The tradition of the early Celtic harp can be traced over one thousand years, but some of the earliest representations of the harps were found sculpted in stone in Scotland dating from the eighth or ninth century. Music was an important part of life in ancient Ireland, and harpers were honored above all other musicians. In social position the harper ranked at the top of the bo-aire class of nobility.
Early European writings span several hundred years and occasionally reference music which is now lost. Polydore Virgil, who lived in England the early part of the sixteenth century states “…that the Irish practice music, and are eminently skilled in it. Their performance, both vocal and instrumental, is exquisite, but so bold and impassioned, that it is amazing how they can observe the rules of their art amidst such rapid evolutions of the fingers and vibrations of the voice: and yet they do observe them to perfection.”
Because of their power in Ireland, harpers in Ireland began to be harassed by the English Crown in the early 1500’s and many were imprisoned as spies or executed. Queen Elizabeth issued a proclamation to Lord Barrymore in Ireland to “Hang harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments” in an attempt to gain control of Ireland. At the same time, she was enjoying Irish dances performed at her court in London by her harper. The power of the Irish princes was eroded away by increasing pressure form the English. This ended the patronage of Ireland’s harpers toward the end of the sixteenth century. Harpers, however, were not the only Irish treated with such hostility. In an attempt to gain control of Ireland, laws were enacted by the English Crown making it illegal for the Irish to speak their language, own land, become educated and to marry. The penalty was death.
Between 1650 and 1660 Oliver Cromwell ordered the destruction of harps and organs. Harps were burned and harpers were forbidden to congregate. Harpers and minstrels, who once entertained kings, were reduced to traveling from place to place and begging for a living where they could.
By the end of the 18th century traditional Irish harpers were nearly extinct. To preserve the old harping tradition, a festival was held in Belfast in July of 1792. All Irish harpers were invited to come and play. Prizes were offered for the three best, but no one was to go away empty-handed. Only ten Irish harpers and one Welsh harper showed up. The youngest was a boy of 15 years; the oldest was Denis Hempson, who was 97 years old. A young man by the name of Edward Bunting was commissioned to transcribe the songs played during the festival.
Dennis Hempson was the last of the old harpers who played with the harp on his left shoulder and used his nails to pluck the strings. In the late 18th century he was considered a relic of another time who played tunes so old and forgotten that they were unfamiliar to the other harpers. Hempson refused to play some of his tunes; “There is no use in doing so, they are too hard to learn, they revive painful recollections.” (Source https://www.harpmuse.com/harp-history)