Plucking the strings of a traditional Irish harp in Vaudreuil-Dorion
PHOTO BY JAMES ARMSTRONG
A significant piece of Irish history came to life in a local home as Gary Dover demonstrated the sound of his recently completed replica of the Trinity College harp.
Harps and the art of harping are an integral part of Irish culture and history, particularly the traditional triangular medieval harp and Vaudreuil-Dorion resident Gary Dover built a strikingly beautiful copy of perhaps the oldest Irish harp in existence from ‘scratch.’ His reproduction follows closely the design of the harp preserved in the Long Room of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland that was the model for the Irish Coat of Arms. This Irish national symbol also appears on Irish currency and Euro coins. Frequently referred to as Gaelic or Celtic, this type of lap-held harp has been found in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
Crafting the instrument
Dover began roughing out the components in July 2017 for what became a brightly decorated instrument.
“The sounding box took the majority of that time,” he said, adding that the intricate carving on its exterior took most of the winter to complete. He explained the importance of using the right type of wood for the sound box that is made by hollowing out a solid piece of wood.
“There are three kinds of wood – willow, bass, and alder that were traditionally used because they are a medium density wood,” said Dover. In North America, the choice is either basswood or willow as alder comes from the United Kingdom. Dover opted to use basswood for his instrument.
Sound box strength
Narrow at the top and wide at the bottom, the box magnifies the sound produced by plucking or strumming the strings.
“They are all swamp trees and the fibres are medium density,” said Dover of the wood adding, “Everything Irish has legends and myths to it. In Ireland, the original harps were made from wood that was actually taken from the bogs. That’s not a lot of Irish malarkey.”
He described how willow or alder trees would fall into the bog and be preserved and cured by the natural acidity of the soil. “It makes the wood stronger. Their wood of choice would have been a piece of swamp-cured willow or alder. They would dig it out, dry it out and hollow it out,” he said. Measuring about 33 inches or 85 cm in length, it is an accurately-built instrument.
“Everything has to be precisely measured for the instrument to work,” he said.
Dover had to rely on specifications that were published in the 1960s for building the instrument. “It’s all mortise and tenon construction. No glue was used because that makes it too rigid,” said Dover describing how all the pieces were joined together. Mortise and tenon joints have been used by woodworkers for thousands of years to connect adjoining pieces of material at an angle of 90 degrees. He noted that, if necessary, the entire instrument could be dismantled and put back together should parts need repair or replacement.
The colourfully painted carvings on the instrument reproduce the form of the carvings on the Trinity College harp but the colour palette comes from Dover’s research and imagination as those on the original instrument have long-since faded away.
A bright beautiful sound burst from the instrument as he ran his fingers over the nylon strings.
“It will constantly require tuning during the first two years of its life,” he said pointing out the 30 strings exert more than 1500 pounds of pressure per square inch on the sound box causing it to change shape over time.
Although Dover has used nylon strings on the harp, he said the Irish harps traditionally used metal strings. The earliest strings would have been created from sheep or cattle gut and wound with silver or gold by a jeweler or other metal wire such as bronze. In Dover’s harp, each string is held in place by a knot and it took him more than 16 hours to install them. Each string is attached to a tuning peg that is used to adjust the tension on the string.
History and origins
“It has a long history,” said Dover regarding the iconic Trinity College harp. According to Musical Instruments, The Irish and the Highland Harps by Robert Bruce Armstrong published in 1904, “This harp, last played upon through the streets of Limerick in 1760 by a celebrated harper, Arthur O’Neill, although badly restored and deplorably tampered with, must always be an object of the deepest interest, not only to those of our time, but to future generations.”
The exact date of its construction is unknown but estimated to have been during the 15th century and is one of the oldest surviving Gaelic harps. Although it bears the coat of arms of the O’Neills, there is no verifiable evidence available to indicate the maker or other owners. William Conyngham, a member of the Irish House of Commons, presented it to Trinity College in 1782.
For Dover, the challenge of reproducing precise replicas of early stringed instruments is rewarding activity in his retirement.
“There’s a lot of detective work,” he said, describing how it was sometimes necessary to design and construct the necessary tools for the projects.
As for the destiny of his replica of the Trinity College harp, “It will remain in the family. It’s for my grandchildren,” he said with a chuckle.
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