The Coolnashanton Trumpet (Also known as the River Erne Horn)

Early Christian Heritage, The Fermanagh 100, The Objects

The Coolnashanton Trumpet is part of our Early Christian Heritage Section.  Its significance is explored by Richard Warner.

© National Museums Northern Ireland. Collection Ulster Museum

© National Museums Northern Ireland. Collection Ulster Museum

This bronze-bound, wooden trumpet was dredged, in 1959, from the bed of the River Erne and was found amongst the dredgings that had been dropped on the edge of the townland of Coolnashanton, opposite Cleenish. It owed its survival to its long immersion in the river mud, and thankfully it was well enough preserved to have retained its shape and its binding strips and is now, after conservation in the 1960s, almost perfect. It is made of yew, is almost straight (which is why it should be called a trumpet rather than a horn) and has a bronze mouthpiece. On one of the binding strips is a geometric pattern that we call a ‘triangular fret’. We find just that pattern in the border of a fully illustrated page in a Psalter, written and illustrated in about the 9th century at the monastery in Canterbury, in Kent. The illustration shows King David playing a sort of harp, and surrounded by musicians. Two of those musicians are playing trumpets identical to the Coolnashanton trumpet in every detail. There were close contacts between kings, churches and artists in England, Ireland and Scotland at this time, and although the Psalter is certainly Saxon its art shows much Irish influence. So whether our trumpet was Irish or English is immaterial – we know that identical trumpets were being played by musicians entertaining kings and bishops in Fermanagh and in Kent.

Sometime after the 9th century AD someone dropped this valuable musical instrument into one of the two main channels of the River Erne, flowing north along the eastern side of Cleenish island. It might be that the person was crossing the Erne on his way to or from the monastery on Cleenish, which was, according to tradition, founded in the 6th century, but according to the contemporary annals of Ulster was founded in AD 1100. Two stone crosses on the island signal the importance of the place in the 12th century. Whether the owner of the trumpet also perished we shall never know, but if he was a musician, as seems very likely, he would have been sorely missed. Music played a very important part in Early Medieval (Early Christian) society, particularly amongst the noble and clerical classes. It was important for entertainment – for instance at feasts – and for important events, for warfare, for religious ritual and much else. A musician was a person of status.

Richard Warner



Reproduction of the River Erne Horn or Psalter Horn

The Fermanagh 100, The Objects

Simon O’ Dwyer is one of the commissioned researchers for the River Erne Horn. Here Simon explains how he constructed a reproduction horn.

In 2008, having seen John Purser’s first reproduction of the River Erne horn we decided to go ahead and make another one. Though John had very kindly given us a copy of his drawing of the original, we wanted to have a look at the instrument ourselves. Fermanagh County Museum was very helpful allowing us close access to examine and measure the horn and also provided us with detailed close-up photographs. Getting an accurate measurement of the bell was difficult as the reconstruction which had been done in 1969 introduced an element of uncertainty.

Original River Erne Horn with drawings for new reproduction drawing. Copyright Simon O'Dwyer

Original River Erne Horn with drawings for new reproduction drawing. Copyright Simon O’Dwyer

All we could do was to take several measurements of cross sections and establish an average diameter. When an even cone was drawn from the mouthpiece along the length to the bell end it appeared to coincide with this. The next problem was finding a suitable piece of yew wood. We had to wait for more than a year until by good luck the Office of Public Works were cutting low lying branches from the ancient yew trees at Cong Abbey, Co. Mayo. They very kindly gave us some pieces. The maker of the original horn had split a piece of yew to carve the central core. Our piece was not clean enough to get an accurate split so we had it cut and halved with a band saw. This was the only mechanisation employed in the process. Using curved chisels from Poland it was then possible to carve out each half. The wood was surprisingly handy to carve and good accuracy could be achieved with line of sight. Having completed the core as per the measurements it was a relatively simple matter to glue the halves together. The outside was then rasped down until it matched the core and the side walls had been brought to the required thickness.

Making the mouthpiece involved forming the shape in wax which was then cast into bronze by the Dublin Art Foundry. Cutting and fitting the bronze bands proved to be a relatively straightforward operation. However, there was a real problem during and after the manufacturing process of the horn as yew wood is very poisonous. Even though professional masks were worn during the wood working stage, it still caused breathing problems and heavy congestion for some days after completion.

Simon creating the reproduction. Copyright Simon O'Dwyer

Simon creating the reproduction. Copyright Simon O’Dwyer

In 2013, a second ‘River Erne’ or ‘Psalter’ horn was made to complete the pair and to facilitate recordings and performance with the The Choir of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge for the ‘In Praise of St. Columba’ CD. Yet again, though masks were worn and the utmost care was taken, the process of working with the yew wood caused sickness and breathing difficulty. Thankfully the pair of horns is now complete and they play beautifully.

Making second new River Erne Horn 2013. Copyright Simon O'Dwyer

Making second new River Erne Horn 2013. Copyright Simon O’Dwyer

It was fascinating to learn so much about wood working and instrument making methods that were employed in the Early Medieval period. The high level of ingenuity and expertise required was a great indication of how important the ‘River Erne’ horns were to those that originally made and played them.

Go to this link to hear the horns being played by purchasing a copy of the The Choir of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge for the ‘In Praise of St. Columba’ CD . The ‘River Erne’ horns are featured on track 3.

For other information and recordings go to and
Simon O’Dwyer, Ancient Music Ireland.