Continuity of tradition

It is a common trope in the world of historical Gaelic harp studies that the tradition was “broken” in the 19th century, that the revivers of the harp of Ireland and Scotland had no contact with the last of the old tradition-bearers. But yesterday, Sylvia asked me if I was sure that this was true, and so I started to wonder.

Owen Lloyd was the subject of an article by Mary Louise O’Donnell, ‘Owen Lloyd and the De-Anglicization of the Irish Harp’, published in Éire-Ireland, Volume 48, Issue 3&4, Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 155-175. The article concentrates on a post-modernish cultural generalisations, and the technical and historical information is missing, confused or misleading, especially with regard to the different types of harp, blurring together the early Irish wire-strung instruments with the revival gut-strung instruments indiscriminately under the general catch-all label “Irish harp”. But O’Donnell gets a lot of credit and appreciation for bringing Owen Lloyd to our attention and giving us information and leads to follow.

Owen Lloyd was born in Kilkee, Co. Clare, around 1852. At that time, there were still harpers trained in the old tradition; the Belfast Harp Society school had closed in 1839, and the Drogheda Harp Society in 1844. I don’t know of a proper listing of the students of these schools, but harpers from Belfast include Patrick Byrne (died 1863), Patrick Murney (still alive in 1882), Samuel Patrick (died 1888). Their musical pedigree went back through the society’s masters, Valentine Rennie and Edward MacBride, who had been taught by Arthur Ó Néill.

Owen Lloyd learned to play the harp “at an early age”, and studied pedal harp with the Welsh harpist Thomas Aptommas. A newspaper photograph of Lloyd with a pedal harp shows him holding it in a left orientation, left hand in the treble and right hand in the bass, as was still common amongst Welsh harpists even on pedal harp in the 19th century. After studying with Aptommas, Lloyd was a pupil of Adolf Sjödén (1843 – 1893), a Swedish pedal harpist who was in Dublin in 1879.

Sjödén organised an “Irish harp revival festival” at the Rotunda in Dublin, on 6th, 8th & 10th  May 1879. Newspaper reports at the time describe how Irish tunes would be played on “a choir of pedal harps”, but the concerts also featured “a trio of ancient Irish harps strung with wire” as well as “one of the last surviving of the celebrated Blind Irish Harpers” playing an “Ancient Irish Harp, strung with wire”.  Another review names “A blind Irish harper, Mr. Smith … on a so-called ancient Irish harp”.

Owen Lloyd is not named in the contemporary reports or advertisements, but a newspaper article (undated, probably c.1930) describes Lloyd being presented at the 8th May concert as one of Sjödén‘s students, as his first public appearance.

As well as his pedal harp, Lloyd also had an Irish harp. It was one of the big wire-strung harps that were made in the mid 19th century for the Belfast Harp Society. I don’t know when he got it (O’Donnell’s reference suggests he had it by 1899).

The front cover of Owen Lloyd’s book of arrangements.

Lloyd seems to have left a significant legacy; he published a book of arrangements, and had a lot of students.

So we have a person who shared a stage with some of the old tradition bearers, who learned to play the harp left-orientation, who was heavily involved in Irish language and cultural activism, and who acquired an old wire-strung Irish harp.

Was he inspired by seeing the old tradition-bearers in 1879? Did he understand the connections between his Welsh training and their genuine Irish harp tradition? Did he acquire the Hewson harp so that he could go and study with them? Did he inherit their tradition from them? Is he the “missing link” that connected the old tradition-bearers to the living tradition of Irish harping into the 21st century, like Nansi Richards (Telynores Maldwyn) was in Wales?

Or was he totally forward-looking? Did he simply ignore the old tradition bearers? Did he get the Hewson just for novelty value, and restring it in gut?

Either is far too big a claim to make now; but it’s worth pursuing this line of enquiry. We need to understand more about how he used his wire-strung Irish harp, and we need to inspect his musical style as shown in his book of arrangements, and we need to look carefully at his students and their students to see what his musical descendents were and are doing.

But there is clearly a lot of work to be done here, with the specific aim of untangling the different threads – the old Irish harp tradition, the Welsh tradition, the Anglo-Continental tradition, and the re-invention out of whole cloth.

8 thoughts on “Continuity of tradition”

  1. John Thomas published a collection named “280 Technical Exercises For the Harp.” Much of it is what you would expect from a book of classical exercises- arpeggios, glissandos and the like. However, there is section on “Shakes,” which are essentially the same as the Irish “Tribhuileach” or the Welsh four finger plait. Two fingerings are given: 3242, essentially identical the Irish, and 2131, which I assume is a modern adaption. I was surprised to find these exercises, especially considering that I haven’t been able to find any other reference to this form of ornamentation in the classical harp repertoire. Perhaps Thomas, and subsequently Lloyd, were more influenced by the medieval Welsh harping tradition than had been previously thought.

  2. Owen Lloyds Harps were left to the State and are currently in the national museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks Dublin. He is one of my ancestors.

  3. Sylvia Crawford drew my attention to a photograph in the National Museum of Northern Ireland, a portrait of Own Lloyd sitting at his Hewson harp.

    The photo clearly shows thick pale strings, i.e. it looks like he has fitted gut strings to the old harp.

    This shows how careful we have to be; I call the Hewson a “wire-strung harp” above, and so too do other writers, implying or assuming that because Owen Lloyd had a “Wire-strung harp” that he was playing on wire strings, and was therefore in the old tradition, or was reviving it.

    If, as appears, he had got an old harp and had restrung it in gut, that shows us that he is not at all in the old Irish tradition, and makes it much less likely that he had any contact with the old tradition bearers who he shared a platform with.

    1. Colm Ó Lochlainn wrote the following memoir of Owen Lloyd, indicating Lloyd’s role in teaching later tradition-bearers in the Anglo/Colonial/Classical lever harp tradition.

      ‘Review of Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper by Donal O’Sullivan’, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 190 (Summer, 1959), p.221:

      “The late Owen Lloyd who was the greatest Irish harper of my youth would be well over a hundred if alive now. I do not know who taught him (the name suggests Welsh connections). He taught Mrs Loton, Miss Corless, Mother Attracta (Coll), Sister Attracta (Andrews),
      my schoolmate Willie O’Reilly, and myself…”

      And earlier on p. 220:
      “The MacFaul harp I learnt on had gut strings, each of which had a thumb ring just below the tuning pin…”

    2. Reviewing my notes from visiting the National Museum of Ireland, I think that Owen Lloyd’s Hewson harp is NMI DF:1951.2. I need to go back and check, but it seems to match the NMNI Hogg photograph of him. The harp in the NMI is fitted with very thick steel wire strings which would also match the photo. So It looks like I jumped to conclusions as to the nature of those “thick pale strings” in the photo of him.

      NMI DF:1951.2 (detail)

      I don’t think those thick steel wire strings are original; I think thinner brass would have been used by Hewson and by the old harper(s) who played this harp originally. So I presume Lloyd fitted the thick steel strings. The harp in the NMI is broken at its bass, presumably from the steel strings being too thick and too high tension. You can see the break starting in the photo of Lloyd.

  4. I finally got hold of a copy of An Claidheamh Soluis 17th June 1899, as referenced in Mary Louise O’Donnell’s article. However this does not appear to reference his Hewson harp at all; it is describing events at the Oireachtas and says (p.217) “Mr. Owen Lloyd was the harpist, his instrument being the modern double-action harp, He played very well ten airs”.

    Again this can be a salutory lesson; O’Donnell cites this in a way that it seems to support Lloyd’s ownership of the Hewson already by 1899, whereas it actually references her earlier comment about him being a pedal-harpist.

    The more I find out about Lloyd, the more I am convinced that we can answer my concluding questions above:

    …was he totally forward-looking? Did he simply ignore the old tradition bearers? Did he get the Hewson just for novelty value, … ?

    Yes that seems to be what happened.

    Is he the “missing link” that connected the old tradition-bearers to the living tradition of Irish harping into the 21st century…?


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