Historical Harp Society of Ireland

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Scoil na gCláirseach 2011 Report

Summer School of Early Irish Harp
Kilkenny, Ireland
August 2011

Here is a photo album: http://www.irishharpschool.com/2011/photos/

The Historical Harp Society of Ireland held its ninth annual Scoil na gCláirseach–Summer School of Early Irish Harp from Wed. 17th to Tues. 23rd August at Kilkenny School of Music, 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 of N.U.I. Galway.

We chose a Scottish theme for 2011: our tuition, lectures, talks and concerts concentrated on Gaelic harp repertory, which has survived in Scottish manuscripts and printed sources.

The Scoil director and staff tutor,
Siobhán Armstrong [IRL], was joined by some of the cream of the world's historical 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], probably 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.

We were particularly delighted this year to welcome to Kilkenny two Scottish guest performers and scholars who are outstanding in their fields. Scotland's pre-eminent historical piper, Barnaby Brown, is dedicated to revealing the ancient artistic traditions of Scotland’s music. Griogair Labhruidh, is one of Scotland's foremost young Gaelic singers who has resurrected numerous songs and tunes, which have been forgotten in contemporary Gaelic Scotland, through his research into his tradition.

We were also joined by Karen Loomis, a PhD student in Music at the University of Edinburgh, who is researching the construction of the early Gaelic harps of Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, using modern technology to unlock the secrets of these historical instruments. For the second year in a row, she gave us breath-taking, 3-D images of the Lamont harp and the Queen Mary as part of her riveting talk. It was quite a thrill for Scoil staff, and students alike, to be able to explore the internal structure of late medieval harps using 21st century technology.

Notwithstanding the global recession, which continued in 2011, we were delighted that the Scoil had only a few less than its usual numbers: twenty-three players and additional auditors each day from twelve nations: Ireland (both south and north), England, Scotland, France, Czech Republic, the Canary Islands, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, the USA, Canada and Japan. The harpists ranged from children to adults and amateur to professional standard. 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.

We were particularly pleased, this year, to have some very enthusiastic Irish teenagers take part in the Scoil. Since we exist to help revive the playing of the early Irish harp, both here in Ireland as well as further afield, having younger Irish people take such an active interest is to be celebrated.

As usual, 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 2011 timetable is still visible at

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 continued this year along with masterclasses, seminars and lectures on such wide-ranging subjects as

Uncovering the Magic of Medieval Music:
A Practical Guide to Irish Music Modes

“When Love on Time and Measure makes his Ground”
Rhythm in 17th-century music

An Introduction to the Early Gaelic Harp Traditions:
Their history and cultural background

The Harper’s Humours”
Authentic Passions in Early Music

An Introduction to Ceòl Mór

The Canntaireachd Sources of Ceòl Mór
Full immersion in the historical mode of transmission: singing

How to study, how to practice
Training mind and fingers: lessons from the ceòl mór tradition

Harping in Scotland
From a piper’s perspective

Ireland and Scotland
An overview of the connections, similarities and differences between Gaelic harp traditions across Ireland and Scotland

Learning to sing a song in Gaelic from the early Gaelic harpers’ repertory

The Brave New World of the Old Gaelic Harps: How CT scanning has transformed our understanding of these iconic instruments
The latest discoveries and more astonishing images of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps

An Introduction to ‘Figures’ from Historical Sources

The Inchcolm Antiphoner c.1340:
Learn to read and perform plain chant from one of the earliest surviving Scottish music manuscripts

Understanding the Scottish sources
Comparing Scots and Gaelic; vocal, pipe and fiddle; 17th, 18th and 19th century.

It was, I think, for all of us, an inspiring and intensive week of playing and academic study but the energetic students (and staff!) as usual somehow managed both to work hard by day and carry on practising, making music, socialising and playing sessions late into the evening, both at the School of Music and in various establishments in the city!

We went on our now traditional 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 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

There were in-house tutor concerts on three of the afternoons given by Ann Heymann, Siobhan Armstrong and Andrew Lawrence-King. Each of the three concerts concentrated on different aspects of Scottish Gaelic repertoire.

Also noteworthy in Andrew Lawrence-King’s concert was that he played some 17th century English music on an experimental and beautiful chromatic Irish harp, based on the Cloyne fragments, designed and built by the English scholar and player, Tristram Robson, who kindly donated the instrument, along with his library, to the HHSI this year, a bequest which honours us greatly.

The support of the Deis funding scheme at An Chomhairle Ealaíon (The Arts Council) made it possible for the HHSI to present three public concerts in our Summer Concert Series this year, in addition to our in-house concerts:

Mac-talla nan Dun: Echoes of a Gaelic Chieftain’s Court
This was a unique presentation of the kind of music that might have been heard at a Gaelic chieftain’s court from the late Middle Ages to the 18
th century: the ancient and very evocative triple pipes, ceòl mór on the great pipes, and late medieval Gaelic vocal repertory, together with reconstructions of medieval to 18th century harper compositions.

The five Scoil staff performers, with the addition of Gaelic singer Talitha MacKenzie, performed in St. Patrick’s Church, Kilkenny; the medieval Holy Trinity Church in Fethard (in assoc. with Fethard Historical Society) and in one of Dublin’s oldest and most appropriately historical churches, St. Audoen’s.

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

Our thanks also to An Chomhairle Ealaíon (The Arts Council), Philip Edmonson and Kilkenny School of Music, Jane Carter, Maura Uí Chróinín, Galway Early Music, John Elwes and all our HHSI Patrons, Supporters and Associate Members, for whose support we are very grateful. We would also like to thank the staff of the Office of Public Works at St. Audoen’s, and the Canon and parish of St. Audoen’s, in addition to Fethard Historical Society and the Parish of St. Patrick’s, Kilkenny.

We very much look forward to 2012, when we will be celebrating the tenth Scoil na gCláirseach! This will take place 8th-14th August.

Le meas,

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



The HHSI (http://www.irishharp.org) was founded in 2002 and leads a revival of Ireland’s historical harp. In addition to Scoil na gClairseach, the Society’s activities include providing an international information service; providing year round nationwide tuition; a members’ lending and reference library; a student harp rental scheme and an on-line shop. For more information, and to become a member, please visit www.irishharp.org

Scoil na gCláirseach is kindly supported by An Chomhairle Ealaíon / The Arts Council.