Homegrown Music: Rebirth of the Irish Harp

Learn about the people and organizations who manufacture and make music on Irish harps.

| November/December 1983

  • Robin Williamson
    Robin Williamson's albums are a good source for Irish traditional music, as well as for folk music of practically any persuasion.
  • Irish Harp
    The earliest harps were strung with metal wire, and those who played them were, at one time, highly honored members of Irish and Scottish society.

  • Robin Williamson
  • Irish Harp

Irish music has played an important role in the American folk scene over the past few years, so it's only natural that the folk harp (a freestanding "bow" instrument, usually about three feet tall) would come into its own on this side of the Atlantic. Today, most folk harp activity is taking place along the West Coast, the home of several people who manufacture — and make music on — the Irish instruments. I'd like to tell you about some of the organizations and individuals behind this movement.

A good place to start is Lark in the Morning. This firm's interesting catalog opens with a section devoted solely to harps. Of course, the publication lists many other music-makers as well — including such hard-to find instruments as concertinas, button accordions, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, and hammered dulcimers — in addition to instruction books, records, accessories, and such.

The good folks at Lark also sponsor a summer music camp that might interest those of you who are — or could be — in California. It offers personal workshop instruction on the Irish harp . . . and just about any other instrument typical of Irish music. Lark also conducts seminars on specific instruments at various times of the year.

Next, although some of their products are sold through Lark, I'd like to mention a husband-and-wife musical team hailing from my neck of the woods: Philip and Pam Boulding, who run an outfit called Magical Strings. The Bouldings manufacture both Irish harps and hammered dulcimers (they'll send you a free brochure and price list upon request), and make mighty fine music on them, too.

Before we go any further with the subject of Irish music, though, I'd like to stop and pay tribute to the Irish musician: Turlough O'Carolan, a blind minstrel who lived from 1670 to 1738 and composed hundreds of songs for the harp during his lifetime. Most of his lyrics have been lost, but his melodies live on. So influential was O'Carolan's work, in fact, that Ireland has bestowed on him the title of National Composer.

The earliest harps were strung with metal wire, and those who played them — called "harpers" — were at one time highly honored members of Irish and Scottish society. But as a result of successive waves of foreign culture invasions, the harpers gradually lost their social status and were reduced to serving as court entertainers or becoming wandering street musicians. As such, Turlough O'Carolan roamed the country, composing songs often named for his various benefactors. (This custom of "plugging the hand that feeds thee" was widely practiced by the writers and artists of yesteryear . . . including William Shakespeare.)

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