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The Story of the Belfast Harp Orchestra

May 22nd, 1988: The Challenge

Sometime in mid 1987, Janet Harbison, who had recently established a harp summerschool in the Belfast's Linen Hall Library, was invited to arrange a concert of harp music in the Ulster Hall as the high point in the Bicentennial Celebration of the founding of the Library planned for May 1988. At this time, other than Janet and Derek Bell, the Belfast born harper with the well known group the Chieftains, there was an exceptionally small number of harp players in the Ulster province. The Linen Hall Library directors, however, were not to be content with two or three established solo performers. They issued Janet with a challenge - to fill the stage with young Ulster born players and to celebrate in song and music, the illustrious history of the harp in Belfast in the 1790s.

Janet enlisted 22 pupils and after intensive training and careful scoring, guest artistes Derek Bell and Helen Davies (Wales), arranged a full programme of harp music dating from the historic gathering of harpers in Belfast in 1792. With narration by B.B.C. personality Sean Rafferty, baritone Paul Nameer, and conducted by Dr Havelock Nelson, Janet lead the troupe through a concert programme of song and music to a filled Ulster Hall.

The success of the 1988 Ulster Hall concert challenge demanded an after-life. Janet looked toward the Bicentenary year of the Belfast Harpers' Assembly of 1792 (which was originally organised by the founders of the Linen Hall Library) for the launch of what was becoming known as the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA.

April 20th 1992: The Launch!

The BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA was launched on Easter Monday, April 20th, 1992 with a concert in Cultra Manor, at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Co. Down. This was the first performance in a two week concert tour of Ireland which was designed to introduce the harp playing youth of Ulster to the country at large, celebrating a vibrant tradition with its illustrious history and repertoire presented in pageant, song and music. Our first concert programme proposed to recreate the scene at the last great gathering of harpers in Belfast in 1792 when the few remaining professional minstrels were invited to assemble in the town to have their music noted down and preserved for posterity. Ten old harpers spent four days performing their tunes and recounting their memoirs to the young Edward Bunting, the scribe of the occasion, and four years later, the first of three major volumes of harp music was published. However, while preserving the melodies, the music was published in arrangement for the piano, as it was this instrument which replaced the harp in popularity in the course of the 18th century in Ireland. With the benefit of Janet's research into the original music manuscripts dating from the time of the Harpers' Assembly of 1792, it has been possible to retrieve much of the harper's music for today's young harpers, re-establishing it in the current repertoire allowing for its continuity in the living tradition.

Our First Concerts

Our first tour took us onward to Newry Arts Centre where the concert was broadcast live on B.B.C. Radio Ulster, then to Monaghan, Carlow and Dublin where the orchestra appeared, again live, on Gay Byrne's famous Late, Late Show. The following evening, and featuring the premiere performance of an original setting of St. Patrick's Breastplate, the orchestra performed in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. Onward again to St. Eugene's Cathedral Enniscorthy; Limerick; Inis Oírr (the most westerly island of the Aran Islands where the entire adventure was filmed for 'Cúrsaí' shown shortly afterwards on R.T.E. Television); Sligo's St. John's Cathedral; Omagh; Tempo; and St. Patrick's Cathedral of Armagh to finish.

The Chieftains, Alan Stivell and THE WORLD HARP FESTIVAL, BELFAST

Only ten days after the Irish tour, the orchestra to share the stage of the Ulster Hall with the world famous Chieftains for the top concert in the World Harp Festival, the prime celebration in the year of activities commemorating the Belfast Harpers' Assembly of 1792.

The final concert in the World Harp Festival in the Ulster Hall again featured the orchestra, this time sharing the bill with breton Alan Stivell, one of the leading harp figures in the renaissance of playing this century.

After the successful collaboration with the Chieftains on May 12th, the orchestra were invited to join them for a concert at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on May 23rd where a number of tunes were recorded and a combined album was considered. After another concert at London's Barbican Theatre on August 1st, two more tunes were recorded, photos taken and the collaboration formalised with the decision to release an album to be called "The Celtic Harp". This was released in March 1993 when the orchestra joined the Chieftains on tour in the U.S.A. during St. Patrick's Week.

Brittany, Milwaukee and Hampsey Harpers' Fest in Garvagh

But the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA, in the meantime, had its own plans to travel and perform in Brittany at the Dinan Harp Festival, the biggest folk harp festival in France in mid July, and at two other Breton cities. Later, in mid August, the orchestra traveled to the Milwaukee Irish Fest, by far the largest Irish American festival in the U.S.A. where an estimated audience of 20,000 people came to the orchestra's performances. It was here our first album recorded from the last two concerts on our Irish tour was launched, and 80% of the entire first issue was sold.

At Halloween time, the orchestra was featured at the first Hampsey Harpers' Festival at Garvagh near Coleraine in the course of a weekend of festivities celebrating the birthplace of the eldest of the harpers attending the Belfast Harpers' Assembly of 1792, Dennis O'Hampsey.

After a relatively dormant December, the orchestra sprung to life again in January with an almost completely new programme to practice, and six new members to train in. Our first exposé in 1993 was in mid February with a concert in Belfast, but our first big adventure was to join the Chieftains for a number of concerts during St. Patrick's Week in the U.S.A.

1993   To the U.S.A. with the Chieftains

Four concerts were scheduled for the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA with the Chieftains, but due to the severe snow-storms of 'St. Patrick's Hurricane' which raged on the East coast of the U.S. that week, the orchestra were prevented from taking off from Dublin Airport, and the concert in the Boston Symphony Hall had to be cancelled. However, the concerts in the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC, in New Brunswick, New Jersey and in the Carnegie Hall, New York, all received the orchestra with tumultuous response. The concert reviews were unreservedly positive, and the orchestra crested on a triumphant wave.

Down Patrick's Way...

On March 20th, the day after returning to Ireland, the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA gave a concert in Down Cathedral by the burial place of St.Patrick and for the occasion, a number of special and original items were featured in the concert programme. These involved the collaboration of two local choirs and cathedral organist, Michael McCracken. Also featured in the programme was the orchestra director's most recent composition, "Carillon", dedicated to Chieftains' harper, Derek Bell. "Live in Downpatrick" (BHO 004), the live recording of this concert and the third recording of the orchestra will be released in November 1994. St.Patrick's gravestone which lies just beside the cathedral door is featured on the cover of the album.

Easter at Edinburgh, Summer in Ireland

Over the first days of April 1993, Europe's largest scale folk harp festival the Edinburgh Harp Festival featured the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA in its prime concert in the Queen's Hall. This concert was met with tremendous acclaim, and the orchestra included a number of pieces illustrating the Scottish connection in some of Ulster's historical repertoire. The best received piece was the Ulster Epic which is a narrative piece of music telling of the downfall of the Scottish hero, Alisdair McColcitto McDonnell during the Cromwellian wars in Ireland in the1640s.

The orchestra's summer season included two concerts at the top Irish harp festivals: the Carolan Harp Festival (where the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA shared the bill with the Chieftains and De Danann) and the Glencolmcille Harp Festival.

A Christmas Cantata

In the Autumn of 1993, the orchestra embarked on another new project. Janet Harbison's Christmas Cantata, a seventy minute work for choir, soloists, harp orchestra and organ, received its première in Fisherwick Presbyterian Church on Belfast's Malone Road on December 3rd. The following day, the concert party moved to give the Dublin première at Christchurch Cathedral.

The Christmas Cantata is a setting of twelve old and two newly composed nativity carols in Irish, English and Latin worked into a full length, almost continuous score. For the first performances, the orchestra was joined by Methodist College (Belfast) Chamber Choir with SATB soloists and organist/choir master Dr Joe McKee.

The collaboration was a tremendous success and there is no doubt that the work will be performed many times again with various collaborating forces.

1994, The Declaration of Peace, the "Reverence for Difference" Award and expansion!

1994 brought new developments. In the Spring, the Belfast Harp Orchestra became the Harp Orchestra of Ireland Limited; Cláirseóirí na hÉireann became registered charity with the new title in English: "The Harp Foundation"; Belfast Harps became a commercial company acting as a management agency for orchestra members providing corporate and private entertainment; Belfast Harps also became a publishing company for the BHO productions as well as for other harping entities. Also, a 5 member daughter group of the Orchestra entitled Clarsheree (from the Irish word Cláirseóirí meaning 'harpers') was established and launched in Paris on March 17th. In July, Janet left her post at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum to spend more time teaching her protégés and to working with all the organisations!

In the course of the Summer, the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA featured at a number of harp and music festivals in Ireland including the Carolan Festival at Keadue, Co.Roscommon.

Then, cease-fires were declared firstly by the IRA and subsequently by the loyalist groups and Northern Ireland was at peace for the first time in 25 years.

While the Harp Orchestra never directly set out to be an ecumenical force in the Irish music world, it became evident at an early stage that the playing of the instrument presented no difficulty to participating members of either community in Ulster. In other words, the playing of the harp was not tainted with the perception that it was the cultural utterance of one or other political tradition. As much of Ulster's music evolved from strong patriotic emotions on both sides, there was a deliberate policy of equal treatment. For instance, in the early Harp Orchestra programmes, two favourite pieces were "The Boyne Water" and "Limerick's Lament". These would always be played together and would be introduced with explanations that aimed to please and surprise. Could anyone ever have suspected that angelic Irish harpees would deign to play the most popular war march performed every July in commemoration of King William's triumph at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689? We did with relish, and the orchestra's arrangement was based on Edward Bunting's edition from his second collection published in 1809. Then the orchestra would perform the heart-rending lament of the harper Myles O'Reilly composed in the wake of the defeat of the Irish Catholic cause in 1691 at the culmination of the Williamite wars in Ireland. Because these tunes were played with equal intensity and commitment, they were exceptionally popular with our audiences. This gave us the courage not to avoid the highly political themes in choosing our programme - in fact, the choosing of these melodies offered more danger, drama and excitement!

Janet was informed that she would receive the "Reverence for Difference" award for the work of the Belfast Harp Orchestra at the Emy Awards ceremony of 1995. The award was presented by the Rev. Myles Kavanagh of the Flax Trust and funded by the International Fund for Ireland. On the occasion of the award ceremony, Janet was invited to take the stage along with James Galway who received the special life-times achievement award. The Reverend Myles had a special request for the finale of the evening's entertainment. He commanded a performance of the favourite air "My Lagan Love" to be performed by Janet with Soprano, Maureen Murphy and followed by the addition of some dance music played by two fiddlers, with an interruption and finale contribution from the Lambeg Drum played by dinner guest, George Holmes. It was a wild notion and the musicians barely agreed to the idea under duress - to start with - because, after the performance, the audience along with the musicians were stunned - and the standing ovation was unanimous!

The idea was born and the Belfast Harp Orchestra expanded to accommodate the Lambeg Drum for the piece: "Symphony". George Holmes, the heroic Lambeg Drummer, is also an accomplished bodhran player, so both instruments immediately found a relevance in the programme. Next, more prominence was given to the other instruments played by Orchestra members in the programme - and all that finaly remained to embrace was the Scottish Bagpipes.

The Harp Orchestra's first bagpiper was Ian Bryson of the Fieldmarshall Montgomery Pipe Band, the most acclaimed of Ulster's bands with a world-wide reputation of excellence.

The first public performance of the orchestra's new line-up was at the concert in Whitley Bay Playhouse in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in November 1995. This was a one-off concert as part of the Newcastle Irish Festival and constituted our first independant introduction to the British audience funded by the recently awarded grant of £20,000 from the British Foundation for Sports and the Arts.

1995, Trip to Bonn and Harp Orchestra Membership Open Weekend!

Our new year's programme opened with three concerts on January 4th in Down Cathedral, 5th in St.Bartholomew's Cathedral, Galway and on the 5th in Ballintubber Abbey in Co.Mayo. These concerts, in which we linked up with the magnificent and renowned Galway Baroque Singers, featured our CHRISTMAS CANTATA.

In June, the BELFAST HARP ORCHESTRA travelled to Bonn in Germany where they featured as the top act in the Bonner Sommer Festival, the Stadt Office Bonn's annual festival featuring one of the EEC countries in a cultural extravaganza. The Orchestra's impact in Germany was significant and generated a great deal of press coverage.

September and our first OPEN WEEKEND

The first Autumn gathering of 1995 featured an audition and reunion weekend in the magnificent setting of Kilmore House at Glenarriff in the Antrim glens. Three years on the road, and the orchestra has generated many new harpers and given much valued experience that has allowed new harper soloists to springboard their musical careers. It has also provided focus and encouragement to young harpers in their harping and created deep friendships and shared adventures. Janet established new harp schools in Newry, Garvagh and Londonderry. The Orchestra is currently in the position of considering the formation of a Junior Orchestra.

In October, the Orchestra gave the feature concerts of both the Carolan Festival in Nobber, Co.Meath and the Hampsey Harpers Festivals in Garvagh, Co.Derry to high acclaim. The Taoiseach himself attended the Carolan Festival concert and is now considering harp lessons for his daughter ...

A great deal of excitement was generated at Newcastle, and the Irish Society in London invited the orchestra to perform at St.James', Picadilly. A second tour was built around this invitation and the arrival of our first batch of "Carillon" provided the occasion for a spectacular launch.

The Launch of our first CD "Carillon" and on tour in the UK!

On October 31st, the Orchestra launched its first high quality own production in CD and cassette formats. The title track "Carillon" (meaning festive pealing of bells) was an original composition Janet composed and dedicated to Chieftains harper, Derek Bell. The launch reception met with tremendous occasion. The venue was the Belfast City Hall and a salubrious gathering of city and state personalities along with all the media including both BBC and UTV news-crews. The formal speech was given by Deputy Lord Mayor Alasdair McDonnell from whom we quote from his UTV interview: "We have to lift the best out of all traditions and that's what we're not good at. We're good at dividing, we're good at nit-picking, but we have to be prepared to lift and to work to all our strengths rather than to pick on our weaknesses - and this orchestra is doing exactly that. It's lifting pieces of music from right across the community." Geoff Harden, the Newsletter critic declared "a spectacular success story" and added "The Orchestra has been acting as a wonderful showcase for the music, song and performing talents of Belfast and Ulster around the world over the past three and a half years." (Newsletter 6.11.95).

At the last minute, Derek Bell found he was unable to attend the launch, but wrote a long letter to the orchestra from which we quote: "The CD Carillon is entirely professional, faultless, has perfect sound and acoustic presence and is highly delightful and charming. The music is wonderfully attractive, so intelligently arranged and laid out, and the performances are technically impeccable, neat and always most subtle, musical and expressive. It's fun to listen and imagine its only one harp playing for tuning and ensemble are so good that one can do just that, and one realises that if it were only one solo harp, then what the heck of a good player he or she might be!! This CD is now certainly one of the loveliest musical treasures we have. I expect it to automatically win many big prizes, to be very well received everywhere and to emboss [Janet Harbison's] illustrious name firmly throughout the world."

Later on the very day the Orchestra launched "Carillon", funded by the British Foundation for Sports and the Arts, they sailed for England. The first concerts were in the Irish Centres of Liverpool and Leeds and on November 3rd, the orchestra was officially received by the Lord Mayor of London at the Mansion House. On the 4th, they performed a short programme along with Clarsheree at the Hammersmith Irish Centre, but the highlight of the tour was the concert in St.James' Church, Picadilly (in London's West End) on November 5th, hosted by Irish Heritage, which drew the largest and most influential audience.

The orchestra began receiving invitations from various promoters and agents. The prominent British promoter, Roy Hastings, propositioned the Orchestra to undertake a relatively expansive concert tour of all of Great Britain.

During the months of preparation over the Christmas period and into the new year, the Orchestra performed in Glencolmcille, Co.Donegal; Larne, Co.Antrim and Newry, Co.Down and featured in various cross-community festivals. Janet toured to France to the Maubeuge International Harp Festival; and Clarsheree performed in Omagh before a dramatic tour to Scandanavia and the Gothenburg Irish Festival.

The 1996 UK concert tour schedule was intended as follows:

March 16 The Lyceum Theatre, CREWE
17        The Custom House Theatre, SOUTH SHIELDS (St.Patrick's Day)
18        The Lewisham Theatre, LEWISHAM

April  4  The Wycombe Swan, HIGH WYCOMBE
5          The Central Hall Theatre, CHATHAM
6          The Symphony Hall, BIRMINGHAM
7          The Venue, BOREHAMWOOD (Easter Sunday)
8          The North Wales Theatre, LLANDUDNO
9          The Concert Hall, MOTHERWELL
10        The Town Hall, FALKIRK
11        The Rothes Hall, GLENROTHES
12        The Victoria Theatre, HALIFAX

Everything was set, and tickets went on sale for the first leg of the tour in mid January. The promoter was delighted with early ticket sales and we were all looking forward to a successful tour and appearances arranged for Blue Peter, Talking Telephone Numbers and the Old Grey Whistletest. Then, the bomb went off in London's Canary Wharf on February 9th and shortly before our March departure, the second bomb in Lewisham.

The first consequence was that all our TV appearances were cancelled - and the next was that the ticket sales slowed to almost none and the feeling in Britain became very negative to all things Northern Irish. Nevertheless, we traveled, and gave phenomenally successful concerts to the audiences that came - but the audience numbers were disappointing, and the management of the Birmingham Symphony Hall had withdrawn all the publicity material, explaining that it was not ‘because they were worried about us, but about the "elements" we might attract in our audience’. They also suggested that we lose the name ‘Belfast’ in our title. We nevertheless performed – to a resounding standing ovation – for the people who had season tickets and who had bought their tickets before the bombings – The disappointment was enormous.

However, our name for now remains the same, and we continue to bring the heritage of Ulster to the world at large. The Summer continued with concerts in Lurgan in May and Cushendall in August.

The Cushendall concert was phenomenal. - as much for its triumphs against adversity: Firstly, 5 of the 8 orchestra soloists were indisposed for various reasons and guest stars were drafted in from the nearby Clough Orange Lodge (for the Lambeg Drum and Fifer); Brittany for the bagpiper (JeanPierre was attending the harp school); an old boyfriend of Suzanne's for her dancing partner, and a combination of 4 musicians replacing Patrick Davey who took very ill in the course of the week. Yet, the concert was exceptional and took Cushendall by storm.

The Irish National Harp Ensemble and "Spirit of the Dance"

Despite the disappointment following the breakdown of the cease-fires, the interest of another promoter who attended our High Wycombe concert bore fruit for the senior section of the orchestra in the Autumn. Five of our professional harpers (Michael Rooney, Dearbhail Finnegan, Suzanne McAlindon, Grainne Hambly and Maeve McGuinness with piper Barry Kerr from Lisburn set off to join the company of "Celebrity Entertainments" and the show "Spirit of the Dance". This was a show following in the Riverdance trail, focusing on world dance traditions including Cossack, Mongolian circus, ballet, rock'n'roll, modern and, of course, Irish dancing. We performed musical interludes in both halves of the show. This was a very successful collaboration, and the production broke all records for any UK theatre production in 1996.

In the wake of the unavailability of the old senior section of the Orchestra since they were away touring England, the orchestra took on a number of new members and gave them their baptism of fire in January 1997. The Orchestra performed in its greatest number ever at the Belfast Waterfront Hall on January 22nd, 1997 where it gave the 5th concert in the hall's Opening Festival....

Early in 1997, behind the scenes, much was happening. All the various harp activities were moving toward the moment they would amalgamate into one charitable Foundation ... But, new orchestra members were being trained in for their first concert on January 11th at Camphill Community, Glencraig, Co.Down. The Harp Orchestra's association with Glencraig, a community caring for mentally handicapped people, has been established for some years. Many of our rehearsals and launches of new concert programmes are performed here. Also, the recordings for our forthcoming album "Bright New Morning" were made there.

Featuring in the Opening Festival of the Belfast Waterfront Hall January 22, 1997

Also, the launch of the Harp Foundation (Ireland) Limited

The Belfast Harp Orchestra featured with guests:
World Champions: The Fieldmarshall Montgomery Pipe Band and Tommy Sands, Ulster's well-known folk singer and composer and Vedran Smilovitch, the Sarajevo Cellist

Belfast and Ireland's most significant cultural event of the century was the opening of the new concert hall in Belfast, built to the highest specification for a concert hall accommodating an audience of over 2,000. The Belfast Harp Orchestra were invited to participate in the opening festival and gave the 5th concert in the new hall. There were significant teething problems both technically as well as administratively as one could expect in such a new building, and Janet was suffering from a dose of 'flu, but the Orchestra triumphed and the reviews of our performance were phenomenal….

Also at the Belfast Waterfront Hall concert, the Harp Foundation (Ireland) Limited was launched at a corporate reception after the Harp Orchestra concert.

Newtownards and BBC’s Blue Peter!

In February, while the Orchestra was rehearsing their new work, there was one more concert in Newtownards with the Donaghadee Male Voice Choir on February 15, and on February 27, the Harp Orchestra featured on Blue Peter. This was recorded in the Banqueting Room of the Belfast City Hall and was considered to be a very successful feature for their programme. It was broadcast again on New Years' Day 1988 in Blue Peter's in the highlights of their year retrospective.

The real programme for 1997, however, was just beginning.


Commemorating the 1400th anniversary of the death of Saint Columba, Ulster's Dove of Peace

1997 featured our special commemoration of the 1400th anniversary of the death of Ulster's most illustrious saint. St.Columba's significance pervades much of Ulster's history, geography and religion and our Columban Suite has enlightened all of us to Columba, his humanity, his leadership of the Celtic Christian church that was defeated by the Roman Christian church, his fascinating life-story of military exploit, exile, scholarship and peace-making. He was a man as much for our times as his own and his message has been well learned by all that performed or came to the Orchestra concerts.

The year commenced with the premiere of the Suite in Ballycastle at the Northern Lights cross community festival with the Ballycastle Choral Society. Then, it was performed on the anniversary weekend firstly at St.Columba's at Knock, Belfast and then in his own city of Derry at the Rialto Theatre. Various other concerts animated the year, and the finale was performed in great triumph on December 7th, St.Columba's birthday, with all the choirs that participated during the year at the Belfast Waterfront Hall. The year commenced on June 7th, the anniversary of his death and finished on December 7th, his birthday, marking a beginning of the next period of his commemoration where we live his message of peace perhaps.


The concerts featuring our Columban Suite in 1997 were

with the Ballycastle Cross Community Choir

with the combined choirs of St.Columba's C of I Church, Knock and St.Colmcille's R C Church, Ballyhackamore

with the City of Derry Youth Choir

for the inauguration of Seamus Heaney to the Royal Irish Academy. Featured the Premier of JH's work in homage to Seamus Heaney

June 11 - MAYO ABBEY with the Mayo County Choir


with St.John's Cathedral Choir and the Oban Associated Choirs


with the Glencolmcille Festival Choir

August 15 - CUSHENDALL GOLF CLUB, ANTRIM GLENS with the Glens Choir

with the combined choirs of St.Columba's C of I Church, Knock and St.Colmcille's R C Church, Ballyhackamore

October 4 - NOBBER, CO.MEATH
with St.Killian's Choir, Mullagh, Kells (with whom we did the recording)

for the Oireachtas festival, with the Queen's University Chorus, Belfast                     

for the final concert in the Columban year with a massed choir of 200 singers from the Ballycastle Cross Community Choir, The Brow of the Hill CBS Male Voice Choir, Derry

Glencolmcille Festival Choir, Mayo County Choir, The Glens Choir (County Antrim),

Queen's University Chorus, St.John's Cathedral Choir, Oban, Scotland, St.Colmcille's RC Parish Choir, Ballyhackamore, Belfast, St.Columba's Cof I Parish Choir, Knock, Belfast

 and finally, the choir featured on our recording of the work, St.Killian's Choir, Kells.


Colmcille, The CD - The album was launched by The Rt Honourable, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Cllr Alban McGuinness at the Belfast City Hall on December 4th, 1998. It was presented to the public on December 7th at the Belfast Waterfront Hall.


A new year, new members and new developments...

At the end of the Columban series of concerts, the Harp Orchestra was open once again to new members and over 20 hopefuls applied to be auditioned in February. 12 new members were taken on and rehearsals were commenced in February....

Harp Foundation Support Groups start up in the U.S.A.

Also from February and Janet's visit to Savannah, Georgia, the Harp Foundation inaugurated its "Adopt a Harper" programme. This programme is a fund raising exersise to assist our young harpers in Northern Ireland that for various reasons, need financial assistance and special support in their harping endeavors. A number of support groups were set up in the USA, each raising money and a number of our students had their tuition, harp orchestra membership, costume and travel expenses funded - and in two cases, their instruments.

A difficult legacy from 1997

The Harp Foundation had financial difficulties in 1997 when a marketing company we engaged to look after our corporate PR and sponsorship fell foul of a corporate take-over and charged us exorbitant consultancy fees. Even after we terminated our relationship, the company continued to charge us monthly fees. In November '98, the case came to court and we were exonerated. In the course of those months however, we needed to release our staff and Foundation activities resumed from Janet’s home until in early July '98 when we were in a position once again to bring office support on board. Also, with Janet’s award from the Flax Trust (Reverence for Difference 1998), with funding assistance from Belfast City Council, the Belfast Harp School moved into a suite of offices in Brookfield Mill. On one entire wall of the room, we mounted a notice-board featuring all our posters and member's photos - snaps of orchestra members with Ronan Keating of Boyzone, with Brian Kennedy, with President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese, and many more.

February in Kilmore, on BBC in March: The BHO feature in the interval film for The Young Musician of the Year Competition

The Belfast Harp Orchestra was extremely chuffed to be invited to be featured in the Interval Film for the BBC Young Musician of the Year finals staged in Belfast in March 1998.   The film was prerecorded at Kilmore House, one of our usual haunts for a residential rehearsal and during the weekend of the freak snowstorm at the end of February. Under the direction of Ian Kirk Smith, the BBC filmed us in rehearsal, and taking a break walking up the magnificent Glenariff waterfalls... The film finished with a performance by the whole orchestra of "Bright New Morning" at the Ballyearl Arts Centre. The finished product was truly magnificent and a wonderful exposition of our talent and story. Some copies are available for viewing from the office.

March 28th, and the first FESTIVAL OF BARDS at Limavady

With generous funding from Templemoyle Care Homes matched with funding from ABSA, this festival was established to commemorate the "Bardic Convention of Drumceat" where St Colmcille presided over a great gathering of Ireland's bards who were in dispute with Aed Mac Ainmeireach, the high King of Ireland. St.Colmcille's peacemaking achievements were legendary and for a single year, he returned from his exile on Iona to mediate a settlement. Colmcille was also known to be a bard himself, and a number of examples of his poetry survive. He was also a great singer of the psalms, and the focus of this festival is on the bardic heritage of Ireland. Thus the main focus of this event was jointly on the sacred and secular poetic heritage of Ulster as well as the harping history. The Radisson Roe Park Hotel was chosen as the venue in Limavady because it is just outside the front door of the hotel that there is a mound marking the original venue of the Drumceat Bardic Convention in 575AD.

The festival ran through a Saturday; the main activity of the afternoon involving harpers and poets presenting performances of their own works to their peers and public. Then the festival hosted a great debate on the issue: "The role of the modern bard". The panel comprised Ulster's most outspoken arts critics, historians, poets and harpers including Edna Longley, Brian Lacey, Tom Clyde, Frank Ormsby, Frankie Sewell, Janet Harbison and Michael Longley. The proceedings of this debate were recorded and it is hoped to publish them at a later date. The evening programme featured a banquet and gala concert featuring the Harp Orchestra (naturally!) and many of Ulster's leading poets reading from their works. Mark Currothers of the BBC and chief bards, Janet Harbison (of the harpers) and Michael Longley (of the poets) presented the entire proceedings.

Glencraig, Markerey Castle, Sligo and the 1798 Commemoration in Downpatrick

In April, the orchestra performed concerts for the International conference of the Camphill Communities at Glencraig and then the 1798 commemoration concerts kicked in style. The first of our commemoration programme concerts was given at Markerey Castle in Sligo and in May at the Down County Museum in Downpatrick, one of the most significant venues of the 1798 rebellion itself.

Tour of the Junior Orchestra to the Scottish Highlands

Great excitement was had and great music performed by our new Junior Orchestra section of 15 players - the new 12 members with three members of the Intermediate and senior sections. Janet, George Holmes and Seamus Gallagher were the intrepid drivers and concerts were given at the Highland Harp Festival at the Eden Court, Inverness; the Highland Folk Park at Kingussie; Fort Agustus Abbey and at the Findhorn Foundation.

The BELFAST HARP FESTIVAL goes INTERNATIONAL with the Harp Orchestra and Rudiger Oppermann

On the last weekend in June, the Harp Foundation hosted what was a small-scale teaching festival, which started in 1986 and ran up to 1992 in Belfast's Linen Hall Library. After this, it was discontinued as there was not an adequate venue in Belfast (for parking or residency) and our out-of-town festivals provided for all our harping affairs. However, Belfast is the venue of most historical significance to the Irish harp and in 1997, the Harp Foundation hosted a "Festival of Performance" in Belfast's new and most prestigious venue, the Waterfront Hall (BT Studio) featuring a series of concerts of the work of Foundation harp schools in Ireland, each presenting their own (15 minute) programmes directed by their respective teachers. This was a most successful event even though two harp schools from below the border decided not to travel at the last minute as there were bad political disturbances in Ulster during the day. The event proved itself to be very popular, so ambitious plans were laid for 1998. This year, the festival expanded its perametre to embrace an international artist to collaborate with the Harp Orchestra for the festival concert. Rudiger Oppermann and his band came from Germany and stunned everybody with his mix of ethnic harping from Asia, Africa and the rock traditions - and the finale with the Harp Orchestra of his piece "Jardin des Roses" will live in our memories for ever!

To Áras an Úachtaráin for "The 12th Day"

The Orchestra was invited to feature in the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese's special acknowledgment of the Ulster commemoration of "July 12th". With a number of other significant artistes including the Ballygowan Flute Band and Galway fiddler Frankie Gavin (from the group De Dannann), the Orchestra performed their "Ulster Symphony", "Bright New Morning" and "Lilliburlero" to an enormously appreciative audience. However, what was expected to be a fun day-trip turned into a 3 day epic journey as the political weather was extremely stormy at the time. For fear of not getting over the border, we departed Ulster on the 10th and braved the enormous exodus of people from Northern Ireland. The journey of 21/2 hours took almost 7 hours - but with all the drama, we had a wonderful weekend away from the horrors of life in the North and Mary McAleese was well pleased with us. After our concert, our Lambeg Drummer, George Holmes got into a great session with the leading fifer of the Ballygowan Flute Band and, joined by Frankie Gavin, a most memorable collaboration of forces was forged.

Recording and filming for POLYGRAM's "CELTIC HARPISTRY"

In early July, the senior section of the Harp Orchestra went into studio to record 3 tracks for a compilation album entitled "Celtic Harpistry". The orchestra provided 5 tracks for the album with a licensing of two already published on our own 1995 album: "Carillon" and "The Brian Boru Set". The others included a special arrangement of the theme from "Titanic" which was a lot of fun to perform. Also included was two other original works not yet recorded: "A Walk on Cavehill" renamed "A Walk in Belfast" for the project (which became the title track) and another of Janet's original works: "Bright New Morning" which has been the orchestra's vibrant siren tune celebrating peace, or at least the hope of it, in Northern Ireland.

The video accompanying the recording was also produced as a television programme for PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in the US, so the programme and its music reached a phenomenal audience. It was filmed at Lismore Castle in Waterford, and we got the star treatment: staying at the Gold Coast Hotel, and the sun shone throughout the 4 days of filming. As a result of the PBS programme, the sales of the album have soared to over 100,000. This collaboration with Polygram arose from a single harp solo track entitled "Love's Comfort" that Janet contributed to a first "Harpistry" album released by Polygram in January 1998.

Summer concerts and into the Autumn

The Orchestra featured at a number of the well known summer harp festivals including the Fiddler's Green (and Rostrevor Harp) Festival in July and our own Harpfest at Cushendall in August. The Autumn programme featured concerts in at the Limavady Folk Festival, the Hampsey Harp Festival, the Ballymena Arts Festival and a special concert hosted by the Dallan Lady's Choir of Warrenpoint all in October!   In November, we had our AGM on the 21st and on the 28th we performed a very special concert for the Omagh Bomb Fund featuring the premier of a new work by Janet entitled "Lament for Omagh".


Janet and the orchestra took a well earned break in January and February getting started back in earnest in March with rehearsals for the new year's programme entitled "Harping into the Millenium". A busy concert schedule started in June with performances including the Harp Foundation's Belfast Harp Festival at the Waterfront Hall, then a return concert at Limavady College opening our second FESTIVAL OF BARDS and marking the opening of the college's 90th anniversary celebrations. The Columban Suite was performed commemorating St.Columba's Day with the orchestra and all the original soloists in Limavady's oldest church, Christ Church, with the combined choirs of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and Termoncanice Primary School. Finally, on June 12, the Orchestra gave a full concert programme and then dispersed to prepare for the summer tour...

BHO Tours to Brittany

Setting off before the drama of the July disruptions in Ulster, the Orchestra packed its bags, donned the new T shirts and headed off on bus for Chateaubriant in Brittany. While taking in a number of high profile concerts, the trip primarily constituted a cultural exchange funded by the European Inter-regional Fund after the Breton harp organisation's first expedition to our Harpfest summerschool in 1998. It is expected that each year henceforth, that the Breton harpers will come to Ireland or we will visit Brittany... The most significant of our concerts in Brittany was given at the Rencontres Internationale de l'Harpe Celtique (International Harp Festival) at Dinan in Northern Brittany on our third day at which we completely sold out of our entire stock of merchandise. It was a phenomenal and magical concert that will be long remembered by all there.

Back in Ireland, the orchestra featured for a third time as top bill in the O’Carolan Harp Festival in Keadue, Co.Roscommon. While rehearsing before the concert, the Cardinal Cahal Daly came to visit and expressed his delight - so we expect we might be invited to participate in the church's Millenium festival of 2000.

September: Filming with the Chieftains - and another recording

The Chieftains are enjoying their veteran status now with various "retrospective" films honoring their achievements over the years. We were invited to feature on their retrospective "TV Special" and Kilmore House was once again chosen for the feature. We performed only one music item with them, a Carolan tune entitled Planxty George Brabazon, which was so good that they have since invited us to allow them use the recording for their forthcoming album. Naturally, we said yes!

Hallowe'en and another Open Weekend for new Orchestra members

Glencolmcille's Old Rectory was the spooky venue for our spookiest Hallowe'en weekend yet! A number of new members auditioned and the orchestra has taken on 4 new bodies...

Munich Philharmonic Hall, December 22nd   and a new orchestra is born –

The Irish Harp Orchestra

Janet was on tour as a solo artist in Germany, Austria and Switzerland from mid November 20th to December 21st performing with German / Celtic rock star and harper, Rudiger Oppermann. Just a day after this tour ended there was a concert engagement for the Belfast Harp Orchestra in the Munich Philharmonic Hall. As there was no time for Janet to fly home and then fly back with the orchestra, Janet assembled a group of experienced graduate members of the Belfast Harp Orchestra to travel out and meet her in Germany. The 2,400 seater Munich Philharmonic Hall “Irish Christmas” concert featured this new Orchestra group with a German Irish dance school – and the seats were all sold out 3 weeks in advance of the concert. The concert was a phenomenal success, and so pleased was the concert promoter, that this new orchestra has been engaged to do a 10 day German wide concert hall tour in December 2000.

Starring on BBC’s Millennium Celebration with Brian Kennedy

And, lastly, seeing in the Millennium on BBC's Millennium Celebration programme going UK wide with pop star BRIAN KENNEDY! After one full day's rehearsal and recording, the BHO performed "Carrickfergus" from the rotunda of the Belfast City Hall. This was a wonderful event, and once again a tremendous privilege to be invited to perform. Working with Brian was a real treat!

YEAR 2000, and Millennium Celebrations

Celebrating 2000 years of Christianity, this year's programme comprises mainly sacred music which we will perform throughout Ireland and Scotland and mostly in churches. The year's programme starts in Down Cathedral for the millennial celebration of Saint Patrick. This was a particularly special event as almost four hundred of the world’s most eminent Anglican clergy (including bishops) were present at the service. (St Patrick’s grave is just beside the Cathedral). Later that day and the following day, the Orchestra performed at the Gilford Castle Fairy Folklore Festival. At 10pm on St.Patrick’s evening, a particularly beautiful BBC TV programme entitled “On the Lough Shore” was broadcast from Carrickfergus Castle featuring top Irish acts, including ourselves.

Final Dates

May 29            Blue Peter       

June 23rd        Midsummer Concert: Ballykelly        

July 1-13         Tour to Scotland

More to be reported on these events including Janet’s award of Honorary Doctorate from the University of Ulster for her work with the harp in Northern Ireland.

Year 2001

The troubles came to Quinville, next door to Janet’s home and the Harp Foundation offices when her neighbours were fire-bombed. With much regret, Janet decided to leave Northern Ireland, to rebrand the Belfast Harp Orchestra to the Irish Harp Orchestra (now with management in Munich, Germany); to open a permanent Irish Harp Centre for the orchestra and the school going forward – and to start a new chapter with the Irish Harp in the Republic of Ireland…..

Final concerts with the Belfast Harp Orchestra…(to be completed)