Top part of a celtic harp instrument.

Also known as the Irish harp, folk harp or lever harp, the Celtic harp is indigenous to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany. This triangular wire-strung musical instrument requires long practice and great skill to be played. Often associated with the Gaelic ruling class, the instrument is known as clairseach in Irish, telyn in Welsh, clarsach in Scottish and telenn in Breton. Quite like traditional Celtic music, the Celtic harp too brings to mind the bonny green isles that it has emerged from. At the first utterance of the word harp, most people picture the large, decorative classical pedal harps that accompany symphony orchestras.

Folk Harp Method by Hal Leonard

The folk harp or lever harp is so called because the mechanism that allows its keys to be changed are facilitated via levers that are attached to the harp and pushed against strings to make them short and sharp. Whether classical or pedal, these harps usually make use of pedals instead of levers to change keys. The pedal mechanism is quite complex, wherein the pedals are pushed to move the discs situated at the top of the instrument, as this allows the strings to be shortened and sharpened. Available in a variety of sizes, from tiny lap harps to full-sized floor harps, lever harps are lighter and more portable. Pedal harps on the other hand are known to play accidentals more easily as they allow a harpist to change keys more quickly.

Celtic Harp Instrument
Maedoc book cover, an early depiction of the Celtic harp in Ireland ca. 1100 AD
Source: Wikipedia[1]
The Celtic harp is closely associated with Celtic culture, both medieval and modern. It is one of the oldest musical instruments known to mankind and can be traced back to thousands of years. Understandably so, it has played an important role in the society, culture, politics and religion of Celtic people and continues to do so even today.

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History of the Celtic Harp Instrument

The historical origins of the Celtic harp are still contested to this day. The first musical instrument associated with harping was popular in the Gaelic world and referred to as the cruit. While this term may have described a different stringed instrument from the period, it has been suggested that the Irish term clairseach or Scottish term clarsach was coined to define a triangular harp instrument that eventually replaced the ancient cruit.

Three of the four oldest harps to survive till date are of Gaelic origin. These include the Trinity College Harp that has been preserved at Trinity College Dublin, the Lamont Harp and Queen Mary Harp that are situated in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. The second and third are both made from hornbeam and examples of the small, low-headed harp. They can all be dated to the 15th century and were in all likelihood made in Argyll in Scotland. The origins of several Irish harps from later periods remain unknown and could possibly be of Scottish origin. Early pictures of the clarsach are rare in Scotland though a gravestone in Argyllshire, dating 1500, depicts one with Celtic designs and an unusually large soundbox.

Types of Harps

Pedal Harp

Tall and elegant pedal harps have ornate pillars and flaring bases. Such a harp instrument is an impressive sight, which is probably why it overshadows the appearance of its smaller, humble cousins. Today, most pedal harps are designed in the same manner though certain elements, including colour, materials and range of strings obviously vary. Yet, the primary thing that binds them together is the mechanism in which their keys are changed.

There are two types of pedal mechanisms – single action and double action. While the former allows each string to be played in only two positions, the latter offers more flexibility with each string being played in three positions. The grand pedal harp, often used at concerts, typically comes with a range of 47 strings, covering more than six octaves. It is considerably larger and heavier than even the large-sized lever harps, which usually have 34 or 38 strings.

Celtic Harp, Lever Harp, Folk Harp or Gothic Harp

These names are often used interchangeably even though they may have minute differences. For instance, Gothic harps have a thinner soundboard and are a lot narrower in comparison to Celtic harps that are typically low-headed and rounder. The term folk harp is often used to describe any non-pedal harp, especially if it is native to a particular culture.

Wire Harp

Wire harps are also referred to as Gaelic harps or clarsachs and they require fairly robust construction. The technique used in wire harps is rather unique, requiring an intricate system of damping certain strings while allowing others to ring. While most wire harpists make use of their fingernails to play the instrument, finger pads can also be used for the same. With its characteristic bell-like sound, wire harps are particularly well suited for Celtic music.

Cross-strung Harp

These harps have two rows of strings arranged at angles that allow them to cross over one another. This fully chromatic harp has one row of strings bearing the natural notes and another row bearing the flat and sharp notes.

List of Notable Celtic Harp Instrument Players

Patrick Byrne Harpist
Photograph of Patrick Byrne from 1845
Source: Wikipedia[2]
  • Celso Duarte – Paraguay
  • Geraldine McMahon – England
  • Corrina Hewat – Scotland
  • Rachel Hair – Scotland
  • Mary Macmaster – Scotland
  • Patsy Seddon – Scotland
  • Savourna Stevenson – Scotland
  • Robin Huw Bowen – Wales
  • Cheryl Ann Fulton – Indiana
  • Angharad James – Wales
  • Siân James – Wales
  • Siobhan Owen – Australia
  • Nansi Richards Jones – Wales
  • Moya Brennan – Ireland
  • Patrick Byrne – Ireland
  • Máire Ní Chathasaigh – Ireland
  • Cearbhall Óg Ó Dálaigh – Ireland
  • Rüdiger Oppermann – Germany
  • Fulgencio Aquino – Venezuela
  • Hugo Blanco – Venezuela
  • Ignacio Ventura Figueredo – Venezuela
  • Juan Vicente Torrealba – Venezuela


  1. Irish harp-Maedoc” by Sea horn at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Lumu.. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.
  2. David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson – Patrick Byrne, about 1794 – 1863. Irish Harpist – Google Art Project” by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (1821 – 1848) (Scottish) (Details of artist on Google Art Project) – SAFkW7jbQ5oZHQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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