+3531 6313822 nationalich@chg.gov.ie

Cruitireacht na hÉireann/Irish Harping

Location Throughout the island of Ireland
Categories Performing arts
Social practices, rituals and festive events
Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Traditional craftsmanship
Keywords Harp, harping, music
Contact organisation Cruit Éireann/Harp Ireland

Short summary

The harp is Ireland’s national symbol and has been played for more than 1,000 years. Its bell-like sounds and music captivate all who hear it and are celebrated in Irish mythology, folklore and literature. Today, harp players are generally women and children, contrary to the ancient practice, where each chieftain had his own harper, usually blind and male. Moreover, instead of a harp hewn from a single solid piece of willow, strung with wire strings, played with the nails and transmitted aurally, the majority of contemporary harps are made of varying types of hardwood, strung with gut or nylon and are played with the finger tips. Skills are transmitted both aurally and/or by notation in the art music style.The early wirestrung harp declined in the late 1700s and was superseded by the gut-strung harp. This circumstantial change continues to influence harp repertoire and its performance (including singing with harp), harp design and the current bearers of the tradition. Since the 1960s, the continuity of both harp styles has been secured with a revival of interest in harp playing and making, performance of its ancient repertoire, integration with traditional music together with support from Government. Irish harping is at the heart of our national identity. As our national emblem, the harp appears on State notepaper, on the President’s seal of office, on coinage, on uniforms of our security forces, on national monuments and on many of our public buildings.

Irish Harping has been nominated by the Irish State for inscription by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the decision on which will be made at the end of 2019.

Background information

The harp is played throughout the island of Ireland. There are a number of significant centres where harp playing features more strongly, namely, Dublin, Cork, Galway, Laois, Mayo, Meath and Derry. The harp is also played in Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Clare, Kerry, Cork, Carlow, Wexford, Longford, Kilkenny, Wicklow, Dublin, Louth, Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh, and Belfast. It is played at many national festivals and Irish music competitions. It has an ever-growing on-line presence. It features internationally, particularly in the US, Brittany, Scandinavia, Europe, Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia, where Irish harpers regularly perform, sharing their knowledge and skills. Irish harpers work at international folk festivals delivering workshops and tuition, passing the tradition to new practitioners and audiences. Increased interest in Irish harping has prompted instrument makers and wood workers to produce Irish harps in other countries such as England, Scotland, Wales, US, Canada and France.

Harp playing has permeated the Irish psyche over many centuries. It holds an intrinsic place in the ritualistic aspects of Irish culture and life, echoing the duties of the ancient harper for his patron: celebrating birth and marrriage, honouring valour in warfare and lamenting warrior death. Harpers today meet in many ways; performing for, and with one another, and their communities. They perform at State occasions, in concert, at social gatherings or music sessions; at weddings, funeral ceremonies; connecting people and communities at times of heightened emotions; its music reflecting joy, celebration or sadness, thus affirming their sense of Irish identity. Harpers and poets replicate the ancient tradition of harper and reciter in public performance, where the spoken word is accompanied by harp music emulating the ancient bardic tradition. Harp playing has mediated in helping to address conflict and encourage peace-making in Northern Ireland, building greater understanding between its diverse communities. The evolving practice of large groups of young harp players performing together in ensembles has enhanced personal and social interaction in a world where digital contact endangers human connectivity. This practice also enhances a sense of community ’belonging’ and affirmation, where commerical commoditisation is ignored. Additionally, the practice supports increased interaction with harp makers and composers of new works for the harp and the wider participating audience. Harping’s global impact provides links for international players with Ireland, enabling them to share a sense of pride in Ireland’s harp heritage and enjoy performing and listening to its music.

Practice and practitioners

Irish harping is represented by Cruit Éireann, Harp Ireland, the national resource organisation, established in 2016 to promote the Irish harp and safeguard the tradition of Irish harp playing. Based in Dublin, it draws its membership from Ireland and Northern Ireland. It reflects harp players from diverse practices, and includes harp makers, academics, contemporary composers and those involved in the conservation of the harp tradition. Cruit Éireann, Harp Ireland coordinates the support of its membership, other harp organisations and Irish harp players located in Europe, UK, Scandinavia, Australia and US.

There has been a major resurgence of interest in harp playing over the past sixty years, due to a growing appreciation of the harp’s role in Irish identity, language and culture. The bearers and practitioners of the element number around 1500 individuals, and these numbers are growing steadily. While there are some men and boys playing harps; women, girls and children are the primary practitioners. Irish people experience an instinctive response to harp music as demonstrated by the growing interest in government-sponsored music education programmes providing harp tuition. Harp playing has facilitated peace-making in Northern Ireland, embracing diversity and bridging the sectarian divide where communities have been fractured. Contemporary exponents of the early wire-strung harp are bearers of a precious legacy of music, composed solely for their wire-strung instrument, reflecting the ancient aristocratic role of the harper in Irish medieval and sixteenth /seventeenth century society. Contemporary gut-strung harp players have safeguarded this repertoire and ensured its continuity while integrating with traditional music practice and responding to evolving harp styles. Harp players are distinguished by their ability to interpret and perform the music and are held in high regard. The Irish harp is played in the US, Scandinavia, Europe, Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia, where players share a fascination for its Irish identity, its dynamic sound, its heritage and its distinctive repertoire. While Irish harp makers have a distinctly Irish approach to harp making, makers of the Irish harp are also located in Europe, US, Canada and Japan.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

Harping knowledge and skills are transmitted as follows:

• In many cases, the music of the harp is transmitted aurally by professional harp players or by self taught enthusiasts; other learners may be familiar with art music notation or play another Irish traditional instrument.

• Information is gleaned from historic tracts and manuscripts dating from the seventeenth century, which illustrate the techniques and repertoire of the ancient harpers and are applied to study of the instrument.

• Individual lessons take place between the master teacher and the student using ‘observe, listen, play and learn’ techniques.

• Group/ensemble lessons take place, whereby the master harper teaches in a group format and students ‘take the tune’ performing individually, and in groups.

• 1/1 lessons are conducted with a professionaly qualified teacher in a formal pedaogical setting, where the classical principles of art music are also studied alongside the Irish harp.

• Bespoke harp classes at harp festivals where there is a special focus on ‘passing on’ repertoire and skills development through mixed ability workshops and performance.

• Playing at informal music gatherings or “sessions” with other traditional musicians.

• Performing in harp ensembles, which provide valuable social interaction for the community.

• Observing and listening to master harpers in performance.

• Employing learning aids such as sheet music, recording devices, on-line learning, You Tube, dedicated websites and skype to assist the learning process.

Irish harp players regularly perform and teach on the international circuit. This contributes to the continuity of the practice and extends its reach to new practitioners and audiences.

At the end of the eighteenth century, several attempts were made to revive harp playing, the most significant being the Belfast Harp Festival (1792) and the published collections of Edward Bunting (1796, 1801 and 1840.) Between 1850 -1950, there were numerous attempts to sustain harp playing and the harp was regularly represented in iconography, politically and culturally, as the national symbol and as a call to liberation. Throughout its multiple phases of revival and transformation; it consistently responded to emerging musical trends observable in other musical instruments, genres and styles. The folk music revival in the 1960s and 1970s inspired a corresponding interest in harp playing. Individual performers undertook research, revived its repertoire and performed nationally and internationally. Cairde na Cruite (Friends of the Irish Harp) was founded in 1960, and was a seminal influence. Other organisations supported it, including national music organisations, media, Irish language activists and recording companies. Influential composer, Seán Ó Riada revived and interpreted harpers’ music in ensemble, introducing it to the traditional music repertoire. Convent schools initiated harp tuition. Numbers of teachers increased. Harp playing entered the formal music assessment system with second and third level music institutions including it on syllabi. New works were commissioned and recordings made. Music and academic research was published. Harp makers established themselves. Harp festivals were initiated, attracting harpers from Ireland and overseas, and student numbers expanded. Following an Arts Council report, Harp Ireland, the national resource hub to sustain and promote the Irish harp was established in 2016.

Irish harping has been funded by the Arts Council of Ireland, the government state agency, on a project basis for the past thirty years. The Arts Council also supports harp festivals and harp-related initiatives. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the national voluntary traditional music organisation and the Willie Clancy Summer School feature the harp in many of their activities. Other state supported institutions, such as the Traditional Music Archive, the national repository for traditional music and the National Library of Ireland, support the harp by offering performance platforms, research opportunities, and storage for harp-related materials. Our National Museum has a large collection of ancient harps. Third level institutions offer support-in-kind through academic research channels. Local authorities offer support on a once-off basis. The Department of Education, through its partnership with Music Generation, the national Music Education programme, facilitates provision of harp tuition. The Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht, through its agency Culture Ireland, provides opportunities for Irish Harp playing to be promoted overseas and brought to a wider audience. The Government sponsored Creative Ireland Programme has invested at local level. While national funding constraints have curtailed ambition, through its parent Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht, the Arts Council adopted the Irish Harp as a strategic priority in 2014, supported the establishment of Harp Ireland in 2016, and is interacting with the community to safeguard the harp’s legacy, define its future and sustain inclusive practice.

Contact organisation

Cruit Éireann/Harp Ireland