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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.

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Dot Whelan, Matriarch of the Whelan Family

Dot Whelan at Fylde Folk Festival
Photo by Opalpics at Flickr

My mum Dot Whelan, affectionately known to her family as ‘Dottie’, celebrated a birthday milestone this week. The Matriarch of the Whelan Family (a title she adores), whose house in Blackpool has served for more than forty years as a session venue, rehearsal room and recording studio for family and friends, is now mumblety years young. I’d tell you the exact figure but, since she’s turned lifelong obfuscation about her age into an art form, she’d probably kill me if I did!

Music was always a big part of Dottie’s life (even though it took until all her four children were in their teens and twenties for her to really strike out on her own and find her true musical niche). Growing up we always had a piano in the house, which Dottie and a variety of visiting relatives would play, and there were always plenty of acoustic guitars and mandolins around. One of my early memories is the whole family singing the Carly Simon hit You’re So Vain in unaccompanied harmony. Then there were the times, from Christmas 1977 onwards, when our family Stylophone sessions had to be experienced to be believed. Or perhaps not…

During the early 1970s, when my brother Kevin was in his rock music phase as a lead guitarist, Dottie was more than happy to have Kevin’s whole rock band practice in her front room, full drum kit, amplifiers and all. I remember all the local kids standing on our front wall, craning their necks to see inside. This was never more the case than the day when the older brother of one of the members of Kevin’s band dropped by to listen to them play. Graham’s brother was Jeff Rawle, an actor who was then well known on TV as Billy Liar, and has since gone on to find fame in Drop the Dead Donkey and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Poor Jeff didn’t know what hit him, because I unashamedly used his presence in my house to give me super-cool points with the rest of the children in the street. Unsurprisingly, he never came back after he was mobbed for autographs by a trillion primary school kids! But the band rehearsals continued, nevertheless, and by some miracle, the neighbours never complained. I’ve often thought that, if we were that disruptive today, we’d probably get served with an Asbo.

Dottie and me with Paddy Moloney in the Isle of Man, 1978

We moved house in 1976, to a location where the neighbours were less likely to be bothered by such a noisy family (a semi-detached house between two shops on a main road, rather than a quiet council estate). And in the years since, Dottie has amassed her own impressive P.A. system and recording equipment, so that sessions and rehearsals in her house (both amplified and acoustic) are still a regular occurrence even now.

In the mid-seventies Kevin cast aside rock guitar for Irish fiddle, and over the next couple of years his enthusiasm for traditional music (a legacy of our Irish grandfather Paddy Whelan, who was a tin-whistle and concertina player from Co. Waterford), transferred itself both to me and to our soon-to-be brother-in-law Mike Allen, so that the three of us became totally obsessed by playing jigs and reels. Eventually, in the late seventies, our folk/trad music nights at The Rag began, and musicians came from far and wide to play and sing there, as well as back at our house afterwards for the regular all-night sessions. Needless to say, Dottie was delighted by all of it, and did her best to support us in our traditional music endeavours.

The Homesteaders Folk Band
Bernard on guitar, Dottie on mandolin, Andy and Carol on accordion, and Rod (front) on guitar

But Dottie, of course, was not to be outdone. She’s a more than a bit of a multi-instrumentalist herself so, utilising her skills on accordion, mandolin, guitar and a vast array of percussion, she set up her own folk group: The Homesteaders Folk Band (named after our house, The Musicians’ Homestead). She also experimented musically with a variety of other local folkies, loving especially to sing in harmony. But soon Dottie got restless, even though she had a great time doing it.

The Homesteaders Country Band
Dottie and Vera are in the middle, I don’t remember the names of the other two!

Dottie had bigger visions, it seemed. She saw an opportunity to build on her folk music skills and ability to draw people together to fulfil her dream: singing country music. So over a period of time, and through several painstakingly assembled and disassembled line-ups (until she found a combination and a formula she was happy with), Dottie brought her vision to life.

The band that eventually emerged, with its origins in the Homesteaders Folk Band followed by its successor The Homesteaders Country Band, was the Nashville Cats. Resplendent in blonde wig and with a vast wardrobe of stage dresses (created by Dottie herself from charity shop evening gowns, modified and sown inventively with sequins and sparkly braid), Dottie’s professional stage persona Dolly Denver was born. With Dolly and singer/bass guitarist Dave Fulcher fronting the band, the Nashville Cats toured Northern England for more than a

Dolly Denver and Les Dawson

decade, rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Les Dawson and becoming the darling of working men’s clubs across the region. They even attracted a slightly scary following of costumed re-enactors, known as ‘The Gunslingers’, who line-danced at every Nashville Cats concert before having a mock shoot-out with their replica weapons. They only shot blanks but, for my part, I decided it was safest to never upset them!

The Nashville Cats

As the daughter of Dolly Denver, living in her house, keeping my head down and holding down a full-time job now my wild childhood was o’er, my nights of sleep were frequently broken by the band arriving home from their gigs in the early hours, rowdy and ready for a party. It was like being the parent of a rebellious teenager, except that in this case, she was my mum! My brothers, sister and I, (well aware of Dottie’s admiration for Dolly Parton), secretly called her Dolly Part One, in the usual fond sarcastic way that comes so naturally to my family.

The Cats. Left to Right: Dave Fulcher, Rick Whelan, Simon Finnie, Dolly Denver, Kevin Whelan

The Nashville Cats morphed gradually, with the increasing inclusion of family members, into the slightly more eclectic ‘The Cats’, renamed to showcase the greater variety of musical genre they now embraced. This newer (and final) iteration of the band had at last become a true family endeavour, as it included Dottie’s sons Kevin on fiddle and Rick on guitar, and grandson Simon on drums (with occasional guest appearances by a certain daughter on flute). And I think it was that final, tighter and more inward-focused version of the band that Dottie liked best, so proud is she of her musical family. It has always pleased her better than anything to sing and perform with her children and grandchildren.

Despite her focus on country music, Dottie has never relinquished her folk music roots. She is a fixture at Fylde Folk Festival every year, where she holds court whilst playing bones in the session in the Wyre Lounge, surrounded by friends and family. And in these latter years, retired from her country music heyday, she plays keyboards with folk band Scuttlebugs. She doesn’t sing so much anymore but maybe, if you ask nicely, she might do a quiet rendition of her favourite song, ‘Maggie’. And if she does, it’ll raise the hairs on your head.

Scuttlebugs, with Dottie on keyboards

So now, Dottie is mumblety years young, and not as spry as she used to be, but she still plays at more sessions and gigs than me. When I’m mumblety years young too, I want to be just like her.

Happy birthday, mum!

Doing the Time Warp Again at Langdale Festival

The Whelan Family playing at The Lane Ends (AKA The Rag) in Blackpool, 1979. Dottie is on the left playing mandolin.

When I was growing up in Blackpool, my mum had two of the downstairs internal walls of our house removed. She did so because it was getting impossible to fit everyone in for the afterhours sessions, which took place at least twice a week in our living room after we all finished playing in the local pub. The house nearly fell down, because a supporting wall got demolished. But after a real builder came to sort out the mess, we were soon playing and singing again until the early hours, except now with more elbow room.

If it was a school night, I had to get up and out of the house the next morning regardless. And I might not get much sleep the next night either, because by the age of fourteen I was playing gigs at least four or five nights a week with my folk band, Thistledown. It was a wild and unusual childhood, for sure, with both its good and not-so-good moments. But at least it wasn’t, in any sense, boring!

Thistledown in 1979. Left to Right: Mike Allen, Kevin Whelan, Bev Whelan, Malcolm Shellard, Mike Hayes

The music at those wild sessions in my mother’s house was thoroughly eclectic. Jigs and reels, country songs, bluegrass, soft rock and folk songs of every kind; the repertoire depended entirely on who turned up. And turn up they did, in their dozens. My mum had a plaque put up beside the front door, proclaiming to the world what we were all about (as if the constant music blasting out of the windows wasn’t already a clue): ‘Musicians’ Homestead’. The sign is still there and my mum Dottie, bless her heart, still goes out to play at more gigs and sessions than I do, despite her lack of mobility.

I think, perhaps, that my unusual upbringing is one reason I feel so very much at home at the Langdale Charity Folk Festival, which my sons and I (as well as other members of my family and many old friends) attended last weekend. Langdale is every bit as eclectic as those wild all-nighters in Dottie’s front room, and every bit as much ribald fun, especially during the early hours in the resident’s bar. It even has some of the same people who used to stagger back over the road from The Rag to the Homestead in the good old days, which sort of gives the impression that Blackpool has taken over the Lake District, saucy jokes and all.

One of the most wonderful things about the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where the festival is held, is that it never changes. I was a regular visitor at the ODG for several years in the eighties until I moved away, and I didn’t go back to Langdale for more than twenty years. When I did, for the 20th anniversary festival (oddly my first ever Langdale Festival, despite my long-ago association with the place), I was delighted to see that the ODG looked exactly the same as it had on my last visit. Same decor, same fantastic fiddle-playing landlord, some of the same staff and patrons, and definitely the same sense of fun. It was like going through a time warp.

Eoin playing in the session

Langdale Festival is held twice a year (in May and September), and since 2008 I have not missed a single festival. Every time I go, nostalgia juxtaposes itself uncannily with the present, to create a little oasis out of time, defined by music, fun, friendship and family. It’s the place in the universe where I feel most at ease, both musically and socially; like coming home.

I also feel like I’ve come full-circle. My older boy Eoin, who is thirteen, performed at Langdale in concert on his harp last weekend, and really enjoyed playing guitar in the late-night residents’ bar sessions. Needless to say, I can’t help but see the parallels with a wee lass all those years ago, who did something similar on the flute.

Here’s a clip of Eoin playing harp last weekend, along with me on flute, Ross Campbell on concertina, and Mike Allen on fiddle:

Music From Another Time

In September 1995, I was on a visit to South Leitrim. My partner and I got taken out by a musician friend to visit an old man he knew, so we could all play a few tunes together.

It was about three-thirty in the afternoon, and the rain had just stopped when we arrived at the end of a grassed-over lane in the middle of nowhere, somewhere on the edges of Roscommon and Leitrim. Leaving the car we went through the gate, and walked across two fields full of cattle to get to the cottage.

The old man we had gone to visit was Pa McCormack. His cottage had no electricity or piped water. He lived on his own, cooked over his open fire, and kept his bacon fresh by wrapping it in dock leaves.

Inside, the cottage was dimly lit by the fading daylight through the half-door, and the glow from the peat fire. Hospitality was offered, but Pa was a bit ashamed of his cracked cups, so instead of tea we drank Guinness out of the bottle. We talked for a while, then Pa reached down his fiddle from a shelf above the fire, and played a reel.

Michael and myself produced our flutes, and our friend Gene took out his fiddle, and the four of us played into the early evening. We paused now and then for a chat, and for Pa to open a fresh bottle of Guinness and put a bit more peat on the fire. The music Pa played on the fiddle was electrifying; mainly local Leitrim/Sligo tunes, many of which (so he told us) he learned from his father.

The whole experience, with flutes and fiddles pounding out fast Sligo reels, in a run-down cottage lit by the soft, rainy light and the warm peat glow, was really eerie. It was like we had been transported back in time one hundred years. Even now, seventeen years later, I still feel awed and moved when I think about it.

I heard, a few years back, that Pa had died. I also heard that he’d had a very healthy bank balance, but had not been interested in using any of it to change anything. He was more than content living the life of a hermit, alone in the house he’d been born in, quietly farming his land and playing music from another time.