Over 50 Irish Harpers to Perform at Harps Alive Festival

Over 50 harpers will take to the stage throughout July as part of the 2022 Harps Alive│An Chruit Bheo│Harps Leevin festival.

Hailing from cities and counties across Ireland, north and south, including Dublin, Antrim, Armagh, Donegal, Portstewart, Ballymoney, Limerick and Galway and coming in from the UK, dozens of Ireland’s finest harpers and musicians will arrive in Belfast this weekend to perform at the main festival weekend.

The 2022 Harps Alive│An Chruit Bheo│Harps Leevin festival will bring together harpers, musicians and historians from throughout the island in celebration of the 230th anniversary of the landmark Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast in 1792, while also serving as a recognition of the renowned works of organist and collector Edward Bunting.

Having already opened with events in Magilligan and Mussenden Template last weekend, the festival represents five days filled with music, history and heritage. The majority of the festival takes place across a number of sites in Belfast this weekend concluding in Dublin on July 24. 

The festival marks the 230th anniversary of the Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast in 1792. Back then, the event brought together 11 harpers, six of whom were blind and the eldest, Denis Hempson from Derry (1695 -1807), was 97. One of the greatest Irish traditional harpers, Hempson was the only one to use the ancient way of playing with the fingernails. 

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 and farther afield 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.”

As part of the original Assembly’s agenda, the 19-year-old organist Edward Bunting (1773-1843) was employed to write down the music of the harpers and to transcribe their techniques. He subsequently published three volumes of music in 1797, 1809 and 1840. Named ‘The Ancient Music of Ireland,’ this unique collection has inspired many generations of harpers in Ireland and beyond. 

Niamh O Brien, 30-year-old harper from Limerick will be playing with 12 other harpers at the festival’s opening concert. 

“I’m honoured to be performing at the Harps Alive Festival. It is a wonderful opportunity to connect with other harpers, immerse myself in modern Irish harping, and dive into the music of the past,” she said. 

Currently living in Kerry, Niamh plays folk, traditional and contemporary music. Giving a glimpse into the festival’s diverse programme, she says the audience “will hear a wonderful balance of past and present as some of Ireland’s best harp players re-imagine the music of the Belfast Harp Festival 1792.” 

Organised by the Harps Alive partnership (Harp Ireland and Reclaim The Enlightenment), the festival will feature three major concerts, smaller recitals, talks and workshops in Belfast, in addition to an exhibition in Linen Hall Library, and a new publication by David Byers on Harpers’ Gatherings 1790-1840 in Ireland. 

Speaking of her involvement in the festival, composer Anne-Marie O’Farrell from Dublin, whose playing inspired some of  the world’s leading harp makers to change their design of Irish harp said: “I will be performing harp duets with my wonderful friend and colleague Cormac De Barra. It will be a fabulous mix of harp duets, on pedal harp and Irish Harp, with the music by O’Carolan, Handel, Tarrega and ourselves. It’ll be a lively, cheerful programme.”

Anne-Marie works in classical, Irish, contemporary and improvised genres. Her signature album ‘Embrace: New Directions for the Irish Harp’, released recently, includes many groundbreaking premiere recordings of pieces never before recorded on the Irish harp. Soon, she will premiere her Irish Harp Concerto at the World Harp Congress in Cardiff with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Alannah Thornburgh, 27, from Swinford, Co Mayo, will perform at the Harps Alive Commemorative Concert on July 16. 

“I will be playing a tune from the Bunting collection on my own, and I will also be playing a tune from the Bunting collection as part of a trio with Fiona Gryson & Sharon Carroll,” she said. 

Alannah grew up learning and playing traditional Irish music on harp, fiddle and piano. With her musical trio Alfi, she plays a blend of traditional Irish & Appalachian old-time music and songs. Her bandmates are Ryan McAuley (five-string banjo) and Fiachra Meek (whistle, uilleann pipes).

A daughter of an American who plays traditional Irish & American music on fiddle, and is also a jazz saxophonist, Alannah likes to explore her family’s musical heritage, reimagining ancient airs and tunes from the Irish harping and American Appalachian and jazz traditions.

John Gray, Chair of Reclaim the Enlightenment said the Harps Alive│An Chruit Bheo│Harps Leevin festival is rooted in musical history.

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

“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.”

Check out the full festival programme at http://harpsalive.com 

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Tina Calder
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