John Egan was the leading Irish harp maker, working in Dublin from 1801-1841. During his career he made more than two thousand harps becoming famous for his invention of the “Royal Portable harp.” Measuring three feet in height, its size was considered ideal for society ladies.
The harps were made in black, blue, green or sometimes left in plain wood. They were elaborately hand-painted with gold shamrocks. Inscriptions on the brass plates contained the royal warrant, the coat of arms of King George IV and Egan’s business address at 30 Dawson Street where he made harps from 1815 to 1835.
New harp construction
In 1807 the Belfast Harp Society was formed and re-formed in 1819, lasting to 1839. John Egan made the harps for the society. Egan’s early harps were wire strung with rounded - backed soundboxes, similar to Sebestien Erard’s pedal harps.
With his new invention, Egan cleverly combined the shape of the ancient Irish harp, the construction and mechanism of Erard harps, and the use of dital buttons, originally used on harp-lutes. Portable harps were gut strung, with the added invention of a fork mechanism. Instead of pedals the discs were activated by seven hand- operated ivory knobs or ditals on the inside of the column. These were attached to rods inside the column and connected to the discs in the neck. When a dital was engaged the corresponding discs for that pitch in each octave turned. Forks on the discs pinched the strings and raised the pitch. With his invention Egan cleverly combined the shape of the ancient Irish harp, the construction and mechanism of Erard harps, and the dital buttons used on harp-lutes.
The Royal Portable harp and the musical glasses were a passing fashion – their decline occurred due to worsening social conditions, the departure of many wealthy patrons from Ireland. The Egan’s harp’s demise was probably due to the collapse of the Belfast Harp Society in 1839 and that the dital mechanism was somewhat cumbersome. It was however suited to playing the songs of Thomas Moore, who was given a Royal Portable Harp by John Egan. Egan’s invention contributed greatly to the history of Irish music. As Thomas Moore once said, “The ordinary arts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.”