The Researcher’s Otherworld: A Dream of the ancient Irish Harp

It was that liminal time, just before the winter festival. The scribe had been working hard all week, painstakingly transcribing old legends, cherished myths, ancient documents, examining beautiful images and puzzling over antique words, sifting every sentence to winnow out the precious grains of truth from the chaff of idle speculation. As he took his rest, the music of the wind was like the strumming of a mighty lyre, the beat of the rain the pizzicato of a mystical psaltery, and sleep overpowered him with sweet, irresistible force…

Newgrange solstice

I found myself on the side of a mountain, by the entrance of a dark cave. From inside the cave came the sound of everlasting music, and as I entered, I heard two voices calling to me. “Cruit” said one; “Tiompán” said the other. The Dancers of the Centuries had made eight circles.

I followed the more noble voice to the higher path, and as it called again “Cruit“, I saw the tiny figure of a fairy musician, playing a lyre. It was too dark to see if the lyre had six strings or three, but as the musician’s hand strummed the strings, the lyre’s voice said once again “Krrt”.


Now I followed the ruder voice’s cry of “Tiompán” along the lower path, until I saw another magical musician playing a psaltery. In the darkness, I could not see if he plucked the wire strings with his fingers or with a quill, whether he played a melody with tiny hammers or beat out a rhythm like a drum. But I heard the sound of the psaltery’s voice, now as bright as gold “Ting!”  now as dull as iron “Bang!”.


The dancers made another three circles, A triangular form appeared before my eyes, but I could not tell what it was. Was this the new instrument the Bishop of Dublin had told me of?

Another circle, and an old man came to me, in the garb of a druid. “My name is Gerald”, he said to me in Latin, “and I come from Wales”.


I asked him to tell me more about the musicians of this lonely mountain. “They are more skilled than any other nation” he replied, “Their music is rapid and lively, although the sound is soft and pleasant”. And he told me more, about their “intricate multiple harmonies”. And he spoke a third time: “Along with the duller sound of the thicker string, they boldly play the tinklings of the thinner ones”.
However, my desire was to know more of their ancient instruments, which Gerald called cithara (I think this was the harp) and tympanum (which I could not see clearly, but seemed to be a lyre or psaltery with metal strings.) Was this tympanum my Lord Bishop’s instrument of six strings? 
But Gerald would not tell me which instrument had the metal strings, though I could see for myself, outside the cave, the three-sided form of a cithara, strung with the spun hairs of a horse’s tail, or with the dried entrails of a sheep or wolf.
The darkness of the cave withheld from me the secret knowledge of the ancients. The voices still cried out “cruit” and “tiompán“, but I could not see which instrument cried with which voice, unless they all answered: “cruit”. And the sacred instrument of three sides, with the voice of willow and wire I longed for, this was nowhere to be found amidst the mists of myths.  

To the music of time, the dancers made three more circles. And at the end of the fifteenth circle of the hundred years, my Lord, there appeared before my eyes a new harp of clear song, a board with its belly swollen like a woman with child, strung with thick wires of strong brass, of pure silver, even of finest gold! It played a strange music which I cannot describe in writing, that reminded me of the wail of the Scottish pipes, of the buzz of the Welsh telyn, of the mathematical music of bells, of monks chanting the canonical hours and of old women lamenting over their lost their sons. And I heard a new word: “Holy, holy, holy – cláirseach, clàrsach, clarsha” it called to me, in accents of the West, of the Islands, of the Highlands.


But the dance only lasted three circles until the music of the cláirseach died. Fiddlers from Italy, dancers from France, soldiers from England, all played faster, higher, stronger. Wise Men from the East summoned the cláirseach to Belfast, and poked around for it in the musical cave. Like surgeons, they drained its life-blood, transplanted it to the city, exchanged its wiry sinews for the insides of sheep…



And with this the scribe suddenly awoke from his dream-turned-nightmare. His visit to the Otherworld had lasted only a few moments, he was sure, but in the everyday world already the Winter Festival was over. Quickly, he scribbled down his speculations, for they did not contradict the hallowed documents he had studied the week before (his work had already been sent to be published in the codex of a Northern land). Of course, he could not prove that his visions were true, but perhaps some fellow scribes and musicians might recognise them …

On the first day of the new millenium, Music and the Celtic Otherworld by Karen Ralls MacLeod was published by Edinburgh University Press.

The Historical Irish Harp: Myths Demistified by Andrew Lawrence-King, Katerina Antonenko & Natalia O’ Shea will be published in a forthcoming issue of Studia Celto-Slavica.


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Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.


2 thoughts on “The Researcher’s Otherworld: A Dream of the ancient Irish Harp

  1. Pingback: Text, Rhythm, Action! Research, Training & Performance | Andrew Lawrence-King

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