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Harp Studies: Perspectives on the Irish Harp

Sandra Joyce & Helen Lawlor
Four Courts Press
Harp Studies


From the Introduction by Sandra Joyce and Helen Lawlor

The harp in Ireland occupies symbolic, ideological and musical roles that have ensured its entanglement with issues of politics, identity and culture for almost a millennium. This volume brings together new research addressing the harp from a multiplicity of perspectives, highlighting the rich and chequered history of this unique instrument and drawing on ideas from ethnomusicology, musicology and performance practice. An expansive view is taken in which the harp becomes a central thread linking fourteen articles with strikingly different approaches. The chapters in this volume span almost the entire known history of the harp, while bringing new and invigorating ideas to the discourse of harp scholarship, encompassing symbolism, history, ideology, manuscript sources, composition, biography, performance, composition and ethnography.

Since the emergence of the triangular Gaelic harp (as distinct from other European models) the instrument has been afforded a unique status even as it continued to evolve. Early Gaelic harpers, playing small wire-strung harps, held a privileged position in Irish society and the instruments were often adorned with precious jewels and intricate carvings, including, for example, the Trinity College Harp, an image of which is included in Paul Dooley's article in this volume. Harpers were second only to the file (poet) in the chieftain's court and received much in terms of social privilege. However, with the decline of the bardic order, the harping tradition was transformed by a variety of complex societal and economic factors. Recent scholarship has challenged historical paradigms suggested by writers such as Donal O'Sullivan on the adverse effect of colonization and political impositions against the Catholic population (such as the penal laws)' on the decline of the harping tradition — it has instead presented the situation as multifaceted.2 Undoubtedly, the social order and cultural context for the music of the Irish harpers had changed utterly by the seventeenth century. No longer under the protection and patronage of an individual chieftain, by this time harpers travelled to make a living in several of the homes of the landed gentry, performing and composing. Although their economic circumstances were obviously reduced, the social status of harpers remained somewhat intact through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — they were received as esteemed guests by their landed patrons. A key harper in this era was the famed Turlough Carolan, whose music remains influential to this day (and contributed to the mid-twentieth-century revival of harp music through the work of Sean O Riada and Ceoltoiri Chualann).' Edward Bunting must be credited with the preservation of much of the music of the eighteenth-century harpers (albeit some in fragmentary form) with Denis Hempson as a key source for his work.4 His collecting endeavours, initially stemming from the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival, resulted in the now iconic publications collectively entitled The ancient music of Ireland, in which much music and lore associated with harpers and harping has been preserved.5 Despite the efforts of harp societies in Belfast, Dublin and Drogheda the revival of the Irish harp failed to materialize to the extent envisaged by many nineteenth-century antiquarians and cultural enthusiasts. The development of the Egan harp (by John Egan in Dublin) and the advent of Moore's Melodies were also prominent factors in the development of nineteenth-century sensibilities in relation to harping,6 which became fashionable as a drawing-room instrument.7

At the beginning of the twentieth century the harp remained at quite a low ebb in terms of visibility, exposure and practice. The importance of Charlotte Milligan Fox's rediscovery of Edward Bunting's music and song manuscripts (which she donated to the library of Queen's University Belfast),8 as well as her publication Annals of the Irish harpers, should be noted. Her work undoubtedly shed new scholarly light on the historical harper-composers at the beginning of the twentieth century, helping to promote a renewed interest in the Irish harp and its music.9 The history of the harp in the twentieth century has been recently appraised by Helen Lawlor in a study that highlights the continuing association of the harp with social, cultural, political and ideological factors, in addition to its musical trajectory.10

The importance of the harp today, in terms of both scholarship and practice, is evinced by the recent surge in publications relating to the instrument. In addition to two monographs (by Helen Lawlor (2012) and Mary Louise O'Donnell (2014)), The encyclopaedia of music in Ireland (EMIR) and The companion to Irish traditional music have made substantial contributions to research in Irish music, with biographical articles on historic and modern harp players, in addition to articles on style, approach, technique and contexts." There are over sixty-five articles in EMIR on the harp, harpers and harping. For example, those by Ann Buckley,'2 Barra Boydell,'' Helen Lawlor,'4 Colette Moloney'5 and Mary Louise O'Donnell'6 encompass historical and modern harping in addition to providing biographies on key harpers. Other articles deal with contexts for harping, traditional groups, commentators, performers, collectors, composers and harp makers, among other aspects.'7 The companion to Irish traditional music likewise has over fifty articles dealing with harping, area studies, style, music and history, such as those by Fintan Vallely (editor),'8 Sara Lanier'9 and Helen Lawlor.20 The breadth of harp research extends to articles which focus on festivals, harpers, publications and organizations.2' An increasing volume of academic research has taken place in recent years at Irish institutions with a growing collection of masters and doctoral dissertations on various aspects of Irish harping.22 Other fora for the dissemination of harp scholarship include the Society for Musicology in Ireland's annual plenary meetings and the ICTM Ireland's annual conference, in addition to the harp research performance practice symposium held at Dundalk Institute of Technology and regular seminars on harping as part of the Tower seminar series at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick, which were influential in shaping this volume. The Irish World Academy is also home to Ionad na Cruite, the Irish Harp Research Centre, which aims to stimulate scholarship, performance and advanced research on the Irish harp.