Think Ireland. One of the iconic images that springs to mind for some people is that of a harp. What people don’t often consider is that this instrument had to occasionally fight to keep its melodious music and graceful shape weaved into the tumultuous fabric of Irish history.
Many of the early harpers were employed by aristocratic Gaelic families that descended from the powerful clans and tribes of Ireland, and had a set income as household staff members. In 1607 many of these families left the North of Ireland hastily, their reasoning is debated from English exile to religious persecution. Their sudden migration to Europe made way for the Plantation of Ireland, a period when the English monarchy transplanted families from Scotland and England to colonize the Northern part of the country. The Gaelic, primarily Catholic, families that were left behind were soon overthrown by the Protestant newcomers. This event was known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’ and the following Plantation is considered by many in Northern Ireland to be the original source of much turmoil today.
While some harpers followed their families to Europe, others decided to remain in Ireland and began performing as itinerant musicians, meaning they traveled from house to house and played their music to earn an unstable living. One of the most well-known itinerant harpers was Turlough O’Carolan, a blind musician who developed many different composing styles that varied depending on his patrons’ politics, age and status. His music is still performed today thanks to an effort to save the songs of the itinerant tradition, as well as many ancient tunes passed down through generations. In 1792 the Belfast Reading Society, later the Linen Hall Library, decided to hold the Belfast Harp Assembly drawing harpers from around Ireland to play the oldest known tunes for money prizes. Edward Bunting was commissioned to transcribe all of the songs that were performed and later published his collection in a book called The Ancient Music of Ireland.
Harp societies sprang up in Belfast and Dublin due to this new fascination with harp music and it began to morph into something more than a musical instrument alongside a rumble of rebellion. The harp was reclaimed and transformed into a national symbol and literary metaphor for Ireland by Irish nationalists because of its link to ascendency and the old Gaelic families that once ruled Ireland. Inspired by the French and American revolutions, the 1798 rebellion began and Volunteers placed the image of the harp on their flags and banners to unite against English rule. While there had been previous smaller insurgencies, the 1798 rebellion was the first major failed uprising. To many today the flags and images from ’98 are still poignant symbols of revolution.
Irish Harper Lucy Kerr
Lucy Kerr is a professional Irish Harper, a position that until recently was in decline along with many other aspects of Irish culture. She was a student of Dr. Janet Harbison, who founded the Belfast Harp Orchestra in 1992, which gave young musicians around Ireland the opportunity to travel, learn and perform. Dr. Harbison has since founded the Irish Harp Center in Limerick and still works to regenerate interest in the Irish Harp. Lucy’s stellar performances around Northern Ireland, both solo and in groups such as Sheelin, stimulate both pride and interest in this graceful instrument with a powerful past.