Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Review: The Annals of the Irish Harpers.

 The Annals of the Irish Harpers.   Edited by Sara C Lanier

This book is a recent newly-edited version of the precious works of Charlotte Milligan Fox. It was first published in 1910 and written in the language style of that era.

It is highly academic and yet compelling material for anyone with the slightest interest in local history and culture. It is definitely geared for the academic: particularly for the ethnomusicologist, and of course for the serious traditional Irish musician. For the rest of us at times it can be a laborious read, but always only momentarily, as the turn of a page or two can quite quickly reveal yet more vivid imagery of an era seemingly more romantic than the present.

As well as entertaining insights into the wanderings of blind harpers: visiting such diverse venues as shebeens and big houses, there is great detail on the works of those much lauded for their tireless preservation of Irish musical heritage.  Primarily Edward Bunting is the central figure but also the likes of Thomas Moore, Arthur O’Neill, Sir Samuel Ferguson and Mary Ann McCracken.

The Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 of  is justly portrayed as the most important event in the history of the Irish Harp.  Set in the era of Enlightenment and Revolutions the Harp Festival resonated with the politics of the day and while the author skilfully steered clear of political commentary on the time period there are one or two subtle quotes not overly favourable to the Orange Order. The Orange Order was formed just three years after the highly acclaimed Belfast Harp Festival.

While the book is enthusiastically focussed on the ‘Irish’ Harp and on it’s significance for all things ‘Irish’ there is no suggestion that the Irish Harp today belongs solely to contemporary Irish Nationalism. As a matter of fact by the start of the 21st Century the family of Charlotte Milligan Fox is considered to be “staunch Irish Unionists”. If anything, in my opinion, this detailed musical and historic account provides fodder for the pondering of new alternative political thinking on present day Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of Ireland and the rest of the UK.

One other observation of note was the limited reference to links with Scottish harp and harpers. There is also no reference at all to the other rich world of fiddle music and dance in Ulster-Scots areas of Antrim and Down.  But, fair enough, ‘The Annals of the Irish Harpers’ is about what it says on the tin. I did find it intriguing however the extent to which post early 18th Century Irish culture has been, and remains, embraced by academia, the middle classes and to some extent the upper class.

While Charlotte Milligan Fox did not set out to highlight other aspects of Irish culture her work inadvertently does provide valuable insight into how and why traditional music and culture remains crucially intertwined with the political and class consciousness of the present day.

‘The Annals of the Irish Harpers’ is published by Ardrigh Books. Highly recommended.  It is a charming read and an essential source of reference for harpers, Irish scholars and other obscure curious types like me.



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