Simon Chadwick

“I’m less and less happy to speak in terms of the ancient Irish harp traditions as if they were a big pot of porridge than you can stir.  It’s more to say that everything is very specific – every individual harper, in whatever age, had their own artistic expression, their own lineage, their own heritage, their own repertory. And they passed it to their students. And each student took it and made it their own. So I’m trying to be as particular as possible.”
– Simon Chadwick

Words & images: Mícheál Ó Catháin

Recorded in 2012 and 2018, published on on 28/12/2018

This interview combines two conversations I recorded with Simon Chadwick, the first in 2012 with a follow-up in 2018. Initially, the intention for our 2018 session was to re-record “second takes” of the music Simon had contributed in 2012. However, a fascinating development in Simon’s own practice took place between these two meetings, which we both felt should be honoured in this interview. Accordingly, for each question in the following interview the year of his response is indicated, to aid readers get a clear picture of the state of Simon’s art at each of these stages.

I admire Simon’s experimental approach, his willingness to hypothesize and live the questions emerging from the gaps in the early Irish harp tradition. Simon’s practice embraces the evidence we do have – museum instruments, manuscripts, paintings, iconography, etc. – while rigorously calling out what we don’t know, sometimes offering plausible interpretations, often insisting on the validity of simply not knowing. He unapologetically adjusts his approach and focus as his practice evolves, recording and sharing all the while through his concerts, public talks and regular articles on the two excellent websites he curates.  This interview celebrates both the coherence and divergence of Simon’s early Irish harp practice as it compares in 2012 and 2018.

Follow Simon’s work online at:


In this conversation:

  1. Jointure & Jigg played with fingernails – Simon plays the Jointure & Jigg, and shares how he went about his arrangement. This piece is arranged and played by each artist in this early Irish harp: the State of the Art series, providing a rich and comparable showcase of each of their individual styles.
  2. Insights into harp-making – Simon shares the story of how his Queen Mary replica was constructed originally, and later revoiced based on ground breaking forensic research on the museum instrument.
  3. Simon’s musical journey – early years, piano and bell-ringing, making a wire-strung kit harp, discovering Ann Heymann‘s tutor book.
  4. Three clues for the interpreting the old tradition – insights on the relevance of Burns March, the Robert Ap Huw manuscript and the Scottish pibroch tradition.
  5. Manuscript and printed sources – Simon goes deeper into the Robert Ap Huw manuscript, and Bunting Manuscripts MSS 29 and MSS 33.
  6. Practice – starting an arrangement, hand shape, pre-industrial music, interpreting the music of Patrick Quin and Arthur O’Neill.
  7. Fingernail versus fingertip playing in the early Irish harp tradition – Simon shares his nuanced views on fingertip versus fingernail, and impact of Baroque influences from the Continent.
  8. Denis O’Hampsey – straddling eras
  9. Living traditions, missing links – prevalence of fingertip playing by 1792, end of the old tradition. Possible missing links?
  10. Nathaniel Gow bicentenary ball 2017 – how it influenced Simon to further focus his attention on the end of the tradition in the 19th century
  11. Jointure & Jigg played with fingertips

For a selection of links to things mentioned during the interview, scroll to the bottom of this page.


Mícheál Ó Catháin:
Simon, to start I’d love to focus on your playing of the Jointure & Jigg.  Can you talk us through your arrangement of this piece? [2012]

Simon Chadwick:
Well I properly became familiar with this tune in 2010 I think. Neal was the theme of the summer school, Scoil na gCláirseach. Nicholas Carolan had just put out his new edition of the facsimile A Colection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes by John and William Neal, and because of that we themed the summer school around Neal. So everyone was teaching Neal tunes, and talking about Neal tunes. Ann Heymann played the Neal version of the Jointure (titled Stáraí ‘ghoid mo chlú-sa uaim in Neal),  and I thought “wow this is a nice tune.” I was chatting to her about the titles and I got more and more interested in it.

When I got home after Scoil I thought perhaps I should play this tune, and so I got out Neal and worked up a version. I think it has since gone a bit away from Neal because the more I played it the more I developed ideas about it.

It is an interesting piece in many ways, particularly in that there are two versions of the same tune – one in Neal and another in Bunting.  [2012]
Well that is fascinating. There are other tunes that appear separately in Neal and Bunting as well. They can be quite different and you may argue about the relationship between them.

Is there quite a close match between the Neal and Bunting versions of the Jointure? [2012]

I don’t know! How do you judge how close or distant two versions are – I have no idea!

Well perhaps if somebody listening can straight away tell it is the same tune? [2012]
Yes, it’s the same tune. Also they both have the “Jigg” following the Jointure air. In fact the Jigg is closer in the two versions. It’s the air which is slightly more different in each source, which is interesting. So you know there is the whole question of where Neal got his tunes from, who has recast them etc. My suspicion is Neal was printing harp tunes that they got through the fiddle tradition. So I think this fiddle idiom in the Neal collection gets rid of some of the harp idiom. Whereas obviously Bunting is noting direct from the harpers, so his field notes direct us to stuff full of harp idiom.

So Neal would have been notating from fiddle players? [2012]
No, more likely he was commissioning fiddle players to provide them with scores to publish. Remember that Neal wasn’t an Irish music collector like Bunting. He was a general, run of the mill, music publisher. He published all kinds of fashionable London stuff. He just did a couple of little books of country dances, a book of Scottish music, a book of Irish music – these were small projects.  So he would have had a fiddle contact – someone in the fiddle tradition, or in the violin tradition perhaps – who knew or collected this piece, then set it as notated music ready to be published.

When I started playing this tune I wasn’t in strict historical mode. Instead I thought it was a nice tune I would like to play. So I didn’t do a huge amount of work trying to find the early sources, or trying to compare the two versions. I just looked at Neal, played it through a few times, let it drift a bit until I was happy. So it was a bit more creative, more free and easy.

With this creative mindset, I interpreted it as a lament. I was really interested because it has got three titles. The Gaelic (Irish language) title is Stáraí ‘ghoid mo chlú-sa uaim which I think is obviously a song air – to me it is obviously the first line of a song, although we don’t have the song unfortunately. So that’s the first clue – a big eighteenth-century song.

Generally speaking, I look for a vocal version whenever I can. When it’s a purely instrumental piece, I look for a mouth music version. If it’s a song air I look for the song. So there are no song words available for Stáraí ‘ghoid mo chlú-sa uaim that I know of, but you can still kind of pretend.

The second title is the Golden Star.  I had an insight, perhaps because I’m a “foreigner” with an outrageous English accent who doesn’t speak any other language. I thought “well that’s what an English speaker would make of Stáraí ‘ghoid…” – you know – “Golden Star, that’ll do…”.

Whereas stáraí means rogue, with the title translating roughly as “rogue who stole my reputation from me”. [2012]
Exactly, so if you know nothing about that, you would kind of crunch it down into vaguely English words, and end up with the Golden Star, which is the name of a tune Bunting associates with the tune. So that was my little idea, no idea if it is correct or not, but I thought that was fun!

The third title is the Jointure, which means a widow’s legal allowance, something like that. So I started to think of a song story about a rogue who steals away your health or livelihood or whatever. Is this a lament by a woman, because her husband has died?

So through this way of thinking, I was instantly into lament mode. As it happened I had been working on laments for a few years, for a CD recording project called Old Gaelic Laments.

I interpreted it as a really personal lament, and whether that’s true or not I have no idea, but I just fancied this approach so that’s what I’m going with! A bit more free and easy that I would normally do.

Can you talk through your arrangement?  [2018]
[Music]… see the way it starts as an un-ornamented melody line? [Music]… because that’s really what it is in my head.

And so base notes are sounded to pick up on the melody, and the way the melody is going. So you see the melody has turned into a strange kind of minor sorority. So that has really put the focus on E in the base, and then it curls through D and back to G.

It’s not really like a chord progression, it’s just tracking the melody down with a shifting drone. And then you’ve got this idea that if you’re doing in an E sonority you’ve got the higher E, the lower E, the fifth in the middle. You can use combinations of them to give a slightly different texture to the melody note, to point the melody note in a different way. To make it harder or softer …[music].

So there I’m thickening up a bit. At this point I’ve got a bit of C-chord going on the base, which is the fourth of the scale. I guess this gives it a bit of a continental functional harmony kinda flavour. But it’s just a hint of it, and I’m kind of interested in that – because I think the tune kinda invites you to, though you don’t have to. And there are different places in the old music where you get a sniff of that possibility, of a more classical sound. But I think that G to E movement is very characteristic of old Irish music.

[Music]… there’s a whole chunk of the tune missing just at this point, because of the way it was in my head, it wasn’t there and every time I played the tune I’d skip a few bars. And they’re nice bars as well!

And the jig, to get it more rhythmical, I’m hitting bass notes more rhythmically on the pulse. That beginning section is like coupled-hands style, with the hands alternating. And then the hand separate out to give more of a drone – to emphasize that E sonority as the tune curls around …[music].

So there are points at which the tune is sat in a coupled hands, or alternating way with the bass and the treble hands together, and then there are points at which they are separated out.

[Music]… and I love the sustain.

Since recording this piece, you found an anecdote from harper Arthur O’Neill related to the Jointure – can you talk about this?  [2018]
In 2014, a couple of years after my Old Gaelic Laments CD, there was the independence referendum in Scotland. There was lots of excitement politically and also artistically and culturally. I got the tune The Lament for the Union up and running, which is a pibroch tune, and is supposedly composed as a commentary on the Act of Union, about 300 years ago – don’t ask me the date! And then I thought I should make a recording of it, and I should make a CD and I can sell it to politically aware people. The Lament for the Union was 15 minutes long and I thought “well, what else can I put on it?”. I found an anecdote about a tune that was played at the Palace in Edinburgh – so I added that.

And then I also came across an anecdote about a Stáraí ‘Ghoid mo Chlú-sa Uaim, that connects it to the Act of Union. This is an important part of the lore surrounding this tune. And so I included it. I didn’t re-record it – I used the recording from the Laments CD on my Union CD. I put the story in the liner notes. It’s a cool story, from the memoirs of Arthur O’Neill  in Annals of the Irish Harpers. I did this in concerts and I read from the book in my concerts and got lots of laughs.

The Duke of Argyll was like the architect of the Act of Union, so you know he was the political mover and shaker in Queen Anne’s reign. Arthur O’Neill says the Duke of Argyll “heard of the celebrity of Heffernan who was a London tavern keeper that played the Irish harp. And the Duke of Argyll came to his tavern with a large group of people to  hear him play. The Duke called for a Scottish tune. But Heffernan, being of a good Irish turn of mind, played him the Golden Star, which is a very plaintive Irish tune. His lordship said it was too melancholy for a Scotch tune. ‘Oh my lord’ says Heffernan, ‘you must know it was composed since the Union!'”.

So I thought about the idea of the tune being a lament. And I thought  that was very interesting, because as I said, when I first worked on this tune I was thinking about it as a lament and I was thinking about it being a big personal thing. Then I thought of how Heffernan says  it was composed since the Union. 1707 wasn’t it, the Act of Union? So if it is composed after 1707, well that’s about the time that Connellan was in Edinburgh and he was made of burgess at the city. So if he was in Edinburgh at that time, maybe he composed it as a political satire or commentary or something. I don’t know, it’s just possible that it was composed as a political thing, so I thought that was interesting.

So that’s Arthur O’Neills little anecdote, it gave me for some pause for thought.

Are there other pieces in the old tradition following this air and jig combination?  [2012]
There are a few tunes that have jigs at the end. I have talked to Ann Heymann about this, and it seems pretty clear that the jig at the end of a slower air was an important part of the tradition, perhaps in the 17th century. It is perhaps also associated with Rory Dall Ó Catháin – there are connections possibly. But then does it also connect to the continental tradition, such as Bach did? So maybe it is a continental thing that comes in and becomes an integral part of the tradition.  I don’t know. But for me it is an integral part of the tune – I can’t imagine playing the Jointure air and stopping, not doing the Jigg.

The tune I start my lament CD with is a Scottish tune credited to Rory Dall Ó Catháin called Is Eagal Liom an Bhás (translated as terror of death). It is really gothic and dramatic, and it has a jig at the end. Some people have said “how can you have a jig if he’s terrified of death”, and I say “yes, it’s a scary jig, it’s a terrifying jig!”, as if he’s looking around nervously!

So these jigs following airs in the old tradition are not a dance tunes? [2012]
Oh no! No way.

When I hear the word jig, I associate it with dance music. But here it is not. Does this inform how all jigs were played in the old tradition, or is this an entirely different type of jig? [2012]
It is called jigg because it is a continental word, related to a piece in six time. You hear this word all over the continent in the context of a movement in a suite of classical music. So I think Neal and Bunting have recorded it more in that context. It has nothing to do with dancing a jig, I think that came later. I don’t know enough about it, but it is not connected directly to the dance tradition. This is a specific instrumental feature.

OK I think that is an important point because somebody, like myself, coming from the Irish dance music tradition could see “Jigg” and think this should be played in a similar way to jigs played for dancers. [2012]
I’ve seen that before. Traditional music collectors or compilers label things according to the key signature and then there’s a whole bunch of assumptions that come in. But it’s not necessarily so here.

So these jiggs that fit onto the end of the big harp airs are a genre in their own right. [2012]
They are a self-contained little unit, right.

You’ve got your Queen Mary harp beside you there. Could you show it? [2018]
Yeah this is the harp I used for the Old Gaelic Laments CD in 2012. Even at that

time I was aware of the difference between the medieval harps and the 18th century harps. Almost as soon as I got a student Downhill I separated out my repertory. I played the older stuff on the Queen Mary harp, and the more modern stuff on the Downhill harp. I don’t really know what made me play the Queen Mary harp for this tune.

I remember I did a program of Carolan, Connellan and Lyons.  And I used the Downhill harp for the Carolan section and the Queen Mary harp for the Connellan section, because I decided that Connellan is a bit older.  Just for the novelty value maybe. But that got me in the habit of playing the Jointure on this harp. I think that’s what’s going on.

But since I did the Old Gaelic Laments CD in 2012 this harp has had radical changes. Karen Loomis finished her PhD work and we looked at the renderings from her CT scans of the inside of the Queen Mary. I took the harp to Natalie Surina in Galway and she reworked the inside of the sandbox, carving a lot of wood out, revoicing it basically. I have also done two complete restringings and reworkings of the stringing regimes. Back then it had basically the eighteenth-century set up with na comhlaí on G, same as the Downhill harp but with less bass and more treble. Whereas now it’s got a transposed version of that, which puts na comhlaí on C and it gives you B-flat as you’re shifting note. Like the B flat in the medieval gamut. Using this transposed tuning setup really emphasises my use of this harp as a medieval musical instrument for reconstructing medieval repertory.

So my Queen Mary replica has moved further and further away from a sensible thing to play 18th century Irish harp music on. I mean it’s still wonderful, I still love it. I don’t play it very much now, since I began playing almost exclusively with fingertips, because it doesn’t really work that well played this way. It’s one of my missions, to work out how how to play it with fingertips because the touch is very different.


Can you talk some more about how your Queen Mary replica harp was made? [2012]
This harp is copied from the Queen Mary harp which is kept in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, one of the best preserved of the old harps, and one of the oldest as well.

Who made your copy? [2012]
It was made by Davey Patton, who is based in Co. Roscommon.  His brother John Paul was a student at our very first Summer School back in 2003, and I was very rude about John Paul’s harp. I thought I had justification because it was the same model that I started on, the same kit harp. So I said “come on, you can do better than that!”. So John-Paul went home and asked his brother Davey, who is a sculptor, to make him a harp. Davey said that he would normally be far too busy sculpting, but he had just hit himself on the head with a chainsaw, and was recovering and so he agreed. I think it’s kinda funny, a good way to start a foolish mission.

So was this [Simon’s Queen Mary replica] an early attempt? [2012]
John Paul’s harp was first, and this is the fifth harp Davey made.

I’m interested in this as a very old, very high-status, conservative tradition.  So think of violin making. If you want to make a violin, what you do? You copy one of the masters.  The first things you do is you learn from someone who already does it.  Well we can’t do that because there is no living tradition of early Irish harp making. The second thing is you copy a Stradavarius, or whatever. So that’s the approach to go with here, with the early Irish harp. These things, (the Museum instruments), are masterpieces, and so should be copied exactly.

So I was obviously pleased when Davey Patton took on this commission, and made everything as exact as possible.  I think that the artistic side of him was thinking “well I want to do my own thing!”, and I said no, that I wanted to commission an exact replica. But I think it was good for him, because then subsequent harps he has been able to be a bit more freeform, but from doing this Queen Mary replica he gets an idea and can appreciate “ah, that’s how it works”.  Whereas if you start off from the beginning, trying push it in different directions, those insights are missed.

Other than Davey Patton, are other harp makers creating decorated, colourful early Irish harps? [2012]
David Kortier in America made a harp for the Boston museum. They have have an 18th century harp called the Bunworth harp, and they commissioned him to make a replica of it. He decorated it.  But he is an instrument maker, rather than an artist. Davey is primarily a sculptor, so the art is the main thing.

How did you figure out the technical measurements for your Queen Mary replica? [2012]
The Queen Mary harp is very nice – in that we know lots about it – because a hundred years ago Robert Bruce Armstrong published a lot of information about it – drawings, measurements, etc.. So Davey and I went to the museum, and stood on front of the case for a day, arguing about technical details.

But we already had lots of information about how the harp works. The harp itself is complete and it’s in good condition, so it’s it’s easy to replicate. Some of the other harps are much harder to replicate because they’re all broken or there is less informations available.

For a harp maker reading this – somebody who has all the skills to make a harp but  hasn’t done so yet – is there anything they particularly need to know, or good sources of information?  For example, joints, types of wood, strings, etc.  [2012]
I have mentioned Karen Loomis already. Karen is a former harp student of mine, and she did her PhD on exactly this question. She got permission from the museum to feed the two old harps they have there, the Lamont and the Queen Mary, through hospital CT scanners, which produced three dimensional internal views in mind boggling detail. She has also published scholarly articles. So this is number one! Anybody who thinks about making these harps must become familiar with Karen’s work.

So Karen is information central, for these two harps in Scotland. But you know it is the same tradition, it is a shared tradition. I have no time for people who want to be nationalistic about it and try and separate off the Scottish and Irish harp traditions. They are one shared thing. So everything we learn about the two instruments in Edinburgh is directly relevant to all the instruments in Irish museums.

Also, look at the real thing – this is the other thing. I’m slightly concerned by the number of harp makers who don’t look, who don’t go to the museum to spend time with the real things, or don’t go there enough. I mean, these harps in the museum are just stunning stunning masterpieces.  They are really high quality pieces of work.  They are really subtle. Everything about them, not just the decoration, but just the shaping of each part. Just the way they fit together. You could go there for a week and spend every day pressing your nose against the glass and you still wouldn’t take it all in!

When is the original Queen Mary dated from? [2018]
Up until this year [2018] nobody knew!  There were some guesses. I like pointing it out that you might find a date in an old book and repeat it, but that’s just made up. The art work on it is outrageous, and it matches closely some art work on stones in Scotland. So the people I discussed this with, my colleagues and correspondents, were looking at something like 1490 for this art work. But the harp is made from different pieces of wood, so there are no guarantees that is all made around the same original date. “Medieval” is the quick and easy answer. It is a medieval harp.

Karen Loomis has recently led a project to scientifically date the Queen Mary harp. Preliminary findings were announced in public lectures in Limerick and Kilkenny during 2018. The results of the radiocarbon dating will be published in the next few months!

When you speak about the Queen Mary harp and other low-headed medieval instrument, they are for playing a very different repertoire to that played on the later high-headed Baroque period early Irish harps. [2018]
Yeah, but it’s a very different instrument! This is the thing that that I’ve come to value more and more. Some years after Davey Patten made the harp, I asked Natalie Surina to do more work to get it speaking well on its whole range, based on Karen’s research. It made a huge difference to the treble voice of the harp.

When Davey Patten originally made the harp we didn’t have any information about the inside. I even remember talking to Davie about this when he was originally making the harp, and asking him to err on the side of the soundbox being a bit too thick, because we could always cut it out later.

And then Karen did her research, including cross sections, and renderings. Eventually I got the courage up and said to Natalie Surina “will you hack at it?”! Karen made us 3D renderings of the inside of the treble end of the soundbox. We pulled the harp to pieces, on Natalie’s workbench – there was the harp and then there was the laptop beside it with the 3D model on it. We were looking at the laptop and saying “you see that there on the laptop? You need to take wood from there, in this way on the physical replica”.

It was really cool – it was really cool that Natalie was up for that, literally going from the soundbox to the laptop and back, with the tools. But yeah it was stressful as well, because there was my harp in pieces and Natalie was attacking it with angle grinders and power tools and things!

What was the biggest difference in sound? [2018]
It just opened the whole thing up. It resonates much more freely, and has a much more singing voice. Because beforehand it had always been closed in the treble range. But restringing it as well –  I mean that’s that’s changed its voice a lot too.

Is there a list of the museum harps and their location? [2012]
Yes, I have a section on my website, at

It sounds like there is plenty of scope for further research drawing on Karen Loomis’ work? [2012]
Sometimes I joke that we should have full university departments working on this, since this tradition is so big!   And we’re only really talking about the harp. Every aspect of this tradition is so under-researched and so rich. Sometimes I feel like I’m kind of drowning!

On your website have you identified areas of useful research? [2012]
Not specifically or in a structured way. When I started the website I wanted to get a grip of what this tradition is.  There wasn’t really a way to get an overview of it so I thought, for my own purposes I need to understand what is out there.  How many old harps are there in museums?  What manuscript sources are there?  What are the key dates in the tradition? This kind of thing.  And so I started putting that together, and I guess I’m still only outlining the broad scope of the subject.

So it’s up to other people to go in there, and flesh out that scope. [2012]
Karen is the first person who has directly spun off what I’ve done, and said “right! I can do this bit”. And I said, “great, off you go, do it. Report back”. That suits me. So I’m not interested or in a position to do that fine work, because I’m still trying to get big views, still trying to clarify the big picture.

Returning to your analogy of violin making, and the Stradivarius. As I understand your thinking, you’re saying that if you are aiming for the best instrument you can you go back to the pinnacle of the art. And we have at least 10 – 15 of these historic harps from which to draw.  Can you talk about this some more? [2012]
There are about eighteen in total. So another another point about harp makers is that I think that the old instruments are supreme masterpieces.  I think that the old instruments were designed for the old tradition. So if you’re interested in working within the old tradition, you need as close to the old harps as you can. So there’s a logical progression here.  Therefore, resist the urge to change the instrument, in the same way is that you resist the urge to change the music. If you’re interested in working a strict old tradition you don’t like to just change it wherever you can.

There seems to be something very important here about how the instrument informs the music. [2012]
Yes! I think it goes two ways. The first way is that if you think about a thriving living tradition – which this is not and hasn’t been for a couple of hundred years or more – but if you think of a thriving living tradition, what guides the shape and specs of the instrument? The answer is the musical requirements.

So the instrument evolves and in a way designs itself to be optimum for what people want to use it for.  Now we’re kind of reverse engineering things here. So we’re trying to get back to the old tradition.  So the instruments, we have them – the old instruments.  So we can get back into the old tradition through the instruments through a kind of reverse engineering. Because you say sure, this is designed to do certain specific things very well.  Let’s get copies up and running, see what they can do and then it’s a good guess that those things, and other things, are the things we’re looking for.

I was going to say you can’t argue with it, but you can argue with it, because as soon as you start making a new thing questions arise, such as tuning for example. But there are aspects that you can’t argue with, so in many ways the old museum instruments are a fixed reference point.

In terms of choosing a harp, can you give some advice. Say for someone who is not sure what size of harp to choose. [2012]
The first point is to spend as much as you can afford. Harps are outrageously expensive, but you get what you pay for. There is no point trying to scrimp.

To put that into context, can you talk about the pool of rental harps which the Historical Harp Society of Ireland make available? [2012]
So the idea of our rental harps is that they are as “bargain-basement” as possible, while  still being working instruments. And they are still expensive! So yeah sure, rent a harp – this is the first step.  Rent a good harp – don’t get stuck with a bad instrument. Quality is the thing. Again, this is a serious, high status, sophisticated, learned tradition. To appreciate that you need a quality instrument.

The rental harps are David Kortier harps, right? [2012]
Kortier made them, because he has both the data to produce a reasonable student harp based on the old museum instruments, and a workshop to be able to churn them out – not mass produced but five or six at a time.

What different harp models are in the series at present? [2012]
There are five different models. However three of them I would regard as experimental. The HHSI commissioned them to see what they were like. Two of them, well two and a half are experimental, and two and a half are really good. So the good ones are the Trinity and the Downhill, and the Queen Mary is kind of okay but not as good as the Trinity. And the other two are experimental – I’m not convinced we have them set up right, and so I wouldn’t recommend them for a beginner.

The way you choose between the Trinity and the Downhill – we haven’t talked about this at all – we have just spoken about my Queen Mary harp.  I have two harps.  I have this Queen Mary harp and I have one of Kortier’s student Downhills.  And I regard them as very different in style. This Queen Mary harp is in the medieval style and the Downhill is in the 18th century style. There were big changes in the Irish harp tradition in that time. There were even bigger changes after that time when the whole thing came to a halt.

So the choice between the Trinity and the Downhill – the Trinity is the smaller one. The Trinity is good for the older music, for medieval music.  The Downhill is good for the 18th century music.  So if you’re interested in Carolan, you want the Downhill. If you’re interested in the pibroch-y, Robert Ap-Huw style, medieval stuff, you go for the Trinity.

That is the first choice, I would say, for these student harps. And then that branches out – if you want to splash huge amounts of money on a proper replica, do you choose the small medieval one, or do you choose the big 18th century one. It’s the same kind of decision -in other words, what kind of music you are interested in.


Simon, you’ve had a wide influence on the revival of the early Irish harp in recent years. Can we wind back in time to how you came to play the early Irish harp, and talk about your own musical background, growing up. [2012]
I grew up on the south coast of England, down between the New Forest and the sea, in a little rural area know as the Waterside. There was always music in the house when I was little. My mother gave piano lessons. I think she tried to start me on piano too young, and so I hated it. I rebelled and wouldn’t learn to read music, and instead imitated what she was playing. So I learned to play by ear without realising it.  I stopped really early on, so to this day I have the rudiments of piano playing but very little more than that.

So we had a piano in the house and I would just make stuff up. Then when I was in school I had the chance to learn an instrument, and so I learned the trumpet. I played trumpet all the way through to university.

There was another thing that was important for me early on. In England there is a very strong and unusual tradition of church bells. I wasn’t part of the church at all but my mother was in charge of the bell tower, and that’s been a big influence on me because it’s a very strange musical tradition.  It’s one of these musical traditions where the practitioners say it’s not music. If you asked them “what’s that tune?”, they’d say “it’s not a tune, it’s not music, we’re not playing an instrument”. You see what I mean? It’s not a musical instrument, it just happens to make a noise. You know in Islamic counties, the call to prayer is not music, it’s not singing, it’s conceptualised as something different. And I found that really interesting, because obviously on some level it is music, because it has pitch manipulation and everything else associated with music, but it’s conceptually out of the world of music.

So for me this led to the thought “what is the world of music that I’m not part of?”  In other words, an outside view into the world of music. So then I could suddenly see different genres, different styles of music – all very arbitrary, in little boxes. So quite young, I suddenly got this sense or impression that so many people doing music – whatever music they do – they think that is it.  You get this especially with classical music – what they do is universal and anybody who is different is deviant.  So very early on I had this sense that no, it’s the other way around.

After that early chapter in the Waterside area, what course did your musical journey take? [2012]
Well once I moved away to university I stopped doing music all together because I got distracted by other things. From about the age of 20 I wasn’t playing music at all. When I was in university I saw somebody with a harp – a modern Celtic harp. I thought “well that’s sweet, that’s kind of like a piano and I could work out a tune”. That’s when I first got a harp, but I never really played it.

I made it from a kit, with steel wire strings because they were the cheapest option. You could choose gut, nylon or steel. Gut was the most expensive, then nylon. I thought “I don’t want plastic strings on my harp, plastic’s nasty. I can’t afford gut, therefore I have to get steel”.

Then I went to the local music shop and said “I’ve got this harp with steel wire strings. Do you have a “teach-yourself” book?”. They said “certainly sir”, and it was Ann Heymann’s book Secrets of the Gaelic Harp, with a blue binding. I had no idea what I’d bought. It is like gold dust now. I took it home, tried it and I thought “this is so hard!”, and put it on the shelf.

So was Ann Heymann describing techniques in her blue book? [2012]
Yeah it’s a teach-yourself book. It’s a total tablature – which finger goes on which string, how to place and move each finger. It’s ferocious!

It sounds like you didn’t have a transition playing other types of music – on harp or otherwise – between your early influences at home and this first early Irish harp you made. [2012]
Not at all. I had the harp and tutor book for ten years and yet never played, they just sat there for that time.

So I’m curious about how then you did take that step to playing from Ann’s blue book? [2012]
I had an impetus. I was doing educational work with children. We did a music session at a museum. One colleague said he had a harp, and he’d bring it in. So I said “oh I have a harp as well”. So my colleague said “great, bring it in and play us tune”! So I had two weeks to learn the first tune, and it was such hard work.

I worked through the Ann’s blue book for two weeks.  It was “Fair Molly” (Molly Bhán) which is the first tune you learn on the harp according to the old tradition. Ann sources her blue book out of Bunting’s manuscripts. So I went straight into the heart of the old tradition, without realising it, thanks to Ann. She plugs you straight in there, before you know what’s going on. So the first tune I learned on the harp was Fair Molly, and of course that’s the first tune I give to almost every student I have. Again to drag them straight into the old tradition. It comes from Patrick Quin from the Fews in County Armagh, and he told Bunting it was the first tune you learn on the harp, that was two hundred years ago.


This is interesting. Both Patrick Quin who played the Otway harp (now in Trinity College), and Denis O’Hampsey who played the Downhill harp (now in the Guinness store house), contributed beginner tunes to Bunting. Didn’t O’Hampsey, among a lot of other tunes, contribute what he named as the fourth tune taught to student harpers? [2012]
Burn’s March – that’s right. Ann writes the tunes in her blue book. The old harpers all agree that Fair Molly was the first tune taught. Then they all disagree what the order of the others are!

There are two other beginner tunes mentioned and the harpers disagree what order they were taught. So what Ann does is she puts The Butterfly second. The third is missing so she grabs a tune from the tradition [the Yellow Goat, in Bunting as Kiss me Kate], then she put Burn’s March fourth.

Once you write Burn’s March down it become so difficult – just the act of writing it and reconstructing it from the page. It’s impossible! The number of people I’ve seen who work through Ann’s blue book and they get to Burns March and they can’t do it. They can’t get it. It’s just too hard – it must have taken me a year or so – not to master it – to get to the end of it and say “phew, I’ve done it! I can’t play it, but I’ve done it”, and I moved on.

So it there a very big step in difficulty between the second and third tunes and Burns March? [2012]
I find Ann’s blue book has a really steep learning curve. But it was a good challenge because it tells you everything you need.

So looking back now, what would be your advice to someone struggling through those tunes? [2012]
Well you see I use these tunes in my teaching nowadays and I put Burns March second. So I give people Fair Molly, and then it’s straight on to Burns March. But I don’t teach it through written notation, so it’s totally oral tradition teaching.  I find that it’s easy! It is no problem at all. To my mind the way that Burns March in particular works, is it is an oral traditional piece of music, based on principles of pattern memorization and improvisation. When you write that down you don’t get any of that, but when you chat about it, it’s obvious.

Another interview in this early Irish harp: the State of the Art interview series is with Paul Dooley. Paul talks about the Ap Huw manuscript, a source of music from the medieval welsh harping tradition. Is Burns March a piece which can be related to that era? [2012]
Oh sure! Definitely! So there are three big chunks of evidence [for medieval Irish harp music] that I think of as good “clues”. One of them is the Ap Huw manuscript, one of them is Burns March, and one of them is the Scottish Highland Gaelic piping tradition, pibroch. And they all share structural similarities, this idea of a theme and variations – in other words, a series of sequences that develop out of each other and they are geometric or they are abstract, built on repeating patterns.

Are there any particular pibroch pieces that spring to mind? [2012]
They’re all like that, they all work in the same kind of way.

As a source material for pibroch pieces, are you going to tunes that are being played at the moment or is it manuscript material? [2012]
I always like to find the earliest versions of things, but I also like to listen. I have worked with pibroch a lot over the years.  I find it hard to get at because pibroch pieces were written down really late, from a tradition that had already changed a lot from the earlier stuff I’m interested in. So a lot of the primary pibroch manuscripts are already in that kind of 19th century style that is very different. So I find it difficult to understand from them what would have originally been going on.

So I use lots of sources to get multiple perspectives. I look for fiddle re-workings of the pipe tunes, because the fiddlers sometimes have an insight from their tradition that gets at musical features that the pipers are deliberately obscuring. Or archive recordings from pipers playing these tunes from the forties, fifties, sixties and so on. I draw from as many different sources as I can. I also pay particular attention to the work of Barnaby Brown and Allan MacDonald, because they have a good understanding of the oldest strands of pibroch tradition. So all of these sources I combine together.

The other thing is because I’m not playing the pipes but playing the harp, I feel very free to recast things. Things like the mode of the tune. The pipes are so set – you have your drone and you have your scale, you are so limited. On the harp it is totally different. You’ve got the drones, obviously, the sustain – but you can shift the drones up and down. Playing pibroch on the harp, you can shift the drone and get a dramatic contrast. So, I’m looking in the pibroch pieces for chances when can I shift drone. But I wouldn’t do that too much, in case it becomes over the top or “slushy”, and because I like a really strict aesthetic. So I’m looking to just tweak here and there.

And these tweaks are all informed, all steeped in a lot older influences? [2012]
Well I look around and think “how does this relate to Burns March? How does it relate to the music in the Robert Ap Huw manuscript?” They are touchstones. I try to resist just doing fantasy stuff or getting influenced by classical or baroque traditions. l don’t want to go in that direction, I want to be going in the direction of the these old unwritten Gaelic and Irish traditions.

The other thing I should say about working with pibroch is that the most important way to understand the structure of the music is the songs that go with them. All the pibroch pieces have songs that go with them. Burns March has a song that goes with it.

Do Allan MacDonald and Barnaby Brown sing these songs as well? [2012]
Allan MacDonald sings pibroch songs, Barnaby doesn’t but he respects them.

I’m very interested in the work of Allan MacDonald. He did his PhD research specifically into the relationship between the pibroch songs and the pipe tunes. You can find archive recordings of the old singers out in the West Highlands and Islands from the fifties and sixties who sing these songs.  Some of the songs are really close to the pibroch – in that the sung verses imitate the played variations. Others are quite distant, perhaps just a song ditty or just a song title, yet the motifs move in similar ways.

I think that’s vital – I think you have to sing the song, you have to feel the song when you’re playing the tune on the instrument.

Do you sing yourself? [2012]
Yeah though I try not to admit it! Actually I was really daring – I put a few songs on my Old Gaelic Laments CD, but I don’t know what people think of them!

The way I think about it is, you’ve got an instrument and you want to play a tune. How do know what to play?  You haven’t got anything written down because you’re in an oral tradition. So you can either do it by a kind of “painting by numbers” (finger one, finger two, etc) – that doesn’t work, it isn’t musical – or you do it by singing. For me, singing is the only way to do it –  I don’t see any other way.

I tell a joke to my students: how you move your fingers changes the sounds you produce – you can make harsh sounds, consonant sounds, vowel sounds – your job is to make the harp speak the words. It’s never going to happen! But you try and you fail, and in failing your music is beautifully articulated and expressive.

It reminds me of slow air playing on any instrument. The best approach to slow air playing is knowing the song – knowing what part of the song you’re expressing. Virtually going verse by verse. [2012]
On a technical level, I believe it is best to go syllable by syllable. If you know how the words and syllables are shaped together, you imitate that with your fingers and that gives you the musical phrasing.

In your talks you show a very interesting map of Ireland and Scotland, with the north-south axis slightly rotated, so that Scotland is directly above Ireland. This shows quite clearly that we are very closely connected by the sea, and that we’re not really talking about two separate harp traditions here.

[image provided by Simon Chadwick]

Looking at the Trinity College Harp in Ireland, and the Queen Mary in Scotland, there are striking similarities.  However, there was a break in the harp tradition of both countries, that may have been picked up in the Scottish piping tradition. Can we make connections between the piping traditions and how Gaelic harp music in Scotland and Ireland may have been played in the old tradition? [2012]
From a historical point of view, the way I understand it is the harp in Ireland and Scotland goes back 1000 years, no question. The pipes and the fiddle came in around 1600 or so, after the harp was already around for more half a millennium. So they are kinda newcomers, and it seems obvious to me that they’d try to share in the repertory and tradition of the cláirseach. So that old medieval harp music we don’t have written down – it seems likely to me that it influenced or created the pipe and fiddle traditions – these huge courtly laments, the praise pieces, the big sophisticated high music known as Ceol Mór in Scotland. I am not talking not about dance music traditions – I don’t have much to say about that since as far I can see it doesn’t really fit into the Ceol Mór tradition.

So I’m thinking of this idea – you’ve got these medieval traditions of harp playing in Ireland and Scotland, really rich, really vibrant, really elevated, and the harpers are highly respected, very sophisticated, very learned.  And we don’t have any of these traditions still alive.  If we try and look at how these traditions kind of trickle down, one of the ways is that the pipes pick up on some of these traditions – who knows how much – but we do have some of that piping tradition unbroken from the time of the harping tradition. So then you look at pipe music and you think – how does it relate back to the early stuff, and what bits of it can we see? OK And then sometimes you just have to say “well I like this, I’m going for it!”


There is now a pretty good handle on the Bunting publications and manuscripts behind them. They are not all being played yet. You’re talking about interpreting things because it sounds the way you think it should sound, but there’s a huge amount of tacit knowledge behind your interpretations. As we touched on already, you are steeped in the old sources that are available – Ap Huw, pibroch, Burns March etc. [2012]
Steeping is a good way of looking at it. Again, something I have I picked up from Ann Heymman is this idea that there is an extent to which you cannot do it in a scholarly way, because there’s too much evidence that is too rubbish. So the only way to do it is to get all that information and sit in it like a teabag, becoming completely infused with it.

And then when you see a tiny fragment – such as a fragment of a song for instance – you think “there’s something there”. You can’t say what it is, but it draws you in and leads you somewhere.

In his interview as part of this Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art series, Paul Dooley talked about the Ap Huw manuscript. He cautioned against generalising that this is the way all Irish music in the old tradition was being played. [2012]
This is a really interesting bit of the tradition, that I’ve been thinking about for a while. The Robert Ap Huw manuscript is Welsh, and it’s written quite late in the end of the Welsh bardic tradition as a kind of an attempt to record a dying Welsh tradition. This is not really like what Bunting was doing because the writing down of the Welsh tradition was done from the inside of the tradition rather than from the outside. So as well as writing down the tablature of tunes, they wrote down a lot of other stuff as well.  There was the rules and regulations for how many years study you had to do, what types or genres of tunes you had to learn. All the paraphernalia of being a musician.  Really detailed, it’s like a university education – this would be something like being a medical doctor today, in terms of the years of study involved.

Anyway as well as that, there are these other texts.  One of them is the historical origin myth of this Welsh tradition. The story is that the Welsh music was set and started in Ireland at this meeting at Glendalough, organised by the Irish high-king with one of the Welsh princes, and they got together all the best musicians in Ireland and assembled a panel of international observers. The names are all corrupted but you can kind of guess maybe one of the King of England, maybe one of them was one of the Dublin Vikings or one of them was like the King of Scotland. So there was this international observer team –  a kind of United Nations panel on proper serious art music. This was serious business, sponsored by the king.

This music was the most serious art after poetry. It was right up there. So this is the Welsh origin myth. It’s extremely fragmentary and difficult to understand because it passed through hundreds of years of oral traditions before it was written down. However it does state that this Welsh music preserved in the Robert Ap Huw manuscript was codified in Ireland about the year 1100.  So I guess that’s Paul Dooley’s thing – he says “right I want to follow this trail back” so he’s playing Robert Ap Huw though he’s playing on an Irish harp.

I think what Paul Dooley was saying is that one can’t stretch too much further than that the Ap Huw manuscript music is potentially what Irish music sounded like before about 1600. [2012]
Well it’s one way back. You start with the Ap Huw manuscript and you kind of look backwards. So I’m coming up from the other point of view really. I only play two or three Robert Ap Huw pieces and so my idea was that I’m looking at ancient Irish music and I see that as an off-shoot, so I kind of look down it to see what’s at the other end.

So it’s like looking at the other end of a tunnel. We’re both looking at the same stuff but from a different point of view. So I’m much more interested in understanding what Robert Ap Huw was trying to say and how does the music work, how is it structured. Then I can grab those fragments of structure or meaning into my music. So I’m kind of raiding it mercilessly, and not really treating it with respect as a coherent thing.

Sounds like you are treating the early Irish harp as a historical instrument and reconstructing or breathing new life back into an instrument for which there has been a break in the tradition. Each of the artists I have interviewed during this Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art interview series are taking on this adventure of reviving the old tradition. The evidence that they are using are  manuscripts sources as much as possible – going back to primary sources. [2012]
In some ways they’re not primary sources at all, because the primary source is the living oral tradition which is gone. So even Bunting’s manuscripts, even his field notes – manuscript 29 – are secondary sources! In other words, the primary source was Denis O’Hampsey chatting away, and manuscript 29 is second hand already.

This is what I’m talking about! I’m very impressed at the level of rigour that is applied. Others – myself included – might have considered manuscripts a primary source, that notion is really questioned by the early Irish harp community. Anything written on the back of these manuscripts – say the publications of Bunting… [2012]
That’s third hand.

There’s that high level of rigour again! Even though equally, you make space for steeping in the available evidence and applying intution also. [2012]
I have another way of thinking about these manuscript sources. The primary source is the oral tradition, for example, what Denis O’Hampsey had to say. We can only guess, we can’t get it. So then Manuscript 29 becomes – thinking in oral tradition terms rather than in literary source terms – Manuscript 29 becomes “this is what Dennis O’Hampsey ‘said'”. You can’t hear him say it but this is what he said. See what I mean?

Can you explain Manuscript 29 for anyone not familiar – maybe explain the difference between Manuscript 29 and 33. [2012]
Manuscript 29 is the most important of Bunting’s manuscripts because it’s his pocketbook. It has pages the size of post-cards and he had it in his pocket. He went to the Belfast harp meeting in 1792 and then later he
toured to Magilligan in County Derry and  to other places. When he wanted to collect a tune, he would sit down beside the harper and he would write as they played at real speed with his pen onto these little pages – post-card size pages –  and so what you get in places is like telephone pad doodling!

So quite a lot of the tunes he starts off and they’ll be playing at speed and  he gets his pen and just dots along  – no key signature, no time signature, no bar lines, no stems – just a scrawl of dots giving you the outline of the tune. Then they’ll stop and do it again and this time Bunting add stems. But still there’s no sense of key.  You can see him working at speed. It’s almost like a tape recorder but it’s dots on the page. Then there is chatter as well – Bunting scribbling on the bottom little things they’re saying.

Often there are tune titles written that are not the title to tune on the page. They’re obviously telling him other tunes and he’s noting them down to collect them later or something like that. So it’s this complete mess.  Like a live stream of consciousness transcript off of what these old guys are saying.

Over and over again in the early Irish harping community we hear that Manuscript 29 is a very important source, probably as close as we can get to sitting there looking and listening over Bunting’s shoulder. [2012]
Another way of looking at it is the continuing stream of this tradition starting in the mists of ancient times and coming right through to to the last of the tradition bearers in the 19th century.  I’m interested in working backwards. The later you get the more evidence there is, obviously. So you start right at the end where there is loads of stuff and you gradually work your way back.  Then by the time you go back early enough such that there is no evidence, you’ve got a whole body of feeling for the tradition.

If you work back through to Arthur O’Neill, Patrick Quin, Denis O’Hampsey, you get a real sense – “yeah this is how their tradition works.”  Now let’s go a bit earlier and see what we’ve got. Then earlier again, you start having just one or two fragmentary manuscripts, but with that whole weight of the later tradition behind you you’re ready to understand what those earlier fragments are saying.  So by the time you get to the medieval stuff where there is just complete hearsay,  you’ve got a huge amount of tradition that you can focus on the “nothingness”. So working backwards in time like that is really important to get that broad overview of the tradition.

So if a person is interested in the old medieval tradition, it is still well worth looking at Denis O’Hampsey, at the 18th century stuff such as Carolan, because it’s all big and vivid and it gives you so much richness and context to take back in time.

In terms of publications or research that you’ve carried out, can you talk a little bit about what’s available. [2012]
Well the main way that I disseminate my research is on my website.  I see the internet a little bit like the old oral tradition. It’s not fixed like print is, so I love putting stuff online, you can change it or delete it. It’s fun. So I have a website that’s all about the early Gaelic harp traditions, and all my research is on there. And I think of this as my primary publishing platform. I’m less interested in scholarly journals and that sort of thing, though I did one article for the Early Music Journal published by Oxford University Press – that was more an awareness-raising exercise to let all the posh early music scholars know that there is an ancient Gaelic tradition that they should be aware of.

What is the name of your website? [2012]

It was interesting to learn of a conversation between Ann Heymann and Daniel Tokar about stringing early Irish harps, which you published in book form. [2012]
Yes this was a fun project, I published it in 2011. Ann Heymann has been working with an American metalsmith, an amazing craftsman called Daniel Tokar. He’s like a kind of magical elf – he can make anything out of metal. He made the silver studs on my harp, and to make them, he melted down old silver harp strings. He’s a cool guy.

So Ann was talking to him about the metal strings on harps. She asked about the sorts of metals that could be used – if Daniel could make bronze strings, brass strings, different types of bronze or brass.  Daniel thought there was no point in talking but to give each a try. So he started making experimental strings and posting them to Ann. She would put them on her harp and write down what happened. It went backward and forward like this for a few years.

I was part of it because Daniel made a few strings for me.  Eventually, Ann and Daniel realised they had years of research, and that the community would be interested in it. Ann was thinking of publishing it and since I publish my own books via my website we went that route.  We had some fun with it. Rather than trying to present it as a po-faced research paper, we presented it as a Renaissance dialogue between two masters discussing their craft.


Can we talk about practice – what is the best way to practice, say for a difficult piece like the Jigg after the Jointure? Do you slow it down, or how do you recommend to start from scratch with a piece like that? [2012]
There is an amazing anecdote that I got from the internet of all places.  It was a piper’s online forum and they were discussing  a Scottish tune which everyone is really super superstitious about. One of the rules is you must not play it except at a funeral. So a piper says “so you’re expecting me to turn up at a big public funeral and play a tune that I’ve never practiced?”. And the response from the old guy was “You’re not meant to practice your tunes, you’re meant to practice your technique, and your meant to sing your tunes. Then when you pick up your pipes you know exactly what you want to do and your fingers know exactly how to do it”.

And I thought that’s really cool. Obviously it’s an exaggeration and the old guy was pushing it too far, but I thought “what an idea!”.  So yeah I’m really into this idea of having techniques – hand shapes, and combinations of notes –  having them in your hands.  I published a little harpers handbook on how to play techniques, which I call gestures, how to work with them. And so you might sing a phrase as you wish to play it, and your hands sort of go “oh yes it’s obvious how you would make those sounds”, because you’ve got a repertory of little sounds in your fingers.

Would you do that work separately from other pieces ideally, and keep these techniques or gestures at your fingertips? [2012]
Yeah, keep those techniques “programmed” and at the ready, and there’s always new ones which can be developed.

You’re playing on your left shoulder. There are not too many harpers playing on their left shoulder – even among early Irish harp teachers.  [2012]
Once you start you’re fixed really. It’s a big effort to change. A lot of the people who are good players nowadays started before we had done lots of research on this aspect of technique. I remember a few years or so ago we were saying to students at Scoil na gCláirseach that it doesn’t matter and that they could choose themselves.

Now we say “no actually this is an old tradition that says this is what you do, so why not!”. So a lot of the good players nowadays started way before this was an issue, and so it never crossed their minds. I think Ann Heymann and I are “cranks”! We began insisting this left shoulder playing is best practice, for the early Irish harp.

Do you think of playing on the left in terms of strong and weak notes. Isn’t there something about your right hand being stronger and so better to use in the bass for strong notes of the melody? [2012]
Absolutely. There’s lots of historical sources about this.  Patrick Byrne, for instance was one of the last of the old harpers, touring in about the 1850s. He came out of the Irish Harp Society schools that were set up after Bunting did his collecting. There is a wonderful quote in the Edinburgh newspapers about how “the bass strings are controlled by the stronger member and the high notes tinkled by the left hand”.  So people were commenting on it.

If you’re already playing a modern Irish harp, is there any point in switching over to the left shoulder? [2012]
Well you can argue about where there’s a point or not, but it is hard to switch over. Your hands and your head are not filled with technique, so you can pick up an early Irish harp and you can just go for it. Whereas otherwise you become a beginner again, and that’s no fun for someone who is really good. But for somebody starting – come on! There are a thousand years of tradition here, why deliberately go against it?

I’d like to ask you about tone also. This is probably a question of getting comfortable with your instrument. When starting with any instrument you’re not really interested in tone. But after about six months or a year you should be getting a nice tone from the instrument. I’m paraphrasing something Willie Clancy said about the pipes. Is there a best place along the string that will give you a better tone or how do you control the tone on an early Irish harp? [2012]
Different places on the string give you a different tone. Everything about it – if you put your finger on the string and pull it, every every little thing changes.

Playing high up on the string gives a more ethereal effect. Playing low down is much more aggressive.

How fast you pluck also affects tone. Playing fast gives a different tone to playing slowly. Also the angle of your finger nail to the string.

But tone also depends on the instrument, as different instruments respond better or worse.  And this is one of the problems students had for a long time, with this tradition. Getting hold of a decent instrument is really hard. My first instrument was absolutely rubbish.  I made it myself out of a kit!

Can you explain the physics of using a fingernail versus a fingertip? [2012]
The techie explanation is that when you pluck a string you make a kind of dent in the string and when you let go that dent zooms up and down, and that vibration up and down is the sound you hear. So the shape of the thing that you plucked with gives you the shape of a dent, which in turn gives you the sound.

The quick explanation is that the smaller the dent – the sharper the plucky thing – the more sharp and focused the sound, and the bigger the dents – the more blunt the plucking thing – the more wooly and soft the sound.

So the ultimate is the pedal harp thing, if you could get the side of your finger down the string, and then you get this whoooom kind of sound. Which is what they are looking for on orchestra harps. And the other extreme is to have a pointed finger nail.

Can you share guidance on the shape of your hand – can you share guidance on that? [2012]
Well the first thing is something I have picked up from early and Baroque music people. A friend of mine ran an instrument collection in Oxford. She had this thing, that in the 19th century you had the Industrial revolution and everything became industrialised, including music. So her big bugbear was that pre-industrial music was human scale and relaxed.

Post-industrial music – classical music and everything after – is at an industrial scale. So everything is kept big and strong. Think of the way violin design changed from a light fiddle that could fill a small room, and then suddenly you get a beefed up instrument so that you can fill up the Albert Hall. So that’s the industrialization of music.

What I’m saying is that the poise of the arms and hand shapes adopted for the early Irish harp should be as relaxed as possible, in fitting with the pre-industrial music played on it.

And I imagine this also helps if you are practicing for hours [2012]
Yeah for lengthy practice, less tension helps. But also with less tension you have more control.

For this whole area of poise and relaxing, is it a good idea to have one to one tuition from someone who can guide you by actually placing the hands? [2012]
Yes. And to realise this is all very dependent on hand geometry, as everyone’s hands work in a different way. So whatever is most natural and most easy and comfortable. Instead of forcing yourself , find the most relaxed, curling rather than pressing into the strings. 

Would you recommend the fingers are straight, or how do you think the overall hand should be shaped? [2012]
Yeah I guess my model [in 2012] is that you visualise holding two glasses of whiskey up without spilling a drop. So it’s a kind of round shape. I’m interested in this whole posture, of level and straight all the way along here parallel to the ground, so your hand is not pointing up, not pointing down, there is no crooking at the wrist. Everything should be as relaxed and as natural as possible.

What are the differences when it comes to playing with fingertips? [2018]
Yeah I’m interested in how the different harps respond to playing with nails versus playing with finger tips. I’m finding in general that the big eighteenth-century harps are very friendly to fingertip playing, but the Queen Mary harp is not.

This is because the strings are closer together, mainly. Also because the strings are at a slightly higher tension, I think because they are shorter and thicker, the touch is different and the harp just doesn’t speak quite as well.

That said, I don’t know – I haven’t really tried enough, I’m still thinking about this. There are few good replicas of 18th century harps around. Hardly anybody has one. I don’t have one. I don’t have a good accurate replica of an 18th century harp.  I do have a good replica of a medieval harp – I’m very happy still with this Queen Mary replica.

I have done some work on a HHSI student Otway. And so I did some of concerts on it, and experimented with its set up.

Which of the old harpers at the 1792 Belfast harp meeting played the Otway? [2018]
Patrick Quin.

Could you hold up the HHSI student Otway you have beside you? [2018]
So I’ve done some work looking at the pictures, looking at the oil painting which is private ownership, looking at watercolor which is in the National Museum of Northern Ireland. Examining how Quin was holding it. He’s got his knees in front of his harp, so he’s quite “tucked in”. He’s got his head down like this …[shows].

He’s got his right hand spread here on the bass. He’s got his left hand curved like this and this thumb high.

Then I was thinking “how does that affect how you interpret the tunes?” I did this as part of working on this new version of my Progressive Lessons book. I went to the notations of his tunes in the Bunting manuscripts. Then I held the student Otway in the same way that Quin was holding it. With my hands in the same relationship. Then I looked at the score and you say well how does this work?

There’s this thing I’ve come to realise, that Molly Bhán is actually written an octave higher than how all of us play it nowadays. But it fits with this hand-shape on the harp – the spread hand-shape in the Quin portrait. With the right hand stretched across the bass strings, and the left hand curled, higher up in the treble.

Was Quin using fingertips only?

So what is the difference from fingernail technique – I notice you’re using your fourth finger quite a lot. [2018]
Yeah, so what I’m doing is based on looking at lots of the different pictures. Another thing that fed straight into this is Buntings field transcription of Patrick Quin playing Burns’ March.

Again it’s set out in different registers than what a lot of people are playing it in. It has bass chords and I looked at the bass chords, and thought about how they worked. In a different manuscript Bunting says these are the original harp basses played by the harpers. The notes that are given fit with the spread hand-shape. I tried to work out what possible ways there are of playing these notes.

Could you give an example? [2018]
So stretching the fourth finger was the way I came up with to do this …[music].

If I try tucking [the harp] in like Patrick Quin …[music]… like that. And again my aim is to sit exactly in the posture that I see in the oil painting and the water colour.


You mentioned earlier that since recording your 2012 Old Gaelic Laments CD, which features your Queen Mary replica harp played with fingernails, you have played more and more using fingertips. Was there a specific decision you can recall when you began experimenting with what fingertip technique would sound like on the early Irish harp? [2018]
Well, I’ve been talking about it for years and years! Right from the beginning I took seriously what Bunting says about Denis O’Hampsey, that he was the only one at the 1792 Belfast harp meeting who used long nails, and all the others used the flesh of the fingers alone. I happily tell people that using fingernails is the older technique, and all the other harpers were using the tips of their fingers, but that they were still playing the early Irish harps, with brass wire strings and on their left side and all this kind of thing.

In what way – how do you now think about this style of playing with fingertips?  [2018]
I think playing with fingertips is connected to the whole wider European scene. So in the 17th century, there were big changes all across Europe in the design of musical instruments. I’ve had trouble finding scholarly work on it but people talk about it. It’s connected to the rise of the violin family over viols, and the evolution of harpsichords into pianos. And that’s the point at which Irish harps take on the high headed form. So the 17th century is that transition between the smaller low headed harps and the bigger high headed ones. And all over Europe there was a change from nails to fingertips, like on lute and European harps. So it’s no surprise similar things happened here in Ireland if you think of the Irish harper as has being well connected to musical trends in other countries.

So by 1792, do you suppose fingertip style could have been in place about a hundred years? [2018]
Yeah. There’s a lovely quote by John Lynch in 1670, 1680, something like that, and he says (paraphrasing) “only the ruder, more rustic players still use nails. It’s a crude way to make your harp louder and more pingy. But most people don’t do that anymore.” Back in the 17th century he was saying that, and we don’t know what the context of that is, or whether if was positioning himself.

But still, clearly Denis O’Hampsey was like a dinosaur.  He was like a kind of eccentric oddball – he wasn’t in the mainstream of Irish harp performance in 1792. And that was why Edward Bunting thought he was so cool, because he recognized that he was like the living fossil, and wanted to get his stuff because it was the oldest tradition.

Out of ten musicians at the Belfast Harp Meeting, O’Hampsey was the only one to play with his fingernails. What do you think, was that representative of the demographic of harp players at the time do you think? [2018]
Yeah I would think so. Echlin O’Kane was around at the same time, perhaps a bit earlier. He didn’t go to Belfast, possibly he was dead by then already or possibly was in Scotland. He played with long fingernails and that’s all that I’ve found so far.

So, that background aside, was there a specific impetus that led you personally to play more with fingertips rather than fingernails? [2018]
In 2016, it was the bicentenary of Arthur O’Neill’s death. Scoil na gCláirseach had Arthur O’Neill’s bicentenary as its theme. In the run-up to Scoil, I was doing my series of events in Scotland and I thought I would do an Arthur O’Neill themed concert. Then I thought I would use a big 18th century harp, and I’d go through O’Neill’s repertory.

There was already some work on my website that I had done a few years previously, where I matched together tunes attributed to Arthur O’Neill by Bunting, the various versions.  And I looked through them and I realised that Arthur O’Neill didn’t use long fingernails.  I decided that if I was going to take seriously these arrangements from Bunting based on Arthur O’Neill’s playing, if I was going to try to reverse-engineer them and get Arthur O’Neill’s style up and running, that there was not much point doing that with long fingernails.

And so that was my motivation to try. I worked out when to try the experiment.  I looked up how long and how quickly the fingernails grow back after you cut them. I estimated I could be back to where I was in six weeks time, say. I tried it and I did my Arthur O’Neill concert. I don’t think I played very well –  because the first thing I noticed is when I cut my fingernails off, that I couldn’t play the harp at all! I couldn’t get sound out of it. It was terrifying! It took a few days to work out how to make the strings speak.

So I’m not sure that Arthur O’Neill concert was a very good concert. I filmed it and it’s up on YouTube, if anyone wants to check it out, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it! It’s not a good example of my work.

And I started growing them back. Then I thought that since I was going to Kilkenny and giving classes, that maybe I should cut them short again there, because Arthur O’Neill was the theme. So I did and I had short nails for the whole of that summer school. And in the classes we looked through the evidence – we looked at the photo of Patrick Byrne’s hands. We looked at the hand positions of other harpers, and we read the quotes and discussed this whole thing.

And it fed into this whole thing about what the bass-hand is doing, because when you start looking again at the sources with the fresh eyes, you see different things. Looking at the photos of Patrick Byrne’s hands, you can look at them and you can see his fingertips on the string and then you start saying “well, what strings were his fingertips on?” and you start seeing the shape of his hand, and the shape of his hand are very different from what a lot of people are doing in the current revival.

I started questioning. Why not use Byrne’s hand shape? And then why not look at Arthur O’Neill’s picture and look at his hand shapes?  And so on.

So is your aim to recreate, in this case, to recreate how Arthur O’Neill would have played? [2018]
Well not really, but it is to try and understand as much as we can about what these guys were doing.  I mean you can’t recreate it exactly unless you’ve got a time machine.

So it’s more to do with respecting the tradition as it’s passed on from them. You know, I’ve said for a long time that ideally in this kind of tradition, you go and sit with the old guy and do what he says or try and copy him and listen to his feedback. And we can’t do that with our old guys because they’re all dead. But all of Buntings collecting stuff is like a secondhand way into that.


I’m curious about what appear to be very different musical eras involved when we talk about O’Hampsey, and when we talk about everyone else [who played at the 1792 Belfast harp festival].  How do you understand this in your own mind? You spoke earlier about how you consider the Ap Huw manuscript, Burns March and pibroch vital clues, and your interest in looking way back, as far back as possible, using such fragments of evidence.  Some of the biggest fragments of evidence we have are the pieces from O’Hampsey. But it’s such a long tradition. It’s interesting to think about how we can give a fair platform to both the early Irish harp traditions up to about 1700, and then the tradition after that up to the last tradition bearers. Can you share your insights on this? [2018]
This is part of the general work that I’m doing to try and be more specific and more discerning about different aspects of the tradition. I’m less and less happy to speak in terms of the ancient Irish harp traditions as they were a big pot of porridge than you can stir.  It’s more to say that everything is very specific – every individual harper, in whatever age, had their own artistic expression, their own lineage, their own heritage, their own repertory. And they passed it to their students. And each student took it and made it their own. So I’m trying to be as particular as possible.

You mentioned different eras but of course O’Hampsey and O’Neill were both playing for Bunting at the same time, so they’re not actually from different periods. They were both alive at the same time, doing this stuff at the same time, and to me that’s interesting as well.

And also I have thought about O’Hampsey’s stuff, you can’t know that he was playing the same in the 1790s as he was in 1740s. You know, people’s practice changes and they’re affected by what’s around them.  So what we see of the transcriptions of O’Hampsey in 1792 is where he was at then. And sure, he learned his tradition a lot older and had a more conservative strand, but you see what I mean, it’s not actually a window into the past, it’s a recollection of it, or a passing on of it. So that’s the first thing.

I’d like to question that. We cannot make cut-and-dried assumptions, but there do appear to be fixed points – cornerstones of the old tradition so to speak. One such cornerstone, in my mind at least, is that the music O’Hampsey shared with Bunting in 1792 was of a very old variety even then, some from his own childhood ninety years earlier. [2018]
He was playing tunes that he had learnt. And because he was older as well so he learned his repertory before the other guys had started.  Yeah so no you’re right, he’s got older strands of the tradition.

Yeah it seems a fair assumption to make, although it is an assumption. [2018]
Yeah we believe him when he says they are old pieces, and that nobody else had them.

So O’Hampsey was representing say an earlier tradition, in his nineties in 1792, and then Arthur O’Neill and others were maybe in their fifties or sixties in 1792. They were very established musicians, and they represented maybe that century’s music. But they would have been influenced from continental music by that time – right? [2018]
Arthur O’Neill’s tradition is not necessarily more modern than O’Hampsey’s. I did some work for Scoil 2017 – I was looking at the lineages of the different people.  Arthur O’Neill had a good lineage, you know, he was taught by Eoin Keenan.  I don’t know who Eoin Keenan was taught by.

So I’m wondering about different parallel aspects to the tradition. There’s a connection between Denis O’Hampsey – he played Cornelius Lyons variation sets which were very up-to-date. They were not old fashioned at all, they were nothing like Féach an Ghléas and Scott’s Lamentation. So O’Hampsey was also playing these flashy Baroque continental style divisions.

Are the Lyons variations or divisions necessarily continental and Baroque? [2018]
You would have to talk to Siobhán Armstrong about that because she has the technical knowledge about how these things work.

It’s not clear exactly where all of Lyons influences come from but he doesn’t fit into the way pibroch Ceol Mór works at all. But he really does fit into Continental stuff, you know. If you heard his stuff at a harpsichord recital you wouldn’t blink. It just fits into that world.

So, O’Hampsey’s playing of Lyons’s stuff was very up-to-date and harpsichord-y. Lyons was the teacher of Echlin O’Kane who also played with fingernails. And Echlin O’Kane also is on record as playing Corelli violin sonatas on Irish harp treble and bass. So I wonder if there’s a connection between O’Hampsey, Lyons and O’Kane, that they’re using fingernails but also that maybe they have a certain connection to the Baroque Anglo-Continental traditions.

Then if you think that that is a tradition – that they have a certain repertory, they have a certain style, they use their fingernails. And there are other traditions which don’t connect with that. Do you see what I mean? I’m wondering if there are different schools of playing that go on at the same time, in parallel, and with their own lineages back through the generations.

It just happens that the O’Hampsey, Lyons, O’Kane school kept the fingernails for whatever reason. And that Arthur O’Neill, Eoin Keenan, Patrick Quin, Patrick Linden and their lineages, and all the other harpers, all switched to fingertip playing, possibly a hundred years earlier than the Belfast harp meeting.  As part of this transition to getting the big high headed harps with the extended basses and that whole thing. As part of that big revolution that came through from the Continent. You know, taking up violin is part of that thing.

How so? [2018]
The violin came out of Italy as part of that 17th century musical revolution. So the people in Ireland and Scotland took up violin in the 17th century as part of this general revolution in instruments and music.

So you can see Lyons’ work comes out of there, because that’s what his division compositions are. It’s all part of that package. That’s how I would understand it.

Are there other reasons for fingernail technique being used less? Why would it be less suitable for Baroque divisions etc? [2018]
It’s obviously not, because O’Hampsey was doing it.

So if it’s not the music itself, what other reasons are there for moving away for fingernail technique? [2018]
Well, it gives the harp a different sound. It makes it speak differently. There was a general aesthetic change from harder sounds to softer sound during that period. I mean you see it on lutes and harpsichords – there was a tendency towards more softer, more rounded sounds.

You know, you sort of stereotypically think of the sound of a piano, compared to the harpsichord.  The older aesthetic is the harder, “janglier” sound. Yeah, tastes changed.

Would maintaining fingernails have been an issue at all? [2018]

I don’t know. I don’t find it a problem. You don’t need much nail. This is another question – I’ve been discussing this a little bit – how short is short and how long is long? I take Buntings comment seriously that O’Hampsey was the only one to literally strike the string with his long fingernails. All the others used the flesh of the finger alone. I think that’s pretty unambiguous. You know he’s not saying O’Hampsey nails were long, and the other’s nails were short but they still hit the string. No, he’s saying they used the flesh alone.

And then there are questions about if you play a lot with the tips of your fingers, do you get calluses – are the calluses hard, do they come off the string with a ping? You know, there’s lots of questions. I’ve tried to talk to different people about this. When I play a lot with finger tips I do get little calluses.

At the moment my nails have about one millimeter of white showing. That’s about the most I can have before they start hitting the strings. But I find that when they’re about two millimeters long they hit the strings in a slightly uncontrolled way. And when they’re like three or four millimeters long then I can get a solid nail sound. But then I’m not sounding the strings with the flesh alone, I’m using the nails to catch the strings.

So there’s obviously a kind of in-between but to me it’s the sound that is the main difference. Then I think of John Lynch’s comments about the more rustic, crude players, that they’re trying to make the harp louder by using the nails. I think there is clearly a big audible shift that he’s trying to pick up on.

Can you talk more about the difference between the medieval and Baroque aesthetic? [2012]
So what I’m saying is that in the medieval tradition, piercing, sharp, aggressive, nasal sounds were popular.  Traditionally the early Irish harp was played with long fingernails on metal strings and it gives you that sharp kind of piercing kind of sound. I think in medieval times, for all kinds of musical instruments, they were interested in those almost jangling sounds.  For instance think of Morris dancers with bells on their ankles.

Also I came across a wonderful reference to qanun players on the Arabic zither. They strum and pluck the strings and they wear metal bangles on their wrists so as they are playing they kind of jingle jangle because they actually want extraneous noise. They are interested in it.

In Baroque times – in the 17th and 18th century – that medieval aesthetic seemed old-fashioned. That’s when they cut their nails off and start playing with finger pads or tips. As I mentioned already, if you play with the soft part of a finger tip, it is just as loud as when playing with the nail, but much more swelling and sweet. So I think it was regarded as being more genteel, more civilized and more cultivated. So there was class bias emerging – more fashionable and up to date harpers played with softer finger pads.

So Denis O’Hampsey was really unusual.  He was the only person who used long nails by the 1790s, at least among those ten harpers who attended the Belfast harp meeting.  Echlin O’Kane was a contemporary of his and he had long nails, so they were odd balls. They were of the old guard and everyone else had moved on – again, still playing this kind of harp, still with metal strings, still on the left side, still the old oral long tradition, still with the strange tunings and all this kind of thing, but just cutting their nails off and playing with the tips of their fingers to get a softer sound.


In some ways it is an uncomfortable realisation for early Irish harpers [who play with fingernails] nowadays, that nine out of ten of the high headed harps at the Belfast harp meeting were not being played with fingernails.  [2018]
That’s why I’m not playing them with fingernails, you know! This is now my normal practice. Because when I first started with fingertip playing I thought I could do both, that I could play with my nails and then I especially wanted to do an 18th or 19th century gig I’d cut my nails off, do the gig, and grow them back. And now it’s the other way around – I only grow my nails back if I have to do a medieval gig, and then as soon as I’m finished, off they come!

That’s assuming the music played in 1792 largely with fingertip technique – that the music itself had never been played with fingernails a generation or two generations previously. [2018]
Well one of the things that’s interesting is that Bunting constantly says that they all played the same, including O’Hampsey. And this is another one that’s very interesting. Bunting is saying when he talks about the graces and the playing techniques, he says “as played by O’Hampsey, O’Neill, Fanning, Black, etc.” And one of the tunes I have looked at is called Coillte glas an truath, and he says “with the original harp bass as played by Hempson (O’Hampsey), and O’Neill”. So you think, are they both playing it the same? Quite possibly. And the playing technique – the spread hand, the separated treble and bass, the stopped style and everything, it worked just as well with tips or with nails, it is just a slightly different touch, slightly different sound.

In the picture of O’Hampsey he has his hands separated and spread. He has the same hand shape as the others. O’Hampsey is not doing anything different. And I’d happily grow my nails back if I had to do a specific O’Hampsey gig. But for me, this is still very much a work in progress.

Can you talk about the end of the old tradition as a living tradition passed on from one generation to the next? [2018]
People talk a lot about the early Irish harp and modern Irish harp being separate traditions and being unconnected. The idea being that the early Irish harp tradition came to an end, and you know, that the last generation of indigenous old tradition people was the 1792 bunch – O’Hampsey, O’Neill and all that lot. And they were all dead in the first 10 years or so of the 1800s.

But Arthur O’Neill and Patrick Quin both had students at the Harp Society blind schools. And Arthur O’Neill’s students carried on for two generations – Patrick Byrne is a second generation student of Arthur O’Neill. But they didn’t have students so when they died in the later 19th century that was it – the end of the tradition. And I think that’s right. They didn’t have students, they didn’t pass it on.

The modern Irish harp traditions come out of the Anglo-Continental pedal harp traditions. So John Egan is important in this regard, he was a pedal harp maker,  and he invented a mini Irish harp that’s green and shamrocky, and pedal-harp people could play it. So the modern Irish harp tradition comes out of that Anglo-Continental tradition. There is no cultural connection, there is no handing on of the tradition from the early Irish harpers to the modern Irish harpers. I think that’s right, Eoin Lloyd being the only person I’ve found who possibly connects them, but I was just don’t really think so – I mean it’s possible, I want to do more research on that.

So Eoin Lloyd is the harper who taught a lot of nuns in the early 1900s? [2018]
Yes, when he was a young lad just beginning out, he shared a platform with some of the old guys who’d learned from students of Arthur O’Neill. He got an early Irish harp – I don’t know whether he re-strung it with gut or not. He published a book of tunes about 1900 and he taught quite a lot of the nuns I think, who passed on the modern Irish harp tradition in the 20th century. He was part of that revival. So I suspect that he’s not really a missing link, but it’s possible, you know.  By that I mean that I don’t think he got the tradition from the old guys and passed it on to the convent schools. I don’t think so, but it’s possible.

So I’m looking for that kind of connection. I’m looking to see how far we can push it and how we can make those connections. How we can look for the most modern up to date aspects of the old tradition. Having short nails is clearly part of that work because it’s a more modern aesthetic and a more modern sound.

Anyway, there is a disjunct between the early Irish and modern Irish harp traditions. In terms of time they overlap, though not in terms of influence. I did a talk at Scoil na gCláirseach in 2017, on lineage, and so I got very interested in this passing on of tradition,  passing on the thread of culture and learning. So I’m still not tempted to plug into a modern Irish harp tradition, because I see its lineage doesn’t go back in the direction I’m interested in going.  I’m still looking to leapfrog the modern Irish harp tradition and connect with the early Irish harp traditions, but this is doing in a slightly different way, via living traditions.

So when you talk about living traditions, what are looking for? [2018]
Songs, pipes, fiddle – which have a lineage that, you know, the teacher passes on to the student and it gets down the generations until the present day

I’ve also been influenced in this by the work of Ronan Brown. He has given a couple of workshops that I’ve attended, talking about listening to archive recordings. He played archive recordings of pipers from the 1890s. These were old guys then. And he was saying that this one was learned in 1840s, and I thought “Bunting was still alive when this guy learned to play the pipes and here we are listening to his playing and discussing his style!”

So again that gave me this idea of connecting into the living tradition. So since then I’ve been trying to connect what we’re doing with the harp to pipes and fiddles, in that way of thinking about the living traditions coming all the way through.

Is there anything on that connection just that you’ve written up on your website? Is it still a work in progress? [2018]
Yeah there are fragments of it on my blog. Some of that bass stuff that I’m doing, the stopped bass, I’m thinking about how the regulator’s work on the pipes. I did a blog post on that recently.  You know thinking about stuff that Ronan has talked about -about how the regulators point certain notes in the tune, and how a lot of the time they’re not sounding and thinking about rest in the bass on the harp


You spoke earlier about playing Arthur O’Neill pieces at Scoil in 2016, having cut your nails short. Can you talk about your process since, and why you have continued to focus on the end of the old tradition? [2018]
When I first cut my nails short I thought, “well that’s really interesting, I learned a lot and I’m never doing that again!”

So I had my nails short for that Summer in 2016 and then I grew them back in the Autumn. I thought brilliant, you know, back to where we were. And then I thought that Christmas would be a good time to cut my nails short, because I didn’t generally do gigs then. So I could cut my nails short, do a bit of experimenting and then while I’m off on Christmas break I could grow them back.

And that is when Talitha McKenzie organized a ball in Edinburgh. Talitha is very interested in historical dance and that Nathaniel Gow had his ball in March 1817 in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. So she booked the Assembly Rooms for the same date in 2017, and she got his printed sheets with the dances that were danced on that day. It was a kind of bicentennial celebration. She did two or three events, one of them was a concert by the dance band, and she asked me if I’d do an intermission, a ten minute slot.

My first response was how could I could I possibly do 1817 music. There was no harp in Scotland at that date and it’s far too modern for me. And then I thought well I should do it just because she asked me to, and because it gives a chance to show the harp traditions to people who wouldn’t really see it. I decided I would have to have short nails for it, of course! So my Christmas finger tip playing stretched through into January.

The thing that I found really interesting was that there was something alive and relevant to present-day life about this historical event I played at. You know, I went to the Assembly Rooms that are still used as a venue in the original decor. And the dance band played dance music with fiddle and cello and this kind of thing. There were costumed dancers and they were basically like Jane Austen – you know with the tailcoats, and the Empire gowns and everything.

I looked at these people and I thought “really it’s like they’re incredibly old-fashioned but it’s not like they’re in period costume”. Do you see what I mean? I started having this idea that when things are not really far in the past, they’re kind of part of collective memory or they’re in the lived experience, and the further back in time you go, the more of a disconnect there is. And I wondered if there’s a kind of 200 year-ish thing, that stuff since then is kind of relevant to us in a way that older stuff isn’t. I though a lot about this at the time, and I still haven’t worked it out properly.

And you can see it sometimes in the way that, say, medieval stuff gets put through the Victorian mincer, and so for people in wider society and in modern living culture, Victorian ideas of medieval are stronger than the real thing.

So I had all these ideas but there was something visceral about going to the 1817 ball and thinking it was connected to the lived experiences of people today in a way that I’ve never really felt before. And then I felt part of that because I was part of the event and I was playing tunes that had an 1817 connection. I had an Arthur O’Neill tune because he died in 1816. And I did it MacLean Clephane tune because they did their manuscript in December 1816. So you know I was trying to pick up specifically on these themes.

I filmed my ten minute performance, and put on YouTube. So you can go watch it!

But that was a big influence on me, this idea that 200 years ago this stuff was alive, in the same way that that kind of Jane Austen / regency ball thing is connected to modern culture. And then I wondered if there really is a kind of moving wall of 200 years ago, that we can connect with stuff that happened up to 200 years ago, I thought well in that case in a generations time 200 years ago will be after the last the old guys were gone.

So in that sense maybe we can use that insight to try and connect with Buntings testimony from the old Harper’s in a way that the next generation won’t because they will be that much further away.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve been doing less work on the medieval stuff in recent years, because I swivelled my attention around, away from historic or archaeological reconstruction to trying to reconnect with the living tradition.  Even though there’s a big gap. I’m seeing how much is it possible to reach out and touch that 200 year old stuff, before it’s 250 years ago, when it’s gonna be too far. So that’s been a big impetus for me to concentrate on the end of the tradition.


Simon, thanks for sharing so much in this interview of what you have come to understand over many years.   Can you play us out with your playing of the Jointure and Jigg as you have interpreted in the fingertip style of Patrick Quin on a copy of his Otway harp?


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

Selected links from the interview