Learning to play the harp was, for a long time, an unfulfilled dream for me. Growing up in Northern Ireland and coming from a Protestant background, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn Irish harp. The harp held a mythical quality for me. I was a reader and was aware of its special properties through Greek mythology and the bible. It seemed to me to be a magical, heavenly and otherworldly instrument.
It wasn’t until I embarked upon a BA Honours Degree in English and Music at Queen’s University in 1998 that I first encountered the harp in a live setting. As part of a first year Ethnomusicology module, renowned Irish harpist, Janet Harbison, visited our class to teach us about Irish traditional music and culture. Janet played and sang ‘Mná na hÉireann/ Women of Ireland’. I was spellbound, enchanted and fell utterly in love with the sound of the harp. I longed to learn to play it.
Our study, as ethnomusicologists, was on the music of traditional cultures. We were learning about how Irish traditional music was a part of the lives of families and communities and how tunes and the learning of instruments would have been passed down from generation to generation, from player to player. This was not something I had experienced in my life. For me, music was something I learnt through school and exams. Regrettably, rather than following my desire to learn how to play the Irish harp, I foolishly felt that any attempts to learn it as an adult would be inauthentic and not true to the spirit of traditional music.
It wasn’t until 14 years later, in 2012, when I gave up my career as an English teacher to look after my young family, that I decided to buy myself a harp and go for it. As a diploma level classical pianist, I was fascinated about the process of learning music without notation and committing tunes to memory. Alongside teaching piano privately, I finally began my journey of learning traditional harp.
However, my journey was a lonely one, fraught with performance and exam anxiety. As an adult learner, I squeezed my practice around work and family life and my desire to pursue exams made it difficult for me to just enjoy the process of learning beautiful music on a beautiful instrument. I knew no other adult learners and I turned up at exams surrounded by talented children and teenagers, feeling the full weight of my nerves and my age! So many times I felt like giving up. Nevertheless, I eventually achieved dipLCM in Irish Traditional Music performance in 2018 and I also achieved an ALCM diploma in classical piano performance during this time.
Now, as founder of Causeway Harp School, in the seaside village of Portballintrae, Northern Ireland, it is my joy to introduce people of all ages and abilities to the music of the Irish harp and to help build a local community of harpers. I teach individuals and groups of children and adults ranging from ages 6-79, the majority of whom have no formal musical training and little or no experience of Irish traditional music. The feeling of community around these groups is just wonderful.
Pupils as young as eight are already developing a love for ancient Irish harp music. We love learning the background to the tunes and the stories behind them. We love that the music we are playing is ancient and part of our land and our heritage, yet to us it feels new, fresh and very much alive. We truly feel part of a vibrant and very special cultural tradition.
We now have an enthusiastic community of harpers of all ages here on Antrim’s north coast and I am delighted that learning the Irish harp has become more accessible here, regardless of age, musical experience or cultural background. The community aspect of playing, learning and performing together and sharing the ancient music of the harp with our communities is the most rewarding part of my journey so far with the Irish harp.