Knowing about na comhluighe, but not using it?

Patrick Byrne explained to the collector, John Bell, about the unison strings on a Gaelic harp which are called na comhluighe, or the sister strings:

The open on the bass string of the Violin is one of the Sisters on the harp. The next string below on the harp and it, were tuned in unison, for which reason they were called the sisters. These two unison notes are sometimes called, and in ancient times were called, Ne Cawlee – or the companions. Afterwards they were called the Sisters.
The harp is tuned to the Sister note

(John Bell’s Notebook, cited in Henry George Farmer, ‘Some Notes on the Irish Harp’ Music & Letters vol. XXIV, April 1943)

But did Byrne actually use na comhluige on his own harp?

I have been collating descriptions and information about the big Egan Society harps. Nancy Hurrell has listed six extant examples, and all are pretty much the same dimensions and the same string count (37). She dates them from c.1821 for the earliest, through to c.1825-9 for the latest. Two are in the National Museum of Ireland, one is in Enniskillen Castle Museum, one is in Cambridge University’s museum collections, and two are in private ownership, one in France and one in the USA.

I only have a complete set of string lengths from one of them, the one in the USA which originally belonged to Patrick Byrne, and which was measured by Ann and Charlie Heymann in 2011. This harp is severely damaged and repaired, so these lengths may be shorter than as built.

My Egan harp stringing PDF lines up four harps for which we are given lengths, gauges, or notes. The first is no.1933, now in the National Museum of Ireland, but owned and measured by R.B. Armstrong in 1904. The second is Byrne’s, measured by Ann and Charlie Heymann in 2011, and supplemented by an account of string gauges dictated by Byrne in around 1840.

The third is a harp owned by a magazine author writing under the pen-name “Ixion”, who describes string length, gauges and tuning; the fourth is a list of string gauges from Patrick Murney, one of the Belfast Irish Harp Society students.

There are some inconsistencies in their testimonies. Though all six harps listed by Nancy Hurrell have 37 string positions, (including no.1933 and Patrick Byrne’s), both Ixion and Patrick Murney describe only 36 strings. It’s possible they left the highest position unused; Patrick Byrne seems to have left the highest 3 on his harp unused. Ixion describes a tuning from bass GG up to high g”’, whereas Armstrong describes a tuning two notes higher, up to b”’. This raises the great question, how might Murney and Byrne have tuned their harps? We don’t have note lists from either of them. Ixion gives the length of each G string, and it seems clear from matching his lengths that he did not have na comhluighe on his harp, that it was a straight diatonic run of 36 notes from GG up to g”’.

Patrick Murney’s gauges match Ixion’s pretty closely and I wonder if he used the same tuning, from GG up to g”’ without na comhluighe?

I plotted the string lengths of Byrne’s harp and I think that they would suit Armstrong’s pitches, with b”’ as the top note, at A440, though Ixion implies the earlier 19th century pitch standard may have been a little higher. The scaling is very straight right down through the tenor range, as we might expect from a 19th century “improving” pedal-harp maker. Ixion’s harp has longer trebles and he mentions the possibility of snapping problems there.

So, did Byrne use the same pitching as on Armstrong’s harp? This would suggest his highest note might have been f”’ (skipping the three highest positions for g”’ a”’ and b”’). But then, he couldn’t have had a continuous run down to bass GG, because there would be one string too few. Perhaps he had na comhluighe and a short bass octave, GG AA BB D E G.

Or, did Byrne tune his harp like Ixion, one note lower? So his highest string would be e”’, which seems to me to be a typical note for the highest string on an early Irish harp. And then, did he tune the harp with a continuous diatonic run, like Ixion, down to bass GG, without any unisons or gaps?

I collated all of the 1845 calotype photographs of Patrick Byrne, to try and count which strings his fingers were resting on. My Byrne hand positions PDF summarises the results, showing the fingers of each hand on the numbered strings (counting 4 as the highest and 37 as the lowest) and aligning this with three possible tunings: GG to f”’ with unison and two gaps; GG up to e”’ with unison and one gap, and GG up to e”’ without unison or gaps. The letters refer to my index of his portraits. In images c and e, his hands are not on the harp.


a. Side view full length wearing blanket, playing harp.
(this is the well-known portrait reproduced in RBA). For this image I shifted the neck so that the tuning pins lined up with the bass strings, and then used the pin positions to help me align and count all the strings. None of the portraits shows the off side of the harp, so the perspective makes it hard to correlate strings with pins. Most of the strings in this photo are clearly visible. His right hand rests on 31, 29, 27, and his left hand rests on 17, 15, 13, 10


b. 3/4 view, full length, wearing blanket and plaid, playing harp. On this image the strings are very clearly visible against the dark background, except in the high treble where they disappear. I tried to extrapolate the high string positions on the soundboard front, to guess at the alignment of the highest strings against the iron plate on the soundboard. His right hand rests on 28, 26, 24, and his left hand on 17, 16, 14, 13. I did wonder about the right hand fourth finger on 28, and whether the tip of it was on 29 instead, but on other photos you can clearly see he is reaching past the string with his finger, to place more on the pad with his right hand. His left hand is more on the tips.


In image c his hands are not on the strings.


d. side view, half length, wearing blanket and plaid, playing harp. On this image, the bass strings of the harp are not visible, so my numbering of the strings is less secure. I tried to correlate the strings next to the metal patch nailed  to the soundboard. This patch is no longer on the harp, and I can’t see the scars of it in my photos of the actual harp in its current restored state. I am assigning string numbers here based on my reconstruction of the high strings in image b. I did try to compare the soundboard decoration as well, but couldn’t really make it out enough. I could be one position out. If my allocation of string numbers is correct, his right hand is on 25, 23, 21, 18 and his left hand is on 16, 14, 12, 10


In image e his hands are not on the strings.


f. side view, full length, wearing evening suit, playing harp. I think this is my favourite of all the portraits. All the strings are visible, except the very few topmost ones which disappear into the shadow under the neck of the harp. His right hand fingers are on 30, 28, 26 and his left hand on 16, 14, 12, 9


g. 3/4 view, half length, wearing evening suit, playing harp. I don’t have a high-resolution digital image of this photograph, and so the strings and fingers are rather fuzzy in this reproduction. I think the lowest bass string is just visible. I used the tuning pin drives to align the strings as well, and I think I can count where his fingers are. If we could check a better reproduction we could be more certain about this one. As far as I can make out. his right hand seems to be on 31, 29, and perhaps 27; his left might be on 17, 15, 13, 10.


h. side view, full length, wearing blanket, playing harp, with jug in front. The strings are all about visible against the dark ground, though I used the tuning pin drives to help me align them. This image first gave me the idea of counting strings and fingers, since his right hand fourth finger is clearly resting on the lowest string of the harp. This image also demonstrates the way his fourth finger goes well past the bass string, hooking it with the finger pad, rather than pressing it with the finger tip, like we see in his left hand fingers in the treble. His right hand is on 37, 35, 33, and his right hand is on 23, 21, 19, 16.


It’s a shame we can’t see his right hand thumb except in one image (d), because of his right hand thumb-under hand position. This is an interesting contrast with his high left thumb.

There is also the UJA photograph printed in 1911 but I don’t have a good enough image of this to see if the strings are visible.

On my PDF summary I line up the three possible tunings and the list of finger positions for all these photographs. It seems to me that the hand positions don’t make sense if we assume he has na comhluighe; but if we assume he doesn’t have the unison, then the hand positions fall into simple chordal patterns, e.g. G B D [ ] / g’ b’ d’ g” (image f), or the same an octave lower (image h), or the same one note lower (images a and g).  These match the instructions Byrne gave for tuning,

Then you sound the G on the violin & B & D, and the octave above which is G which makes a common chord

Two of the photos show a different approach; image d shows his hands placed higher, in what seems (if we assume a straight run from GG up to g”’) to be a sequence e g b e’ / g’ b’ d” f”. And image b shows B d f [ ] / f’ g’ b’ c’, the only one to have consecutive notes in the left hand.

The high placing of the hands in image d makes me wonder about the interpersonal dynamic of the making of these images. Adamson, a St Andrews man, was the chemist and photographer, manipulating the camera and the paper and the photosensitive chemicals to produce the exposed images.  Hill was the artistic director, selecting subjects, posing them, and dressing the scene. I wonder if Hill asked Byrne just to place his hands on the harp as if to play, or if he would move the hands slightly up and down the range to get the image looking as he wanted, with an appropriate balance of gesture, form and line. If so, then Byrne may have had no musical intention in resting his fingers on these specific strings, and the whole exercise becomes kind of pointless.

But enough of the images (four out of six) show coherent octave-matching patterns, and two (a and g) have exactly the same positioning, to make me seriously think that we are seeing a harp without na comhluighe.

How then do we explain the quote given at the head of this article? Did Patrick Byrne know all about na comhluighe, and what it was, but simply choose not to use it? He talks in the past tense, “were…”, and he also refers to the singular “sister string”. Was his “improved” Irish harp, his French-pedal-harp style drooping hand position, and his employment by fashionable society, part of a development of the tradition that also discarded oddities like the unison tuning?

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