Echoing Across Millennia, Irish Harp Shapes a Land

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
It’s arguably the most iconic of Irish musical instruments, depicted in both classical and commercial art – and, yes, it’s even the namesake for a popular beer. So, with another year of St. Patrick’s Day events in Boston and elsewhere having brought a focus to traditional Irish music, the Irish harp has once again enjoyed its fair share of attention.

And that’s just fine with Aine Minogue, Kathleen Guilday, and Regina Delaney, three Irish harpists with ties to the Greater Boston area. As much as they might respect other instruments common to Irish music, they feel the harp’s physical, tonal, and even symbolic characteristics give it a dimension all its own.
“You can walk into a crowded, noisy pub with a harp, and silence everyone,” says Minogue, a Tipperary native who has several recordings and numerous concerts to her credit. “Instinctively, people seem to feel this connection to the harp, even if they’re not sure why.”
“There are so many aspects to the harp,” says Delaney, who teaches harp at the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Boston branch music school and directs the New England Harp Orchestra. “It’s the way it rings, and resonates. When you play it, you’re practically hugging it, and you can feel the vibrations through your body. The harp has a calming effect.”
Guilday, an All-Ireland harp champion who has performed with the Chieftains, Seamus Connolly, and Laurel Martin, among others, is intrigued by the literal and metaphorical properties found in the harp’s presence.
“If you look at the harp, what’s one of the first things you notice? That between each string is a space. Each string, of course, represents a note. And when I play, it’s the ‘space’ between the notes that really interests me. That space is so stark, it accentuates the melody.”
Minogue agrees that there’s something visually and aurally compelling about the harp, in large part because it suggests historical connotations stretching back centuries.
“The original harp came from the concept of the bow and arrow, a very basic part of many cultures, so there’s that hint of the ancient to it. But think about the harp’s sheer physicality: It has the shape of a triangle – three parts. There is, again, something ancient at work here: the idea that a triangle consists of two elements different from one another, plus a third element representing a mixture of those two.
“Well, when you play a harp, you actually produce three sounds. With one hand you play the melody, with the other you play the bass. And this creates the third voice, that combination of overtones the other two voices produce. Even as you listen to the two voices, the melody and the bass, you’re aware of that third voice – it’s subtle, but it’s there.”
Of course, it’s one thing to appreciate the instrument, and quite another to play it. Minogue, Delaney, and Guilday each took very different paths to become harpists, and at different stages of their lives. Minogue was a young girl in boarding school when she “became besotted” by the sound of the Irish harp, which she heard in the unlikely setting of her school’s 112-piece orchestra. Delaney came to the harp as a middle-aged mother drawn to Irish music sessions, but as a singer rather than an instrumentalist. Her children’s piano teacher had a small harp that he lent to Delaney, and she was smitten – in fact, she wound up studying with Minogue.
“It’s so much easier when you have a teacher,” says Delaney. “That’s one important piece of advice as far as learning harp goes: Find someone you can connect with – you don’t have to like them, just be able to work with them.
“The other piece of advice is, don’t run out and buy a harp at the beginning. You have to find out first if you really want to do this, and if you find out that you don’t want to, you’re stuck with a harp gathering dust in the corner. So find one to borrow.”
Guilday’s route was even more unlikely. Her childhood included a relatively short-lived brush with traditional music via the Scottish bagpipes, but her harp epiphany didn’t occur until near the end of her college years, when she read a newspaper article about New York City Uilleann piper Bill Ochs. Never having heard of the Uilleann pipes, she arranged to visit him so she could satisfy her curiosity. In the middle of the visit, Ochs’ roommate happened by, and at Ochs’ urging, brought out an Irish harp to show Guilday.
“All I wanted to do,” she recalls, “was play it.”
Getting someone to help her do that, however, was no easy task. The only harpists Guilday knew of were those who played the concert, or orchestral, harp. Finally, she found a teacher in Nellie Zimmer, a retired concert harpist who had enough interest and experience in Irish-style harp to give Guilday a solid foundation. Guilday wound up moving to Ireland for a year to further her harp education. “I met my husband during that year in Ireland,” she adds with a smile. “So I really owe the harp a lot of gratitude.”
It’s fair to say that these three women have been part of a modern-day harp revival that has inexorably gathered momentum over the past few decades, with a number of high-profile performers helping create interest in, and awareness of, the instrument. They include (but are by no means limited to): Mary O’Hara, whose career reaches back to the 1950s; the late Derek Bell, a mainstay of The Chieftains for many years; Clannad’s Moya Brennan; Loreena McKennitt; Máire Ní Chathasaigh; Patrick Ball; Antoinette McKenna; and Ann Heymann.
Delaney, for one, can bear witness to the uptick in the harp’s popularity through her activities with the New England Harp Orchestra, whose membership stretches from Boston to southern Maine. She notes that the NEHO players demographic encompasses 20-somethings and an 84-year-old – who started taking lessons at age 81.
Yet Minogue sees a paradox in contemporary harp-playing. Harpists by and large are showcasing the instrument’s versatility to a great degree, especially by integrating jazz and world music influences. But she feels the older, and most distinctive, facets of traditional harp music are being overlooked, even neglected.
“The younger players are emulating the fiddlers, and playing a lot of reels and jigs,” she explains. “While it’s intriguing to watch the harpists enlarge styles, they seem to be narrowing their choices. There just doesn’t seem to be as much interest in playing slip jigs, hornpipes, and especially airs. So a vast trove of harp music has been slimmed down – it’s as if one went from a size 22 to a size 4.
Says Guilday, “There are some great things you can do with dance tunes – the jigs and reels – but the slow airs bring out the best features of the harp. That’s where I’ve been putting a lot of my interest.”
Inevitably, as Minogue and Guilday say, it’s almost impossible to speak of the harp as “just” a musical instrument. They note the harp’s symbolism has a political context as well, through its association with Irish nationalism; in fact, as Guilday points out, the Society of United Irishmen used the image of a harp in their emblem. And, of course, Cromwell made a point of targeting the Irish harp for destruction in his efforts to subdue Ireland.
In fact, Minogue says, the fortunes of Ireland and the Irish harp seem inextricably linked. “To tell the history of the harp is to tell the history of Ireland. Ireland was at its highest peak when the harp was at its height, and the greatest period of oppression in Ireland coincided with a time when the harp was all but dying out. So the harp creates the sense of hope that we – as Ireland – are emerging from dark times.
“You can hear great beauty in a fiddle, or a flute, or the pipes, obviously. But I think of the harp as not just an instrument of music, but an instrument of transportation, that takes you back through the ages. Because when you play, or hear, the harp, you are really hearing the story of Ireland.”