The Irish Harp: Centre Stage

Early music specialist Siobhán Armstrong

The Irish Harp: Centre Stage

Our national instrument for a thousand years, the Irish harp has undergone an extraordinary renaissance over the last four decades, reaching new heights with Ireland’s hosting of the World Harp Congress in 2005. Harpist Aibhlín McCrann charts the accomplishments so far, and also sets down a vision for the future.

In many ways, 2005 was a pivotal year for the harp in Ireland. It was a period of unprecedented activity with more than 800 delegates visiting the World Harp Congress in Dublin in July to explore the multifaceted dimensions of the instrument. Coinciding with the Congress, a battery of concerts, workshops and events featuring the Irish harp took place, and a significant number of new recordings hit the stands. This sense of vibrance struck me even more forcibly as I sat with my harp at a session in mid August in Kruger Kavanagh’s pub in Dún Chaoin on the Dingle peninsula. The usual Sunday night intimate get together was presided over by fiddle player Feargal Mac Amhlaoibh and box player Aine Ceaist. What was different was that the thronged and normally noisy room was rapt, listening to the animated playing of not one, but nine young Breton harpers accompanied by bombarde. A stark contrast to my first visit to Kruger’s in 1973 when again, I sat humbly at my harp, in the august presence of sean-nós singer Seán de hÓra and a couple of local musicians, listening to de hÓra intone, in his distinctive style, the West Kerry song ‘Na Bearta Crua’. The presence of a harp – irreverently referred to as ‘the gate’ by one fiddle player of my acquaintance – was an unfamiliar, unexpected and barely tolerable presence at a session in those days.

How is it that the Irish harp, our acknowledged national instrument for more than one thousand years, and untouched even by the Riverdance revolution, is only now beginning to assume an authoritative voice and come to prominence? The development of the Irish harp to the point at where it stands today has undoubtedly been beleaguered by conflicting social and cultural stances of harpers themselves, other traditional musicians and various commentators. The efforts of the Ní Shé sisters, Mary O’Hara, Kathleen Watkins, Deirdre O’Callaghan, and the Castle players in the early sixties and seventies contributed greatly to the raising of public awareness of the harp. While they represented a certain genre of performance, and certainly developed a national identity for the instrument, it has taken many years to cast off the somewhat clichéd ‘Irish colleen’ image of a young girl posturing behind a harp, twinkling at captive audiences as she sings about Leprechauns and crocks of gold.

Combine that with an ongoing ideological argument that has raised such issues as: how ‘traditional’ the music is of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century harper composers; the dilemma that some harpers perceive between formal technical training and playing idiomatically in a traditional style; and the conviction held by many traditional musicians that learning ‘by ear’ is the only way to master the instrument. The most damning indictment was a comment made some years back that the Irish harp had yet to achieve its potential in comparison with other traditional instruments, and in the meantime ‘awaited its opportunity – in the wings’.

While I am reluctant to diminish either the breadth of current harp activity or its current impact by attempting to define its scope in any prescriptive way, it is possible, for the purposes of this account, to discern three distinct parallel strands among practitioners of the instrument at present: those who espouse the neo-classical tradition in its many forms; those who have come to the harp from a traditional music background; and finally those harpers following in the footsteps of the wire-strung harp tradition as espoused by harper Gráinne Yeats, internationally acclaimed early music specialist Siobhán Armstrong and Paul Dooley, a fiddle player, harper and harpmaker from Ennistymon, Co. Clare.

The Irish harp renaissance
The establishment of Cairde na Cruite (Friends of the Harp) in 1961 by a group imbued with a sense of commitment to Irish cultural self-identity, including people like former President Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh, Senator Mícheál Yeats and Eibhlín nic Chathailriabhaigh, a prominent Irish-language activist, was certainly a turning point in the revival of the Irish harp. Initially, there were as many non-harpers as harp players on its committee, as harpers then could be almost counted on one hand. Activity throughout those years, despite the many constraints imposed by paucity of funds and a lack of players and teachers, reflected the fundamental aims of Cairde na Cruite: promoting the Irish harp, encouraging harp tuition, and publishing harp music. One of its major projects was a tutor, comprising harpers’ tunes and newly commissioned pieces for Irish harp, published as The Irish Harp Book and edited by Sheila Larchet Cuthbert. This was an exciting departure as the only available repertoire for Irish harp at that time was classically based or adapted from the classical tradition. Notwithstanding that, one of my earlier memories as a young harper is playing an arrangement of a jig called ‘The Devil in Dublin’ by Wexford-based harpist Mercedes McGrath who could be numbered among the forerunners of arrangers of Irish dance music for Irish harp. Another much published arranger and teacher of this period was Nancy Calthorpe who taught for many years in the DIT College of Music. Cairde na Cruite has continued its publication policy, with Gráinne Yeats and Mercedes Garvey jointly editing five additional books, the Sounding Harps series, with plans for another volume well advanced.

Composer Seán Ó Riada had a significant impact on the harp’s renaissance in the 1960s, even though he made no secret of the fact that he considered the efforts of contemporary performers inadequate. He undoubtedly deserves considerable credit for awakening and stimulating public interest in the harpers’ repertoire and particularly that of Turlough Ó Cearbhalláin. Audiences responded enthusiastically to Ceoltóirí Chualann’s playing of harpers’ music – which was previously uncharted territory – while Ó Riada, although declining to recruit a harper to his group, attempted to emulate the sound of the wire-strung harp with the harpsichord. His solo harpsichord recording of Irish harpers’ music, Ó Riada’s Farewell, issued by Claddagh Records in 1972, while somewhat dated and rarely heard now, bears the hallmarks of somebody committed to rediscovering and revealing the richness of the ancient wire-strung harp heritage. In fact, Ó Riada went so far as to buy an old wire-strung harp which he allegedly expressed an interest in learning. Ó Riada’s exploration and interpretation of harpers’ music in the Bunting, Neale and Petrie collections, and his adaptation of the music for Ceoltóirí Chualann, represent significant milestones for harpers, as they were among the first examples of harpers’ repertoire to be recorded by non-harpers.

While Seán Ó Riada was pioneering his ensemble-based approach to the interpretation of Irish music and simultaneously engaging in animated discussion with commentators and musicologists on various aspects of traditional music – including the role of the harp – in his Radio Éireann series Our Musical Heritage, harper and scholar Gráinne Yeats, whose double-disc The Belfast Harp Festival 1792 (1992) has just been re-issued by Gael Linn, was researching and performing this original material on prototypes of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century instruments.

For many years, Gráinne was the sole Irish exponent of the ancient style of playing the wire-strung harp, playing instruments specially built for her by an American maker, Jay Witcher. This recording portrays an intensity of scholarship, an understanding of the Irish tradition and a deep-seated musical conviction, and was the first attempt by an Irish harper to recreate the extraordinary sound and idiom of the wire-strung harp. Derek Bell, the classically trained harper with the Chieftains and a musician of extraordinary talent and virtuosity, also exerted considerable influence during this time and stands as a beacon on the harp landscape, albeit within a very specific stylistic niche. His chair in the Chieftains line-up has subsequently been filled by harper Triona Marshall, one of the many excellent younger harpers on the scene.

The post Ó Riada years witnessed a further upsurge of interest in the harp. Groups like Clannad and Éamon de Buitléar’s Ceoltóirí Laighean, inspired by the Ó Riada legacy and the first traditional group to feature an Irish harp, were performing and touring. Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann, with whom founder members of Cairde na Cruite shared a somewhat tempestuous relationship due to deeply held philosophical differences of musical opinion, began to feature the harp at Fleadhanna Ceoil competitions. Audiences at a PanCeltic festival competition in Killarney around 1973 were electrified to hear a young harper from Cork, Máire Ní Chathasaigh, play jigs and reels on the Irish harp in a highly individualised style; a style which subsequently revolutionised and shaped the future direction of Irish harp playing into the twenty-first century. Máire Ní Chathasaigh is one of our most successful and original harpers and has since gone on to pave the way for the younger generation of players in her interpretation of all aspects of the music.

A new dynamism
So, more than thirty years later, the Irish harp has begun not only to assert its identity more boldly but also to create an exciting fresh dynamic in the interpretation of both its original repertoire, the dance music and traditional song, as well as venturing into other musical idioms. Tuning into the national airwaves these days, you are as likely to hear a jig or reel played on an Irish harp as on uilleann pipes or fiddle, something that has exciting implications for the future evolution of the harp in Irish music. With the onset of the Celtic Tiger and more favourable economic conditions, potential harpers have more disposable income to invest in a harp, which can cost anything up to five thousand euro. Harps are being built in Ireland and internationally to meet the growing demand for instruments nationally and abroad. In mainland Europe and America interest in harps, harp teaching and the music of the Irish harp has grown steadily, and harp schools, visited on a regular basis by Irish harper teachers, have been established in Japan, Denmark, Germany and the USA. As in other spheres of music, harpers playing today generally perform to a consistently high standard of excellence and are on a par technically and musically with any of their contemporaries performing on other mainstream traditional instruments. This has engendered not only a ‘feel good’ factor in harpers themselves, but has enhanced the stature of the instrument and its music among other traditional musicians with whom they play.

Musical partnerships as diverse as that of harper Cormac de Barra’s with singer Máire Ní Bhraonáin (ex Clannad) and rock star Hazel O’Connor show how effectively the Irish harp can engage with different genres. Anne Marie O’Farrell, a talented performer and contemporary composer in her own right, has pioneered a unique levering technique as well as integrating the classical and traditional idioms in her duo playing with Cormac de Barra.

Kathleen Loughnane has also demonstrated consistent innovation in her playing with the Galway based group Dordán, who have a long standing affinity with both the baroque tradition and Irish traditional music, while on the other hand, Copenhagen-based Helen Davies, in her association with composer and trumpet player Palle Mikkelborg, is pushing out the instrument’s boundaries, accentuating its Irish identity in a new and exciting sound. Sean-nós singer Pádraígín Ní Uallacháin has done considerable research into the harper tradition of Oirialla (or Oriel) in south-east Ulster, and not only sings harpers’ songs, but in her latest release, Áilleacht (Gael Linn), a collection of newly composed songs, has teamed up with both Helen Davies and Laoise Kelly in using the Irish harp to enhance and accentuate the music, revisiting in a tenuous way the ancient relationship between the harper and reacaire (reciter).

Composer Shaun Davey has given both gut- and wire-strung harps an opportunity to speak in his orchestral works. His suite Granuaile was written for guitar, uilleann pipes and harp while The Pilgrim features a wire-strung harp accompanying the narrator, echoing the ancient bardic relationship between the harper and poet. Davey has also composed a double concerto for wire-strung harp and concert harp which was premiered in Belfast in 1992 for the bicentenary of the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival. While none of these works has had the extent of box office success experienced by The Brendan Voyage and piper Liam Ó Floinn, all three works show Davey exploring the harp’s potential, as a solo instrument and within the orchestral context, to great effect. Harper-composer Cormac Cassidy has also used the Irish harp in the orchestral arena but in a more derivative way. While many other contemporary Irish composers have written for solo Irish harp, these pieces generally reflect a classical rather than ‘Irish’ approach.

Another positive development is that many harpers – as in the case of Máire Ní Chathasaigh, who began life as a piper, and Michael Rooney and Grainne Hambley, who are both firmly rooted in the concertina traditions – come to the harp already skilled in all aspects of the interpretation of traditional dance music. This familiarity with the genre is an undoubted advantage when the technical demands of playing a harp are taken into consideration. Remember too that it is only in the last thirty years that traditional harpers can actually hear harp music performed in a traditional style, where the harp may be the primary source of a tune and where the performer has already engaged in a process of adapting the tune to meet the confines imposed by the instrument. For instance, the ancient harpers utilised a sophisticated system of ornaments and figures unique to their instrument, which was brass strung and played with the finger nails. This style facilitated very fast runs and intricate ornamentation. It bears little resemblance, however, to standard traditional ornamentation, requiring harpers to be innovative and devise notation and figures suitable to a gut-strung harp, as well as a finger technique with which to play it.

Another point worth noting is that harpers, until relatively recently, and unlike their fiddle or uilleann pipes playing colleagues, did not have role models like the great fiddle players Johnny Doherty and Michael Coleman, or uilleann pipers Séamas Ennis and Willie Clancy, whose playing they could emulate. Of course, the music played by these musicians is accessible to all, but the challenge is adapting and arranging it within the confines of a harp while simultaneously sounding idiomatic. It wasn’t until players who came from a traditional-music background, such as Máire Ní Chathasaigh, began to engage with dance music on the harp, that conventional ornaments like rolls and cuts made the cross over. The big song airs pose similar challenges to harpers, which makes listening to singers and understanding the words of these songs an imperative, if they are to be performed with credibility. This is why summer schools, festivals and fleadhanna ceoil are essential to harpers, providing opportunities where they can perform and listen to one another as well as experiencing at first hand what other traditional musicians and singers are doing, thus improving the standard of their playing and gaining new repertoire. It is a pity, therefore, that the Willie Clancy Summer School has not to date perceived the need to establish a harp class during its summer school; which is even more strange when one considers that the links between the uilleann pipes and harp are so strong, as illustrated in the Goodman manuscripts, recently published as Tunes of the Munster Pipers (ITMA, 1998).

Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has also contributed to the resurgence of interest in the harp through including it in its workshop programmes, as well as featuring it in its tours and shows. In the past five years, younger harpers such as Seána Davy, a product of the Meath Harp School, and Limerick-born Michelle Mulcahy have come on stream, arranging tunes for themselves, playing with sureness and confidence and absorbing from the music around them, as opposed to mirroring the more established harpers.

Leading players and teachers
It will take further analysis before we can ascertain whether present-day harp playing is responding to regional influences such as might be found in fiddle or flute playing. There is no doubt that the playing of certain harpers has significantly influenced the direction of the Irish harp and the interpretation of its repertoire, rather than relating it to the idea of regional styles. Máire Ni Chathasaigh’s contribution, through her solo performances and duo playing with guitarist Chris Newman, her arranging of harpers’ music and dance music, and her inspirational teaching, was recognised with the TG4 Irish Traditional Musician of the Year Award in 2001 – a major step forward in the repositioning of the instrument within mainstream traditional music. Janet Harbison, founder of Cláirseoirí na hÉireann (Irish Harpers’ Association) and director of the Belfast Harp Orchestra, has taught many of this generation’s foremost players. A classically trained musician, she advocates that harpers be taught using primarily oral and aural methods, and believes that the techniques of harp playing represented by classical harp techniques have little or no relevance to the performance of Irish traditional music on the harp.

Nevertheless, there are undoubted indisputable advantages attached to an initial grounding in the classical forms. Harpers need to be able to read music to access the harper repertoire at its source in the eighteenth-century published collections. Being able to produce a good round sound on a harp owes a lot to a technical focus on tone production – part of a classical musician’s basic training. I am of the belief that all harpers should also play a fiddle, whistle or concertina so that they can gain insights into the musical structures and ornamentation of the tunes, on the instruments for which the tunes have been composed.

The only way to fully embrace any idiom is total immersion, through listening to other musicians and joining other musicians in playing the music. This again brings the spotlight firmly back on the value of summer schools, particularly where harpers have difficulties in finding teachers. Cláirseoirí na hÉireann runs a number of summer schools in different parts of Ireland, as well as ongoing tuition offered in its Limerick centre. Cairde na Cruite’s annual summer school, An Chúirt Chruitireachta, celebrates its twenty-first year in 2006 and is widely recognised as one of the foremost summer schools in the world, attracting students of all ages from all corners of the globe. One of its primary aims is not only to familiarise students with all aspects of harping styles and techniques, from the ancient harpers to the present day, but to expose students through focused classes, workshops and concerts to the foremost performers and teachers of harp, providing them with the mentoring and encouragement to continue playing a technically demanding instrument.

However, qualified competent teachers with experience and understanding of both Irish music and the ancient harpers’ tradition are still in short supply. Sourcing adequate teaching expertise is becoming more and more of a problem and has to be one of the single greatest challenges if we are to continue developing an indigenous Irish harping style. To date, the Colleges of Music, whose harp teachers are classically trained, and approach the teaching of the instrument from that perspective, have provided teaching of the highest level. Harpists such as Denise Kelly, Anne Marie O’Farrell and Cork-based Bonnie Shaljean straddle the contemporary, classical and Irish music repertoires. Áine Ní Dhubhghaill, one of our foremost performers, brings an interesting perspective to the harp in that she holds the main teaching post for harp in the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and has successfully integrated the Irish harp into the curriculum of an institution whose mission is to promote the teaching and performance of classical music forms. The RIAM is unique in that it provides a diploma course for potential teachers of Irish harp. In the past number of years, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick has offered a post-graduate qualification with a traditional music focus in which harpers can participate. Ann Jones, former harpist with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, also teaches the Irish harp and her Welsh background has provided a unique backdrop in an Irish context. While this overlap between the classical and traditional is beneficial in many ways, it could be said that their convergence has had a negative influence on the perception of the Irish harp. It is also unfortunate for harpers that this has sometimes sanitised the character and style of the music they play and perhaps explains the somewhat derisory attitude of other traditional musicians to the Irish harp in the past.

Interest in the wire-strung or early Irish harp has revived with the return to Ireland of internationally renowned early Irish harper Siobhán Armstrong. Apart from maintaining a busy professional career in early music, Siobhán has founded the Historical Harp Society of Ireland and a school for early Irish harp in Kilkenny.

Besides offering tuition in early Irish harp, the society has adopted a strategy of making affordable student copies of surviving instruments available to students. Its recent summer school saw students being offered measured copies of the fourteenth-century Trinity College harp built by master luthier David Kortier, who is based in the USA. Strung in brass and silver, it incorporates the ancient tuning methods of the original instrument. The society sees this exciting initiative as the best way for historical harpers to gain a practical knowledge of the early Irish harp and its music.

Siobhán’s first solo recording within the early Irish harp tradition, Cláirseach na hÉireann, where she is partnered by sean-nós singer Bríd Ní Mhaolchiaráin, was released in 2004 and consists of an eclectic collection of harpers’ music from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is the first recording to be heard on a facsimile copy of the Trinity College harp, accurate in every way, and strung in brass and 18 carat gold.

Paul Dooley has also developed a unique style of playing Irish dance music and harpers’ music, on a wire-strung harp which he has built himself. Paul’s most recent recording features six pieces from the oldest collection of harp music, the Ap Huw collection, which dates back to 1613 when Robert ap Huw, a young harper from Anglesey, copied transcripts of the ancient harp music of Wales. His manuscript is the only surviving fragment of the bardic music that once dominated the Celtic world. It is a thought-provoking recording and even more so by virtue of the fact that Dooley’s credentials stem from his background as a traditional fiddle player rather than through a more conventional harping path.

A national strategy for the Irish harp?
Looking to the harp’s future direction in Ireland in a constructive way, a number of elements require consideration. Provision of competent teachers is one of the pre-requisites for creating a confident harper community with a self-belief in the role it plays in traditional music. Equally, availability and an ability to invest in instruments can also be a constraint which can be overcome with the right kind of interventions. Cairde na Cruite operates a harp hire scheme where harps are hired to potential students for a limited period of time until they are sure that their interest is not a transient whim. The project is nothing like as ambitious as the Scottish Cumann na gClársach project; it owns several hundred harps and employs an administrator to organise and co-ordinate its activities.

Sourcing repertoire has become easier: the acceptance of the harp within mainstream traditional music has facilitated young harpers in learning tunes more readily within the oral tradition. Cairde na Cruite has been to the fore in publishing music and there are a growing number of harpers now publishing in their own right. The Irish Traditional Music Archive has assisted in playing a lead role at a research level: Dr Colette Moloney’s work on the Edward Bunting collection will be an invaluable resource for future generations of harpers, while Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Archive, is currently working on a re-issue of his 1986 edition of the John and William Neale collection, which was first published in 1724.

Harping in Ireland operates on the basis of volunteerism and is loosely connected with organisations such as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the various academic institutions. Harp schools like the Mullingar Harp School, run by Kim and Tracey Fleming, the O’Carolan Harp School in Nobber, Co Meath, a collaboration between Cairde na Cruite and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and the Clare Harp School, directed by Deirdre O’Brien Vaughan, generally manage on income generated from their student population.

Arts Council aid has been forthcoming in more recent times to assist these ventures; an encouraging acknowledgment of the work being done. Since the launch in 2004 of the Council’s policy document, Towards a Policy for the Traditional Arts, and with the appointment of Liz Doherty as Traditional Arts Specialist, considerable progress has been made both in clarifying Arts Council strategy and policies and creating an understanding of the requirements of the traditional arts. However, setting clear aims and objectives are essential if the harp is to achieve its potential. It is more than time for a national harp strategy to be put in place to assist the instrument’s development within a coherent, cohesive framework. The Arts Council, as part of its core traditional arts objectives, could begin to nurture a thoughtful discourse on the instrument and a vision could be developed for further expansion. Should the Arts Council decide to make this move, there should be consultation with all the partners. One major outcome could be to develop a national centre for the Irish harp – a one-stop shop, a focal point where performers, students and visitors could convene. This centre would have performance space for concerts, workshops and seminars; an exhibition space for the display of archival material and some of our historic instruments which are currently in storage in the National Museum; a fully stocked sound and print library; and a retail outlet where Irish-made harps, recordings and music could be sold. The idea offers limitless possibilities. Apart from fulfilling a need here in Ireland, it would be the foremost point of consultation for external audiences, who are always surprised that we have no central hub of activity anywhere in the country.

As I said at the outset, we are at a point where many strands of harping activity are emerging. It is time to act to harness this interest. The harp no longer sits ‘in the wings’. It has equal status on the stage with any of the body of instruments played in Ireland today. Perhaps we should look at what has been accomplished in Scotland, whose past mirrors that of Ireland. The Scottish revival parallels our own situation – the influence of the classical tradition entwined with a growing awareness of what traditional music and song offers. There are now hundreds of Clársach players in Scotland, who have benefited from their exposure to a classical training, but who are also confident in their own unique identity and who are bringing the harp to the highest innovative levels. While a lot has undoubtedly been accomplished in Ireland and awareness levels raised, it is clear that we still have a long way to go. Fulfilling that vision, while maintaining the Irish harp’s intrinsic integrity and identity, will be our challenge.

Published on 1 January 2006

Aibhlín McCrann has had a long association with the Irish harp, both as a performer and teacher. As secretary of Cairde na Cruite and director of its internationally acclaimed summer school, An Chúirt Chruitireachta, she has played a lead role in integrating the Irish harp with mainstream Irish traditional music. A music graduate of University College Dublin, she is currently a member of the Board of the Irish Traditional Music Archive. 

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