Early Irish harp at Áras an Uachtaráin

On Friday I was at Áras an Uachtaráin with Siobhán Armstrong and Eibhlís Ní Ríordáin, for Culture Night. We gave a 20 minute presentation to the President’s guests; I spoke for a few minutes and then Siobhán and Eibhlís played and sang.

Siobhán was playing on her Trinity College harp made by David Kortier, and so for my talk  I wanted to connect the idea of having a replica medieval harp, with the same actual medieval harp depicted on the national emblem, the coins and the presidential seal.

In the entrance corridor there is an 1835 harp, made after the designs and innovations of John Egan, and so I started with exploring the origins and roots of this 19th century Irish harpmaking tradition, situating it firmly in the Anglo-Continental pedal harp tradition of Egan and of the London pedal-harp makers such as Erard. Then I turned to the emblem on the coinage, showing one of Percy Metcalfe’s 1928 coins, and then showing a photo of the medieval harp in Trinity College. I explained the method of investigating the historical  harp and making a modern copy, and then of using musicological analysis of playing technique, style and idiom, and repertory, to recreate the lost indigenous performance tradition of early Irish harp.

Siobhán played a 14th century plainchant to start with, connecting the repertory with the instrument; then she invited Eibhlís to join her and they together did Maili Nic Ailpin and Fanny Power, two well-kent tunes which are very rarely heard as the Irish-language songs they are.

People were delighted with the sound of the early Irish harp, and I think the evening worked very well indeed. It was an honour to be there to present our work to President Higgins and Mrs. Higgins. The house staff were delightful and the visitors were all very engaged with the whole experience of coming to the official residence.

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