Helen Lawlor's Irish harp

by Andrew Chow '14

Over the last few decades, boisterous Celtic punk-rock bands such as the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly have stormed their way towards the American mainstream, defining an Irish sound for many listeners. However, far more prevalent in Irish culture than blaring punk guitars is the harp, which played a religious role in Irish life and experienced a folk revival mid 20th-century. At noon, Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Forum Room in Lamont Library, the Learning From Performers program will present Helen Lawlor, Irish music and ethnomusicology lecturer at Dundalk Institute of Technology in Dublin, and a lecture-demonstration on the harp and its importance within recent Irish cultural history. The lecture is open to Harvard ID holders only. We exchanged emails on her thoughts about the instrument.

What can you tell me about the harp’s history?The harp was taught mostly by nuns in convent schools to female students for the early part of the 20th century, which gave a particular identity of middle-class, Catholic-Irishness to the instrument. The instrument was then revived mid-century: It was popularized on the world stage by [Irish] singer-harper Mary O’Hara and used for the playing of art music and traditional Irish music.

How is the harp important to Ireland or Irish culture specifically?The harp is the Irish national emblem. It appears on all official government documentation and is the presidential standard. On a cultural level, the event that first launched Mary O'Hara's career was the inaugural 1953 An Tostal festival. This was a national celebration of Ireland and Irishness, and was aimed specifically at the diaspora. In my lecture, I will show some of the ways in which the harp, musically and symbolically, was used for the expression of national identity.

Is the harp tradition being carried on today?Yes, the harp is more popular in Ireland now than it has been for over 200 years. Additionally, there is a large community of harpers in the U.S. that competes annually at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil music competition. I had the honor of teaching harp at the Boston College Gaelic Roots Festival in 2003.

[Caption: Harpist Helen Lawlor]