Historical Harp Society of Ireland

Monday, December 06, 2010

Director's Report

Summer School of Early Irish Harp

The Historical Harp Society of Ireland held its eighth annual Scoil na gCláirseach–Summer School of Early Irish Harp this year from Wed. 18th - Tues. 24th August at the School of Music in Kilkenny, Ireland. This year, Scoil na gCláirseach was officially opened for us by one of Ireland's leading historians—and HHSI board member—Prof. Dáibhi Ó Cróinín.

Our theme for this year was A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes, the first collection of Irish music ever to be published in Ireland, in the early 18th century. Much of the repertoire in the collection is harp-related. 2010 saw the publication of a new, and very handsome, facsimile edition edited by Nicholas Carolan of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, so it was with pleasure that we invited him to give a talk about the collection to our students and staff as one of our Scoil presentations.

The Scoil director and staff tutor, Siobhán Armstrong [IRL], was joined by some of the cream of the world's early Irish harping tutors, performers and lecturers including the doyenne of the modern international revival of the early Irish harp, Ann Heymann [USA] and Dr. Andrew Lawrence-King [Guernsey], the world's foremost historical harpist.

Our academic staff included Simon Chadwick, organologist and founder of earlygaelicharp.info. He was joined by our scholar-in-residence: Ireland's primary published authority in the area, Seán Donnelly. Dr. Mary O'Donnell gave us a guest presentation of her work to date on early 19th century harps. One of our most breath-taking presentations ever was a lecture given by Scoil attendee, Karen Loomis, who has begun to undertake in-depth organological study of some of the surviving instruments, at the University of Edinburgh. She presented us with the first ever 3-D CAT-scan imagery of the internal structures of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps.

Notwithstanding the global recession, which continued in 2010, we were delighted that the Scoil was one of our largest ever: twenty-six players and additional auditors each day from ten nations: Ireland (both south and north), England, Scotland, France, Norway, Poland, Russia, the USA, Canada and Japan. The harpists ranged from children to adults, amateur to professional harpists. The auditors were likewise drawn from Ireland, both north and south of the border and from abroad: harpists and other musicians, historians, Irish language experts and those working in media.

Each morning, the students divided into three groups, which were taught in turn, intensively, by the three tutors. Each afternoon was taken up with practical seminars, talks and lectures on relevant subjects. Our 2010 timetable is still visible at http://www.irishharpschool.com/timetable.htm

Scoil students study the techniques and repertory played on the instrument from medieval times to the 18th century. Our unique two-tiered system of lectures for less and more advanced students continues each year along with masterclasses, seminars and lectures on such wide ranging subjects as

  • An introduction to 18th century music manuscripts:
    With particular reference to Bunting MS 29, Edward Bunting’s notebook at the 1792 harpers’ meeting in Belfast
  • “The Grand Secret”: in search of 18th century Irish harp technique
  • An Introduction to the Early Irish Harp Tradition
    Its history and cultural background
  • Mary Maguire’s Notebook: Minuets Step by Step
  • Binary Music Systems and Stirling Head 20
  • ‘A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes’
    John & William Neal, Dublin 1724: The earliest Irish publication of Irish music.
  • Q & A session with Seán Donnelly, Scoil na gCláirseach’s scholar-in-residence
  • Bunting's Irish Harp Techniques: in Theory & Practice
  • “The True Art”: 18th century style and aesthetics
  • Styles & Genres; Patrons & Fashions:
    A look at early Irish harp repertory: those who played it and the people who listened.
  • Learning to sing a song in Irish from the early Irish harpers’ repertory
    ‘Molly Halfpenny’ by William Connellan from A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes
  • A new look at two ancient harps: the Lamont and Queen Mary give up their secrets. Images and results revealed for the first time at Scoil na gCláirseach
  • ‘faithfully Corrected by the best Masters here’
    Editorial intervention in Neal’s A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes, Dublin 1724: issues of pulse, metre, structure, mode and phrasing.
  • Instruments, Replicas and Terminology
  • What are we doing and why?
    A discussion of issues relating to historical music and modern performance

As usual, it was a very intensive week of practical performance and study but the energetic student body (and staff!) managed both to work hard by day and carry on practising, making music, socialising and playing sessions late into the evening! As is usual each year, we went on a field trip to Dublin on our final summer school day to study many of the surviving instruments held in museum, university and private collections. Our thanks to The Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin; The National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks and The Guinness Storehouse Museum for their kind help with our field trip.

Thanks to the HHSI's Student Harp Bank and the generosity of friends, we were able to provide the twelve student copies of historic harps, which we needed for Scoil students who did not have their own harp. Students played copies of the Trinity College, Queen Mary, Lamont, Otway and Downhill harps from the HHSI Student Harp range. These instruments are currently available through our on-line shop, which can be visited at http://www.irishharp.org/shop/

There were in-house tutor concerts on three of the afternoons given by Heymann, Armstrong and Lawrence-King.

The support of the An Chomhairle Ealaíon (The Arts Council) and Kilkenny County Council, in a difficult financial year, made it possible for the HHSI to present just one public concert in our Summer Concert Series this year.

‘The Most Celebrated Irish Tunes’: Haunting Airs of the Old Harpers and Exquisite Arias by Mr. Handel took place in the lovely 19th century setting of St. Patrick’s Church in Kilkenny. Ann Heymann and Siobhan Armstrong played repertoire from Neals’ Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes on early Irish harps. In addition to thrilling transcriptions of Handel, played on Irish harp, Andrew Lawrence-King accompanied tenor John Elwes, on chromatic Italian baroque harp, in some of the most beautiful and virtuosic of Handel’s arias. The latter was closely associated with the Neals during his time in Dublin. The HHSI would like to thank Fr. Dan Carroll and St. Patrick’s Parish, Diocese of Ossory, for their kind help with—and sponsorship of—this concert.


Despite the economic downturn of the last two years or so, Scoil na gCláirseach—Summer School of Early Irish Harp continues to flourish each year and to bring together people from all round the world who share a passion for early Irish music and culture and who wish to deepen their knowledge of, and ability to perform on, early Irish harp. For many of those who attend, it is the sole possibility each year to spend time with other students and experts in the field. The Historical Harp Society of Ireland is grateful to the teaching staff who support such a unique international event and is also particularly appreciative of the dedicated Scoil students, without whom none of this would take place.

Our thanks also go to An Chomhairle Ealaíon (The Arts Council), Mary Butler and the Arts Office of Kilkenny County Council, Philip Edmonson and Kilkenny School of Music, Jane Carter, Maura Uí Chróinín, Sylvia Crawford and Galway Early Music, John Elwes and all our HHSI Patrons, Supporters and Associate Members, for whose support we are very grateful.

Le meas,

Siobhán Armstrong
Scoil na gCláirseach—Summer School of Early Irish Harp


Photo credits: Pat Moore, Pat Moore, HHSI, Karen Loomis, Christine Rolin. Please click here to view the Scoil 2010 photo album.