Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Celebrating the survival of the traditional Irish harp

As Belfast's Irish Harp Society prepares to commemorate 200 years today, Stephanie Bell finds out about the role of the historic instrument here and talks to two harpists about their craft

Dream role: Lily Neill playing
Dream role: Lily Neill playing
Lily Neill

Admired for its grandeur and beauty, the harp has played a huge part in Irish culture for centuries and today it will take centre stage in Belfast for a special celebration.

A select group of international and local harpists and scholars are set to converge on the Linen Hall Library this afternoon to mark the bicentennial of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast.

The Linen Hall Library has played a significant role in the preservation of traditional Irish harp music. Early members of the library organised a festival of harp music in July 1792 with the intention of "having the music taken down and recorded for the first time".

The library has played a part in the subsequent publishing of this music.

Today's event will focus on the Linen Hall's Beath Collection, which was donated in 1974 by Mrs Norah Beath - the granddaughter of architect and noted music collector Robert Young.

The collection contains a wealth of material from the 18th and 19th centuries tied to music.

The library is also home to a number of papers relating to history of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast which, interestingly, was funded almost entirely by a group of men and women in India.

Sign In

This group - the Bengal Subscription - were Irish, Indian, and of various backgrounds and religions, who came together to support a future for the Irish harp. Linen Hall Library director Julie Andrews says: "The celebration of the Beath Collection and the bicentennial of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast has been a monumental collaboration of musicians and Irish harp experts from various locations.

"To bring them all together for one afternoon is a phenomenal achievement and an event not to be missed.

"Not many people know that the Linen Hall Library played a vital role in the preservation of traditional Irish harp music. The story behind the archive is fascinating."

Two harpists who will be playing at today's event explain their love of this great instrument and what it means to take part in the celebration.

Lily Neill was only three years old when she decided she wanted to learn to play the harp even though she had never seen one before or even heard it being played.

Determined even then not to give up on her dream, it was several years before her parents finally agreed to pay for harp lessons when she was nine.

By the time she was 13 she had won numerous competitions, had flown from her native USA to Ireland to take park in a harp music school and was invited to stage her first solo concert.

Since then she has captivated audiences around the world with her passion for the harp and has played for world leaders including US President Bill Clinton and Irish President Mary McAleese.

Lily, who is from Maryland in the US, is known for her own compositions as well as her love of playing Irish folk music.

She toured Northern Ireland two years ago with Co Down singer Colum Sands of the famous Sands family of musicians and singers from Rostrevor.

As passionate about the history of the instrument as she is about playing it, she is genuinely delighted to be back in Belfast for today's event. Lily recalls that, for as long as she can remember, playing the harp was all that mattered to her: "I'm not from a musical family and I was only three when I announced to my parents that I was going to learn to play the harp.

"I had never seen one or heard one so I've never known where that came from.

"I really pestered my parents. I was relentless. When I was seven they sent me to piano lessons and when they saw how much I practiced, they finally decided to rent what was a horrible little harp and got me some lessons.

"In my child's mind it seemed like such an uphill battle and I had been waiting so many years to play it.

"I was entranced by the instrument and still have no idea where that came from."

A turning point came when she won a scholarship to a week-long summer music school in Ballina, Co Mayo, when she was 12. The prize covered the cost of the tuition but not the air fare. Her parents gave her permission to go, providing she could raise the funds to cover the expenses.

She says: "I started going through classifieds looking for anyone wanting someone to play background music or hire a musician and I applied for everything I could find. I also started busking.

"I did end up making the fare to go to Ireland but also the phone started ringing and I was getting invited to different events and got my first solo concert when I was 13."

The music school was her first real introduction to Irish folk music which now forms a large part of her repertoire.

Ironically, it was a famous Northern Irish man, the legendary musician Derek Bell of The Chieftains, who helped bring about what she describes as her lucky break.

She says: "I was invited to perform with The Chieftains by the late great Derek Bell in what were their last two concerts in Washington before he died in 2002.

"Matt Malloy asked me what I wanted to do next and when I told him I wanted to make a career of it but didn't know how, he suggested going to Limerick where there was a great music programme and that's what I did." She received a first class honours degree from the University of Limerick's Irish World Academy and released her debut CD, Without Words, while still a student.

She then attended the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki where she qualified with a Master of Music degree while working on her second album, The Habit of a Foreign Sky.

Lily now tours the world playing the harp.

She believes events like today's celebration are vital for keeping the tradition of the harp alive and says that anyone can learn to play.

She adds: "It is like anything, if you really put your heart into it you will get a lot from it, but the passion and desire has to be there.

"There is a misconception that harps are extremely expensive but it depends on what type of harp you get. You can get one for as little as a few hundred pounds which is what you would pay for a cello or violin and a really good one will set you back a few thousand pounds.

"The harp has taken to me all sorts of places I never dreamed of. I've had the same harp since I was 10 years old and it comes everywhere with me.

"I'm thrilled to be back in Belfast for today's event and it is wonderful so many people are coming to talk about so many aspects of the harp, giving people a chance to learn more about it."

Co Armagh harpist Simon Chadwick specialises in playing the old Irish harp and is dedicated to the revival of this ancient instrument.

The 46-year-old has an online tutoring service teaching people across the world how to play the Irish harp and its old tunes. Originally from the south of England, he lived in Scotland for some years before settling in Northern Ireland a year ago to be with his partner Sylvia Crawford, who also teaches the harp.

Simon studied archaeology at university and it was this interest in all things old that led to him researching the history of the Irish harp.

He was in his late 20s before he picked up a harp for the first time. He says: “Studying archaeology got me thinking about old things and trying to understand past ways of life and ways of doing things.

“I’m not sure when and why I decided to study the old harp but I became curious about its tradition and turned my attention in that direction.

“The more I looked into it and its Irish and Scottish history, the more I realised how little understood it was.

“I wanted to learn to play it in an ancient way and I read books and taught myself.

“There is a whole history and tradition that is kind of hidden or forgotten about and 200 years ago the Irish harp died out completely.”

The main difference between an old Irish harp and a modern harp is the strings. An old Irish harp has metal strings which produce a bell-like sound very different from the gentle tones produced by the nylon strings of other harps.

Helping to bring about a revival of this unique instrument is now part of Simon life’s work.

He has published a book of old Irish harp music and runs a yearly music school in Kilkenny dedicated to the Irish harp. He has also written a research paper on its history.

Only a handful of these fascinating instruments survive as museum pieces and, in order to learn to play one, Simon had to find a craftsman with the skill to painstakingly replicate an original. Just three weeks ago he took possession of a very special harp which has been a full year in the making and which he will play for the first time in public today.

His harp is an exact copy of a late 17th century harp, believed to have belonged to Turlough O’Carolan, the Irish Bard, which is on display in the National Museum in Dublin.

He adds: “Lily and I will both be playing today and whereas her music is very modern and progressive, mine is the opposite and I will be playing a selection of tunes from the old Irish harp tradition.

“There is a great selection of people attending today and the Linen Hall Library has a great collection of manuscripts relating to the harp.”

Tickets for today’s event which runs from 3.30pm until 7.30pm cost £20 and can be obtained from the Linen Hall Library website Proceeds from the event will be used for the long-term preservation and eventual digitisation of the Beath Collection

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph