The Irish were and are famous for their skill on the harp. The harp is Ireland’s national symbol and became so by decree of King Henry VIII, when it was also featured on Irish coinage.
The early modern harp used by the Irish would have been smaller than modern versions used in concerts today. It would have been made of highly decorated wood with wire strings.
A representative example from the period is the famous “Brian Boru” harp now held at Trinity College, Dublin. In the woodcuts to John Derricke’s Image of Irelande (1581), a harp is pictured being played to accompany a singer or reciter of poetry at a native Irish lord’s feast. An audio sample of a wire-stringed harp (featuring Patrick Ball playing a composition by the eighteenth-century composer Carolan), can be found here.
Music was clearly played at Kilcolman. A lute-key that may be contemporary with Spenser’s occupation of the castle was found in the excavations of the 1990s (see Ground Floor Parlor: Lute). As a local lord, Spenser could well have had native musicians play music for him on various instruments, including the harp. Spenser’s granddaughter, Catherine, married Ludovicus O’Cahill, son of Daniel Duffe O’Cahill, the harper of Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I of Great Britain.
In his View of the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596), Spenser’s spokesman Irenius complains of how unruly young Irishmen are incited to violent, disruptive deeds by heroic poetry in Irish. Their bards praise those whose “music was not the harp nor lays of love, but the cries of people and clashing of armour” (View 75).
In the House of Pride episode in Book I of The Faerie Queene (1590), the sinfully proud queen Lucifera has at her court “many Bardes, that to the trembling chord/ Can tune their timely voices cunningly” (FQ I.v.3.6-7), which may be a reference to the harp.
In his poem “The Ruines of Time,” included in his collection Complaints (1591), Spenser’s speaker in a dream vision sees “th’Harpe of Philisides now dead,” “stroong all with siluer twyne,/ And made of golde and costlie yuorie,” come floating down the “Lee.” The harp is also compared to that of Orpheus, who tamed “Wylde beasts and forrests“ with it (“The Ruines of Time” 603-9; see also Rivers).
In the allegory, “Philisides” is the great Protestant hero Sir Philip Sidney (d. 1586), and the “Lee” may or may not refer to the river of that name in Munster (it could also be the “lea” or bank of the river). We might therefore see this dream-vision as Spenser’s nostalgic fantasy, meant to inspire Sidney-type heroes to once again tame Irish “wylde beasts and forrests” with their poetry and heroic deeds.
James Neil Brown, “Orpheus.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 519-20.
Ann Buckley, “Representations of musicians in John Derricke’s ’The image of Irelande’ (1581),” Music, Words, and Images: Essays in Honour of Koraljka Kos. Ed. Vjera Katalinić and Zdravko Blažeković (Zagreb: Croatian Musicological Society, 1999), 77–91.
Emily Cullen, Meanings and Cultural Functions of the Irish Harp as Trope, Icon and Instrument: The Construction of an Irish Self-Image (PhD thesis, National University of Ireland-Galway, 2008).
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012): 410.
Christopher Smith, “Gaelic and European Interactions on Ireland’s Harmonic Frontiers.” Dublin and the Pale in the Renaissance, c. 1540-1660. Ed. Michael Potterton and Thomas Herron (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010), 251-66.
http://www.irishharp.org/ [accessed 10/30/12]
[Historical Harp Society of Ireland]
http://www.folger.edu/Content/Whats-On/Folger-Exhibitions/Past-Exhibitions/Noyses-Sounds-and-Sweet-Aires/ [accessed 2/22/16]
[Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit on music]