• James Armstrong

Local craftsman creates replica of Bunworth Irish harp


Building scale replicas of ancient stringed instruments is more than a hobby for Vaudreuil-Dorion craftsman Gary Dover. It’s a passion. His most recent excursion into the mysterious world of Irish harps has resulted in his biggest endeavor to date – a replica of the Bunworth Irish harp. The Bunworth harp is the only original Irish harp known to exist outside of Ireland, currently residing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Challenge of recreating

“It was the technical challenge of creating a copy,” Dover replied when asked what had attracted him to this latest project. “I also like the story of the harp. It’s magical, never straightforward and it’s also a little bit frivolous.” This is Dover’s eighth harp. Last year, as reported in The Journal, he built a replica of the Trinity College Dublin lap harp that is considerably smaller than this endeavour. Harps, also known as clarsach, have been a symbol of Ireland for centuries.

Historical background

John Kelly built the Bunworth harp in 1734 according to the inscription on the instrument probably built in Baltydaniel. The instrument was commissioned and played by Reverend Charles Bunworth (1704-1772) a minister of the Church of Ireland at Buttevant, County Cork. He was well known for his interest in harpers and poets and amassed a collection of 15 early Irish harps.

“As the harpers died, they would leave him their instruments,” recounted Dover. Sadly, in his will, Bunworth instructed that his collection of harps be destroyed except for the one now known as the Bunworth harp. No one knows why Bunworth, a talented harper in his own right, would leave instructions in his will to destroy the collection.

“The Bunworth harp was created in County Cork not long after the Battle of the Boyne (July 1, 1690),” said Dover describing the period following the battle as one of extermination, ethnic and cultural cleansing. “Harpers were denied their craft because they were the carriers and keepers of the Irish oral tradition,” he noted. The Battle of the Boyne was fought near Drogheda a town on the River Boyne in the Kingdom of Ireland now known as the Republic of Ireland. The contest was between the deposed King James VII and II of Scotland, England and Ireland and the Dutch Prince William of Orange who had acceded to the Crowns of England and Scotland with his wife Mary in 1688. The result was a victory for William of Orange that ultimately aided the continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. “Essentially, the elite of Ireland sold out the country to the British enabling them to hold onto their lands and titles,” commented Dover.

A head above medieval harps

Standing six feet tall at its highest point, the Bunworth harp has 37 strings. The sound box of the original was carved out of a solid piece of willow. Dover, however, used eastern spruce for the replica’s sound box. He also used layers of wood rather than one solid piece. “A hollowed out solid piece of wood splits very easily because the grain is all running in one direction,” he said.

A defining feature of an Irish harp is its colourful decoration. Although the original Bunworth harp’s colours have faded, Dover has created a palette that he thinks is close to the original when it was new.

“A lot of science and research went into figuring out what the original colours were,” he said. The curlicue décor in the original disguises a sly joke – two snails pulling the crown of a free Ireland or Scotland. “The maker knew the crown was going nowhere,” chuckled Dover. The figurehead on the harp represents Queen Mary, the wife of James II of Ireland and England, the grandmother of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Stringing it all together

Stringing a harp is a highly technical task and takes time. Traditionally, Irish harps were strung with wire. As Dover described it, wrapping bronze wire with gold wire, or various combinations of wire and gut created different gauges of wire. In a harp the size of the Bunworth, the chance of the instrument exploding from not being able to withstand the tension of 37 strings was always a distinct possibility. In Dover’s estimation, an Irish harp the size of a Bunworth represents the height of technical achievement in ancient Irish harp building.

For a preview of the Bunworth Harp getting its final adjustments, see our Facebook page.

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