CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > Dulcimers in Southern Ireland

Early references

The question of whether or not there was a dulcimer in mediaeval Ireland is discussed in Chapter 7, and there the various points of view are considered, along with a summary of the evidence. Since that evidence is essentially negative, this section will deal with only more positive sources.

The first reference is that of W.K. Sullivan, in his introduction (vol. i) to O'Curry's monumental work on Manners & Customs, 1873. He described the English dulcimer, and then says that "A Dulcimer of this kind, having iron or steel strings, was to be seen in Ireland down to within the last few years"; the instrument was described as

"triangular, and had about 50 wire strings, which passed over two bridges at each end; the longest strings, which were doubled, were about a yard long, the shorter about half that length. When played it was placed on a table or stand before the performers, who struck the strings with a little iron rod held in each hand" (36).

Before we can accept this as eye-witness evidence, we must recall that those expressions which sound a little out of character with other life situations are the same as Grassineau used in his 1740 dictionary: triangular shape, bridges at the ends instead of one being near the middle, the longest strings doubled, and irons rods as hammers. The mention of iron strings is also rather in isolation, for these seem to have been superseded by steel everywhere else by 1800 or a little after; but we cannot discount the possibility that Grassineau's account was selected because it happened to describe the situation as Sullivan saw it, and that to it he added a few other observations which Grassineau had not expressed, viz. the iron strings and the use of a stand as an alternative to a table. In connection with the suggestion that the dulcimer is indigenous in Ireland, it is perhaps significant to note that this reference, the earliest which indisputably concerns the instrument, gives an English model for the Irish type, and draws its description from the secondary concoctions of a Frenchman.