Music of the Harpers at Mussenden Temple

Mussenden Temple, Downhill

When Claire O’Kane from Mussenden Sea Salt invited me to provide harp music for bespoke dining experiences at A Taste of Mussenden, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit the breathtaking Mussenden Temple with my harp.

My particular area of interest is the music of the old Irish harpers, as collected by Edward Bunting at the Belfast Harp Assembly in 1792 and subsequently as he travelled around the country collecting the old harp music. Mussenden Temple is of huge significance to the history of the Irish harp as it became home to the famous Downhill Harp, as played by last of the ancient Irish harpers, Denis O Hampsey of Magilligan.

MS 4/29 Manuscript book of Irish airs, QUB Special Collections

This is an example of the manuscripts from which I work. These old manuscripts and notebooks of Edward Bunting’s are fascinating to me and I love the process of piecing together a tune and arranging it for the modern lever harp. It is my particular joy to then pass on this unique musical heritage to my young pupils.

Inside Mussenden Temple

The atmosphere inside the temple on these evenings was nothing less than magical. Steeped in history and perched on the very edge of the cliff, being in this temple takes your breath away. I loved the opportunity to play my favourite ancient harp airs in this historic setting.

In addition to the music of the ancient harpers, I also enjoy playing music from the traditional repertoire, including original compositions by contemporary musicians from the locale.

It would of course be remiss of me not to mention the amazing dining experience on these evenings, featuring Paula McIntyre of BBC’s Hamely Kitchen and Alison Williams of Old Schoolhouse Dinners . A truly sumptuous dining experience on every level!

I’m so grateful to the National Trust and to Mussenden Sea Salt/ A Taste of Mussenden for the opportunity to play harp at Mussenden Temple. I’m very much looking forward to visiting again.

Lá na Cruite/ Harp Day 2022

Causeway Harp Ensemble

Each year on the 15th October, Ireland’s national body, Cruit Éireann/Harp Ireland heralds a national and worldwide celebration of Ireland’s harp, its music, players and makers.

Causeway Harp School, Lá na Cruite/ Harp Day 2022

Part of the celebrations include a ‘Harpers’ Call’, inviting harp players to contribute a video performance on a particular theme. This year’s theme was Harping Together. You can watch Causeway Harp School’s ensemble performance for Lá na Cruite Harp Day 2022 above 👆, or here on Facebook. This is a new ensemble of my young teenage pupils and we recorded this on what was only our second meeting! I’m hugely proud of them.

On National Harp Day, these video performances are broadcast on Cruit Éireann’/ Harp Ireland’s social media and YouTube channels so that viewers can enjoy live harp music all day! You can watch this year’s performances here.

Events are not just online, but this year there were more than 80 harp events taking place around Ireland and abroad, featuring harp collaborations with storytellers, visual artists, singers, filmmakers, and other traditional musicians.

At Causeway Harp School, we champion the work of Cruit Éireann Harp Ireland for the wonderful work they do to celebrate, promote and support harp players, teachers and harp makers throughout Ireland, ensuring the continuation of the 1000 year old tradition of Irish harping and securing its bright future.

Harpmaker’s Workshop at Shankill Rd Library

As part of Harps Alive/ An Cruit Bheo Festival 2022, Turmennan Harps delivered a Workshop on harpmaking at the Shankill Road Library in Belfast.

Photo Credit: Michael Knan, Harps Alive Festival 2022
Photo Credit: Michael Knan, Harps Alive Festival 2022

Almost all of my pupils and I play harps made by Belfast’s Brian Waugh and his father, Mervyn, who taught him his craft. Brian makes a range of harps, from learner models 26 and 34 to the stunning Eala, who’s shape is inspired by the curve of the swan’s wing.

Photo Credit: Michael Knan, Harps Alive Festival 2022

I was delighted to bring along a talented young pupil of mine, Mollie Flack, to perform a few tunes on our Ealas during the workshop.

Photo Credit: Michael Knan, Harps Alive Festival 2022

One of the most unique and special features of the Harps Alive/An Cruit Bheo event was its use of event spaces right across the city of Belfast, widening access to the tradition of Irish harping and dissolving cultural barriers to the music. I felt hugely privileged to have had the opportunity to play my harp on the once troubled, now rejuvenated Shankill Road.

Photo Credit: Michael Knan, Harps Alive Festival 2022

Harp Summer School, Portballintrae

Harp Summer School, Portballintrae 2022

Harp pupils from Dunseverick Primary School took time out this summer to gather together, learn some new tunes, play some old ones and have fun together in sunny Portballintrae.

Practising outside with a sea view

The fine weather enticed us outside and many visitors to the area were treated to the sound of 9 harps playing as they began their coastal walks from the car park!

Performing for passers by along the coast!

We have been enjoying learning a new polka set and tomorrow we will begin a new barndance called The Gypsy Princess. These new tunes will keep us busy learning and progressing before our new school term begins next month.

Tea break games and chat!

We are so grateful to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for our instruments. We really enjoy learning to play harp and love performing in our local community and beyond. Our harp music spreads beauty and joy wherever we go!

Harps Alive/ An Cruit Bheo Festival 2022

230 years ago, the last of the great harpers in Ireland gathered in Belfast for the Belfast Harp Assembly; a bid to preserve and revive the dying aural tradition of Irish harping.

Only eleven harpers turned up. Seven were blind. The eldest was Denis Hempson, 97, from County Derry.

A young Edward Bunting, aged just 19 at the time, was ascribed the task of transcribing the music to preserve it for future generations. The achievement of his work is not to be underestimated. It is the transcriptions of Edward Bunting from these ancient harpers that continues to inform and inspire new generations of harpers today and in the future.

Edward Bunting was so captivated by the music of the old harpers, particularly the very old style of Denis Hempson, and he continued to travel, collect and preserve harp music for the duration of his career. The collections of Edward Bunting span 1792-1840 and reside at Queen’s University, Belfast Special Collections.

These ancient manuscripts are my primary interest and I am committed to teaching this ancient music to my young pupils here on the north coast of Ireland, helping to revive this very special musical heritage.

As part of Harps Alive/ An Cruit Bheo, and thanks to nationwide body Harp Ireland/ Cruit Eireann, my young pupils and I enjoyed a wonderful opportunity to learn some of these ancient tunes and perform them at the splendid Mussenden Temple, on the cliffs of Downhill, at a Gala evening celebrating ‘The Life and Times of Denis Hempson.’

Performing in Mussenden Temple, the temple on the cliff

I am delighted to be playing a part in reviving and celebrating the tradition and heritage of Irish harp through passing on the music and history to a new generation of harp players.

My Harp Journey

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.

National Harp Day 2021

Harpists playing at the beach for National Harp Day 2021

This year for National Harp Day, seventeen harpers from Causeway Harp School gathered together at the beautiful East Strand in Portrush, County Antrim to play in ensemble together.

Whilst this was a wonderful experience, it was difficult to capture the sound as the sea was so rough that day!

Following on from this, two pupils of Causeway Harp School, Mollie Flack and Phoebe Kelly performed my arrangement of Planxty Hewlett by Turlough O’Carolan in beautiful Portballintrae. You can watch our performance here:

Causeway Harp School, National Harp Day 2021

Cambrian Harp Festival

Harp Workshops in the sun ☀️

What a treat for me to travel to beautiful Wales to teach an Irish Harp Workshop as part of the very first Cambrian Harp Festival, in association with the wonderful Derwent Harp School. Participants of all ages and abilities leaned to play Planxty Irwin, by 17th century composer and harper, Turlough O’Carolan, followed by a beautiful slip jig by contemporary musician and composer, Liz Carroll.

Harp Workshop in the Festival Bell Tent 🏕

The fabulous Welsh harpist, Harriett Earis, also taught a workshop on Welsh tunes and I was absolutely delighted to take part and learn two beautiful Welsh tunes: Dwr Glan and Ar Ben Waun Tredegar.

Harp Workshops ☀️☀️🎼🎼🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿

The festival culminated in a concert in which we had the pleasure of performing our new tunes (amongst much more) for a live audience in Aberystwyth. The highlight for me was listening to the immensely talented Harriet Earis perform a solo set of her original compositions.

Cambrian Harp Festival Concert, featuring Harriet Earis

Another highlight of the weekend was the wonderful Welsh storyteller who entertained us by the fire in the evening!

Traditional Storytelling by the fire

It’s wonderful to be part of a revival of traditional arts and culture. I love how people of all ages can get together like this, learning and playing music together, sharing songs, tunes and stories. Traditional music has such a special place today in connecting people with their land, history, culture and with each other. I have made some great friends this weekend and we are already looking forward to a harp weekend with me next year in Ireland!

Harping by the fire pit

You can watch some of the videos and hear some of the tunes from the weekend on Facebook: Irish Tunes; Welsh song

Group Lessons at North Coast Trad

Group Classes at North Coast Trad, Portrush

I am delighted to be teaching the harp classes at North Coast Trad on a Tuesday evening during term time in Portrush. We currently have a kids’ class and an adults’ class running.

This is a wonderful opportunity for pupils to enjoy the social aspect of learning music. Traditional music is inherently social, so learning and playing together is a fundamental element of the music. We will be learning tunes from the North Coast Trad repertoire as well as learning some special harp tunes from the Irish Harp repertoire.

North Coast Trad offers many opportunities for us to get together with other musicians throughout the year through sessions, concerts and summer schools. All events are family friendly and suitable for all age groups.

Get in touch if you would like to find out more. Classes recommence in September 2021.

Harp Class at North Coast Trad

Dunseverick P.S. Summer Harp Concert

Dunseverick P.S. Pupils performing together

I teach harp at Dunseverick Primary School to pupils in P3 and above. Irish harping has been thriving in this wee school since 2017 when I first introduced harp lessons to the school. These young pupils perform regularly for school and community events and in their local church communities. In February 2019, they performed for the Remembering Edward Bunting Festival in Belfast and in March 2020 they were invited to perform for the Joint British and Irish Intergovernmental St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the Titanic Hotel, Belfast. Sadly, this event was cancelled due to Covid-19.

In March 2021, we were delighted to have been awarded funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to purchase harps for the school. Since then, Irish harping is going from strength to strength in the area.

We learn a mixture of Irish and Scottish traditional tunes to reflect our shared heritage here in North Antrim. The pupils thoroughly enjoy their lessons and the many opportunities they have to perform for their families, friends and local communities.

Watch Part 1 of our summer concert here