Harps Alive Festival Set To Celebrate Harping, History And Culture Across The Country

Terry McKeown (Reclaim The Enlightenment), harper Adam O’Neill, John Grey (Reclaim The Enlightenment), harper Ciara Taaffe and Eithne Benson (Harp Ireland) at Clifton House

230th anniversary of Belfast Harpers’ Assembly brought to life 

Harpers and historians will join forces in July to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the Belfast Harpers’ Assembly with five days of music and heritage in a unique cross-community series of events.

Organised by the Harps Alive partnership, the festival will bring together the finest harpers from across the island to recognise the landmark event that collected music more than two centuries ago for future harpers to learn from and perform.

The festival will feature three major concerts, smaller recitals, talks and workshops taking place across the city of Belfast, in addition to an exhibition in Linen Hall Library, and a new publication on the history of harping in Ireland. The event will also be opened by an event in Mussenden Temple and closed with a commemorative service in Dublin.

Aibhlín McCrann, Chair of Cruit Éireann Harp Ireland, said that celebrating the anniversary presented a unique musical opportunity for the harping community.

“We are delighted to bring harpers from all over Ireland together to mark 230 years since the Belfast Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast” she said. 

“Our harping heritage transcends boundaries and has really connected the partners, north and south.

“It is wonderful to hear the harpers’ music reflecting our living tradition and to see that there is so much interest in it. We are looking forward to welcoming audiences across the city of Belfast to our concerts, talks and exhibitions and in Dublin later in the month.”

In 1792 the Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast brought together 11 harpers, seven of which were blind and the eldest Denis Hempson was 97 at the time.

John Gray, Chair of Reclaim the Enlightenment, explained that this will be a major musical festival rooted in history.

“In bringing more than 50 harpers to Belfast, the festival will create the largest ever such assembly in the city,” he said. 

“It will be a celebration of the heritage of the harp and the contemporary revival of harp playing, and when it concludes we hope to have created more awareness of the harp tradition with the public and leave a lasting legacy.”

Harps Alive will open on July 9th at Mussenden Temple, Downhill, where Denis Hempson was born and raised. 

“This event will showcase the talents of many local harpers, who will play some of his best-known tunes to illustrate the Hempson story, which we will hear from historian Mark Doherty and genealogist Fiona Pegrum,” said Mr Gray. 

“Harper Aoibheann Uí Dhoibhlin will perform on a copy of Dennis Hempson’s original harp and will be joined by local harpers from Scoil Ruaidhrí Dall and Causeway Harp Ensemble.”

A pivotal figure in 1792 was Edward Bunting, a 19-year-old organist who was employed to write down the music of the harpers and to transcribe their techniques. He subsequently published it in three volumes called The Ancient Music of Ireland.

Events from July 15th to 17th in Belfast will include a fiddle and harp session in the Deer’s Head with harper Lauren O’Neill and fiddle player Eugene McKenna.

Shankill Road Library will host a harp workshop on harp making and some harp music from Katy Bustard. Other venues will include Clifton House, An Culturlann, Rosemary Street, First Presbyterian Church, The Duncairn and St Joseph’s, Sailortown, which will also host a gala concert.

“It is very satisfying to see our collaboration with our northern colleagues coming to fruition and to gain such a good understanding of the important role that the Belfast Harpers’ Assembly played in the safeguarding of the harpers’ music,” said Ms McCrann. 

“Moreover, our exciting lineup of harpers shows that the harping tradition is vibrant, dynamic and constantly evolving. It is part of our living cultural heritage that we are intent on safeguarding for future generations of harpers”.

John Gray explained that there will also be an effort to safeguard a part of Belfast’s past.

“We will be holding a gathering called ‘The Manifestation’ outside the Assembly Rooms to lend weight to the campaign to have the building acquired for public use by the City Council,” he said, adding: “The Assembly Rooms were such a key part of public life in the city throughout the 18th and 19th centuries that they should also be preserved for future generations.”

Ms McCrann said that Harps Alive brought enthusiasts from both north and south to work together.

“This has been a true partnership, epitomised by collegiality, enthusiasm and positivity,” she said. 

“Our thanks to our colleagues, who have collaborated to make the festival a success. Special thanks to our funders both north and south, without whom it could not happen. We are looking forward to a lively and engaging weekend of harping.

“We have renowned harpers from all over Ireland taking part in workshops, concerts, talks and exhibitions. Each of them is thrilled to be celebrating the 230th anniversary of Edward Bunting’s great achievement.

“I have no doubt that had it not been for his vision and determination, our harping heritage would have been irrevocably lost to us”.

Harps Alive│An Chruit Bheo│Harps Leevin concludes in Dublin on July 23rd with a talk by Dr Mary-Louise O’Donnell on Bunting’s time in Dublin, and a ceremony at Edward Bunting’s newly-restored grave at Mount Jerome, where Catherine Martin, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media will lay a wreath. This will be accompanied by an oration by Dr David Byers, poetry with poet Emily Cullen and performances on early Irish harp and Irish harp from Paul Dooley and Áine Ní Dhubhghaill.

The full programme of events can be found at harpsalive.com