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Trad: Harpist Máire Ní Chathasaigh on taking her instrument back to the future

Robert McMillen chats to harpist Máire Ní Chathasaigh about how she revolutionised the approach to her instrument and why she is keen to share her skills and style via a series of masterclasses during Belfast TradFest...

Máire Ní Chathasaigh changed the way we think about the harp
Máire Ní Chathasaigh changed the way we think about the harp Máire Ní Chathasaigh changed the way we think about the harp

THERE is an incredible number of people playing the harp these days, thanks in no small part to Máire Ní Chathasaigh, a harper who took the instrument 'back to the future', bringing it back to its original role of accompanying dancing and freeing it from the twee 'Oirish' world in which it existed for so long.

When Máire Ní Chathasaigh was growing up in Bandon, Co Cork, Mary O'Hara playing in Bunratty Castle was the image that came to everyone's mind when they thought of the harp.

"I wanted to be the opposite of Mary O'Hara," says Máire.

"I wanted to make traditional music as opposed to accompanying songs or whatever, even though Mary was an excellent player and singer. The whole image was for me, very much set in the 1950s and I was part of the the hip and happening generation of the late-1970s who didn't want that."

Early on, the innovator in Máire always wanted to develop new techniques for playing Irish traditional dance music on the harp.

"When I started, there was nobody playing reels and jigs but now you can't find any harper in the country who doesn't play them, so it's a wonderful transformation and lovely to see," she says.

Another big change in harp playing comes from the fact that Ireland is now a more affluent country than it used to be.

"People can afford harps, they can afford cars to bring them around, they can afford lessons," explains Máire.

"That has had a huge impact. Also, the work of Cairde na Cruite (The Irish Harp Society) which has been going for over 50 years now. A lot of people in its early years would have devoted a lot of their spare time to basically teaching classes around the place for nothing, people like Gráinne Yeats and Mercedes Bolger, who used to offer free workshops and things to get people interested.

"People like that did an awful lot of voluntary work, unsung work, to a great degree, to increase the presence of the harp."

Perhaps surprisingly, another factor in the increasing interest in the Irish harp is social media.

"Suddenly, you knew how many harp players there were," says Máire.

"Before that there are people who were playing in their own bedrooms, and you didn't know they were even there. But now, they're all just a text away.

"It seems to have burst into the world but actually, it has been there all along. And it's just that social media has allowed people to say, 'Hello, I'm here, I play the harp.'"

All of those things have come together, and also led to the foundation of Harp Ireland a few years ago, where Máire is on the steering committee. The chair is "the indefatigable" Aileen McCrann, who helped organise the Harps Alive festival in Belfast last weekend which saw 50 harpers came to Belfast to play to commemorate the seminal Belfast Harpers Assembly which ran between July 11 to 14 in 1792, and the work of Edward Bunting, who collected the tunes they played and saved them for posterity.

Máire herself is coming to Belfast to take part in several harp-related events as part of Belfast Tradfest. Throughout the week, she will be taking part in masterclasses on the instrument, something which she treats with the utmost importance. For Máire, it is more than just teaching people how to play, although technique is of course, important.

"When I started playing, I was the only person playing traditional dance music on the harp in a traditional style – that just hadn't been done before," she says.

"So basically, what I did in the early years was just to teach people how to do it because I'd worked out ways of arranging that worked for the harp.

"But I also had to actually explain traditional music because an awful lot of people who played the harp at that time had no real contact with the oral tradition. They played Carolan music alright, or accompanied themselves on the the harp, but didn't really have any connection with people who played, actual reels and jigs.

"So I suppose a lot of what I was doing early on was acting as a bridge. And now, as I said, there has been this huge explosion of people wanting to play the harp in the traditional style."

I suggest however, that there is more to learning an instrument than knowing how to play tunes. It goes deeper than that – and Máire agrees.

"I've talked about traditional dance music and my particular approach to it but I also try to teach people how to hear traditional music in general, because I think it's hugely important.

"I think it's important to learn how to listen to the fiddler Tommy Peoples, for example, or how to listen to pipers like Willie Clancy. What is it that is revered about this person's playing? What are the aesthetic principles of Irish music, not just in relation to the harp, but in general?

"So you hope that people will leave after getting to the heart of the music and not just learning a tune, which they can learn from anywhere.

"It's about teaching a way of looking at the world, a particular aesthetic which is peculiar to Irish music and which I think should be preserved and passed on," adds Máire, who was born into a musical family which includes her fiddle-playing sisters Nollaig Casey and Mairéad Ní Chathasaigh.

"I was very fortunate to have grown up in a family where this was passed on to me," recalls Máire, "and I feel that it's incumbent on me to try to pass it on to other people.

"So I'm doing tutorial classes on the harp, which will include dance music, slow airs, which is hugely important part of the tradition too.

"And also the music of the harpers, which is another a big plank of the tradition, which, which I'm extremely fond of. So I tried to cover all bases, really."

Not only that, but Máire is also going to be presenting two workshop, one on the music of

Carolan and the other on the music of 17th and 18th century Irish harpers who are not

Carolan, either anonymous compositions or named composers.

"Funnily enough, I published a book of arrangements of 24 of Carolan's pieces and I've just done it a second edition of it, which is being published on Monday. The day that I'm going to be presenting this workshop."

:: You can find out about Máire's events and all the other Tradfest masterclasses at

belfasttraditionalmusic.com