BC's Burns Library Offering Exhibit on John Egan's Harps

In the early 19th century, Ireland's musical traditions were in a state of flux. Older practitioners and their music-making were passing away, and with them, some feared at the time, would go that sign of Ireland's culture and heritage - the harp.

Boston College's John J. Burns Library is now featuring an exhibit, "Dear Harp of My Country: The Harp Traditions of Ireland and Scotland," in an attempt to capture this moment in Ireland's cultural history. Key features of the exhibit are two harps made by John Egan, a harp-maker who worked in Dublin in the early 1800s. One of the foremost proponents of a harp revival that was taking place at the time, Egan established a reputation as a maker of harps of all kinds, but particularly of small, portable models that were used by itinerant musicians.

Nancy Hurrell, an accomplished harpist and scholar of Egan's work, spoke at the Burns Library in late June about the harp-maker and his times. The landscape of Irish music was in turmoil at the time, she said. The demand for traditional harp styles were waning in popularity as new music from the Continent and music written for the pianoforte were becoming popular.

Hurrell has been involved with the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 6, from its inception, said Beth Sweeney, Director of the Irish Music Center at the Burns Library. The earlier of the two Egan harps on site was obtained from the collection of antique instrument collector Frederick Selch and his widow Patricia. The latter was the gift of Heidi Nitze, a New York city soprano. "We've known Nancy for about eight years," Sweeney said. "She helped us obtain the Heidi Nitze harp."

"It was at that time I became interested in the harps of John Egan," Hurrell said. "and, wanting to learn more, I set up a visit with Beth to view the Selch harp at Burns. During my meeting with her, it became clear to me that Heidi's harp should come to Boston College, with its impressive Irish collection and related programs. I then became the liaison, working with Heidi and Beth to make the arrangements."

When a construction project at the library made it necessary to move some of the holdings stored there, Sweeney said, the conservator at Burns suggested doing an exhibit around three harps: the two Egans and a third, the instrument of famed Irish harpist Mary O'Hara. These instruments form the body of the presentation, as well as examples of harp music and related texts from 1768 onwards.

"The exhibit includes extremely rare texts such as the original volumes of Edward Bunting's books," Hurrell said. Bunting was an organist hired to attend the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival, at which he notated the music played by the harpists, many of whom were blind and left no sheet music. Lyrics were later added to the tunes Bunting set down by the poet Thomas Moore, who sold them with great success as Moore's Irish Melodies.

The Egan harps came several decades after this period, Sweeney said. The two on display in the Burns Library were made around 1819 and 1820, and represent a period during which the harp's popularity was undergoing a decline. Yet, the instruments Egan made have had an enduring impact on the style of harps produced to the current day.

"He invented revival harps that were gut-strung and equipped with mechanisms to fret the strings," Hurrell said. "This made it possible for harp players to play the new art music that was becoming popular in the late 18th, early 19th century. Prior to Egan's 'new' Irish harps, the old traditional Irish harp, or clairseach, was the instrument played." Egan's harps, she said, also tend to be highly decorated, particularly with shamrocks. "It was a time of nationalistic symbols used and pride in all things native to Ireland," Hurrell said.

It is the shape of Egan's harps, Sweeny said, that have been his most enduring legacy. "He created a small harp, as opposed to the larger classical pedal harp, but in a high-headed shape relating to the ancient Irish harp," Hurrell added. From Ireland, the style came to the United States, where Egan's model was taken up and used as a standard. "Egan's harp became the model for Melville Clark's "Clark Irish Harp," produced in Syracuse, NY from 1913 to 1950s," Hurrell said. "In London, the Morley harp factory copied the Egan harp for their Irish harp model in the late 1800's and early 1900's. And today, two hundred years on, similarly shaped harps are made. But Egan was the first to invent the concept of a small Irish harp with gut strings."

 Hurrell gave two gallery talks at Burns outlining the history of the instruments displayed and the harp as a traditional Irish instrument, then she played some examples of music from the time on her own Egan harp, strumming the strings, but first trying to set the mood. "It was a much quieter time," she said. "Everything was smaller. This is what it sounded like."