Ann Heymann :: part 1

“I want to see how non-continental the music can be, so I’m sort of looking for it in the pieces, and sometimes I find it”
– Ann  Heymann

Words & images: Mícheál Ó Catháin

The Minnesota-based harper Ann Heymann has beautifully reimagined the sound and techniques of the early Irish harp over the past four decades, informed by a deep body of work she has developed with her husband and musical partner Charlie Heymann. 

Follow Ann’s work online at:


Ann and I cover the following topics in this broad-ranging conversation:

  1. Jointure & Jigg – Ann plays her version of this beautiful piece, recorded over 200 years ago in both the Neal Collection and Bunting manuscripts, and shares in-depth insights into her arrangement. This is a piece explored independently by each artist in the Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art interview series. By comparing arrangements we can understand which aspects of their interpretations are shared in common and which are unique to the individual artists.
  2. Manuscripts and Early Printed Sources
  3. Instruments
  4. Cornerstones of the old tradition
  5. Continuing research and experimentation
  6. Mythology and symbolism

Part 1 of this interview spans topics 1 to 3. For a selection of links to things mentioned during part 1, scroll to the bottom of this page.

Part 2 of the interview, spanning sections 4 – 6, is here.


Mícheál Ó Catháin:
Ann, I’m excited about this interview! We have gotten to know each other over the past few years, and it is a gift to be able to learn from you. Hopefully in this interview I’ll be able to honour the insights you have mined from manuscripts and museum instruments over many years, to reimagine and revive the old harp tradition.  Can we start with your playing of The Jointure & Jigg?

Ann Heymann:
Sure! I first played the version from the Neal collection around 2009.   I worked it up for a concert at Scoil na gCláirseach in Kilkenny. I don’t play it regularly, but I think I remember the melody and my approach is melody-based, and so let’s call it “performance-ready”. I don’t have a set way of playing but it will give an example of an approach to music. And we can talk about how I play the piece afterwards.

Your playing of this piece is so rich with the techniques you have rediscovered, and with your own musical expression.  Can you talk through how you developed this played arrangement from what is written?

Certainly. It’s developing and it’s different from what it was earlier and I’m progressing. I like to allow the melody to create the harmony. Just a melody line. The opening line …[music]. So you end up with a chord. These notes ring out …[music]… a G major chord. So that’s how I begin. I like creating the harmony in a linear way rather than …[music]… something like that. I wouldn’t want that, where it’s more of a vertical harmony.

And it’s nice to use this low chord …[music]… because na comhlaí let this G ring out. So it’s all one chord so far, and then I have a choice between the E-minor chord which I now will faithfully do, and not the C-chord …[music].

Can you explain a little about that last four-chord which you try to avoid?
Well I’ve been playing these G-majors, and that would be the tonic chord, or the one-chord. The harpers preferred not to play the four-chord which is also known as the chord of the sub-dominant. So in this piece …[music]… the one-chord is G, the dominant chord or five-chord, is D, and the subdominant chord or four-chord is C. In today’s music the four-chord is probably the third most popular chord in major-scale pieces. With the early Irish harpers the E-minor …[music]… instead of this C …[music]… was perhaps the second most popular chord. Edward Bunting says they didn’t really know major and minor, and I’m finding that these sonorities are oftentimes shared in pieces and it gives interest to the music on an instrument that is diatonic, where we don’t have chromatic notes. So, here I’ll go again …[music]… and there’s beauty in hearing the dissonant notes in there instead of changing chords with every change, because the melody creates its own dissonance …[music].
And here I like breaking it apart. Edward bunting also said – only in his manuscripts does he say this – that the important notes of the melody are played with the bass hand, the right hand, being the strongest in the sonorous range. So I’m doing that a lot, and the important melody notes means that it’s played on the stress and whether it’s a phrase – it doesn’t need to be rhythmically on the stress – but just that it’s a note that receives more stress than a passing note. This is a strong note …[music]… and again a strong one …[music].

Would you choose these chords every time you start this piece?

The second or third time through the piece – let’s say it’s a song – I might choose instead to highlight …[music]… can you hear that chord? That’s the E-minor. The melody, depending on what I damp, is suggesting that. That’s …[music]… leading a note with the bass hand. I’m playing a melody note and it gives me my harmony.
Now that …[music]… is part of the B-minor chord, and if we are now considering the piece as in E-minor then the E-minor chord is now the one-chord, and the five-chord is the B-minor. And it begs the question – how early were these things done? When Cambrensis mentions modulation back in the 1100’s for the Irish harp, was that what he meant? It’s very fun to look back at what he might mean, and I’m only suggesting one possibility for that (laughing)! [music]…I could do that (G chord), or the B-minor on the melody D note – those are choices …[music]… and that makes the music more interesting.

Can you show how you continue into the second part of the Jointure?

OK, in the second part of the tune, I think most people would probably do this …[music]… a D-chord. I don’t want that – that’s the five-chord from the G-major mode – it doesn’t…the harp doesn’t speak to me, the mode doesn’t speak to me. So I start …[music]… here’s the B-minor, the five-chord-y there, if we think of this part as being in an E-minor mode. And now this …[music]… I can just hit the melody there. And now …[music]… this is the two-chord. And it’s interesting when Bunting, at the beginning of his 1840 volume, he analyzes music, song melodies, and points out the importance of the major sixth in the melodies. So in G the major sixth, this E tone …[music]… he says they didn’t play this G-chord with it, but the E-minor …[music].  Bunting says that this is the prominent feature of Irish music. I don’t have the name of the person but not long after Bunting published in 1840, it was reviewed by a university professor who blasts him on this point saying that it is not really true because it’s popular in other places – Scotland and Wales. This instrument, and the culture – the Gaelic culture – of course is shared into Scotland. The harpers traveled freely. This piece was composed by Connellan who was Irish and lived in Scotland, so that’s no surprise.

So the major sixth would have been a common feature in Scotland as well?
Yes, and I see pieces from Scotland – big pieces – that are major. It’s kind of interesting that they are laments because they’re very major-y. But if you’re doing variations – it might begin in G …[music]… and then a melody comes in on E, and so I’ll do variations on that. So I’m finding how this works for the other pieces as well. It is about developing a taste and flavor.

Anyhow we’re in the turning of the Jointure, so instead of …[music]… I’m more like this …[music]. With the melody alone …[music]… and now I’m putting a harmony with this …[music]… so you hear the melody itself creates some of the harmony but you do need to add some harmony notes with this melody. [music]… the melody is going minor here. And then here again, this is …[music].

You seem to have a preference to play major and minor in different ranges of the harp. Can you talk about that?

It’s a little tricky. You’ve noticed that I’ve got this …[music]… E minor ringing out here. If I’m playing up here in the treble it’s really nice …[music]…
But you can get stuck, hung out to dry, by this bass ringing. How are you going to get rid of it? So when you do play the low notes you have to be able to stop them if you need to. Usually that will be needed when the chord changes, whether it’s major or minor. Unless if it’s in G, or if it is in mixolydian mode …[music]. Our ears are used to that – that’s like a bagpipe drone going on with it. So the mixolydian mode is very friendly for a drone chord. Other modes aren’t so friendly that way. Dorian mode is also friendly for droning. I’m seeing a lot of the music being expressed only with with two chords, but this piece of Connellan’s really requires more than two chords. Sometimes the chords are, as I’ll say, the one and five. One being on whatever the tonic is. So …[music]… that’s between the one and five, easy to play. But it’s a minor, so the one- and five-chord can be a minor one and five.

Can you take us through the jigg also?

For the jig after the jointure …[music]… most people would agree on that chord, G major, the five-chord. And here I think I would want this chord …[music]. Playing on, I don’t want this one…[music]. The arrangement is actually quite straightforward for the first part of the jig.

In the second part of the jig I use the five-chord. I like to leave the third out …[music]. I prefer that, especially on a metal-strung harp. The third sounds better maybe on gut / nylon strings, or as a tenth on wire stings …[music]. Instead of this four chord …[music], instead of that it would be …[music]… now to minor …[music]. So it’s really pretty simple chordally. But by adding ornaments and allowing the melody to play on the strong beat and then follow up again …[music]. I stagger sounds, just staggering it that way, it’s a really nice way to get ornaments.

Could you show that staggering ornament again?

Sure. Right at the beginning of the jig …[music]. Do you hear that? Staggering your hands almost sounds like an ornament. You can play with both hands but it’s a lot of work and you don’t get very much for the effort! It’s nice when it’s easy to play and it has that rhythmic effect of an ornament. The switch of octave is really lovely – ear candy, it’s a treat to hear. People’s brains fill in the intervening notes. Anyhow that’s what I’m going for.

In the jig you use a technique which you’ve developed. A couple hands technique that really features in how rhythmically you play the jig. Can you talk about this technique, how you’re using it in the jig just now?

I use coupled hands in other ways, not just in rhythmic music. I play on my left shoulder and so it’s very convenient for me to be playing a stressed note with my bass hand. So when I’m playing a jig, generally stressed notes I would play with my bass hand. Or, my bass hand would play a note at the stressed note time. So in the jig, the pattern is …[music]… and you can ornament with the treble hand here. Bunting – again in his manuscripts, it’s not published – says that they played with the right hand in the bass and the left hand in the treble. I don’t think this is actually why they played that way, but I think there’s a certain style developed from it – so that the right strong hand is playing, on the beat, the important melody notes. Or, instead of this important melody note …[music]. Now here, I’m doing this for survival and ease …[music]… because it’s easy to play! Again …[music].

So your bass thumb is playing the stress note just there, and you’re also playing not just your base thumb but your bass third finger?
Yes and I could play them together or only one or the other

Can you give an example of each in the jig?

[music]…you can do the bass note with two, three or four, but I oftentimes prefer three because it’s a strong nail and it’s best as an opposing finger to the thumb. With one or two you see that the angle is greater here and not all that strong, and with one and four it’s the same way. So here is just bass alone …[music]. So the technique I’m using is called bracketed third.

You are a big believer in what we can ask of our thumbs on this instrument. Can you talk about this?

The thumb is kinda amazing! Because …[music]… you can hear this note is ringing, and look at how quickly I can take it out and return. I mean, that’s fast! And I’m hitting this every time – it’s maybe like a trampoline! I don’t have to stop my thumb. So I’m striking the string and this is an unusual way to use the thumb playing harp. Usually people are playing this way out …[music]… but I find that the thumb pressing in is a really good counter pressure to make my fingers playing this way, so the energy crosses at the string so I can play into the strings this way more strongly. Otherwise you see people played this way and pulling their fingers out. For me it is ergonomically very comfortable and I can play strongly or quietly but it’s with with control.

So you have shown how you play with your bass thumb rest strokes, and with your bass bracketed third, individually. Can you show how both can work together in what you call combination technique?

Yes, back to the jig …[music]…and then once this is comfortable, instead of playing octaves I can choose to do chords. So I can use combination technique for octaves or chords that way, or if I just use my thumb which I was doing because I like to move fast …[music]… there is the five-chord to this tonic, so it’s easy and I like easy (laughing)!


The jig after the Jointure is an example of a genre of an older style of jig. Nowadays we also hear a lot of say fiddle players, pipers, whistle players, playing slow airs and then going straight into quicker dance tune, often a jig. This jig after the Jointure is not the same as such a dance jig, right? Can you talk a little bit about what these older jigs were and how do you think they were played?

Yes. Sean Donnelly writes that instrumental jigs are a little different in format, a little different in timing, and they are called pieces. They are meant to be listened to, not so much danced to. I think that’s the type of jig that belongs with the Jointure. So it wouldn’t be dance tempo and it’s maybe more I’ll say more graceful in form.  Maybe more like a treble jig time-wise, and it might have started slower and later became more like a treble jig, but not so rhythmic and beautifully staccato as treble jigs. So it’s not a dance piece, with …[music]… more that kind of rhythm, but it would be on the harp …[music]… you know, more that kind of thing. Jigs of all varieties are quite nice to play on the cláirseach.

Another jig that follows a slow piece would be Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin’s  Is eagal liom an bhás (fear of death/dying)

This piece comes from the MacLean Clephane manuscript. There are a number of ports in this manuscript which are identified by number – Port 1, Port 2 etc. Port 7 is this piece Is eagal liom an bhás. It has a jig after it, and the jig isn’t numbered. It says “im beto” which means “go directly into the jig” at the end of the port, and the port is sort of stately and slow.

Talking through this jig which follows Is eagal liom an bhás, could you extend what you have already explained about the jig following the Jointure

Presumably this is a piece composed by Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin, your namesake! It’s of an earlier period – we know it’s an earlier period because it’s Ó Catháin, who precedes Connellan. It does not follow an A- and a B-part format like the Jointure, but is a long, through-composed piece.  It has a serious subject and the nature of the music, as well, is serious – as is the Jointure, but Is eagal liom an bhás is maybe even darker. So a jig follows it – I recorded this back years ago in 2006 on Cruit go nÓr • Harp Of Gold.  It’s a very funny thing once I’ve recorded something, there’s only a few of those pieces that I might continue to play.  And it’s maybe a good thing because now in looking back at it I think I would approach it a little bit differently.

Can you talk about how you would approach it differently? One of the things you mentioned before was playing it more gracefully

Yes and I have to say when I recorded it I went a little more for the “let’s relieve the tension of the piece”, which is beautiful and I really liked the way I handled the air. But for the jig I took a more more modern-day traditional approach of sort of relieving the tension and going into something lighter. And yet there was an awkwardness to the arrangement, so all in all it wasn’t something something I really liked. I think it’s deserving of a little different treatment. So today – looking at it just today – I’m caught between harmonizing it was just two notes …[music]… so instead of using three or four chords as I recorded, I would use only two chords. And keep the harmony more melody based.

Manuscripts and Early Printed Sources

You mentioned the MacLean-Clephane manuscript earlier. Can you share your insights on this manuscript?

The MacLean-Clephane manuscript contains music collected in Scotland, and part of the manuscript containing a lot of Irish pieces is now owned by Trinity College Dublin. A large segment in this McLean-Clephane manuscript at TCD is music collected from Echlin O’Kane, who was a student of Cornelius Lyons, and he played with his fingernails and he spent most of his life playing in Scotland. It is very interesting that variations he plays, like on Eilín a rún. O’Kane was a student of Lyons, and you can compare his variations to the variations on Eilín a rún that Denis O’Hampsey plays for Bunting. O’Hampsey also attributes these variations to Lyons. We have compared them and see that the parts are not the same, but they relate to each other.

Also really fascinating in this collection, are a selection of ports. And it’s quite plausible – I’m being generous – that ports were generally pieces by Rory Dall Ó Catháin, the way that planxties were pieces by Carolan. And there’s a couple of ports that don’t seem to fit, but the time period is right from the earliest ports and how it works. I think it is quite plausible.

That makes me interested in the Dow collection in Scotland. It is really interesting – it has a lot of Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin pieces as well. There’s a piece that I really enjoy and maybe I can give you a bit of it. Now this isn’t Irish music, but I think it’s Gaelic music. And what is interesting about a lot of Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin’s ports is that they start low. And this is notated in the mid-range…

I recorded this on Cruit go nÓr

That sounds like a very old piece of music

It is from a 1760s collection, and I think its in the old style, I don’t think its very European. That’s why I’m so interested in this because these are clues to what was played. It’s sort of fiddle píbroch and you have the highland bagpipe píbroch which it is connected to.

The Jointure & Jigg you played earlier is from A collection of the most celebrated Irish tunes by  John & William Neal.  What are your thoughts on the Neal collection? 

I look at the Neal collection as an extremely valuable and interesting collection. The Jointure & Jigg – or A stáraí ghoid mo chlú-sa uaim as it is called in Neal –  is one of the last pieces in the collection. The first piece in it is King of the Blind and it has what seems to be these Italianate progressions, and yet the piece can almost boil down to being this “two-chord” piece. I had some candidate arrangements for this piece, and there’s a line in it that is very reminiscent of the start of Tabhar dom do lámh. Well that is a theme that has gone through a lot of the music. Now what’s also interesting is the second from last phrase of King of the blind that is so typical of Ruairí Dall Ó Catháin, those types of ending in his ports. And King of the Blind, you know, it’s tempting to think that this is a piece by Carolan. However this is the only source for it, and it is the first tune in the book and I think “hmmm, did the Neal’s compose their own piece and sort of slide it in?”. And yet when it has this motif that we also hear in Tabhar dom do lámh.  I go back and forth, experimenting with different ways of playing motifs such as this, because I don’t really want to … I want to see how non-continental the music can be, so I’m sort of looking for it in the pieces, and sometimes I find it.

What manuscript sources have been important in influencing your non-continental approach to early Irish harp music?

For early music – now look, we’re talking about a timespan since the Saint Mogue harp. The early Irish harp is an instrument on this order, it’s circa 1000. And for this instrument to develop and have this zoomorphic figure on the forepillar – need the cheek bands – it would have to go into the old Irish period. So unless there is reason to think otherwise, when you see cruit or crot, a reasonable translation really is an early Irish wire-strung harp. And to go old, a really important early manuscript is the Robert Ap Huw manuscript from Wales. It has a set of Welsh medieval harp techniques. There’s corresponding and different technique in Bunting – the same figures with different fingering.

But back to Wales. Gruffyd ap Cynan was raised in Ireland. He had to fight but he was King of Wales for a while. They had the meeting at Glendalough – Welsh rules of poetry and music were set up supposedly around 1100 by the Irish. Those are interesting things, and then from that you had this two-chord system in the Robert Ap Huw manuscript coming out. It is really interesting to compare with early Welsh poetry in the Brittonic language, from Taliesin and Aneirin.  And the Welsh culture goes all the way up into Edinburgh. You see these harps on Scottish crosses with straight necks. And I think these were the horse hair harps that became known as telyn rawn and became identified with Wales. There is this wonderful Welsh poem circa 1200 lamenting that all learning was gone, and no one appreciated the harp with shiny black horsehair strings, on such as would King David play, and King David would never play a harp strung with the gut of dead sheep! Then it castigates the new harp in Wales. It castigates it as being too much like the Irish bitch from across the sea. The gothic harp form has this peak and this slender neck, and to me it is so obvious that the poem is describing the new gothic harp which replaces the straight necked harp. It’s totally gone along with the northern European lyres. This happens in 1100.

The cláirseach is there throughout all this! I mean I’m calling it the cláirseach even though the word doesn’t appear until later. But the crot, the cruit is there! And it doesn’t die out, I think because it’s loud enough. The Normans came in and brought their instruments in and the cláirseach survived that. To compare the Brittonic poetry and its language and that kind of Talyn Ron harp, and the meeting in 1100 and have the Ap Huw manuscript, it all has much value. Also this Ap Huw music has been compared to Scottish píbroch. So it is very intertwined.

Can you talk about some of the parallels which can be drawn between the Robert Ap Huw manuscript and the Bunting manuscript?

You’re well aware of the similarity between some of the figures, the musical figures, that are in Bunting and how they compare with the Robert Ap Huw Welsh harp manuscript which is from the 1600s and probably earlier.  So I’ll do the top one that’s listed in the Bunting manuscripts, which is brisidh. It’s played with the thumb and index finger and it’s simply in that order – thumb / index finger …[music]… and the thumb note is stopped. It can be on the beat …[music]… which is what’s shown second.  What’s shown first by Bunting is before the beat …[music]. It can be very fast …[music]… and I like to play it with my other fingers on the strings …[music].  A similar musical effect could be obtained the medieval Welsh way, and this is called thumb choke, tagiad y fawd – tagiad literally means choke, y fawd which is thumb.  And so that’s played with two / three  – not one / two but two / three – but because of its name it’s assumed – and there’s pretty much agreement on this one – that the thumb does the damping.  So it can be on the beat …[music]… or before the beat …[music].  To do so in an ascending passage, it can damp. Not absolutely crucial on the bray harp when this hand is higher because those treble  strings don’t bray very long, so they have a short bray span.  Anyway those are two figures from Ap Huw and Bunting that are similar but with different fingering.

They also have a short plait in Ap Huw, and that is a similar thing – short / long but instead of a descending passage it’s ascending so in other words it would be G, A …[music]… it could be on the beat, or before the beat …[music]…  this one is quite comfortable on the beat but it can be performed either way. And it can be very insistent …[music]. And in Bunting there is a similar music passage and it instead is two / one …[music]… and the thumb actually lands on the string below to damp. So it’s two / one …[music] and again it can be on the beat or before the beat, the same thing. Now if you’re descending …[music]… you’re not really doing much by stopping the top note …[music]… and so it’s a similar music passage to Ap Huw, and yet different related fingering.

The Welsh techniques form a good part of the music.  They’re the building blocks of the music, whereas that’s not as true with the Bunting techniques. You can use them here or there, but the music is not constructed just of these techniques – there’s more in between notes.  And I think it points to two things – a different kind of music, a different instrument and a different era. I’ve always felt that Burns March – if I were trying to notate a piece in Robert Ap Huw tablature – Burns March is one that would readily come to mind as working well with that system.  I’m not so fond of writing out music so maybe someone else wants to find and figure out which other ones would be good (laughing)!

Can you show how shared Irish / Welsh techniques may have sounded in your playing of Burns March from the Bunting manuscript?

Sure. I play the figures collected from Denis O’Hampsey, and I tend not play all of them. I did a book on the learning tunes, and I had to cut it short at some point. But they all work well and they are all good to play. My books – both of them – the first one Secrets of the Gaelic Harp is out of print. People can buy a CD from us, we don’t have an online source just because we’re not techies. And Gaelic Harpers First Tunes is also out of print. Simon Chadwick has a really nice tutor also – it’s a different approach to the tunes but it is one that I endorse. So that’s available for people wanting to learn.

So I’ll play it. Burns March is a theme with variations.  In the theme melodically I use the same hand position as what I use for Fair Molly, the first tune taught …[music]. But being the first tune I wanted to keep this simple …[music]… now that’s Fair Molly, and I use the same hand position for Burns March …[music]. And then the first variation …[music]… the theme …[music]… now I doing them stopped like this, but they can be ringing …[music]. This variation is shown …[music]… and again …[music]… and I don’t want to play it that way, although one could. I want to keep the alternating hands, so I prefer doing …[music]… and then do this – bass / treble …[music]… and I switch it up and I do ladies first with my left hand, they’re usually bass hand first and I’m doing it the other way, so it’s …[music]… I need to practice this more! …[music]. Male way would be …[music]… right / left, right / left, right / left, right – yeah, marching along? Up here in treble …[music]… ringing …[music]… damped …[music].  And they’re also shown like this …[music]… same thing, the bass lowered an octave. That might be easier for people to hear ….[music]… and so forth.


To be able to reverse engineer this early Irish harp music from the manuscripts and other sources, to create an arrangement of a piece that sounds close to what was played by O’Hampsey for Bunting for example, we need instruments accurate in form and materials to the instruments on which the music was originally played. You talk about the instrument “telling the truth” when you ask it to “try on”- like garments –  various possible arrangements. You consider the historically-accurate harp as a faithful collaborator in this regard. Can you talk about the experiments you have carried out with harp makers, and further experiments that you can recommend?

I have worked closely over the years with harp makers in the U.S. like Jay Witcher and David Kortier.  And now there are harp makers in Ireland, making the one-piece soundbox harps. I have to say a lot of the work is experimental. There is a lot of work being done. What woods do you work with? Green, or how much curing is needed? What are the necks made from? Highly scientific forensic work is being done by Karen Loomis on the construction of two medieval Scottish harps, the Lamont and Queen Mary – very important harps. There are even more museum harps here in Ireland, particularly the Trinity, and all of them need really modern study.

What sort of modern study is required here? Dendrochrononology is a word I’ve heard – is that relevant?

That’s studying the wood . You take a wood sample, it cant be rotten or poor wood, it has to be a piece of good wood. And you want it from the backboard, which is quite possibly a newer piece; the soundbox, if its a one-piece, or if it’s not, any separate pieces; and the neck and the pillar. It is a very small {sample}. It does not ruin them – consider that in fine paintings they go in and go down to get a core sample and see what the paint is underneath; this is essentially what you’re doing. Then looking at the tree rings, and having a sample you can figure what years the tree grew in by the growth patterns – that’s dendrochronology. You can look at the cellular structure and identify the species and type. There are huge files of various woods and these can be matched up. So you can become pretty specific.

As well as the wood species and type, I would love to know what specific treatments were used. Did they put linseed oil on the inside? Was any wood put in the bog? Just heaps of things!

Do all these aspects of the wood and construction affect the sound?

Yes they do. And so far the experimentation has been done by harp makers doing hit and miss experiments. A lot of them think they can better the original museum instruments. And what was happening was they were making changes before they ever made copies. So they were assuming that they could do better. You can only change one small thing at a time, to properly know its impact on the sound. David Kortier was willing to take this historically-faithful approach. He is flexible so he did it for me. And now that more people are interested in the old tradition, more harp makers are willing to take this approach. Back when Kortier did this for me, no-one would do it!

In an ideal world, what kind of program of research would be needed to be put in place? Would you want to have all the museum pieces to be analysed in the same way as Karen Loomis has done?

I’ll say the same way, or adding things that would be appropriate and allowable. Some of the harps would have real trouble fitting in the CT machines. The Lamont harp just barely fit it. So scanning technology should be appropriate according to that instrument. MRI scanning and 3D cameras have potential. And who knows what new measuring technology will come in.

The Trinity College Harp has been claimed by Scotland as being made on the same Scottish Isle as the Queen Mary, same workshop. Really, you won’t know the dating till its done. You can do carbon dating, and dendrochronology of the pieces of wood. This claim has been put forward, so I want Irish scholars and Irish scholarships to get pent up to be figuring things out, and figure out the dating, to settle this claim (laughing)! But joking aside, be they Irish or Scottish in origin it is all part of the one tradition, so all research should be focussed on helping us make faithful playable accurate copies of these old harps. Playable copies are really important for recovering the music.

As well as the form and materials of their wooden components, another feature essential to the sound of early Irish harps is their metal strings. You have done a lot of experimenting with various alloys and production methods. It would be great to hear more about this.

In the second part of the 1600s, James Talbot writes that the Irish harp was played with brass wire strings drawn hard by hand. Some people thought that that meant playing hard by hand, that you draw the string really hard by hand which would overplay the string and break it I think. What it means is to get the string so that it is the right hardness to serve as music wire, it was cold-drawn to a certain hardness and also to the right gauge so that it’s not too thick or too thin. Later on harpers were getting wire from pinaries (pin factories), like here in Dublin, but in the medieval period they would have been using Irish ores and so I believe that the Irish harp goes back earlier than we have iconography for. I’ve been asked by people about the earliest draw plates which are 700 Viking, and how could they have wire before then?

Well there’s a method of – well here, I’ll show you …[shows]… The usual method for cold drawn wire is using a draw plate. These are a series of very slightly consecutively shaped funnel-like holes. So you’d be you put a wire – and this has already been made by pounding and cutting a metal strip and even drawing beforehand through larger holes – but what you do is you put the wire through the large end of the funneled holes and then with the pincers, grab the end of the wire and then draw it through. I think you can draw like this …[shows]… It would be held in a clamp for shorter wires. If they’re really long or you’re wanting to draw longer length, you are regulated by the size of the room where you can walk steadily back. I like to think that a harper – I’ve thought about doing this – I think you could have a draw plate and actually hold it with your feet – you wouldn’t even need a workbench – hold it with our feet and pull through like this …[shows].

But I’ve been asked how could 700 is the earliest draw plates ever found. But metal gets recycled so draw plates could be earlier than that. And it becomes a moot point because early wire even under microscopic examination it looks like it’s drawn hand drawn. However if there were no draw plates maybe it was drawn through a stone or a bead, and also wire can be drawn through a v-shape and pulled through again and again. So it’s really difficult to discern.

I think it’s possible that these wire strings on early Irish harps go earlier than the earliest draw plate. Actually the historical metal-smith that I worked with made a sterling silver wire that served very well in a harp with no drawing at all, just technique. What you do is you make a round disc, flatten the metal, and cut it in a narrow spiral. Then roll it out it – it can be any length – you know roll it and pat it, and bake it (laughing)! That would be if you have to work wire to where it would become too brittle, so heating it up puts it back to a softer form. It’s called annealing.

How did this spiral-cut silver string compare to other strings manufactured in a modern way?

I was really pleased. This was one string made by Daniel Tokar. It’s the only one but it was to prove a point. I brought it to Scoil na gCláirseach and put it on as one of the na comhluí strings, which is a high position for silver to work. It lasted a full year and it broke only when a student was busking on the harp in colder weather. So I was delighted. And it performed brilliantly next to another experimental sterling silver string, you couldn’t tell the difference in the tone quality.

Can you talk a bit more about other experiments you have done with historical metalsmith Daniel Tokar?

I have worked with Daniel Tokar recreating different copper alloys for the brass strings. Also working with silver alloys, and some gold alloys, to figure out the parameters of stringing. Umha is a copper alloy – is it copper zinc, or copper tin. Ireland was rich in calamine ore which comes with copper and zinc oxide. It was really thought of as a special type of copper. That may have well driven Ireland into these wire strings. Because if you have copper tin it doesn’t draw well. The easiest metal to draw is gold. And silver isn’t bad but it breaks easily, it’s more fussy. Gold has great versatility for working.

Gold strings make so much sense, and there are mentions of gold strings in stories and myths. Legend has it Merlin played on a harp made of gold. I have strung at least 6 copies of the Trinity Harp entirely of gold. Now it doesn’t have to be gold – but it produces a lovely sound. I have done enough experimenting with gold to learn its parameters. So I know how hard it should be and I’m always careful with – they add various things to 14, 18, 22 karat gold, and I want it to be historically viable.

So there is just loads of experimenting to be done on wire-strings. But the strings come after, you have got to have the form of the instrument right first.

End of part 1.

In part 2 of this richly layered interview, Ann goes deeper into the cornerstones of the old tradition, continuing research and experiments she would love to see done (if she doesn’t get there first!), and her insights on the mythology and symbolism of the early Irish harp.  You can find part 2 here.



Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art Interview Series was funded through the Arts Council Deis Recording and Publication Award

Selected links from the interview