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Trip to the Cottage

Trip to the Cottage

The cover of the Trip to the Cottage tape. Left to right: Dave Lyth, Michael Feely, Bev Whelan, Gordon Johnston.

Last night’s session at the Lord Ashton was a trip down memory lane; or, more accurately, a Trip to the Cottage.

That is rather a cryptic thing to say, so I shall elaborate. In 1991, I was one of a bunch of musicians with connections to Lancaster who made a recording called Trip to the Cottage. The musicians on the tape – no CDs in those days! – were Dave Lyth (fiddle), Michael Feely (flute), Gordon Johnston (banjo/guitar), and myself on flute and whistle.

The recording was made in Dave’s house, which has the enigmatic words ‘Vi Cottage’ etched in the stone over the door. A proper cottage industry, therefore, was Trip to the Cottage! Our sound engineer was my good friend Mike Allen (frequently mentioned in these pages for his excellent fiddle playing), and the cover was designed by local photographer and jazz musician Barrie Marshall.

We probably sold three or four dozen of them after it was released, and whilst it didn’t exactly rock the trad world, it was nice to discover that a radio station in the north of Ireland regularly played tracks from it on the air. Tapes became obsolete soon after that, of course, and sales dried up completely. Rumour has it that a forlorn box of unsold copies still lurks in the depths of Dave’s cellar, waiting to be discovered by future generations who will no doubt shake their heads in puzzlement at this bunch of strange objects, featuring people they have never heard of.

We were destined never to hit the big time, but of course the tape is a nice memento of those days for those of us who were involved. Here’s a sample of what it sounded like. This is me on flute, along with Gordon playing both banjo and guitar. Wow, we were cutting edge, with all that multi-tracking! This set of reels is the Old Copperplate followed by the New Copperplate:

Fast forward to the present. It was a quiet night at the Lord Ashton last night, with several of our regulars away, and by chance the four of us who turned up included three of the original musicians on Trip to the Cottage – myself, Gordon and Dave. We ended up playing set-after-set of nostalgic tunes from our past, including several that were on the tape, ably accompanied by Paul Beevers on bouzouki. It was all very laid back and pleasant, and brought back lovely memories of those days.

Dave Lyth (fiddle), Bev Whelan (flute), Gordon Johnston (banjo) and Paul Beevers (bouzouki).

Dave Lyth (fiddle), Bev Whelan (flute), Gordon Johnston (banjo) and Paul Beevers (bouzouki).

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A Doxy’s Tale

After I posted about the sponsored walk I went on in aid of Luke Kelly’s charity (in my post Walking the Wyre), my friend Ross Campbell recalled how we got back to Fleetwood from Knott End at the end of the walk:

I remember that when we got to Knott End the ferry was temporarily unable to reach the slipway because of the low tide and the build-up of silt alongside, and Bev (terrified of water) had to get in a tiny inflatable dinghy that was taking passengers out to where the ferry sat in deeper water. Of course, as soon as they had safely transferred to the Fleetwood side, the incoming tide enabled the ferry to pick everybody else up as normal.

Yes, that was pretty horrible! But considering I’m not a fan of water, and never could bring myself to learn how to swim, there seems to have been a continuing seafaring theme in my life, nevertheless. I’ve long loved stories of the sea, having been drawn to films and books about the age of sail my entire life. Also, there is a strong tradition of seafaring in my family. My grandfather, Paddy Whelan, left Ireland and joined the merchant navy at a very young age, whilst my father John Whelan was also in the navy in his youth, and in later life worked as a trawlerman out of Fleetwood.

Here are my nautical forebears in their naval days, my grandfather Paddy Whelan on the left, and my dad John Whelan on the right in his HMS Impregnable cap:

.

Me, however, I prefer to keep my feet on dry land, thank you very much, which is perhaps why the nickname ‘The Doxy’, given to me by some of my writing friends when I took a visiting group of writers to the Lancaster Maritime Festival and ruthlessly subjected them to sea shanties, is perhaps an appropriate one. Docks, yes! Open sea, no thanks!

A doxy, of course, is a name given to a woman who plies her feminine wares on the docks, as illustrated aptly by a song I love to sing with my friend Ross, the Banks of Newfoundland:

And round the docks, curled around in flocks,

Those pretty girls do stand.

Saying, “It’s snugger wi’ me, than it is at sea,

On the Banks of Newfoundland.”

I can certainly recall several notable occasions when I have lurked at the docks with a bunch of salty seadogs and balladeers of the sea. Over the years Fleetwood has attracted visits from the occasional tall ship, and shantymen (and women) have inexorably flocked to those ships like shoals of herring into a trawlerman’s net. Yours truly, The Doxy, has flocked along with them. After all, these particular ships were safely moored in the dock, not out on the ocean wave!

Here are a series of mementos from one such visit: a folk concert on board the Winston Churchill in 1984. I still have a ticket for this event. It was in aid of Fleetwood lifeboat, an extremely worthy cause. The £2.50 entrance fee seems outlandishly good value in this day and age, especially as it covered hotpot and red cabbage as well!

Here I am, all young and doxilicious, playing under a tarpaulin on deck with Fylde supergroup, Thistle. I was a founder member of this band, who have gone on (since I left!) to be hugely popular, with an enormously enthusiastic local following. The handsome young man in the cap is Mike Hayes, another founder member who is still with the band even after all these years:

Mike Hayes and Bev Whelan.

Mike Hayes and Bev Whelan.

The rest of Thistle can be seen below! Malcolm Shellard was the singer back then. A lovely man who I consider to be one of my best friends in the universe, even though we hardly ever see or hear from each other these days. My brother Kevin Whelan is playing the fiddle, and Bernie Brewin (the only one in this photo still with the band today) is on the bass.

Malcolm Shellard, Kevin Whelan and Bernie Brewin

Malcolm Shellard, Kevin Whelan and Bernie Brewin

I have already mentioned my good friend Ross Campbell, so here he is, no doubt entertaining the assembled with songs of decks being scrubbed and a good old lick of the cat:

Ross Campbell

Ross Campbell

This is Ian Woods, a well known and highly respected shanty singer from Suffolk:

Ian Woods

Ian Woods

This is the sort of sordid shenanigans that occurred as the night progressed and everyone got into the rum and ship’s biscuits. A bit of hornpipe action on deck!

Look at the state of his feet, that deck needs a good scrub!

Look at the state of his feet, that deck needs a good scrub with holy stone and sand!

And here is a photo of a different event. It is another folk concert on a tall ship moored in Fleetwood, this time on board the Malcolm Miller, circa 1986. The band was called Thingummyjig, and the members were (left to right) Andy Murphy on uilleann pipes, me on concertina, Penny Towers on vocals, Bob Singleton on bass, and my brother Rick Whelan on guitar. It was the first band I had ever been in where all the band members were roughly my age; up to that point I’d always been the baby:

Andy Murphy, Bev Whelan, Penny Towers, Bob Singleton and Rick Whelan, AKA Thingummyjig.

Andy Murphy, Bev Whelan, Penny Towers, Bob Singleton and Rick Whelan, AKA Thingummyjig.

I’m going to leave this post with some recent seafaring music, in a thoroughly modern style. One of my favourite bands of current times is The Sail Pattern, whose music I regard as joy personified. I can never fail to see them perform live and come away thoroughly uplifted, as well as hoarse from having given my shanty harmonies a good workout. And I have to add that not only are they fantastic musicians, but a nicer bunch of lads you could never hope to meet.

Here they are singing ‘Farewell and Adieu to you Spanish Ladies’ in their unique style:

Walking the Wyre

Luke Kelly

Luke Kelly

One of the reasons I started up this blog was to document some of my musical memories, in the hope that others who were there at the time (and maybe those who were not!) will also find it of interest. Here, therefore, is an account of a sponsored walk by Fylde folkies in 1984, and also a video of an earlier walk that took place in 1972 and helped inspire it.

In January 1984, Luke Kelly, the great singer with The Dubliners, died after a long period of ill health following operations to remove a brain tumour. He was only 44 years old.

Following Luke’s death, a bunch of folkies from the Fylde went on a sponsored walk to raise money for the charity set up in his name, the Luke Kelly Brain Trust Fund.

I still have a copy of the press photo taken as we set off on our 20 mile trek. Leading off are Jim Smith on guitar, Kevin Whelan on fiddle, myself – oh so young and slim! – on whistle, and Andy Murphy on guitar. Following behind I see Peter, Jutta Isenberg (organiser of the walk), Ross Campbell, and further back Dick Gillingham and Dave Pearce. Who else can you recognise? Help me put names to faces in the comments!

Walk

I can’t remember how much we raised, but it was an enjoyable (and exhausting!) event. We took a circular route, starting and ending up in Fleetwood via Shard Bridge and Knott End. It was a really sunny day, and the countryside was beautiful. I remember pausing for a few tunes and pints in a riverside pub somewhere along the route, I forget exactly where, but it was very welcome at that point in time!

I think our walk followed part of the same route as the famous Wyre Walk, which had taken place 12 years earlier and ended up being the precursor to the Fylde Folk Festival. I wasn’t on that earlier walk, as I was only eight years old in 1972, so my knowledge of it comes mainly through listening to people talk about it so fondly, even after all these years. It has become somewhat of a Fylde legend, passed down through generations of folkies, and was a definite inspiration for the walk we did for Luke Kelly in 1984.

Here is a video of the 1972 Wyre Walk. It is a lot of fun to watch, especially to see all those glimpses of younger incarnations of veteran Fylde folkies like Ian Gartside, as well as Alan and Christine Bell and their son Alistair as a tiny toddler. Also it’s very moving to see some of the lovely ones who have left us, including the narrator of the video, Brian Osborne, who was a member of the Taverner’s folk group and a good friend with whom I played quite a bit of music in the 1980s. Also, right at the end there is a fleeting glimpse of ‘Big’ Pete Rodger, also of the Taverners, not only ‘big’ in stature, but also a big personality and big hearted as well:

My Heart is Full

The incredibly beautiful Langdale valley

The incredibly beautiful Langdale valley

I can be a bit fatalistic at times, especially when it feels like things are going just that bit too well. Therefore I have long suspected that one day I will go to Langdale Festival, and it won’t be as good. Each time the twice-yearly festival comes around I mentally prepare myself for this eventuality, dreading that this next festival will be the one where it all starts to go downhill. “It can’t be like this forever,” I tell myself. “All good things must come to an end.”

I’m always relieved to be proved wrong, and last weekend was no exception. The most recent Langdale Festival showed absolutely no signs of a slippery slope down into the doldrums. Instead, it’s like we rounded a corner to see yet another shining peak rise before us out of the mist, with the clear prospect of even more dizzy heights of fun to come. All of the usual suspects, it seems, just keep on keeping on, and the younger generation, who we old folkies must rely upon to carry the musical torch into the future, are very confidently and competently striding ahead on the path.

For the uninitiated Great Langdale, where the Langdale Festival is held, is a glacial valley north of Ambleside in the Lake District. Dramatic peaks rise almost vertically out of the flat valley floor, the mercurial weather and the stark, unspoilt scenery making it look and feel like a timeless oasis at the end of the world. At the head of the valley the only signs of habitation are the National Trust campsite, a farm, and the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where the festival takes place.

The ODG Hikers Bar

The ODG Hikers Bar

The ODG or the ‘Old’ as many of its patrons call it (to distinguish it from the ‘New’ Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, further back down the valley), is a 300 year old coaching inn run, rather conveniently for we musical types, by fiddle player Neil Walmsley. It is famed the world over, particularly for its ‘Hikers Bar’ in the converted byre of the hotel, complete with preserved cow stalls transformed into seating. Such is its allure that the ODG has had its fair share of famous regular visitors over the years, including Chris Bonington, Jimmy Page, Roy Harper, Mike Harding, members of Fairport Convention and countless others, as well as the many thousands of less eminent walkers and climbers who have passed through its doors. One reason for its popularity is its unparalleled location; another is that the ODG has a decades-long reputation as a spontaneous venue for music of various kinds, often played by the very people who head off in the morning to walk and climb the fells roundabout.

Janice, still a bad influence after all these years!

Janice, still a bad influence after all these years!

I was introduced to Langdale at the tender age of 18, in the company of my (then) more worldly-wise friend Janice, a fellow folkie who was already an established Langdale-ite at that time. We travelled up in Janice’s campervan for the weekend, accompanied by her black labrador Bess, and proceeded to drink the valley dry of Youngers Number 3 ale, appropriately served up in pewter tankards. Tunes were played, songs were sung, lifelong friendships were forged, and my love affair with Langdale went careering through my life thereafter like a force ten gale down Mickleden Beck. I urged family and friends to come with me the next time, and almost immediately they were in love with it too. Thirty years later we’re all still going up there anytime we can, every bit as infatuated with Langdale now as we were all those years ago.

A very young me playing the flute with friends in the ODG in 1983

A very young me playing the flute with friends in the ODG in 1983

Twenty years ago, the Langdale Charity Folk Festival sprang out of the firmament of the like-minded souls who frequent the valley. Music was being played there anyway, so the reasoning went. Why not keep on playing, but make an effort to do some real, tangible good at the same time? And so charities were adopted, and the festival was born. Since its inception, the festival has raised thousands of pounds for the Search and Rescue Dogs Association, the Great North Air Ambulance and Fix the Fells, all causes close to the hearts of the walkers, climbers and (let’s not underestimate it) drinkers of Langdale.

The positive benefits of our fundraising were demonstrated in stark relief last weekend when, as we played and sang all cozy and warm in the ODG, a real-life rescue was taking place at that very moment on the cold, wet mountain behind the hotel. On this occasion, there was a happy ending as the stranded walker – afflicted with hyperthermia – was brought safely down off the fells.

An extremely heroic dog with collection buckets. If you're ever passing through the Lakes, please put a few coins in the mountain rescue collection tins

An extremely heroic dog with collection buckets. If you’re ever passing through the Lakes, please put a few coins in the mountain rescue collection tins

Afterwards the mountain rescue team (all of whom are unpaid volunteers), accompanied by their rescue dogs, came to drink a well-earned pint in the ODG and listen to the music. The rescued walker, still in shock but very much alive thanks to their intervention, came to join us as well. The whole episode was a poignant reminder of the very real motivation behind our festival: a celebration of life at its most joyful, along with selfless compassion for it at its most vulnerable. I don’t think, in the current climate of austerity and blame, that you can get a more salient reminder of the innate goodness of humanity than that.

A consequence of so many years of association with Langdale Festival has been the bittersweet juxtaposition of a large group of friends all growing old together, so that we’ve long-since got to a point where no one is ever shocked by anyone’s behaviour, and we all accept each other without judgment, exactly as we are. There’s something very comforting about having one place in the world where you can be unashamedly yourself, safe in the knowledge that your friends still like you, warts and all.

A photo of Ethan Thomas, inserted into this part of the post where I talk about drinking for no particular reason whatsoever

A photo of Ethan Thomas, inserted into this part of the post where I talk about drinking for no particular reason whatsoever

The very first time I visited Langdale with Janice, was the very first time I fell asleep with my head down the Hikers Bar toilet. It’s a rite of passage in Langdale to get steaming drunk, and be looked after (and have the piss taken out of you) by your friends. Some of us might even (ahem) have done it more than once. It was encouraging to see this fine tradition being passed down to one of the younger performers at the most recent festival, and to see people being just as caring (and gently sarcastic) in the aftermath. For the young person in question, who shall remain nameless, don’t worry. One day that sense of crippling embarrassment will fade, and you will be just as blasé about earning your Langdale hangovers as the rest of us!

It’s not only the fine tradition of drinking and craic that is being passed down through the generations, but the music too, and this is very evident within my own family. Throughout the weekend my son Eoin wowed everyone with his harp and guitar playing, whilst my younger son Rowan, newly obsessed with his own burgeoning musical development, could be found at various times playing mandolin, Irish tenor banjo and guitar. Cue me being a very proud mother indeed, as these are children who have found their own way to music through love of it, and ultra-talented they are too. Meanwhile, my niece Katy and nephew Simon, who have been coming to Langdale since babyhood, were on the bill as a trio with Katy’s fiancé Chris Ainsworth. Katy has the most incredible voice, a true show-stopper, and I am not ashamed to say my heart was full listening to her sing in the Saturday afternoon concert in the ODG lounge.

My sons rocking out in the ODG residents bar: Rowan on the banjo, and Eoin on the mandolin

My sons rocking out in the ODG residents bar: Rowan on the banjo, and Eoin on the mandolin

My heart was full for so many other reasons too. Singing ‘Pleasant and Delightful’ with my sister Christine. Playing endless Irish tunes with one of my favourite fiddlers, Mike Allen. Throwing together a band made up of ‘Bev and Friends’, and upsetting the soundman because I invited so many friends that there were not enough inputs in the P.A. system. Performing my usual reunion gig with Jim and Mike, who I played in a band with in the 1980s. Eclectic music sessions with Mike, Mik, Den, Dougie, Celia, Ross, Jim, Rod and so many more, and watching concerts by such excellent performers as Stanley Accrington, Bill Lloyd, Phil Simpson and Ethan Thomas, all of them giving their time and talent for free.

It’s a bit special, is Langdale Festival. One day it might not be as good, but today is not that day. ODG Lounge by Resh

Irish Music Weekend, Lancaster – Recap

I managed to get out to play on Saturday night at the Irish Music Weekend in Lancaster. We started off in The Moorlands, then moved on to the Robert Gillow which had arranged a late licence so we could play into the early hours. It was my first time playing at a full-on Irish session since September 2012, when I broke my wrist. My wrist is a bit sore today, but not too much the worse for wear, which is a huge relief. My hangover is another matter!

Some pictures below, plus a video of the late night session at the Gillow, filmed by Barrie Marshall.

Pipe Dreams

All my recent focus on harps and harpists reminded me of this video of myself and harp player Celia Briar, which was filmed at the Priory Church of St. Mary in Lancaster in December 2010:


Known locally simply as The Priory, the ancient church sits on top of Castle Hill beside Lancaster Castle. It’s a very beautiful building, on a site that was once a Roman fort, old enough that archaeological investigations have revealed elements of a fifth century Saxon church incorporated into it.

Lucy, the Project Officer, filming at the back of the church, surrounded by ghostly orbs.

Lucy, the Project Officer, filming at the back of the church, surrounded by ghostly orbs.

The concert we did there, Pipe Dreams, was in support of the Pipe Organ Project, which aimed to secure lottery funding to replace the electronic organ in the church with a magnificent pipe organ, a Willis III dated from 1913, as well as a smaller pipe organ in the north chancel (both of which are now in place). It was one of many music events that took place there during the course of the project, which also strove to raise the profile of the Priory as a cultural space for the use of the entire local community, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.

The alternative Women's Institute take over the high church of Lancaster!

The alternative Women’s Institute take over the high church of Lancaster!

Pipe Dreams was organised by Project Officer (and good friend) Lucy Reynolds, and was a real community effort, with lighting provided by Izzi Wilkinson and fellow performing arts students from Preston College as part of a BTEC assignment, whilst some decidedly un-churchy friends of both Lucy and myself served tea and buns like an alternative, irreverent Women’s Institute.

It snowed heavily during the evening, which somehow added to the magic, and the children who were there (including my two) gleefully ran amok in a big pack outside, playing in the otherwise undisturbed snow on Castle Hill.

Pipe DreamsThe music was very eclectic, with the jazz improvisation of Stephen Grew’s World Line Ensemble, songs and tunes on a variety of different bagpipes from Bill Lloyd, the singer-songwriting and piano playing virtuosity of Chas Ambler, and an abridged version of popular local band The Manfredis, featuring the amazingly talented Chele Stevenson (when she wasn’t serving tea!) on vocals.

Celia and myself finished off the night playing music by O’Carolan, some music composed by ourselves,  and a variety of traditional tunes.

The Pipe Dreams concert, in the beautiful Priory with the snow falling outside, was a very special experience. The acoustics were amazing, with our flute and harp effortlessly filling the interior right up to the rafters.

It was such a privilege to be given the opportunity to play in such a beautiful, iconic local building.

The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls

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The Brian Boru harp. Picture from The Irish Book of Days (1994)

I took my children on a short holiday to Dublin in August 2008. We spent four fantastic days there, visiting the Zoological Gardens, Phoenix Park, St Stephen’s Green, various museums and historical sites, and eating in what became our favourite restaurant, the Bad Ass Café in Temple Bar.

Of course I just had to take the boys to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the Brian Boru harp. After spending a good while looking at the former, we reached The Long Room where my older son Eoin, who was then nine years old, became transfixed by the harp. He spent a long time in front of the glass case, looking closely at it from every angle. As he gazed at it I read out to him information from the signs: that it was the national emblem of Ireland, depicted on coins and the Guinness logo and uncounted cultural items worldwide. That the harp had been restored in recent times, and that recordings had been made of it being played. Eoin was so entranced by it, it was almost impossible to eventually convince him that that it was time to go.

In the gift shop afterwards, the harp was all Eoin was interested in. We bought a harp fridge magnet (which still has pride of place on my fridge), and numerous postcards featuring the harp. When we arrived back home in England a few days later, Eoin looked relentlessly for pictures and information about the Brian Boru harp – and other harps – on the internet. He drew pictures of harps in sketchbooks, and became obsessed by playing a game on the computer – Fate – which featured the music of O’Carolan, played by a traditional harpist, on its soundtrack.

Later that year I took my sons to a concert in Lancaster, featuring harpist Wendy Stewart. Eoin went to chat to her in the interval, and declared his desire to learn the harp. Very kindly, Wendy let him have a go on hers. It was the first time Eoin ever got his hands on an actual harp, and absolutely confirmed his desire to learn to play it himself.

And so we reach back in time, to gather another thread to weave into the tale.

A very young Bev, in the quad at Trinity College Dublin, with Not-the-Brian-Boru-Harp

A very young Bev, in the quad at Trinity College Dublin, with Not-the-Brian-Boru-Harp

Long before my children were born, during a trip to Dublin with my friend Ross Campbell in the early 80s, I bought a harp. It cost me 50 punts in a junk shop in the Liberties. Ross and I were there on a day trip, having travelled overnight on the ferry as foot passengers from Liverpool, so had nowhere to leave the harp while we shopped. Between us we took turns carrying it around the city, where it attracted a lot of remarks from shopkeepers, fellow tourists and passers-by. We even took photos of each other with it outside Trinity College, where its earlier forebear resides.

The funny thing was that Ross and I had both wanted to see the Brian Boru harp during our visit, but had done our research imperfectly. For some reason, we thought it was at the National Museum of Ireland, which we visited, only to find no harp in sight. When we got back home and realised our mistake, our mutual friend Richard Hone teased us unmercifully about the Lost Harp of Dublin. Our inability to find the original, despite somehow managing to bring back a substitute, became an in-joke between us all for a long time.

An equally young Ross, parading the streets of Dublin with the fake Trinity harp

I got the Dublin harp restored and restrung, and played it for a little while, before losing interest to focus once more on my first love, the flute. Whilst between houses (I moved around a lot in the 80s and 90s), the harp became a rather large piece of baggage, so I ended up selling it to Ross, who felt as sentimental towards that particular instrument as I did, given how we’d discovered it together. It languished in Ross’s house for many years until 2008, when my son Eoin, having become enthralled by the Brian Boru harp, declared a desire to learn to play.

The threads converge, weaving into the present.

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Eoin in Summer 2011, playing the harp I’d brought back from Dublin in the 1980s

Most parents, should their child ask them for a harp, might struggle to meet the request. Not so I, as of course I knew where such an instrument could be found! In 2008 Ross gladly sold the Dublin harp back to me, keen to support my son’s ambitions. Having been un-played for many years, it was not in an immediately playable condition. Being a bit short of cash, it took me until summer 2011 to get it restrung. But once this had been done Eoin, whose interest in harps had only increased in the interim, at last had a harp of his own.

And so we blend another thread into the tale.

By sheer coincidence my old friend Celia Briar, a very accomplished traditional harp player who I’d played in a band with during the 1980s, was back in the UK in Summer 2011 for a protracted period (having lived in New Zealand for many years) and was able to give Eoin some lessons. He learned fast, highly motivated as he was. And Celia has been back several times since, giving Eoin lessons whenever she can. She is an immensely kind and patient teacher, and a fantastic musician who Eoin greatly respects. To our very great delight, she will soon be moving back to the UK for good.

Celia Briar gives Eoin his first harp lesson

Celia Briar gives Eoin his first harp lesson

And here is where the threads are pulled together. It turns out that Celia has a connection with the very harp that Ross and I failed to find all those years before, and that Eoin first fell in love with: the Brian Boru Harp in Trinity College Dublin.

Celia learned to play the harp from a lady called Mary Rowland. In 1961, Mary was the harpist who was invited to play Brian Boru Harp in a sound experiment, after it had been newly restored and restrung. It was the one and only time in over 200 years that it had ever been played, and it has never been played since.

About Mary Rowland and her connection with the Brian Boru harp, Celia has this to say:

Mary is the one who taught me about the celtic harp tradition in Ireland and told me lots of wonderful stories. At the time I knew her, in the late 1970s, she was in her 70s and living in east Lancashire, near Rishton. Years before she had played the famous Trinity College (Brian Boru) harp. The story she told me about that harp was as follows:

The harp had been stolen, and when it was finally found, it had been buried for some time, and was in very poor condition. It was not the sort of instrument that could easily be renovated, as the sound box was carved out of a single piece of hollowed-out willow (known then as sally).

The curators wanted a recording of it for posterity in case something else happened to it. Mary was the person they invited to do it. It sounds like a huge honour, but in fact was a nightmare for Mary!

Mary knew that these ancient wire-strung harps were meant to be played on the left shoulder, with the melody played on the left hand and the chords on the right – the opposite way round from modern harping, so she had to learn to do this. She also had to grow her nails instead of using her fingertips. This would be normal for someone who plays wire strung harp, but not for someone used to playing on gut or nylon, as Mary was.

Finally, she had to research the tunes and as far as possible the kinds of arrangements that would have been played on the harp when it was in its prime. I think the arrangement she used was similar to the style used by Denis Hempson, and noted down by Bunting at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1793. Hempson was in his 90s by then and was the only player known to be playing in the old style – the one probably used by the itinerant harpers in their heyday.

Mary took up these challenges and went ahead with the recording. That recording still exists, and by all accounts it is very strange! The harp was too weak to be brought up to tension long enough to settle down and stay in tune. It was freshly strung with brass strings for the recording, and never stayed in tune even for the length of one tune. I’m not sure if it is possible to hear the recording and imagine what the old harpers would have sounded like.

A rare audio recording of Mary Rowland playing the Brian Boru harp can be found on Simon Chadwick’s Early Gaelic Harp website. The haunting sound of it makes me shiver. The following account is given on the webpage:

In 1961, after its restoration in London, the harp was restrung by Joan Rimmer, using brass wire. It seems that Joan brought some of the strings up to tension, while harpist Mary Rowland played the harp <…> The tunes played on the audio were the Irish tune Umbo agus éiriú from Bunting and the French dance Jolivete, as well as experiments with sounding harmonics, pedal-harp style. I understand that the sound of the harp in 1961 was, despite the under-tensioned strings, a revelation to musicians who had never heard the voice of an early Gaelic harp before.

And so Mary, who was the only person to play the Brian Boru harp in 200 years, taught Celia. And now Celia teaches Eoin, who was inspired to play by gazing upon the Brian Boru harp.

Such an extraordinary warp and weft of connection, it seems to be, all of it radiating out from an ancient harp in a glass case. It makes me wonder whether, like the name of the computer game Eoin used to play, there might be a bit of fate at work too.

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Eoin in late 2012, playing a harp made by Pete Rigg of Cumbria, which has been generously loaned to him by the maker.