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Ireland’s Harp

Erick Falc’her-Poyroux
p. 165-166
Référence(s) :

Mary Louise O’Donnell, Ireland’s Harp: The Shaping of Irish Identity c.1770 to 1880, Dublin, UCD Press, 2014, x + 162 p., ISBN 978 1 906359 86 7.

Texte intégral

1This collection of research articles on extremely varied topics examines different aspects of the history of the harp during the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the instrument came to be a major signifier of Ireland and Irishness. It is richly illustrated with two sets of 8 pages in colour, and additional black and white documents inserted in the text, and also includes an index of names.

2Mary Louise O’Donnell, the author, is a harp player and a researcher with a respectable list of publications on Irish music to her credit, and a PhD from the University of Limerick under the supervision of Prof. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, presented in 2009.

3The achievement of this book in placing Irish music in context cannot be over-stated: in one single volume, the author manages to cover more than 150 years of the history of harps in Ireland, from musical, iconographic and symbolic points of view. Mary Louise O’Donnell suggests that the harp became detached from its Gaelic tradition as it became linked to Protestant nationalism and gradually evolved into a symbol of colonial heritage, an idea reiterated throughout the book. The main thesis of the author, linking Irish politics and music and considered at length in the first chapter, leads the author to posit that the harp was “employed as an iconographic and metaphoric tool of the coloniser”, losing its musical voice in the process, in favour of an iconographic and metaphoric voice. An important portion of the book is also devoted to the musical and commercial innovations proposed by John Egan, the 19th-century harp-maker who, almost single-handedly, managed to modernise the harp in Ireland and save it from oblivion. Several other chapters deal with emblematic figures such as 19th-century harpers Patrick Byrne and Matthew Walls, with George IV’s visit to Ireland in 1821, or with Daniel O’Connell’s use of the harp and harpers from 1829 on.

4Still, some questions remain after reading this book : the issue of continuity and change in particular, and what Mary Louise O’Donnell means exactly by “Irish harp”, has been analysed in detail by Siobhán Armstrong in a long review in the Journal of Music, and it will not be necessary to underline here again the limitations of this study in this regard. I am however more concerned with analyses based on the idea that “From the fifteenth century onwards […] various decrees were issued to execute harpers and destroy their instruments”, when recent research has shown that such a vision was mostly a 20th-century nationalist construct and re-writing of Irish history.

5But overall, the idea of the book, i.e. to explain why and how “the harp’s metaphoric significance eclipsed its musical one”, is an excellent one, even if not completely achieved, and there is undoubtedly room for many more volumes on the links between politics and music in 19th-century Ireland.

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Référence papier

Erick Falc’her-Poyroux, « Ireland’s Harp », Études irlandaises, 40-2 | 2015, 165-166.

Référence électronique

Erick Falc’her-Poyroux, « Ireland’s Harp », Études irlandaises [En ligne], 40-2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 19 janvier 2018. URL :

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Erick Falc’her-Poyroux

Université de Nantes

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