The Irish harp has for many years been a great symbol for Ireland. Although now it is probably seen by most as just the image on the back of our coins, or on government letters, it has an extensive history rooted behind it. Here we will explore some of the historical background surrounding the harp; from its heyday until its unfortunate decline. For hundreds of years (11th Century onwards), the bardic tradition flourished. Poets, Law-Makers, Storytellers and Musicians were all hired by Lords to serve them and their court. Training for a bard was at least seven years at specialist bardic schools.
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The bards were thought of very highly and it was considered that they possessed a divine art – not everybody had the ability to compose. Their rank in society was even reflected in the clothes they wore. The more colours worn by a person, the higher ranking they had. While peasants wore 1 colour, knights were donned with 5, but the bards sported 6 colours in their dress. Performance in the Lords’ houses would be music played by the musicians and the poets reciting the verse. Musicians at this time in Ireland had three types of tunes to perform: -Suantrai – To make people sleep -Goltrai – Make people mourn -Geantrai – Make people happy
At the turn of the 17th century, the bardic tradition in Ireland began to face issues as the bards had been banned under Elizabethan law in 1560 from entering any British homes. It was considered that they could well be spies, sent in under the cover of musicians, who would then report knowledge from within the British territory to the Irish. As a result of this, the Irish harpers had to begin travelling alone and accompanying themselves in performance, whenever they would be taken in for a period of time to a wealthy individual’s house. One such harper who lived like this was Turlough O’Carolan – born 1670 in Co Meath.
At age 14, he moved with his family to Carrick on Shannon for his father to work as
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a blacksmith for the MacDermot Roe family of Alderford House. Mrs MacDermot Roe took a great interest in Carolan and at 18 years of ages, when Carolan becomes blind due to smallpox, she sends him to a harp teacher. After only three years of training, Carolan was sent out as an itinerant harper, with the aid of a horse and a guide. The first port of call for Carolan was the house of George Reynolds in Co Leitrim, who gave him a push to start composing his own music. Reynolds told Carolan to compose about rivalry between faeries in the area.
Carolan composed ‘Sheebeg and Sheemore’ (Big Hill Little Hill). Carolan was treated with great hospitality everywhere he went and could write music for any occasion in the houses. Unlike other harpers at the time, he composed his music before composing his words. As Ireland was one of the main centres of baroque music at the time, it’s not surprising that Carolan was greatly influenced by composers such as Corelli and Geminiani. On one occasion where both Geminiani and Carolan were at service in Lord Mayo’s house, it is said that Geminiani challenged Carolan to a compositional challenge.
It is possible that ‘Carolan’s Concerto’ was a winning response to this. Seeing that there had been a great decline in interest in the old Irish harping tradition, between 1781 and 1785, James Duncan financed what were known as the ‘Granard Balls’. They were held in Granard Co Longford and were hoped to stem the decline in the harping tradition. Duncan based these events on the then popular Scottish Highland festivals. To entice harpers to attend, he offered monetary prizes for the best three players. Only seven harpers attended at its debut in 1781. Prizes that year were won by Charles Fanning, Arthur O’Neill and Rose Mooney.
The following year, attendance increased with nine harpers turning up to perform. The prizes however, were won again by the same people. At the third gathering in 1785, Fanning, O’Neill and Mooney yet again took the prizes; causing such uproar that Duncan refused to fund any more of the events. The Belfast Harp Festival was held 11th – 13th July 1792 at the Assembly Rooms in the Exchange in Belfast. Organised by Dr James MacDonnell, Henry Joy, Robert Simms and Robert Bradshaw; it was aimed hoped that this event would help to promote the harping tradition.
Unlike the previous events however, this time a musical scribe by the name of ‘Edward Bunting’ was hired to note down all of the traditional Irish tunes that were performed. An Irish Language Scholar was also asked to attend to transcribe the words, but didn’t show. Advertisements were put out in the ‘Belfast Newsletter’ urging harpers to attend. However, only ten harpers attended. These were: Daniel Black – Co Derry Charles Byrne – Co Leitrim William Carr – Co Armagh James Duncan – Co Down Charles Fanning – Co Cavan Denis Hempson – Co Derry Hugh Higgins – Co Armagh
Rose Mooney – Co Meath Arthur O’ Neill – Co Tyrone Patrick Quinn – Co Armagh Because of the arguments at the previous festivals in Co Longford, it was agreed that all harpers would be paid by their merit and all accommodation and travelling expenses would be reimbursed. The harpers played for three days with Bunting recording every note in his notebook. Ornamentation was not recorded by Bunting, although he did keep a list of the type of ornamentation that was used. He also didn’t record a repeat of a verse, although it might have been played differently.
The bass line of the harp was omitted from his notation for the most part – 10 tunes were documented with a bass line included. Only Irish music was allowed to be performed at the harp festival, which is an issue that may have affected some of the performers who were more used to playing other types of music. It certainly didn’t affect Fanning, O’Neill or Mooney however, as they took the top three prizes yet again. Notating at the Belfast Harp Festival must have given Bunting a taste for collecting the old Irish tunes, as he continued to do so for many years after.
The same year as notating at the Belfast Harp Festival, he was invited to Connaught by Richard Curwin to take down other tunes. He then toured Derry and Tyrone meeting up with musicians such as Denis Hempson on his travels. From his collections, Bunting published ‘A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music’ in 1796. Although the tunes notated in this publication had been taken down from being played on the harp, Bunting realised that there would be no money to be made in publishing music for the harp and instead had notated everything for the piano.
In 1802, Bunting completed an extensive tour of Connaught accompanied for 16 days by Patrick Lynch, who would take down the words (Bunting had no Irish). Lynch would set off ahead of Bunting to get the words and would be joined at a later date. Bunting spent the next 6 years compiling all of the music he had heard on this tour into his next publication. ‘A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland’ was published in 1809. This publication contained tunes both from the harp, but also from other instruments.
Again arranged for the piano – 77 tunes in total with 13 repeats from the previous collection. Bunting’s next release didn’t come until 1840. This was encouraged by Dr McDonall and George Petrie. Petrie gave Bunting 25 pieces towards the collection but Bunting only used 17. Bunting finally publishes ‘The Ancient Music of Ireland’ (Maybe he spent all the years thinking of the name! ) In this publication he discusses: The Method of Playing of the Old Irish Harpers Antiquity of the Harp and the Bagpipe Efforts to Revive the Harping Tradition Characteristics of Irish Melody
Anecdotes of the more Distinguished Harpers of the 17th & 18th Century Notes on the Pieces in the Collection The attempted revival of the Irish harping tradition was certainly not as successful as I would imagine was hoped. The lack in turnout of performers showed that the interest in the instrument was certainly fading out. However, if the attempts had not been made to try for the revival of the harp, Bunting would not have been asked to notate the tunes and as a result we may not have even any idea of melodies that had been passed down aurally throughout our history in Ireland.See More on Music