Replica harps & portraits of harpers as a source for performance practice

In 2018, I did a session at Scoil na gCláirseach in Kilkenny, about connecting to the old Irish harp tradition, and understanding how tradition worked. As part of that session, we sat with replica harps and looked at the portraits of the old harpers. I had not really prepared that aspect of the 2018 workshop, and so it was a bit ad-hoc. But afterwards, I realised that this was a very powerful tool for understanding and re-imagining the lost old Irish harp traditions.

Part of the point of that kind of work is acknowledging that the present day living practice of harp playing in Ireland is not part of the inherited indigenous Irish harping tradition. The inherited tradition came to a final end in the 19th century, with the death of the last tradition-bearers, who did not pass their tradition on to the next generation. Post-19th-century harp-players in Ireland have had to invent their practice anew, mostly by borrowing heavily from Anglo-Classical practice (many common features of present day practice, e.g. gut strings, semitone mechanisms, right orientation, harmonic arrangements, colour-coded strings, show Angle-Continental classical lineage)

My idea was that we can try to re-connect to the broken end of the old Irish harp tradition by trying to imitate the last of the tradition-bearers. If the old harpers were still alive, we could sit beside them and copy their playing and share their tradition. We can’t do that because they’re all dead for over a hundred years; but we can try to imitate them as closely as possible by looking at what information we do have about their practice.

For some of the old harpers we have a huge amount of information. Patrick Quin is probably the most important; we have the amazing portrait discovered by Sylvia Crawford; we have the harp that he is playing in that portrait; and we have very explicit, clear and complete transcriptions live from his playing, done by Edward Bunting in around 1800. Denis O’Hampsey is also important, since we have the engraved portrait of him, we have the harp that he played, and we have Bunting’s transcriptions of his playing, though the portrait is less life-like and the transcriptions are more problematical. For other harpers, we have other information, less complete. For some we have transcriptions; for others we have harps that may or may not have been played by them; for some we have more biographical details.

But there is plenty enough to be getting on with, by applying ourselves in an honest and all-consuming attempt to play the old Irish harp by carefully and meticulously imitating the practice of the tradition-bearers.

The portraits, the old harps, and the manuscript transcriptions are our guidelines.

For Scoil 2019 this past August I led a participatory workshop titled “Replica harps & portraits of harpers as a source for performance practice”. The aim of this session was to explore what information the harps and portraits could give us. The portraits are simple enough, in that they show us posture and hand position (though there was some interesting discussion about the limitations of the portraits, and the different nature of the different portraits).

I spent more time talking about the old harps, and the value of really accurate “archaeological” reproductions of them, and what both the originals and the modern copies could tell us about how they were used in the old tradition.

The highlight for me was to have so many really top quality copies of a selection of the old harps lined up, and to have willing volunteers to sit in front of one of the portraits, and hold the appropriate replica harp, and try to copy the details of posture and hand position demonstrated by the old harper.

The video of the session is almost one hour long, but if you are interested in the process of trying to re-connect to the broken end of the old Irish harp tradition, you might find it of interest.

Thanks to Brian Doyle and ITMA for filming the session, and to Siobhán Armstrong and the Historical Harp Society of Ireland for hosting it. Thanks also to Michael Billinge and Aoibheann Devlin for the loan of their instruments.