The harp and its music have long appeared as symbols of Ireland, and yet the instrument cannot be thought of nowadays as a traditional instrument, per se. The instrument has been around for millennia in almost every culture and has been an important feature of music in Ireland since at least the 12th century. The Welsh priest GIraldus Cambrensis, on his travels to Ireland in 1183, commented on the dexterity of the harpers, the liveliness of their music and the subtlety of their approach.

Within old Gaelic Ireland, its survival was only made possible through a form of sponsorship. Bards and harpers were under the patronage of chieftains and lords, and with the passing of that old order, the itinerant harper and his way of life became a thing of the past. A key link from that old world to the new was the pioneering work of collector Edward Bunting. In Belfast in 1792, a number of far-sighted individuals hosted a harp festival. All those who turned up got some money in return for playing. A dozen or so came to perform and, crucially, Bunting was employed to write down the music they played. This was probably the last meeting of that once noble profession, and the music played and preserved in notation over the few days that summer provided an invaluable link with the past.

In contrast with the metal strings and fingernail plucking favoured by the old school of playing, today’s traditional harpers mainly use nylon strings and play with the tips of the fingers. The harp has a range of four octaves and there are now hundreds of societies and schools of harp throughout the world - The Belfast Harp Orchestra is one such.


Prominent players include the late Derek Bell, Máire Ní Chathasaigh, Laoise Kelly and members of the Belfast Harp Orchestra


  • Máire Ní Chathasaigh

    Caitlín Ní Aedha / The Sport of the Chase

  • Laoise Kelly

    Carolan's Farewell

  • Belfast Harp Orchestra

    Carolan's Concerto