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 There are four aspects, styles or types of Irish harping today

‘Trad harp’

Some harp players like to play ‘hard-core’ traditional music – comprising dance tunes (jigs, reels and hornpipes) and slow airs - suitable for the ‘fleadh’s or ‘All-Ireland Championship competitions’ – organised by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the most prominent international organisation for Irish ‘trad music’. This is, in fact, the most recently evolved ‘style’ of Irish harping – which is often presented as the ‘most traditional’ (!) coming to the fore in the 1970s with the ‘folk revival’ – and the players are properly called ‘harpers’…

‘Folk harp’

Some harp players like to play instrumental ‘folk’ music – comprising tunes such as ‘The Rose of Tralee’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Inis Oirr’, ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’. These are suitable for ‘easy listening’ or ‘background music’ – and earn excellent incomes for harp players in ‘gigs’ (or ‘engagements’) in hotels, touristic venues or at weddings. These players call themselves ‘harpists’…

‘Song and harp’

All harp players through the 19th and 20th centuries were primarily singers who accompanied themselves with chording on their harps – with songs such as any of Thomas Moore’s, ‘The Spinning Wheel’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, ‘My Lagan Love’ – and these would find lots of summer work in the many Irish cabarets and castle entertainments. However, this style of harping became unfashionable in the 1980s but recently, has returned to popularity with a ‘folk’ (and even ‘sean nós’) singing style (rather than the more ‘classically trained’ voices of the past). The older singing harp players called themselves ‘harpists’ and modern ones could be either ’harpist’ or ‘harper’ depending on how ‘traditional’ they lean…

‘Classical harp’

In 1960, a group of ladies in Dublin were concerned that the harp needed support, a higher national profile and formed the organisation ‘Cairde na Cruite’ (Friends of the Harp). In the 1970s, they became more animated with the rise in popularity of the pub based ‘trad’ session playing, the cabaret based singers and the hotel foyer playing ‘folk’ players. They determined to bring the harp into line with classical music instruments, to print music, establish examinations and competitions based on music from their publications. Until this point in Irish history, the harp was an oral tradition – i.e. it was passed from generation to generation ‘by ear’ , Nevertheless, ‘The Irish Harp Book’, their first publication appeared in 1975 containing 48 pieces (tunes and songs) contributed from modern classical composers and established (classical, folk and singing) ‘harp teachers’ at that time. Of the 48 pieces, only one was a traditional dance tune representative of the ‘trad’ repertoire – so, at this point anyway, this style was significantly excluded. (Later on, the organisation embraced the ‘trad’ style but have persisted in calling these players harpists.

Each of these types of harp player are quite distinct from each other and it is exceedingly unlikely that you would find a player today equally comfortable and competent in more than two ‘aspects’ – so the aspiring student or parent needs to know what kind of harp player they want to become and to choose their teacher accordingly.