The Once and Future Harp Part 2: Revival

Early Revival: Mary O’Hara

Source: The Journal of Music

If it weren’t for Máirín Ní Shéaghdha and the serendipitous happenstance that she chose to learn the harp while in school, perhaps the biggest proponent of Irish harp accompaniment of the twentieth century would never have gained prominence. Dublin-born Mary O’Hara came to learn the harp in Sion Hill Convent school under the specific tutelage of Máirín Ní Shéaghdha, then known under her married name of Máirín Ferriter.[1]Mary O’Hara went on to be a premiere musician and performer in the revival of the Irish harp in the 1950s. Born in Sligo in 1935, she was chosen to play the Irish harp at her convent school as a young girl. She was selected specifically over some of her classmates because she had a lovely singing voice.[2] A passage in Helen Lawlor’s book Irish Harping, 1900—2010 emphasizes the way harping and singing were intrinsically combined at that time:

She was chosen to learn the harp primarily because she could sing. Furthermore, O’Hara identifies the ability to “accompany themselves” as an indicator of sufficient skill level. These two points characterize Irish harping of the 1950s and 1960s first, harpists were viewed primarily as singers…second, the harp was mostly used to accompany singing and not for the performance of solo instrumental music.[3]

This passage shows the inseparable intertwining of song and harp in the minds of not just the general public, but also of the musicians themselves. Most musicians considered this usage of the harp to be intrinsically ‘modern’ and few recognized practitioners recognized the parallels the modern lever harp had to the wire-strung harp tradition of the past.[4] Despite this, O’Hara’s early career blossomed in the 1950s, both through her innate talent and by the commodification of her public image. Stylistically, she was not a traditional style singer, or sean-nós singer, by any means.[5] O’Hara had a cultivated, classically trained singing voice which she used to sing to songs in both English and Irish. She chose to sing a mixture of Thomas Moore songs along with more traditional material such as the children’s songs ‘Óró Mo Bháidín’ and ‘Maidrín Ruadh’.[6] She did not sing these songs in a traditional manner or with a traditional sound: rather she drew on the Irish tradition to form her public image and persona as an Irish singer/harpist.  Helen Lawlor puts it best in her book Harp Studies when she says:

‘Her [O’Hara’s] repertoire in the early years, coupled with album and publicity material that often drew on “Irish” pastoral settings, added to the persona of Mary O’Hara as embodying Irishness, an image that was enhanced by her harp accompaniment’.[7]

The image and sound she cultivated led to her being the first person, let alone woman, to make a successful and lucrative performing career playing and singing with the harp through recordings, radio broadcast performances, and worldwide concert tours.[8] Her fame on the world stage played a major role in the revival of the harp during the wider Gaelic revival of the 1950s in Ireland. And unlike so many musicians, she sustained her popularity through following decades until she retired near the end of the twentieth century. However, the popularity of her self-accompaniment style of harp playing would wane as greater attention turned to the new style of harp playing popularized by recordings, summer schools, and competitions from the 1970s.[9]

Continued Revival: Cairde na Cruite

The next pivotal moment in the trajectory of the Irish harp in the twentieth century came in 1960 with the establishment of Cairde na Cruite. The establishment of an arts organization solely dedicated to the development of the Irish harp is evidence of the renewal of interest in the harp as a solo instrument. The development of the harp as a solo melody instrument within the Irish tradition began to take root during this time partially due to the work begun by fellow culture-promoting organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.[10] The organization states that ‘since its establishment in 1960, [Cairde na Cruite], has played a central role in the revival and development of interest in the Irish harp’.[11] To this day, Cairde na Cruite plays an important role in the teaching and support of neo-Irish harp playing and technique. They host events, run a summer festival, competitions, and publish books of harp music. The Irish Harp Book, published by Cairde na Cruite includes notation of harp accompaniment for songs.[12] Gráinne Yeats, a harpist, pianist, singer, and founding member of Cairde na Cruite from Dublin was undoubtedly the inspiration for the compiling of this work.[13] She played a seminal role in the restoration and revival of the wire-strung harp in Ireland which, although not directly related to the revival of the Irish harp as a traditional instrument, was integral to the growth of the Irish harping tradition on a broader level.

In the 1970s, Comhaltas began offering a solo harp competition in the fleadhanna ceoil which, along with greater access to well-built harps with suitably low string tension, played an integral role in the wider dispersion of interest in the playing of dance tunes.[14] The work of Comhaltas, Cairde na Cruite, and those harpists involved in its work promoting the lever harp, sparked a significant revival of interest in solo harp playing and for a period of time the playing of traditional tunes thrived concurrently with the harp as accompaniment instrument for a solo singer.

Harp Accompaniment in the Traditional Group


At this same time another important influence emerged as a major proponent of harp accompaniment: the McPeake family of Belfast. The McPeakes began as a family trio made up of the father, Francie McPeake, and sons Francie II and James McPeake. The McPeakes were known at first during the 1950s for their singing with uilleann pipe accompaniment.[15] A harp eventually joined the group through the son James when he picked it up as an addition to his varied musical skills on the accordion, piano, and fiddle. In the 1960s the role of harp accompanist shifted to Kathleen McPeake when she joined the group in 1962.[16] Together, this family clan created an all-new group sound. Revolutionary for their time, they famously combined multiple sets of Uilleann pipes with melody instruments, harp, and piano to create complex harmonies and arrangements unheard of in Irish traditional music performance at the time, although Adrian Scahill states in his article on harp accompaniment in traditional groups that McPeakes’ style of harp accompaniment was quite narrow in its harmonic forms and textures.[17] In many ways, both McPeake harpers were trailblazing pioneers in their field. Neither sibling ever retained a harp teacher nor had another performer to imitate. James especially, as a talented musician on other instruments, transferred his skills on other traditional instruments to his harp playing and drew inspiration from the piano players of his day.[18]

The McPeakes enjoyed considerable success throughout the mid-century, recording and performing around the world, including for such illustrious audiences such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan.[19] Their success was perhaps mainly due to their highly original sound. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of the definitive early trad bands such as The Chieftains and The Boys of the Lough in Scotland, would not have existed were it not for the early work of the McPeakes. They were a prime example of ‘controlled innovation’ which Robin Morton cites as perhaps a definition of all ‘traditional’ music.[20]

The harp’s place in the traditional group continued to grow through the following decades. It would be remiss not to mention the contribution of Máire Brennan, harp player with the band Clannad. Although they began as a traditional band, Clannad and Brennan’s later solo recordings generally fall outside the boundaries of Irish traditional music, residing more comfortably in the Folk/New Age genre due to the significant presence of electronic synth and harmonic textures.[21] However, Brennan is well-known for accompanying herself with the harp, especially in recent decades, due to her frequent collaborations with fellow harper/singer Cormac de Barra. Her accompaniment is not analyzed within this work since her harp playing style falls outside the scope of this thesis, but regardless, her contribution to harp accompaniment in Ireland is significant and worthy of mentioning.

According to Lawlor, ‘There was never a clear-cut divide as to when harping as accompaniment to song began to decline in popularity and harping as a solo expression of art music took precedence’.[22] These two styles of harp playing co-existed for twenty years between the 1960s and the 1980s with neither taking significant root beyond the few individuals performing on the concert stage. However, upon the arrival of the 1980s a radical shift began in the use of the harp in traditional music in Ireland. No longer was its primary purpose that of an accompaniment instrument. New, talented, and innovative young performers began to play traditional Irish dance tunes on the instrument along with other traditional melody instruments. Part of what may have caused this shift in attitude towards the harp was the rise in popularity and adoption by performers of other accompaniment instruments, especially the guitar, into traditional music from the 1960s onwards.[23] With the fading of the Irish harp as the accompaniment instrument of choice, the harp took on a new role in the performance of Irish traditional music.


Established Revival

Source: The Chieftains

A new wave of Irish harp revival began in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s with the onset of modern Irish harp style. Several significant harpers stoked interest in the instrument through their high-profile performances with traditional bands. Most notable was the late Derek Bell, who performed for many years with The Chieftains from the mid-seventies onwards.[24] Remarkably, Bell took the harp to a new place within the traditional group by accompanying dance tunes, playing solo, and playing the tune melodies and accompaniment as a fully participatory member of the group. A new form of ‘traditional style’ harp playing emerged through the early efforts of Derek Bell followed significantly by Máire Ní Chathasaigh and Janet Harbison. The efforts of Ní Chathasaigh and Harbison revolutionized the playing of the harp in Ireland by the integration of dance tune playing following in the tradition and style of the uilleann pipes and fiddle. Lawlor, in Irish Harping: 1900—Present refers to this as a ‘watershed’ moment in the history of the Irish harp.[25] These two women paved the way for later harpers such as Laoise Kelly, Michael Rooney, and Gráinne Hambly. These harpists each played their own role in expanding the new function of the Irish harp in traditional music in Ireland. The emphasis and enthusiasm for dance tune performance would soon overpower the use of the harp as an accompaniment instrument for song.

By the last few decades of the twentieth century, the harp in Ireland was performed, taught, and played in new and diverse ways. Accompaniment for traditional song no longer remained its primary usage, and each successive player created new and unique ways of arranging and playing dance tunes. The revivals of the 195os and 1970s had their desired effect, and the Irish harp regained and enjoyed an elevated status both within and outside of Ireland. According to the Irish Harp Census conducted by Helen Lawlor with Cairde na Cruite and the Dundalk Institute of Technology, 91% of all harpists in Ireland primarily play the Irish harp, with 94% saying they play Irish traditional music mainly and 40% stating they used the harp as accompaniment to voice.[26] This is evidence of how the role of the harp as accompaniment has been surpassed by its use as a traditional-style instrument. In an obituary for harpist and singer Gráinne Yeats, Teresa O’Donnell states:

A meaningful harping revival and infrastructure could only be created if four essential elements were secure, namely, increasing availability of instruments and teachers, fostering an awareness of the instrument, encouraging composers to compose and make arrangements for the harp.[27]



By the latter two decades of the twentieth century in Ireland, an era of greater prosperity had arrived and the availability and access to both instruments and teachers of the harp began to grow. These teachers and players were no longer confined to Dublin urbanites, but spread across the country allowing a wider array of people the opportunity to learn the harp.

In recent decades, the Irish harp has been used only sporadically as an accompaniment for voice. Most of the instances of its use in this way have been as a collaborative performance between a harpist and a traditional singer. Apart from a few performers, the romantic trope of the singer-harpist has faded into obscurity. In the next chapter I will explore the few well-documented harp accompanists from the past seventy years of Irish harping and examine their personal style of accompaniment and how each has affected the trajectory of the Irish harp into the instrument played today.



[1] Sandra Joyce and Helen Lawlor, Harp Studies, 1st edn (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016), p. 172.

[2] Lawlor, Irish Harping 1900—2010, p. 45.

[3] Lawlor, Irish Harping 1900—2010, pp. 45—46.

[4] Fintan Vallely, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, 2nd edn (Cork: Cork University Press, 2011) p. 338.

[5] Sandra Joyce and Helen Lawlor, Harp Studies, p. 173.

[6] Mary O’Hara, Down by The Glenside-Songs Of Ireland (Dublin: Tradition Records, 1958) <> [Accessed 14 February 2021].

[7] Sandra Joyce and Helen Lawlor, Harp Studies, p. 175.

[8] Sandra Joyce and Helen Lawlor, Harp Studies, p. 179.

[9] Toner Quinn, Report on The Harping Tradition in Ireland, p. 22.

[10] Toner Quinn, Report on The Harping Tradition in Ireland, p. 22.

[11] ‘About Cairde Na Cruite’, Cairdenacruite.Com<> [Accessed 9 February 2021].

[12] Helen Lawlor, Irish Harping 1900—2010, p. 79.

[13] Teresa O’Donnell, ‘Gráinne Yeats: A Modern-Day Bard Remembered’, American Harp Journal 24:3 (2021), pp. 15–21.

[14] Toner Quinn, Report on The Harping Tradition In Ireland, p. 23.

[15] Robin Morton: ‘The Unique McPeakes’, Folk Review 5:3 (1976), pp. 18–19.

[16] Adrian Scahill, ‘The Harp in the Early Traditional Group’, in Harp Studies: Perspectives on the Irish Harp, ed. by Sandra Joyce and Helen Lawlor, pp. 144–170.

[17] Scahill, ‘The Harp in the Early Traditional Group’, p. 154.

[18] Scahill, ‘The Harp in the Early Traditional Group’, p. 155.

[19] ‘Heritage’, <> [Accessed 14 February 2021].

[20] Robin Morton: ‘The Unique McPeakes’, Folk Review 5:3 (1976), 18–19.

[21] Steffen Wasserstein, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990, 1st edn (New York: Schirmer Reference, 2004), p. 133.

[22] Lawlor, Irish Harping 1900—2010, p. 79.

[23] Scahill, ‘The Harp in the Early Traditional Group’, p. 153.

[24] Williamson, N, 2002. Profile of a Band. (The Chieftains). Billboard, (Vol. 114, Issue 10).

[25] Lawlor, Irish Harping 1900—2010, p. 91.

[26] Lawlor, ‘Perspectives on Irish Harping, 2012’, 2012, pp. 13, 15.

[27] O’Donnell, ‘Gráinne Yeats: A Modern-Day Bard Remembered’, p. 20.