Trad/roots: Gradam Ceoil TG4 Musician of the Year Laoise Kelly talks harp

Mayo harpist Laoise Kelly will be back in Belfast next month to pick up her Gradam Ceoil TG4 Musician of the Year award – but don't even think of asking her to play in a gúna in a castle

Laoise Kelly, Gradam Ceoil TG4 Musician of the Year
Robert McMillen

THERE were probably lots of traditional musicians who fist punched the air when Laoise Kelly was named as the Gradam Ceoil TG4 Musician of the Year for 2019.

The Westport-born harper has appeared on at least 50 albums by the great and the good of trad and pop music since she took up the ancient symbol of Ireland and turned it into something completely at home in the 21st century.

Laoise herself was “overwhelmed” when she heard she had received the accolade, one of the few that honours the rich musical talent that exists in Irish traditional music.

“I suppose in Irish music, there is no hierarchy, everybody is the same whether you are a teenager or an 80 or a 90-year-old playing tunes. We are all the one, really," she says.

“Getting the Gradam is complicated in that it is a huge honour and, to tell the truth, it is hard for me to accept, but on the other hand I'm delighted to accept it for the harp world, for the players all over the country and from abroad."

Laoise's love affair with the instrument goes back to her early years in Co Mayo and growing up in a family where music of all kinds was an integral part of life.

“Mum and Dad were great for having house sessions where anything would go, but it was predominantly traditional music. For instance, the Bretons would come over and bring their binioùs and bombardes and there would be all kinds of dancing but one night I heard a girl called Rose Jordan who initially learned the harp in Birkenhead near Liverpool. The family had moved back to Ireland and I'd never seen a harp before. To tell the truth, I was mesmerised but being nine years old, I was to shy to ask her to let me have a go!”

It was three years later that Laoise came home from school and – wow – there was a harp sitting in the kitchen, thanks to her father.

“I thought I'd died and gone to heaven,” she laughs.

She started taking lessons, first under Anne-Marie Scanlon, a wonderful teacher but whose repertoire focussed on accompanying singers something which didn't suit Laoise as he was “a bit of a tomboy” at the time. The next year, she went to learn under Kim Fleming from Tarmonbarry in Roscommon, where Kim put her through her Royal Irish Academy exams as well as teaching her tunes to play at fleadhanna.

But it wasn't all plain sailing into the Gradam Ceoil. Laoise says her life was put on hold until she was around 16 because it was dominated by asthma, “mainly through jumping on Connemara ponies” at the Kelly-owned Carrowholly Stables.

But from age 17 onwards, Laoise found her harp mojo again – thanks, partly, to Belfast.

“In 1992 at the Belfast Harp Festival, which commemorated the great gathering which took place in the then-Assembly Rooms in the city 200 years previously, I was singled out by the great Derek Bell and Robin Huw Bowen who were the adjudicators.”

Even at 19, her talent was being recognised and by the time she appeared on Micheál Ó Súilleabháin's River of Sound album – the soundtrack to the Phillip King and Nuala O'Connor's TV series – she had developed her own style of harp playing, honed by going to lots of sessions and getting to really understand and get inside tunes.

The only solo work she would have done would have been for competitions or playing at weddings – which, let's face it, is many people's idea of what harpers do – although Laoise would have fought against that particular straitjacket.

“When we were filming for River of Sound, Phillip wanted to shoot it in Kinvara Castle and I said, 'No, I am not playing in a gúna in a castle!' and he changed the location. I was such a cheeky pup,” she laughs.

Laoise still plays the harp she was given when she was 12 years old and most of the repertoire is still made up of dance tunes.

“I know from teaching at summer schools and being at the All-Ireland Fleadh harp competition that young musicians – and the standard is truly phenomenal compared to my day – are playing dance tunes like fiddlers or box players,” she says.

“They are less interested in the historical stuff like O'Carolan and that history so I burn the heads off them because I love telling them the stories behind the old tunes and about the great harpists who were playing pre-O'Carolan because we are all part of that. Once you start playing the harp, you are part of that long, incredibly rich tradition."

And that tradition is in good hands for at least the near future. Recently, Laoise tweeted that she had just heard The Cruit Éireann Harp Ensemble, made up of 40 young Harpers from all over Ireland, on their wonderful premiere performance of Cúige na gCruitirí in Dublin Castle.

Not only are there highly talented young people interested in the harp but, just as importantly, there are now many more harp makers in Ireland rather than people from here having to go to the continent to buy harps.

Laoise is, of course, moving the tradition on, doing great work with the likes of Monaghan piper Tiarnán Ó Duinchinn or with an ensemble that includes Gaelic singer Kathleen McInnes and Scottish piper Allan MacDonald or with fiddler Tola Custy.

She has been a regular visitor to Belfast over the years but receiving the TG4 Gradam Ceoil award for Musician of the Year in the city on Sunday February 23 is bound to be something special.


THE Waterfront Hall is set to host the TG4 music awards, with globally renowned quintet Beoga playing live at the event, set to be the biggest Gradam Ceoil to date.

Women lead the way in this year's accolades. Harper Laoise Kelly is this year's TG4 Musician of the Year and is one of the youngest recipients of the main award to date.

Fiddle and Cello player, Sharon Howley, from Kilfenora, Co Clare, has been selected as the 2019 Young Musician of the Year; Lillis Ó Laoire, two-time winner of the premier sean-nós singing competition Corn Uí Riada in 1991 and again in 1994 is to be awarded the title of Singer of the Year.

Other award recipients are Lifetime Achievement Award to Séamus Connolly, Outstanding Contribution Award to Nenagh's Ned Kelly and Composer of the Year to Josephine Marsh.

The 2019 Gradam Ceoil showcase will bring a number of special fringe events to Belfast on the weekend of the awards, adding to what should be a festival musical atmosphere across the city.

The night itself will see accompanying performances from The Kilfenora Ceili Band and Orchestra for Life.

:: Tickets for TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards 2020 on Sunday February 23 are available now from or 028 9033 4455.

For more information see or Facebook and Twitter @GradamCeoil #Gradam23rd

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