Harp making has a long history on the island of Ireland, going back over a thousand years. A specialist craft which was often passed down within generations of the same family, it was steeped in tradition. While that tradition is long, carrying through to the present day, there were real fears that the art was dying out at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Famously, the Belfast Harpers Assembly of July 1792 brought harp playing to wider attention in Irish society. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1808 when a dedicated Belfast Harp Society was founded, with a similar body founded in Dublin the following year. While both were relatively short-lived, one man was instrumental to the success of both organisations, John Egan.
Egan began his working life as an apprentice to a blacksmith before a chance encounter with a French pedal harp left him ‘transfixed by its beauty and intrigued by its mechanisms’. Intensely studying the instrument, Egan decided to recreate his own, becoming a harp maker in 1797. Soon recognised as a leading harp maker in Ireland, Egan constructed around 2000 harps in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Described by the Belfast Commercial Chronicle in 1809 as a self-taught artist of ‘great ingenuity’, Egan made harps of the highest quality and was sought out by many famous people of the day. His clientele included novelist Lady Morgan, poet, Thomas Moore, and the Duchess of Richmond, wife of Charles Lennox, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In 1821 Egan’s prestige was solidified when he was bestowed the Royal Warrant by the King along with the title of ‘Harp Maker to George IV and the Royal Family’.
Today, Egan harps are preserved in over forty museums in sixteen different countries worldwide, including the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and our own Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum. Donated to the Lisburn Museum in 2001 by Mr F.S. Napier, the 200 year old harp was last owned by his great aunt, Miss Maud Hunter. Miss Hunter, a harp teacher, was also the organist at Seymour Street Methodist Church. Currently on display in Assembly Rooms on the first floor of the museum, the harp was restored thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and is free to view by the public.
The Egan Irish Harps, Tradition, Patrons and Players, by Nancy Hurrell.
Lisburn, Past and Present – People, Places and Things, by John Scott Hanna and Frederick Gilbert Watson.