How the Harp Was Invented

An Extract from “Ireland”

By Frank Delaney

Here in Ireland we've received most of our inner riches from Mother Nature. In olden days, the monks in the abbeys made art from natural matters. They were inspired by the sights they saw every day -- a rabbit leaving its burrow; a fox running across a hillside with its red brush of a tail streaming out behind it; a horse standing in a field, its back to the rain; a hawk making its point far up in the sky. And even their painting materials also came from the non-human world -- bird's feathers and colors from the earth.

So: all our expression, all our means of saying what's in our souls, came first from the universe that we see every day all around us, out under the air. We were not alone in this. For example, Man made his first music from blowing air through reed pipes and kept rhythm by tapping a stick on another stick.

But here in Ireland we made music from one very unusual source. It's our greatest musical instrument, it's very contrary to play and it had its roots in the sea. This is the story of how we invented -- the harp.

Once upon a time, before swans learned to swim and before bears wore fur coats, the wife of Breffni O'Rourke, a Sligo chieftain, liked to walk the sands at Rosses' Point. She enjoyed looking out over the Atlantic hoping to see whatever glories might lie far away to the west. As she walked she listened to the crawk of the gulls, the hiss of the tide, the ocean's hush.

One morning, however, she heard a new sound. It was strange and wondrous, it was a melody so tinkling and beautiful she thought she must capture it forever. She looked around to see where it came from -- but nobody walked near her, the sands stretched white and empty and she could not find the source of these harmonies.

It was all very peculiar. The noise grew louder and then fainter and then louder and then fainter. She asked herself, "What comes and goes, and then comes again and then goes again?" After a moment's thought, she found the answer rising in her brain -- the wind! The wind comes and goes, and comes again and goes again. So the Lady Breffni looked in the direction the wind was coming from and she found the source of the glittering tunes.

On the sands of Rosses' Point, near the original Coney Island, lay the beached carcass of a whale, high and white like a monument. The silver noises she heard came from the ribcage, where the sea breezes danced through the bones. For many minutes the lady stood and watched and listened to sounds that moved her to tears. She returned enthralled to her castle and immediately summoned her musicians who played every night at supper.

"Visit straightaway the sands at Rosses' Point," she instructed them, "and listen to the sound of the wind in the bones of the whale and then come back here and devise a means of making that music."

The musicians mounted their horses, rode off to the beach and dismounted by the carcass. They also found the sound enchanting and they spent hours there that day, scratching their heads, walking north, south, east and west of the white shape, trying to divine how the music was caused. What structures, they asked, what tensions would be needed to create something so lovely? Like scientists, somber and grave, they debated and they questioned and they considered.

On their return to the court, they began work immediately with Breffni O'Rourke's carpenter. Some weeks later they produced a very large, ponderous-looking, wooden instrument with long thin staves running from top to bottom across a frame curved like a whale's ribcage. They wheeled this contraption into the castle yard and, as good fortune would have it, the wind blew from the west that very day. To their great delight, their instrument made sounds even more beautiful than the carcass of the whale.

Next, they wheeled it around to the front door of the castle and sent a messenger to tell the lady her music was ready. She emerged at once and could hear the melody as she approached; in fact all the people in the castle turned out when they heard these heavenly notes. As they stood and listened, some people felt that a miracle had come to the great house of Breffni O'Rourke.

But -- there were two problems. First of all, this instrument was as big as a van and the lady pointed out that she could only listen to it in the open air; it wouldn't fit through the castle door and, like the rest of Ireland, Sligo isn't a place where you can listen to music out of doors all the year round. The second point she made -- it was now late afternoon and after a time, as the sun began to sink in the west, the wind dropped. And, of course, the music ceased. The Lady Breffni looked at the musicians and said, "Where's my music?"

They replied quite reasonably that the instrument only played when the wind blew, to which she said, "Then how am I going to hear it when we sit to dine?"

The musicians looked at the carpenter and the carpenter looked at the musicians.

"Place it in the yard outside an open window of the dining-hall," suggested the carpenter, trying to solve two problems at once.

"But the wind may not always blow through that corner of the yard," answered the lady. "And if it does, it'll make the room too cold to sit in."

One of the musicians said, "Perhaps if the carpenter were to make some bellows, like a blacksmith uses for blowing on the fire?"

"I don't want a blacksmith's bellows inside or outside the banqueting hall," said the Lady Breffni. "Are you all dolts or something?" She was cross by now.

A child wandered forward, a boy of nine or so, blond and inquisitive. He leaned in to look at the great instrument, reached out to touch it and drew his fingers across the long, tall staves. But he pulled back his hand with an expression of distaste on his face.

"I'm surprised the wind wants to play this," he said.

He was the son of Lady Breffni's housekeeper and renowned in that house for his cleverness and powers of observation. The musicians knew him well because he spent a great deal of time listening to them and observing how they played; one of them had begun to teach him the whistle.

"What's wrong with it?" asked the carpenter.

The boy thought for a moment.

"It's too -- unfriendly," he said, after struggling to find the word. "These wooden bones -- they offer no welcome."

"And what would you find welcoming?" asked one of the musicians.

"Something easy, a supple thing," the boy said. "Something that would bend to the fingers. Then you wouldn't need the wind. Any of us could learn to play it."

"But how would that make music?" asked the carpenter.

"These don't make the music," said the boy, indicating the wooden slats. "The music is made down here, where the vibrations echo from the blown bones" - and he laid his hand on the broad frame of the instrument.

"He's perfectly right," said the musicians.

"And it could be a lot smaller," said the boy, "provided the box was deep enough to reverberate." They carried the huge instrument away, removed the wooden staves and replaced them with long strings of gut taken from the stomachs of cows and waxed with the grease of a goose. It took them no more than a few hours. They wheeled it back into the castle yard and that night, the Lady Breffni O'Rourke of Sligo sat down to dinner, listening to music that seemed even sweeter than that melody she had heard in the skeleton of a whale. Next day, they made a much smaller version and brought into the castle that very night. It was even sweeter than the first. And that, my friends, is how the harp was invented.

Did you know, by the way, that Ireland is the only nation on earth to have a musical instrument as its national symbol? Canada has the maple leaf; New Zealand has the silver fern; Scotland has the thistle; England has the rose; Wales has the leek; America has the eagle -- and Ireland has the harp.