In Armagh 2009

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Reviving an Irish Tradition: The Harp in Armagh

From the labels of Guinness bottles to the crest of the local football team, in wallets, on insignias and official shields, the harp can be seen, but only recently heard, in the twisting cobblestone streets of Armagh. Once the most prominent instrument in Ireland, the harp fell out of favor several centuries ago, and while efforts to resurrect its playing have yielded few results, thanks to the revival of traditional music in Armagh, the soft melodies of delicately plucked strings can occasionally be heard in this quiet city.

For several decades now, the playing of traditional Irish instruments has received special attention in Armagh. The founding of the Armagh Pipers Club in 1966 renewed the community’s interest in traditional music by offering the city’s youth music classes.

World-renowned harpist Patricia Daly got her start in this club as a child growing up in Armagh. When she was 16, Brian Vallely, one of the founders of the club, brought two harps to her mother's house and asked Patricia if she would be interested in learning.

Patricia had been taking piano lessons with the club since she was seven, and because the harp and piano were similar to play, the transition between instruments was a logical step. It was a step, however, the Patricia would face alone.

"There was no one teaching the harp," Patricia says, nestled into a blue velvet chair with her hands folded neatly in her lap, tucked away in a corner of the Canal Court Hotel in Newry. "The only outlet for teaching was, 'Here's the harp. See what you can do with it.'"

So, she took a chance – and somewhere between the thin wire strings and the hollow wooden frame, Patricia found her life's calling. She took her playing to the University of Limerick, where she taught herself classical harp technique and eventually earned an Master of Arts in Irish Traditional Music Performance. Patricia has faced many challenges in her effort to make a living as a professional musician of a rare instrument, but through every struggle she perseveres.

"I never give up," Patricia says. "I seem to get disheartened, but I always rise again."

Today, Patricia holds a long list of accomplishments for a self-taught musician. She's earned two teaching diplomas. She's performed in countries such as Israel, Bulgaria and France. She even played for Pope John Paul II on his visit to Ireland in the ‘70s – but despite her fame and success, Patricia remains close to Armagh.

Just a 45-minute ride by bus from Armagh, Patricia now lives in Newry. From her home she runs the Armagh Harpers’ Association, which she founded in 1996 and through which she annually organizes the Edward Bunting Festival each year.

The festival, held on a weekend in May every year since 2000, honors the work of Bunting, who was born in Armagh. Patricia says that she uses the festival to raise awareness of the Irish harp and to promote its playing. Each year the schedule is full of workshops, sessions and concerts, attracting harpers from across the globe and turning Armagh into a hub for harpers.

The Harp in Armagh Today

Fast forward a generation. Little has changed from Patricia's day. Although several students in the Armagh Pipers Club play the stringed instrument, teachers are a scarcity, says Sally Walmsley-Pledl, a mother of a teenage harpist.

“It’s hard to find a teacher who understands the way a 14-year-old thinks,” Sally says. “If you’re going to teach people musical instruments, you have to find a way that holds their interest.”

Because so few instructors exist – and even fewer good instructors – teaching often operates on a student-to-student basis. Walmsley-Pledl says that her son has learned from his peers for the past few years, which is why she thinks his interest in playing the harp is waning.

“He hasn’t been taught by trained teachers, and when you’re learning an instrument it does make a difference,” Walmsely-Pledl says. “There are not many people who go on to play very well, and if they do, they’re performers.”

Patricia Daly would consider herself a performer. Patricia says she takes on about 25 to 30 pupils a year – more before the economic recession, but her first love is performing.

“I have to teach to supplement my income – the bills are there,” Patricia says. “Teaching is difficult, especially the young ones, who are showing a lack of interest.”

Patricia says that she thinks about 50 to 60 percent of her students are only there because their parents make them, but a few do take their learning further.

Emer Mallon, a 20-year-old university student from Armagh has been playing the harp for seven or eight years. Emer says that she didn't really choose the harp and that she began playing because she already played the piano.

Emer used to take lessons from Patricia, but these days she studies at a university in Derry. Because of the lack of good instructors, Emer says she has been teaching herself for the past few years.