2003-03-08 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
By Susan Hartenstein
From The Artists Studio Rockaway Artists Alliance by Susan Hartenstein

From The Artists Studio
By Susan Hartenstein


The Gaelic harp has been an important and powerful part of Irish history and culture. Since the 17th century it has been that country's national symbol, appearing on the Irish coins including the euro and the president's flag.

Irish mythology states that in prehistoric times, several divine sibs came to Ireland. One of the magic objects brought to the people by the sib of the goddess Dana was the magic harp of the god Dagda. Lore says that with this instrument one can express things that are beyond language. The Gaelic harp was the instrument of the musicians and poets at the time of the Celts, known as the bards. Harpists accompanied the great poets and provided the music at great seasonal assemblies. Harpists were afforded enormous honor and prestige in political circles and were often consulted before battles. Stone sculptures of small portable Irish harps date back to 800 AD in Scotland. They are also on fine metalwork shrines of medieval Ireland, some of which are today in museums. In the early 800's one finds the first drawings of triangular-frame harps, which appeared in the "Utrecht Psalter." The word "harp" is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word that means "to pluck." A later word used in Scotland and Ireland was "clarsach," still used today. The earliest surviving Irish harps are from the 15 century. The "Trinity College harp" is one of Ireland's national treasures and was restored to playable condition i n 1961. By the 17th century the instrument began to be built larger. Some were carved with ornaments.

After the English conquest at the end of the 12th century, the harp was deemed an instrument of treason and harpists became outlaws. Under Crom­well in the mid 17th century, harps were destroyed. Of course, English monarchs did not always practice what they preached. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, as well as James I, employed Irish harpists. Through the Irish wars, harpists were a part of the households of Irish princes and continued to play their forces into battle.

Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) was perhaps the greatest and most famous of Irish harpists. He was blinded at the age of 18 by smallpox, but wrote some of the most beautiful Celtic songs including "Carolan's Concerto," "Blind Mary" and "Carolan's Farewell." Because of such brilliant poet-composers, the art continued into the 18th century and accompanied the new republican nationalism of the era. Various traditional conventions of harpists were held. In 1792 a convention was held in Belfast at which Edward Bunting, for the first time, wrote down much of the surviving traditional harp music. George Petrie continued this invaluable task. His collection is in the National Museum.

The tradition and glorious sounds of the Celtic harp are still alive today. The late Derek Bell of The Chieftans, Patrick Ball, Aine Minogue and Anne Roos are some of the Irish and American musicians who have kept it alive. Those of us who love the beauty and power of this exquisite instrument thank them.

Nora Funaro, whose incredibly textured and vibrant colored pencil drawings have elicited "oohs" and "ahhs" (and an award) at recent RAA exhibitions, will be guest presenter at RAA's next general meeting. She will show some of her drawings and discuss her techniques. The meeting will be held Monday, March 10 at 7:30 PM in building T-149, Fort Tilden. All are welcome. Two of Nora's drawings are in "Vermillion" at sTudio 6 Gallery in Fort Tilden. This is the last weekend you can catch the exhibit. Next: "Destinations." Gallery hours are Saturdays 12-5 PM, Sundays 1-4 PM. Free admission. RAA's email: rockart116@aol.com. See you at the Fort. Happy St. Pat's!


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