Harpers from Cork and beyond have been making the most of online interaction, and a 240-strong ensemble will perform O’Carolan’s ‘Fanny Power’ this weekend, writes.
GROWING up just south of Malin Head, on Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula, Damhnait Sweeney’s early experience of learning the harp was a socially-distant affair.
Far removed from the Zoom calls, iMovies, and JamKazam recordings now being used for musical collaboration during Covid-19 restrictions, taking up the harp without ready access to lessons was a feat in itself.
That she is now Cork’s representative on Harp Ireland’s advisory board and one of the driving forces behind its Harps for Hope project, which this weekend connects 240 harpers online, is as much a measure of her own musical journey as the ascending prominence of Ireland’s national symbol.
“I’m many years in music and when I was starting off, harp lessons were impossible to get in Donegal,” she says.
The daughter of former Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann president Clement Mac Suibhne, Damhnait was immersed in the traditional music of west Donegal, where her family owned a house, but harp tuition was still a tricky business.
“It was my aunt, who was a nurse in England, who arrived home one summer with a harp,” she says. “We had to organise a group of four of us and we’d invite well-known harpers from England and pay them to give us a weekend series of lessons. We had about four of those a year and that was how we learned. There was no online then,” she adds.
“The difference is huge and the popularity of the harp has grown hugely too.”
A music degree and masters at UCC led Damhnait, a multi-instrumentalist and all-Ireland fleadh winner, south. “Micheál Ó Súilleabháin was in Cork and I wanted to study music, and I never left,” she says.
Teaching full-time at Cork ETB School of Music, Damhnait is also founder-director of the Glissando Harp Ensemble, and has been Cork organiser of National Harp Day since the inception of the Cruit Éireann (Harp Ireland) national initiative three years ago.
Among her past pupils are North Cork harper Siobhan Buckley, and Damhnait’s daughter Eimear McDonagh, who is currently poised to head to Dublin for her own third-level music studies.
Both Siobhan and Eimear are involved in Harps for Hope, for which more than 50 musicians have created short videos to express solidarity during the Covid-19 outbreak.
The popularity of the series, coming just months after the addition of the Irish harp to Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, surprises no one at Cruit Éireann, where the upsurge in interest in the instrument is seen in the context of a sense of Irish identity.
“Over the past year, people have highlighted to us how connected they feel to the sound of the harp; how it calms them, comforts them, and enhances their sense of national identity,” according to the group.
“At a time when collectively we feel undermined by uncertainty, the harp expresses our togetherness.”
At no time will that sense of togetherness be more evident than this weekend, when Harps for Hope culminates in a 240-strong online ensemble performing Turlough O’Carolan’s ‘Fanny Power’ to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Ireland’s most famed harper.
Among those performing the piece, arranged by Wexford harper Aileen Kennedy, are 14 Cork members of Damhnait’s Glissando Harp Ensemble.
Along with performing in virtual class concerts via Zoom and online participation in April’s Edinburgh International Harp Festival, technology, though sometimes problematic, has allowed Damhnait’s pupils to explore collaborative learning in new formats.
“During lockdown they’ve been involved online in two big projects,” she says.
“We’d never have afforded to take a whole group of 14 to Edinburgh, but the harp festival did an online virtual festival for free.
“The Harps for Hope ensemble is a wonderful experience,” she adds, and with time on their hands during coronavirus restrictions, students really engaged with the project.
Far from the remoteness of Damhnait’s own experience as a young harp student, their virtual harping experience is creating remote connections between musicians who might never have collaborated in person.
“It’s been a huge success and so many people have got involved,” she says. “It’s a very positive thing that has grown out of the pandemic lockdown.”