The First Harp

by Kate Murphy

We’re told that Mountsandel is the site of the earliest human habitation in Ireland but did you know that the first Irish harp was also made here.

There is a story about a man and his woman who lived there. He tried to please her but she wasn’t easy to please being, what you might call, somewhat carnaptious.

If he went hunting and dragged home a big boar, she would say, ‘Agh, I fancy a bit of salmon tonight.’  If he went up the river and caught a fine salmon, she might declare she was sick of fish and fancied a bit of bacon. 

One day, before the man had returned from hunting, the woman grew restless.  ‘I’d love some of those wee flat fish you get at the mouth of the great river,’ she said. ‘But sure you get nothing round here unless you go for it yourself!.’ She pulled a boat into the river – a light little thing, little more than a skin-covered basket. The neighbours remonstrated; women didn’t go fishing – it wasn’t done. But she ignored them and soon she was round the bend and out of sight.

When the man got back from hunting, he was horrified to hear what had happened. He grabbed another boat and set off after the woman. When he got to the mouth of the river there was a huge swell and the waves were crashing on the shore. He could no longer control his little craft which was picked up like an eggshell by a big wave, and tossed onto the beach, where the man lay with all the breath knocked out of him. He thought his woman would never have survived that but when he got his breath back, sat up and looked around, he saw the other boat lying down the beach a little way with his woman beside it.

As he made his way towards her, she opened her eyes and said, ‘Listen, do you hear those beautiful sounds?’  Only then did he notice that she was lying in the lee of the bleached carcass of a great whale. A few strands of sinews still clung across the ribs of the creature and when the wind blew through these they caught on the bones and played a series of haunting sounds the like of which the man had never heard before. The woman was delighted with the sounds.

When they got back to Mountsandel, the man cut down a willow tree from which he carved a harp shape. This he strung with animal sinews and learned to make melodies. And that is how the first Irish harp was made – on the banks of the Bann. They say the woman became the most even-tempered one in all of Ireland and she and her husband lived happily ever after and reared a large family all of whom played the harp!

It might be no coincidence that the blind harper, O’Hampsey who lived till he was 108 and is buried in Magilligan, also came from these parts.

Kate Murphy