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The Belfast Harp Orchestra and The Harp Foundation (Ireland) Limited

The BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA is one of the most visible activities of the HARP FOUNDATION or, to give it its full title: The Harp Foundation (Ireland) Limited. The Harp Foundation is a charitable company established in March 1997 with origins dating back to 1985 when the organisation started off as a Harpers' Association. The Harp Foundation was founded with the aim of

Promoting friendship, fun and mutual respect
through music performance, adventure and education

The Belfast Harp Orchestra was founded in 1992 and operated as an independent music association (unincorporated but with charitable status from 1993) until it amalgamated with the HARP FOUNDATION in March 1997, under whose umbrella it is the prime performing group. In 1992 at the time of its inauguration, Janet Harbison, the orchestra's founder and director held the full-time post of Music Curator at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum. Here she had responsibility for advising, recording, documenting, analysing and educating on Ulster's musical heritage under the umbrella of Education toward Mutual Understanding (from December 1986 to June 1994). Earlier in her life, Janet Harbison enjoyed a successful international performance career with the Irish harp. She quickly identified that in Northern Ireland, which has featured so prominently in the history of the tradition, the harp could serve as an effective teaching tool in bringing people together from both political traditions. In an environment of friendship, mutual respect and celebration, the Orchestra is a model of cross-community co-operation in the spirit of the government's policy of Education toward Mutual Understanding.

Harp playing was practically non-existent in Ulster in the mid 1980s. The tradition had declined significantly since the 1920s probably because its music was not embraced by the folk tradition (harps would have been relatively expensive instruments) and they had been mostly associated with the parlour and Anglo-Irish traditions from the previous century. In 1952, the "Tostal" (post-war festival of Ireland after the style of previous year's Festival of Britain) was chiefly responsible for reawakening Irish culture, and to recognising the economic benefit of a lively national culture in Ireland. In the early 60s, the late Sean O Riada brought old Irish melody to public notice in his incidental orchestral score for the film "Mise Eire". Shortly afterwards, the American Folk Music Revival saw the introduction of plucked stringed instruments (banjos, mandolins, bazoukis, guitars) into the Irish traditional music scene with the younger and trendier folk groups such as the Bothy Band and Planxty. Harps made their entrance into the realms of traditional music in the 1970s with the development of better quality instruments and young innovative and more technically accomplished players. None of these developments were felt north of the border in Ulster's six counties.

Since there were less than half a dozen harp players active in Ulster in the mid 1980s, it was evident that due to its absence, the harping tradition had never become encumbered with the perception that it was the politico/cultural voice of one or other community in Northern Ireland. All other aspects of Ulster's cultural heritage had come to be identified with one or other political voice: "traditional Irish" music was the premise of the Catholic, Nationalist and Irish populus: "classical" and "bands" and "orange" music was the premise of the Protestant, Loyalist and British populus. These "culturally identifiable" voices were manipulated to redefine differences and division by the political leaders of each community, and over the many years of the "troubles", rightly or wrongly, they became established as popular perceptions. Yet, the illustrious history of the Irish harp essentially belongs to Ulster. Some salient points are worth noting:

  • The Irish tradition of harp playing was internationally renowned from as early as the 12th C.
  • It was King Henry VIII who formally established the harp as the emblem of Ireland in the 16th C.
  • It remains in the British Royal Standard as the emblem of the Irish province in Great Britain
  • It was adopted as the official emblem of the Irish nation upon independence and is the presidential seal
  • The motto of the United Irishmen, the Presbyterian nationalists of the 1790s, was: "The harp is restrung and shall be heard!"
  • Festooned with shamrock, it continues from the time of the R.I.C. to be the emblem of the R.U.C.
  • It is contained in the emblems of some of the army battalions in Ulster
  • Most of the famous harpers in history hailed from the northern half of Ireland
  • The single most important historical event in Irish music history was the Belfast Harpers Assembly in 1792

The Harp Revival needed to come to Northern Ireland! Janet Harbison was perfectly positioned to organise a year of Bicentennial commemoration for the Belfast Harpers' Assembly. A committee was set up with founding directors, Janet Harbison, Maurice Hayes (recently retired Head of the Civil Service) and James Hawthorne (Chairman of the Cultural Traditions Group) and a 14-day World Harp Festival was arranged in May 1992. The Belfast Harp Orchestra was launched a few weeks before to show the world at home and abroad that the harp tradition was alive and well and well and truly re-established in Ulster.

There was four years of preparation during which time interest was awakened, funds were raised, harps were bought, tuition was provided, encouragement rained in from all quarters and the concerts were triumphal. When the Chieftains invited the Harp Orchestra to accompany them on tour to the USA, to perform at Carnegie Hall, the Boston Symphony Hall, the Kennedy Centre in Washington, it was evident that the Orchestra would not be allowed to disband at the end of the year. Because of the pressure to answer both needs of the Folk Museum and the burgeoning harping interest, Janet left her post in the Folk Museum in June 1994 to set up the Harp Foundation, to direct its activities and to teach.

In fostering the harp, in the teaching of its history and in its triumphal presentation to the public in the Harp Orchestra's large-scale stage productions, it became clear that its story and music had much to offer the reconciliation process. Through a sensitive and always balanced approach and appreciation of the most politically extreme themes in our musical repertoires, our greatest achievement is that we have diffused political sensitivity in the most aggressive themes and taught the commonness of our experiences of triumphs and tragedy. If the tunes themselves were not dramatic enough, the lambeg drum or Scottish bagpipes were added on one hand, and the bodhran and uilleann pipes on the other. Thus, dealing in an even-handed way, with equal respect, energy and intensity, all cultural voices were included, Loyalist and Nationalist, extremist and moderate. In this way, the Harp Orchestra has actively cultivated a more proud, positive and harmonious image of ourselves for ourselves firstly, and the world at large ultimately.