On Saturday October 19th, Ireland celebrated its third annual National Harp Day. 

Harp is well known in Ireland and around the world. From Trinity College to Guinness, to the Government, the harp is a symbol of Ireland. Less well known, however, is the historic tradition of Irish harp music.

The Historical Harp Society of Ireland hosted a Discovery Day event at the Seamus Ennis Arts Centre aimed to help the public learn more about the ancient instrument of Ireland. 

The event began with a lecture about the history of the harp given by renowned historian Simon Chadwick. His talk, attended by approximately 60 people, explained the differences between the musical traditions of the brass-strung early Irish harp and the modern nylon-strung harp.

Simon Chadwick shared analysis of the physical and instrumental aspects of the historical harp, including details about the willow wood and metal strings used in construction. He connected the instrument to the rich cultural tradition of travelling harpers in Ireland, with brief histories of Aurthur O’Neill and other such influential musicians. 

He also discussed  the 1792 Belfast Harper Society festival, attended by O’Neill and ten other harpers. It was dedicated to the preservation of harp music, and Edward Bunting, who later went on to publish influential work on traditional Irish music, was tasked with transcribing the harpers’ songs. 

Both the 1792 festival and the 2019 National Harp Day had the same goal: the preservation of the harp musical tradition in Ireland. The parallels between the 18th century three-day festival and the present day three-part event are a clear tribute to the lasting influence of harp music on Irish culture and identity. 

Following the talk, there was a lovely lunchtime recital of 17th and 18th century harp songs and instrumental pieces, performed by harper Siobhan Armstrong (director of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland) and singer Roisin Elsafty. The most striking element of this performance was the traditionally strung and structured harp itself – played expertly in the traditional style/technique by Siobhan Armstrong. 

As explained by Siobhan Armstrong, “this was the kind of harp played by Carolan and others, long ago, but the unforgettable sound of its brass-wire strings is only now being rediscovered once more. Though everyone is familiar with the medieval harp image on the Euro coin and a certain brand of beer, the chance to actually see, hear and play the instrument is unfortunately all too rare.”

For the final event of the Discovery Day, the Historical Harp Society of Ireland offered a beginners’ workshop. The workshop provided a wonderful opportunity for members of the public to engage with the historical harp tradition first-hand. Public interest in this workshop was high and all spaces were booked in advance of the event, illustrating the high demand for such interactive musical events in Dublin. 

National Harp Day was a significant cultural event that allowed the public to engage with harp, not just as a symbol for Ireland, but for the rich musical and cultural tradition that it represents. 

The harp in Ireland is not just a musical instrument; it is simultaneously a symbol of the rich historical past, as well as a symbol of present national identity. 

More information about the harp can be found on the website of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland at http://irishharp.org/.


Photo by Michael Pereckas on Flickr


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