Posted by: mdmusingsie | September 23, 2016

Harp Summer School

As you many know, I started learning to play the Medieval Irish harp nearly two years ago.  How I actually got started was from reading about the annual Historical Harp Society Summer School and a taster workshop they held for anyone wanting to try the Medieval harp.  I couldn’t make it to Kilkenny, but emailed them to see if they were considering any taster workshops in Dublin.   Siobhán Armstrong emailed me back to say they hadn’t planned any additional workshops but she would give me a half price lesson in Dublin to see if I liked it. This summer I finally plucked up the courage to attend the Summer School in Kilkenny.

It was not without some trepidation, mind you, as I’ve only played my harp for Siobhán and one friend so far, so the thought of playing in front of other (far more talented, my inner critic was quick to point out) people was a daunting prospect.

This year’s program was held for the first time at St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny.  A lot of education institutions in Ireland are called Colleges but they’re really the equivalent of American High Schools.  St. Kieran’s also hosts an extension program from National University of Ireland at Maynooth.  The college offered more space for the harp school as well as some newly built dorm-like accommodations where many of us students stayed.

I’ve been in the typical American dorm (for only a night here and there – could never have stayed any length of time in one) and this is similar but on a smaller scale. Some rooms have their own en-suite (shower, no bath) whilst other bedrooms have to share facilities.  I was able to get one of the en-suites (age does have its privileges).  I believe all the rooms had single beds.  The house had around 15 bedrooms along with two lounge areas and two kitchens.  The students must live on frozen fish fingers and frozen pizzas as the freezer was three times the size of the refrigerator.  Meals weren’t included so many of us took advantage of the facilities, though we did go into town for dinners most nights.

Coming back from dinner the second night I thought about kids being sent to boarding school and how lonely a place like that could be.  Some children might enjoy getting away from their families and being able to just hang about with kids their age, whilst others likely spent long hours wishing they were home.

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Students from Ireland, England, Wales, Cornwall, France, Brittany, United States, and Poland attended this years’ school.  They’ve had attendees from as far away as Japan in the past.  With the variety of students came a variety of harps.  Some were small harps that you can hold in your lap, known as Jerpoint or travel harps, up to the large Downhill, Mullaghmast, and Rose Mooney harps. Most of the student harps are plain, without any adornment, but others were highly decorative. Bernard Flinois from Brittany had a gorgeously decorated harp and not only did he kindly explained the symbolism strewn throughout the decorations, but he actually did all the carving himself!  So much talent in such a small group of people.


Bernard’s Harp

I was placed in the advanced class as Siobhán thought I would be bored to tears in the beginner’s class.  It certainly took me out of my comfort zone.  The morning tuning session was the first challenge because I still need to use the electronic tuner to make sure I get the right note and it was busy picking up bits and pieces of everyone else’s notes in the room.  Someday I’m hoping to be able to tune by ear.

The classes weren’t quite as intimidating as I imagined.  No one was singled out to play, except when we were doing special fingering and the instructor walked around to make sure everyone was doing it correctly.  Most people were too busy doing their own practicing to take notice of anyone else.  Although I became lost more than a few times and overwhelmed on a handful of occasions, it did push me to broaden my skill set.

It’s wasn’t just practice, practice, practice all day long, there were lectures in the afternoon by other Irish musicians including piper Ronan Browne, sean nós singer Róisín Elsafty, and piper and sean nós singer Éamonn Ó Bróithe.  There were also two concerts, one a public concert at the Chapter House at St. Mary’s Cathedral featuring Siobhán Armstrong, Ann Heyman, and Éamonn Ó Bróithe, and a smaller recital at St. Keiran’s with Siobhán and Róisín Elsafty.


Chapter House, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny


Fireplace in Chapter House at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny – several types of marble


Clock in Chapter House at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny

This year they were focusing on the 200 year anniversary of the death of medieval harper Arthur O’ Neill.  Much of what survives today from ancient tunes was through the work of Edward Bunting and his writing down of tunes played by O’Neill and others.  Coincidentally, it’s also the anniversary of the death of Charlotte Milligan Fox (though 100 years later).  Although Edward Bunting published many of the tunes he captures, it was Charlotte who, almost by accident, came across a relative of Bunting who still had a number of his original manuscripts.  They not only record the music that was being played, but often had tips and hints about how the harpers played including fingering and tuning.  Charlotte Milligan Fox published in a book called the Annals of the Irish Harpers which includes not only material from Bunting but also the memoirs of Arthur O’Neill which are quite entertaining.

Another of our talks was by scholar and harpist Karen Loomis who spoke about how she accidentally (or by providence like Charlotte) discovered that the British Library had a copy of one of Bunting’s published books that was full of his own corrections and annotations.  How many other interesting bits of history are stored in the dusty archives of museums around the world?

Throughout the 5 days, the talk was over nails or no nails – fingernails that is.  There is evidence both ways between harpers and during different time periods.  Simon Chadwick, one of the instructors, had cut off his fingernails as part of a research project and had been baiting Siobhán to do the same.  She wasn’t too keen on the idea, nor am I.  One of the reasons I like the medieval harp is I can play with fingernails – something you can’t do on a guitar or fiddle, or at least not very well.

One thing I found particularly interesting during the harp school was that there were two ancient harp makers in the course – and both were women!  One, Violaine Alfaric, hails from Brittany, and the other Natalie Surina, who isn’t an Irish native but has chosen to live and ply her trade here.  Natalie showed off a ‘first draft’ of the Rose Mooney harp, which was commissioned by the Historical Harp Society through a grant from Music Network (míle buíochas).


Simon Chadwich with Mullaghmast harp, Natalie Surina with Rose Mooney harp in progress, Music Network representative and Siobhan Armstrong with Rose Mooney Harp, take 1

If I’m not going on about swans, I’m on about harps (and music in general), plus the odd castle.  What can I say?  Advice for writers is to write what you know and love, so there we have it!

(PS – my GPS couldn’t find 200+ year old St. Kieran’s College – had to switch to Google Maps once I reached Kilkenny – aint tech grand!)



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