There was once a time on the North Coast of Antrim when every great house had their harper and it was traditional that the harper must be able to play music for three distinct purposes: to calm and bring forth rest; to evoke emotion and bring forth tears and to inspire gladness, dancing and smiles. The music of the old Irish harpers was an oral tradition and after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, the harpers of the great houses found themselves out of work and many became wandering minstrels. The once great tradition of Irish harp music was in danger of disappearing from memory altogether.
In an attempt to preserve the dying harp tradition, the Belfast Harp Festival was organised in 1792, in which harpers from all over Ireland were called to attend and to compete for prizes (interestingly, only ten turned up; many of them very old and blind). Nineteen year old organist and pianist, Edward Bunting, was commissioned to listen to the the airs and pieces played by the old harpers and record them. Bunting published 66 of these tunes in the first volume of his collection, ‘A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland.’
In February 2019, 10 pupils from Causeway Harp School were invited to perform at the ‘Remembering Edward Bunting Festival’ concert held at St George’s Church, Belfast (this was the very church in which Edward Bunting was organist). The girls gave a stunning 30 min performance of solo and ensemble pieces for a large public audience and were a huge success!
Although this was a wonderful experience for all involved, we have decided to keep our performances more local this year. I hope to hold a Causeway Harp School charity concert in the Spring/Summer months in Portballintrae so keep an eye for details to follow after Christmas!
In September 2019, ten women and girls gathered together in Portballintrae Village Hall to learn the Irish harp. After only 3 lessons together we have learned to play the traditional air, ‘The South Wind’ and a polka known as ‘Johnny Leary’s’. Each week we focus on good hand position and playing technique as well as learning tunes from the traditional Irish harp repertoire. We learn tunes using the aural method and commit them to memory, rather than reading from musical notation. Each lesson is followed up with a recording of the tune and each pupil has their own harp to practise on throughout the week. I am absolutely delighted at the progress everyone has made in such a short period of time!
At the end of the 6 week course, many of the participants have signed up to take part in a Build a Harp Workshop, hosted by Causeway Harp School and Turmennan Learner Harps, during which they will build their very own 26 string harp under the expert guidance of Mervyn and Brian Waugh of Turmennan Harps and Turmennan Learner Harps.
I am so delighted to have the opportunity to make learning this beautiful instrument more accessible to people in this community. There was once a time when every great house on the North coast of Antrim had it’s harper and it’s traditional music repertoire and I’m so excited to bring something of this great tradition back into the homes and communities in this area.
Summer 2019 saw 26 harpists, ranging from age 6 to 60, meet in Bushmills Community Centre and in Portballintrae Village Hall for Beginner and Intermediate level Harp Workshops led by Katy Bustard of Causeway Harp School.
In September 2019 a new 6 week Beginners’ Harp Course will be held on Saturday mornings in Portballintrae Village Hall. This course is already fully subscribed, but keep an eye on the ‘What’s On’ page on the website, or on Facebook for details of more courses running throughout the year. Places are limited so please don’t hesitate to get in touch to book your place or to find out more.
Individual Harp Tuition is also available and pupils may work to attain qualifications in Irish Traditional Harp through the London College of Music, learn just for fun and relaxation or to achieve specific personal goals.
Group Workshops for improving and intermediate level harpists also take place at various times throughout the year. These intensive workshops are designed to not only expand repertoire and develop technique and style, but also to provide valuable opportunities to play together as a group and to meet other harpists. Our next scheduled Group Workshop is a Christmas Harp Workshop on 16th November! See the ‘What’s On’ page for more details!
Harp Taster Sessions and Beginners’ Classes for schools, community or corporate groups, or for a group of family and friends may also be arranged. Please get in touch via the website contact page for more information.