Ann Heymann

Ann Heymann









Strings of Gold

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Appendix: Selected Excerpts of Irish Metal String References

Of red gold [hór derg] were the strings of that tiompáin...

Aisling Oengusso (The Dream of Aengus),
a 8th-9th century tale in a 15th century manuscript

I will have a sweet-sounding crot made for you, to play to you, with a strap of findruine out of it...

Cáin Adamnáin (Canons of Adamnan),
a 15th century transcription of a 9th century copy of the Book of Raphoe

Cruit baoi irtig an tri téad... Téad diarann, teud dumha an, An ceadna darccod iomlán...

The household cruit was one of three strings... A string of iron, a string of noble bronze, and one of entire silver ...

Agallamh na Seanórach (Colloquy of the Ancients),
a 12th century tale surviving in the 15th century Book of Lismore

Æneis quoque utuntur chordis, non de corio factis

They play upon bronze strings rather than strings made of gut...

from Topographia Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis, c. 1185
English translation in C. Page, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages (1986), p.230

The women had a little tiompáin...with its strings of findruine...

Agallamh na Seanórach (Colloquy of the Ancients),
a 12th century tale surviving in the 15th century Book of Lismore

Give me my golden harp [chruit go n-or]
Said large-faced Daighre
Till I play it (a great deed)
To put everyone asleep...

Duanaire Finn, I.T.S. #28, c. 1200

His hair was like the glitter of a bronze [umha] string...

Giolla Brighde Albanachs Vision of Donnchadh Cairbreach Ó Briain,
an early 13th century poem

Crota di ór acas airged acas findruine, co n-delbaib n-athrac, acas én acas milcon foraib

Harps of gold, and silver, and findruine, with figures of serpents, and birds, and greyhounds upon them.

Táin Bo Fraich (The Driving of Fraich's Cattle), an 8th-9th century tale in a 14th century manuscript

(referring to a tiompáin) Only a bronze [uma] thread can close their lashes...

The Magauran manuscript, c. 14th century

No noble or lord ever got as good a harp [cruit] for playing
The golden-stringed [óir-téadach], useful woman...

In Praise of a Harp, c. 1640–50
in Dánta Phiarais Feiritéir, Pádraig Ó Duinnín (1934)

(On a bad harpers playing) Like copper [umha] being scraped with a brass [phrás] being cut with a file...

Saoi le searbhas Eoin mac Eoin (Master of Dissonance is Owen MacOwen),
a poem by Tadhg Rua Ó Conchubhair, c. 1670


Excerpts such as these may seem sufficient upon which to base an hypothesis of precious string use, but let us put one of them back into its original context:

...The story proceeds to tell us that: "He went southwards to his mother’s sister, that is to Boand, in the plain of Bregia; and she gave him fifty black-blue cloaks, whose colour was like the backs of cockchafers, each clod had four blue ears [or lappets]; and a brooch of red gold to each cloak. She gave him besides fifty splendid white shirts with fastenings of gold; and fifty shields of silver with borders of gold. She gave him a great hard spear, flaming like the candle of a royal house, to place in the hand of each man of his party, and fifty rings of burnished gold upon each spear, all of them set off with carbuncles, and their handles studded with precious stones. They would light up the plain the same as the glittering light of the sun. And she gave him fifty gold-hilted swords, and fifty soft-gray steeds, on which his men sat; all with bridle-bits of gold, with a crescent of gold and bells of silver on the neck of each steed of them. And they had fifty crimson saddles, with pendants of silver thread, and with buckles of gold and silver, and with wonderful fastenings upon them (the steeds); and their riders had fifty horse-switches of Findruine, with a crook of gold upon the head of each horse-switch, in their hands; and they had besides, seven grayhounds in chains of silver, and a ball of gold upon (the chain) between each pair of them. They wore shoes of red bronze (Cred-Uma); and there was no colour which approached them that they did not reflect it. They had seven trumpeters among them, with trumpets of gold and silver, wearing many coloured raiments. Their hair was light golden; and they had splendid white shirts upon them. There were three buffoons preceding the party with silver-gilt coronets upon their heads, and each carried a shield with emblematic carvings upon it; and crested heads, and ribs of red bronze in the centres of these shields; and there were three harpers (cruitire), each with the appearance of a king, both as to his dress, and his arms, and his steed".
Having arrived at Cruachan, the party were hospitably received, and entertained for several days. One day after dinner, king Ailill spoke to Fraech, and requested that the harps should be played for them; and the story then tells us that:
“This was the condition of these [harps]. There were harp-bags (crotbuilcc) of the skins of otters about them, ornamented with coral, (Partaing) with an ornamentation of gold and of silver over that, lined inside with snow-white roebuck skins; and these again overlaid with black-gray strips [of skin]; and linen cloths, as white as the swan’s coat, wrapped around the strings. Harps (Crota) of gold, and silver, and Findruine, with figures of serpents, and birds, and grayhounds upon them. These figures were made of gold and of silver. Accordingly as the strings vibrated [these figures] ran around the men. They [the harpers] played for them then, until twelve men of Ailill’s and Medb’s household died of crying and emotion.

(taken from Eugene O'Curry's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol. 3, pps. 219-222)

When seen in context, most of these appendix excerpts are mythical or poetic in nature and not grounded in historical reality. Despite current proof that viable music strings can be made of precious metals, our hypothesis for an ancient usage of such strings uses evidence such as that found in this appendix as only a part of its foundation and their historical existence and usage is only suggested.

Ann and Charlie Heymann 2003, 2004