I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized The Harp That Once

The Harp That Once

Fintan Vallely
Annals of the Irish Harpers, by Charlotte Milligan Fox, ed Sara C Lanier, Ardrigh, 396 pp, €25, ISBN: 978-1909721012 This is a reissue of a tremendous 1911 book compiled and beautifully written by musicologist Charlotte Milligan Fox. The failure to reprint before now such an intelligent and lyrical compendium is, arguably, a consequence of the ambiguity of the harp in Irish music history, the necessarily defensive nature of traditional music revival and, within those factors, attitudes to women as commentators and analysts. But it is enough to say at this point that the availability of this edition puts balance into the published works which scaffold the understanding of indigenous (Gaelic court “classical” and “traditional” alike) music in Ireland. The Annals deals with the harp and harpers, so, first, it is perhaps appropriate to consider something of the significance and status of that instrument. The harp was so visible in earlier centuries that it could be designated as an emblem of Ireland in the 1200s, being used later on Henry VIII’s Irish coinage in 1534 and then inserted on the British royal coat of arms in 1603, where it remains today representing Northern Ireland (something of a paradox perhaps for half the area’s population). It also appeared on British Irish-regimental and, later, RUC caps and documents, just as it can be seen on all of the artefacts of official Ireland, and it remains symbolic of Irishness in British regiments. Yet, on account of the popularisation of African and other traditional music forms today, most people are by now aware that harps are not unique to Ireland. But Irish harp music is, and so the instrument’s past, surviving and modern musics are spiced with a complementary history and Gaelic representation which quite subverts its having been colonially requisitioned. This also has implications for indigenous Gaelic-court “classical” music, much of which is shared today by both contemporary-classical and traditional artistes, and which has filtered in as a strong influence in traditional dance music. Charlotte Milligan Fox was by no means promoting any holy grail of Irish nationalism however, for most of her family were staunchly unionist; rather, she seems primarily interested in the worth of the music of Ireland. Contemporary archaeological knowledge in the decades before her endeavour had already established that the story of the harp in Ireland was underpinned by hard iconological evidence, in that various forms of it have been documented and…

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