On Sunday I went to Llangefni, in the centre of Ynys Môn (Anglesey), to visit the traditional Welsh harper Huw Roberts, and to view his exhibition at Oriel Môn, Tair Hen Delyn / Three Old Harps.
I was put in touch with Huw last year, about a harp that Huw owns: the Cefn Mably harp, a traditional Welsh triple harp (telyn deires) made by Bassett-Jones in or shortly before 1848. This harp was presented as a prize to the traditional Welsh harper Edward Jones of Liverpool, at Abergavenny Eisteddford in October 1848. Edward Jones was in Dublin in 1849, playing every night on the prize harp at the Ship Tavern in Lower Abbey Street. I have already written about some of the traditional Irish harpers who played at the Ship Tavern.
Huw’s exhibition presents three old triple harps. The Cefn Mably harp is one, a slightly strange hybrid-style harp is the second, and the third is a harp which has a local provenance, having been owned and played by Owen Jones, Telynor Seiriol (1860-1906), who was one of the harpers of Llannerch-y-Medd, and who was a younger contemporary of the Irish harpers Paul Smith and George Jackson.
The exhibition was extremely well done, with information panels giving the historical and cultural background to each of the three harps. While we were there there was a constant stream of people coming through the exhibition. We met the harpist Aloma there (my header photo shows me, Aloma and Huw).
Huw also took me to Llanerch-y-Medd to see the outside of the Brittania pub where the harpers were based through the 19th century, and to the ruins of Gwyndy on the old road where the harpers used to play. And we visited two of his young students Megan and Sali, who played some traditional Welsh tunes on their triple harps for us.
For me this was a great adventure, taking my bicycle on the ship from Dublin to Caer Gybi (Holyhead), and cycling the 15 miles across Ynis Môn to Llangefni, seeing the landscape and places, visiting the Oriel, eating Welsh rarebit and bara brith and welshcakes, and hearing Welsh spoken as the daily language all around me. It was also interesting to see the work that Huw and his colleagues are doing, not only meeting the two girls but also bumping into another triple harpist in the street walking his dog.
But it also inspired me and gave me a lot to think about for our work here in Ireland with the traditional wire-strung Irish harp. When I was in Ynis Môn I was very inspired by the people, places, and the culture. A society for the triple harp, Cymdeithas y Delyn Deires, was set up in 2019, just in time for the lockdowns to spoil it! It is clear that the telyn deires (triple harp) has a strangely parallel status to the traditional Irish wire-strung harp; there are not many people playing it, it is hugely overshadowed by classical style harp playing which displaced it in the 19th century, and yet there is some broad recognition nonetheless that it is the “real” Welsh harp. And even amongst the small number of people who are playing the triple harp, there is a spread of approaches, with some players having an obviously classically trained hand position and harmonising style, and playing classical-style on the right side, to others (like Huw and his students) playing in the traditional left orientation, and trying to find a more traditional way of playing and aesthetic.
There are huge and fundamental differences of course between the Welsh and Irish harp music, in the design and set up of the harps and the structure and style of the music, and I did not go expecting to learn any music or playing styles or techniques. But I was curious to see how this marginalised yet iconic Welsh national tradition was being promoted and how they were trying to find a place for it in the life of the nation.
If you are passing through Anglesey any time before the middle of February 2024, I would highly recommend stopping off in Llangefni and going to the Oriel to see the exhibition. The cafe in the Oriel is also very good!