [1840, p. 87] for putting it upwards in the publication.

I think the one thing we can conclude is that you can’t be too dogmatic about any interpretation of what Bunting says. I mean the idea that the Irish wouldn’t have used the triads or thirds when they did use them in Wales way before that. Did they all of a sudden decide to stop using them in Ireland? It’s hard to imagine. If the Welsh were copying the Irish and they [the Welsh] were using all these [triads and thirds], did the Irish decide to stop, thinking “ah no the Welsh are copying us we’re going to stop doing that!” I don’t think so! So they probably did arpeggiate upwards and downwards when it suited them. In O’Hampsey’s day it wouldn’t have been as regulated as it would have been further back. I suppose it’s not so much that it would have been heavily regulated, but there wasn’t really anywhere to go in the medival system. I mean once you had learned a tune in a certain way [properly] there wasn’t room for adding or taking out stuff. Which would be great to know if you have learned a really long piece, that this is it – and there is no grey area. This finger this way, that finger that way, and so on.

It seems that it would be a positive thing if there were more players of the early Irish harp, basing their interpretation of later music on a solid foundation of the Ap Huw manuscript. Even if there was no apparent relationship – for example, if someone heard them play an Ap Huw piece and the same person then heard them play an interpretation of a piece from Bunting say, that the pieces would not sound obviously alike. But that the player’s basis, their sensibility of what would sound “right”, would be based at least in part on the system which is laid out in black on white in the Ap Huw manuscript.
That would be a game changer for a lot of interpretations, for sure.

People who listen to a lot of sean-nós singing will tend to play things like song airs differently on the harp than people who don’t. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but that it’s different! So obviously if you’re coming from a certain background that will colour the way you play things – because I come from a dance music background and that colours how I play O’Carolan stuff, and any other stuff as well – rightly or wrongly again!

Everyone recognizes that there must be a huge gap between how pieces were actually played and how they are presented in the Bunting or Neal collections. We don’t have exact guidance on how pieces were played, and so we do need to base your interpretation on something.
Absolutely. You want to be aware of what’s there in the early sources, is that what you’re saying? You do, you need to look at the manuscripts and be aware of what the baseline is, what’s solid and then go from there.

So go from there and interpret, or modify in a sensible way. Sensible, as in if the goal is to reproduce music as close as possible to that which was noted down when the manuscripts were created.
Yeah, rectifying obvious errors, or you could choose to depart from what’s notated if you wanted to, as long you were upfront about it.

As you say we can’t be too dogmatic about what we find in the 18th and 19th century sources, but there must always have been a push for innovation?
As time went on, as new music came in, yes certainly. But in medieval times probably say pre-1500 or before there wouldn’t have been very much room for innovation, partly because they weren’t really competing with continental musicians and fashions. In other words, it would have been more introverted and conservative. Whatever old Gaelic style there was, musicians probably stuck to what they had, and passed it on that way. Things might have changed, but very slowly. Obviously they had innovation back then as well. But by all accounts very little of it and very slowly. Today we think of innovation in terms of from the cassette to the iPod in 30 years or so!

I think that’s probably a good point to wrap up. Thanks so much. Could you play us out with that last Ap Huw piece you mentioned?
So this piece is called y Ddigan y Droell in Welsh, this has been translated as “Erddigan [a type of tune] of the spindle-whorl”, something that goes round and round. There’s no immediately discernible measure pattern in this because the chords are too different – that could be why it’s considered to be a more modern piece to the others in the manuscript…[music, translation by Peter Greenhill].

Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art interview series is funded through the Arts Council Deis Recording and Publication Award

Selected links from the interview