More Strings

The Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin

More Strings

Irish harp music has evolved and diversified in recent history – now it ranges from the pub session to historical reconstructions and new-age airs.

Masters of the Irish Harp is a compilation of sixteen solo tracks mostly taken from the artists’ own recordings released over the past twenty years. Three tracks are recorded specially for this album. Like all such enterprises there are a few surprising omissions, particularly the Monaghan born performer Michael Rooney, who has made an immense impact on the way the harp is perceived in the traditional music world. However the release does represent the extent and breadth of technical mastery, virtuosity and style that can be heard in Ireland today.

Simplistically we can see the Irish harp existing along axes defined by classical, traditional and early music. Certainly, if Masters of the Irish Harp was presented thirty years ago, the repertoire and style would have come from the worlds of Irish classical music and historical harp repertoire reimagined by classical collectors and editors. What we can hear now is a much more lively and diverse affair. Musicians like Michelle Mulcahy, Laoise Kelly and Grainne Hambly have literally brought the harp into the middle of the pub session. Far from a radical and divisive development, this reinvention of the instrument for the performance of dance music has been adopted by other harpers who have enriched the harp world by engaging the traditional aesthetic – this is best illustrated in this recording by former RTÉ Concert Orchestra principal harper Triona Marshall.

Janet Harbison and Máire Ní Chasthasaigh present us with self-composed material that shows engagement with more contemporary popular and folk approaches, while Aibhlín McCrann and Dearbhail Finnegan refresh approaches to more historical harp repertoire. The wire strung harp can be found here in one of its first recreations in a track from Grainne Yeats and in Paul Dooley’s invention of the instrument in a traditional context. From this world, creating art from the bones of a long-dead tradition, comes my favourite track of the lot, Siobhán Armstrong’s vivid versions of ‘Give me Your Hand’ based on eighteenth-century published sources from Ireland and Scotland – the next time you hear this tune butchered at a wedding, make the musicians listen to this. 

The spirit of this compilation is represented beautifully in Kathleen Loughnane’s tongue-in-cheek segue from a hornpipe into the classic Carolan air ‘Eleanor Plunkett’ in a new-age style. If you are into this sort of thing you probably have these recordings already – otherwise it gives an excellent account of the harp tradition as it stands.

Published on 8 July 2011

Niall Keegan is a traditional flute player and Associate Director at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick.

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