Our annual Scoil na gCláirseach–Festival of Early Irish Harp took place in Kilkenny in August. We had a great time, with wonderful performers, speakers and tutors!
We made some changes to the Programme and Participant Timetable this year in order to increase our reach to the local community and to further improve the learning experience for our harp-playing participants. Here’s how the new festival programme worked:
Tradition Bearers, Past and Present 9.30–10.30 daily
This new morning session enabled the participants to listen to – and talk to – three musicians who embody the best of traditional Irish music performance practice, as gifted soloists coming from families with generations of music-making behind them. Our idea here is that this contact with living Irish music masters will add to our Historically Informed Performance approach to our music-making so that we can put stylish flesh on academic bones.
We invited Ronan Browne, Irish pipes; Paddy Glackin, fiddle and Sarah Ghríallais, old-style, unaccompanied singing. These artists were delightfully articulate in demonstrating – and talking about – their musical and social backgrounds, the influences that made them who they are, and what they think is important in the performance of traditional Irish music. We also had two active-listening classes [Ronan Browne and Simon Chadwick] to try to learn from the earliest archive recordings of relevant musicians from Ireland and Scotland.
Our participant feedback questionnaires suggested that these sessions are a highly valuable new addition to the Participant Timetable.
Group Classes 11.00–12.30 daily
Four sessions were held simultaneously each morning this year: Sylvia Crawford coached the Beginners using the first tunes traditionally taught by the eighteenth-century harpers. Everyone else was free to choose from sessions held by Siobhán Armstrong, James Ruff and Simon Chadwick.
I was really delighted with the very wide range of subjects on offer each day from the erudite tutors. Participants could choose from medieval plainchant from Kilkenny Cathedral to Scottish pibroch to Turlough Carolan’s 18th-century bass hand to music from Renaissance English sources to historical Scottish repertory for voice and harp to learning 17th-century harp repertory through the filter of the earliest archive recordings of Irish pipers, and more. I don’t know of any course, anywhere else, which offers such a range of possibilities so I’m very proud of the breadth and depth of offerings at this festival. You can check out all twenty players’ sessions that were on offer here: http://irishharp.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Scoil-2019-morning-classes.pdf
The small numbers in each group (five to seven, or fewer, participants) also suggests the possibility of good learning outcomes for the participants.
Private Tuition 1.30–3.30 daily
In 2019 – for the very first time – we offered individual tuition each day after lunch. Each participant had a minimum of two 45-min. sessions with a tutor of their choice overt eh course of the festival. Sharing these sessions gained the participants extra time in other shared sessions. This was complicated to administrate (thank you, Simon Chadwick!) but our feedback questionnaires suggest that everyone was happy with this new addition to the timetable.
Players’ Sessions 1.30–3.00 daily
These new daily performance platforms were a follow-on from the occasional Student Platforms of previous years. The aim was to provide participants with ‘safe space’ each day to play to one another, in a supportive and light-hearted peer environment, to help build more resilience and courage into one’s music-making: to try to work past the all-too-often shaky performance hands. This wasn’t quite as successful as we hoped in terms of active participation so we will be tweaking this format in 2020.
Talks and Concerts 6.30–7.10 / 7.30–8.30
A seminal change in our 2019 festival programme was a new venue for our evening talks and concerts: The Medieval Mile Museum in Kilkenny, a very large medieval church just off High St. Participant feedback tells us that everyone really enjoyed this move to the centre of Kilkenny each evening. The new venue was gorgeous, with lovely sight lines and a wonderful acoustic.
We had six events in total there: three lectures (free admission) and three concerts (paid admission). The new venue – together with increased postering and flyer distribution – attracted larger audience numbers than the 2018 festival.
Harp Makers’ Day Sat 17.08.19
This was also a new event for us: a dedicated exhibition day for early Irish harp builders. We put this day together specifically to create a new opportunity for exchange and discussion between players, builders of all levels and organologists at the cutting edge of research on the surviving historic harps. This included a virtual presentation from the USA by the world authority in the area, Dr Karen Loomis.
In such a niche field, we were delighted that so many harps were exhibited on the day by the following workshops: Michael Billinge, Ireland; Sue Fallon, England; Pedro Ferreira, Atelier Rumor, Portugal; Kevin Harrington, Harrington Harps, Ireland; Joël Herrou, Hent Telenn Breizh, Brittany; and Adrian Nairn, Scotland.
Beginners’ Taster Workshop Wed 14.08.19
We had a full house for our public Beginners’ Taster Workshop on Day 1, including four secondary-school students from Coláiste Pobail Osraí itself and also local adults and a lady who had travelled all the way from Limerick for it!
Workshops 3.30–4.30 daily
As ever, a wide variety of hands-on workshops – at different levels of complexity – were on offer: from scholar-harpist Sylvia Crawford’s latest contributions on the elusive question of early Irish harp fingerings to a song workshop with Dr Lillis Ó Laoire, National University of Ireland at Galway. See the full list here: http://irishharp.org/festival/timetable/
Book Launch Mon 19.08.19
This year we welcomed to Kilkenny the author, Nancy Hurrell, Advisor to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Nancy spoke about the birth of the modern Irish harp and we launched her new monograph: The Egan Irish harps: tradition, patrons and players (Four Courts Press, 2019), a most welcome new addition to historical Irish harp studies.
I would like to thank our Scoil 2019 performers, speakers and tutors, who brought rare and neglected music so beautifully to life for us and/or who helped us by introducing us to their latest research in the field:
Ronan Browne: pipes, whistles, speaker — Simon Chadwick: speaker, tutor — Sylvia Crawford, MA: speaker / tutor — Paul Dooley, PhD: harp — Róisín Elsafty, PhD: voice — Paddy Glackin: fiddle, speaker — Sarah Ghríallais: voice, speaker — Nancy Hurrell: speaker — Lillis Ó Laoire, PhD: voice, tutor — Karen Loomis, PhD: speaker (virtual) — Eibhlís Ní Ríordáin: voice, harp, tutor — James Ruff (USA): harp, tutor. You can see and hear them all here: www.irishharp.org/festival/artists
I would also like to remember our festival friends in absentia, most notably this year, the much loved Ann Heymann – doyenne of the modern revival of the instrument – who couldn’t be with us due to our budgetary constraints this year.
Thank you to our festival cook, Pat Glavin, who kept so many of us so well fed, and to our tireless new festival assistant, Oisín Hahessy, who ran around, morning till night, smoothing things behind the scenes. Many thanks also to Barbara Karlik, our rental harp assistant, who dealt with the complicated task of sorting out harps, strings and players. Thank you also to Maua Walsh for designing the beautiful 2019 festival posters and flyers.
I would particularly like to thank the HHSI team who worked so hard for many months to make this year’s festival happen: Simon Chadwick, Sylvia Crawford, Maura Walsh and Ashling Slater.
My thanks to Síóna Nic Eoin, Paul McDonald and Coláiste Pobail Osraí, for hosting us during the day and to Grace Fegan and all the team at Medieval Mile Museum, who hosted us each evening.
Many thanks also to Ellen O'Flaherty and Trinity College Dublin, the Guinness Storehouse Museum, Dr Jennifer Goff and The National Museum of Ireland for facilitating our festival field trip to Dublin to see many of the surviving old instruments.
I would also like to thank our principal sponsor, An Comhairle Ealaíon (The Arts Council), without whom the festival could not happen. Our thanks also to Kilkenny County Council Arts Office for their kind contribution.
Finally, I thank the HHSI members, supporters and patrons, everyone who took part in a festival workshop, attended a talk or concert and particularly those who came from nearby (Co. Kilkenny) or from much further away (seven countries on two continents) to be a playing participant. Each person and organisation involved in the HHSI, and in our events, contributes in a tangible way to the HHSI’s lofty mission: to rediscover Ireland’s ancient harp and its music. Míle buíochas dhíobh go léir.
Come and join us in Kilkenny 12-18 August 2020, if you think we're the festival for you, and please tell your friends, colleagues and students about us if you think they would enjoy it!
Best wishes / Le dea-ghuí –
Festival director, Scoil na gCláirseach–Festival of Early Irish Harp