Blog Recommendation – The Irish in Leicester

I was delighted recently to come across Lynda Callaghan’s blog, The Irish In Leicester. Of her blog, Lynda has this to say:

Over the past few months I have been investigating the links and connections that helped build the strong Irish community that now exists in Leicester. I’ve been finding out who, when and where so as to create an historical picture of the Irish in Leicester.

I have a huge soft spot for Leicester, having lived there between 1990 – 1994, first whilst studying as an undergraduate at the University of Leicester, and subsequently when I worked for a year at De Montfort University.

During the time I was a student, I supported myself in part by teaching night classes in both Irish Music and Set Dancing at Soar Valley Community College. I did this under the auspices of the Irish Studies Workshop, which was run by a veritable giant of the Leicester Irish community, Nessan Danaher. As well as the two classes I ran, the Irish Studies Workshop also offered Irish language tuition, classes in Irish history, an annual academic conference and a great library containing books of Irish interest. It was a fantastic resource for the Irish community, both in Leicester and further afield due to the worldwide network of Irish societies that Nessan had established links to.

The Jolly Miller

The Jolly Miller on Conduit Street, Leicester. Scene of our regular Tuesday night Irish session in the early 1990s. (Picture from Google Earth)

It was lovely to see stories from people on Lynda’s blog who I actually taught in my classes. The Corry family were regulars at my set dance class, for example, as was Mary Warrener.

I am immensely proud of the legacy of those classes. When I’ve gone back to visit Leicester (all too infrequently), I’ve discovered some of my former music students playing great stuff in the sessions, and some of the set dancers are still dancing. I’m sure they are far better than me by now, as due to my arthritic feet my dancing days are pretty much done!

The Irish community in Leicester was a great place for me to discover and celebrate my own Irish identity; something I’d not really had the chance to explore, other than through music and my own immediate family, before I went to Leicester. The community there were so welcoming, treating me as one of their own. I was also lucky enough to be able to conduct a sociological research project on the Irish in Leicester (about issues of identity and community) while I was there, and am honoured by the trust I was shown when I did so.

Go take a look at Linda’s blog, if you can. There are some great stories there, tales of exile and of finding a sense of belonging in another place. It’s really moving stuff.


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!


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:

How Mary Bergin changed my life

Looking through the mess I lovingly call the cupboard at the top of the stairs, trying to find something else entirely, I came across this gem of a memory. A flyer for an event I played and taught at back in 1991:

Although I used to be involved with the (now defunct) Lancaster and Morecambe Branch of Comhaltas (I was Branch Secretary in the 1980s), by 1991 I was living in Leicester, studying for a degree in Sociology. I was asked by my former branch to come back to teach a whistle workshop at this event and, drawn by the lure of one of my musical heroes, readily agreed. One reason for my enthusiasm was that, a few years earlier, Mary Bergin had changed my life. That sounds like a grandiose claim but, musically speaking, it is perfectly true. To illustrate how, we must first take a brief detour back in time.

I started to learn the tin whistle when I was 13 years old. In the absence of anyone in Blackpool who could show me what I needed to know (the only other Irish musicians in Blackpool – members of my family – played banjo and fiddle), I painstakingly taught myself to play, trying desperately, through persistence and trial and error, to sound like the traditional flute players and whistle players I admired so much.

record player

An essential item in the kit bag of an isolated teenage whistle player.

I was lucky enough to have a ‘toy’ record player, battery operated no less, that I’d been given for Christmas several years before. The really great feature of this toy was the fact that in addition to the usual 33 and 45 RPM, it could also play at 16 RPM, which meant I could effectively listen to any album track at almost exactly half speed, and almost exactly in the same key (albeit an octave lower).

This was an invaluable tool not only for slowing down fast Irish tunes so I could learn them, but also for teaching myself how to do ornamentation. Through this method, systematically listening and listening and listening again to short phrases of music, I taught myself about cuts, worked out the five-note pattern of rolls, and had conniptions about crans.

My interpretations were far from perfect, however. Somehow, I could never sound exactly how I wanted to sound. I would learn absolutely note-for-note Matt Molloy’s setting of tunes, and copy Mary Bergin’s playing as exactly as I possibly could. But it still sounded off, somehow. And try as I might, despite listening and listening and listening some more, I just could not work out what I was doing wrong.

It was Mary Bergin who set me on the right path. I think it was about 1988, when Mary came over to teach a master class on tin whistle in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Utter Mary Bergin fangirl as I was, this was not an opportunity I had any intention of missing. It was to be the first (and only) tuition I ever had on the tin whistle, and it completely transformed the way I play.

It was from Mary that I learned the error of my ways, and why I did not, despite years of persistence, sound like a proper Irish player. The problem was a straightforward one: my ornaments were all wrong. Whilst I was on the right track rhythm and pattern-wise, the actual fingering of cuts and rolls was not something I could really have ever picked up for myself without being shown how to do it, as it defied my logical assumptions.

I learned from Mary that, for cuts and rolls, only the B or G fingers are used for the highest note of the ornament, not the note immediately above in every case, as I had incorrectly assumed (unless, of course, B or G is the note above). For an A cut, for example, you lift the B finger, not the A finger, as I had been doing all along; a kind of closed-fingering technique, reminiscent of the uilleann pipes. In all my ornaments, I had been omitting that not-quite-a-real-note yelp, which gives the music a wildness and an edge that I had been entirely lacking.

That was my eureka moment. I came away from that workshop determined to completely scrap everything I thought I knew about ornamentation and start again. After a couple of months of hard graft I finally unlearned all my bad habits, and developed a more authentic style. I started to go regularly to South Sligo not long after that, playing in sessions with local flute players such as Harry McGowan and Joe Stenson. Listening to them, and building on what I had learned from Mary, I finally knocked my flute playing into shape as well.

Mary Bergin is an amazing musician, an extremely nice lady and a really good teacher. Here she is in action, playing (at the start of this set) one of the tunes I learned from her at that workshop so many years ago, The Boys of the Lough:

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

Top Class Flute Music from Leitrim and Roscommon

P1000232I got linked to this video, and just had to share it here. Fantastic flute music from Leitrim and Roscommon, filmed in 1981. Patsy Hanly and Packie Duignan on flute, backed by Martin Dolan on bodhran:

Click here for video at YouTube 

I met and played with Packie Duignan several times in the late 1980s/early1990s. He was a fantastic flute player, very strongly influenced by the John McKenna style of Leitrim flute playing, and a very humble and kind man. I once lent him my flute to play at a wedding, as his own was in quite bad shape. I always thought it sad that such an amazing musician had such a poor instrument, but I don’t think he was ever in a position to get a better one.

Packie passed away in 1992. Sometimes I look at my flute and remember he played it, and it makes me smile.

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.

Irish Music Weekend in Lancaster

Gregson sessionThere are Irish sessions in Lancaster this weekend. Last night there were sessions at the Moorland and the Lord Ashton, and the schedule for today and tomorrow is as follows:


11.00am till 8.00pm: Gregson upstairs (with bar upstairs open most of the time and food can be delivered upstairs. Bar downstairs open as usual).

8.00pm till 11.45 or so: Moorlands Hotel

11.00pm till folk leave: The Robert Gillow


11.00am till 6.00pm or so: Gregson upstairs as Saturday


I’ll be out playing a few tunes at some of it, maybe I’ll see you there!

Up Sligo!

It’s Paddy’s Day today, and due to a recent bout of ill-health I’m not heading out anywhere to play, but instead am happily browsing Irish music videos that friends are posting on Facebook and Twitter. I am having fits of nostalgia all over the place.

I’m also adding to the pot and sharing a few videos myself. Here is one that deserves its own post here: Peter Horan and Fred Finn, playing together in 1982. This is incomparable flute and fiddle music in the Sligo style.

I never met Fred, as he died before I started visiting Sligo regularly, but I got to know Peter well and played with him on many an occasion. As well as being a flute virtuoso, Peter was an excellent fiddle player. He told me he didn’t play fiddle much when Fred was alive, preferring to stick to flute back then (they were well known for their flute/fiddle duets), but he certainly did play it a lot afterwards, even more than the flute in the sessions I went to.

Peter had an amazing amount of stamina. I remember once staying up all night with him, playing tunes and drinking Guinness in Cawley’s in Tubbercurry. He had to go and teach the flute class the next morning at the South Sligo Summer School so, when 8.30 am am rolled around, he went off to the loo for a bit of a wash, combed his hair, had a swift cup of tea, and went off to teach his class. That night, he was back playing in the session again. He was in his seventies at the time.

Peter died in 2010, but in clips like the one above and in our memories, his music and that of his good friend Fred live on. I love that choppy South Sligo style of fiddle and flute playing, such a great emphasis on rhythm and phrasing, never allowing you to forget for one second that it is dance music. Peter and Fred epitomise, to me, the very best of traditional Irish music. It seems, to me, most fitting to listen to it on St Patrick’s Day.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!

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


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.


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.


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