Irish tradition gets a makeover

We have had a complex relationship with the harp, our national symbol, but over the past two decades its popularity has grown steadily to the point that there are now over 2,000 harps in the country, double that. that there was in 2001.

The 34th Irish International Harp Festival kick off on June 30 in Termonfeckin, Co. Louth, with a host of events ranging from pop-up concerts by the Youth Folk Orchestra to an evening featuring harpist Maeve Gilchrist with percussion dancer Nic Gareiss and the RTÉ Con Tempo Quartet at, wait, Oíche na bhfear or men’s concert: a come all ye for the small but growing community of male harpists scattered across the country.

It’s the perfect platform to go deep, exploring sounds that might have been produced hundreds of years ago, as well as sounds that are just starting to come out of the harp.

Scottish harpist and composer Maeve Gilchrist is the festival’s harpist in residence and she is the embodiment of a new generation of adventurous harpists, pushing the boundaries of the instrument she chose to be both ancient. and totally contemporary.

“The main purpose of the Harp Festival is to illuminate the harp not only as a deeply rooted traditional instrument, but as a valuable voice in 21st century music,” Gilchrist enthuses over the phone from New York, where she has lived for 17 years. years.

“So it’s the perfect platform to go in depth, explore sounds that could have been produced hundreds of years ago, as well as sounds that are just starting to come out of the harp now. The harp has similar orchestral possibilities to the piano and I think it’s really exciting for young harpists to see it used in all these different ways.

Maëva Gilchrist

Festival Director Aibhlín McCrann is determined to keep the festival program state-of-the-art and full of the myriad influences that are shaping the harp in the 21st century.

“We strive not only to integrate the harp into traditional Irish music,” she explains, “but also to ensure that she keeps an eye on the repertoire of her harpists, which is unique to the harp. Irish and cannot be matched anywhere else. in the world. “

McCrann’s education of young harpists in harp ensembles may be seen as at odds with the traditional perception of the harp as a solo instrument, but it is a movement that has enjoyed enormous success, given the appetite of young musicians to play together.

“It’s a newly discovered phenomenon in the Irish harp that seems to be here to stay,” notes McCrann, “although it does not belong to tradition as it was. But that’s where it is at this point. It raises the bar and provides musical, social and developmental opportunities for young harp players and exposes them to new influences, and it pushes them to explore.


Donnchadh Hughes is a 17 year old Dundalk harpist who enjoys playing in ensemble.

“I started on the transverse flute and the tin whistle, so when I picked up the harp, I had the tunes between my fingers,” he explains nonchalantly. “I love the harp repertoires of O’Carolan and Thomas Connellan. They are amazing. You can never be bored. And the tunes are all so different. O’Carolan’s concerto was so inspired by Vivaldi and baroque music, and some of his other O’Carolan pieces sound like modern music.

Donnchadh Hughes

Donnchadh Hughes

Gilchrist’s recent collaborations with Appalachian percussion dancer Nic Gareiss are a prime example of how the harp boldly breaks free from its old identity as a distinguished instrument rooted in the past.

“When I play with Nic, I feel like my notes come together, take shape and dance back,” says Gilchrist. “Collaborating with Nic brings rhythm and syncope to the fore. When I play solo I can play grooves or similar patterns well, but maybe it wouldn’t be experienced the same by the audience as this very rhythmic playing. Nic is a fantastic musician and his approach to music is that of a percussionist. We really have to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. So he plays with his feet and I dance with my instrument. It is a total joy.

Gilchrist’s collaboration with the RTÉ Con Tempo Quartet is inspired by Beckett’s novel, Watt. Beckett’s tongue rhythms were an inspiration to her in this commission from the Edinburgh Harp Festival.

“I was reading Watt and listening to a recording of a great monologue by actor Jack McGowran,” says Maeve, “where he talks about his father’s father, and his mother’s mother and his father’s mother. , And so on. It’s that really intensely paced musical spiel about ancestry and I love the pace of it and its loving but irreverent synopsis of the year.

“As I read it,” she recalls, “I was in the studio, playing with lots of textures and reflecting on the tiny sounds of the world: the unfurling of a leaf or the sound of a small blade. of grass crunching across the earth. Then I wanted to use the harp and its strings as its own type of living organism, and for me that played on the idea of ​​the cyclical turn of the year. It’s a 3 movement piece, and inside we incorporate samples of Jack McGowran reading parts of the monologue, and I’ve also read parts of it myself.

For Maeve Gilchrist, the harp offers her endless possibilities, which she has only begun to exploit in recent years.

“The further I go down this path, the more I zoom out, because I’m interested in seeing music through a larger lens,” she suggests. “It has been a real gift because it keeps me from getting stuck in the math of my fingers. It makes me move away from the hand positions I’m so comfortable with and think a lot more about color and texture, sound and conversation. I feel that now that I’ve been there, I couldn’t go back. I have the impression that the instrument gives me all these new outlets for my artistic voice. And I’m so glad the harp is my instrument because it has such a unique color palette.

The Irish International Harp Festival from Sunday June 30, to Friday July 5

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