The Irish Harp

Summer 2012

It was my dream to play a harp in Ireland. I had spent years learning how to play the Irish harp, but only in America. Now that I was in Ireland, I thought it would be fun to play a “real” Irish harp. To my surprise, it was more difficult to find a harp to play than I thought it would be. I explored the streets of Dublin, but I never found the harp store. I visited a music store in Limerick, but all they had were ornamental harps, having no more than 4-10 strings. I became discouraged, but I did not give up hope. I knew I would have one more chance to find a harp during the evening of music at Newport.

When we arrived at the school house which held the event, I stepped inside and eagerly scanned the room. I saw a multitude of children playing violins, accordions, whistles, and drums. Then it caught my eye. Standing off-center in the midst of the children’s ensemble was the instrument I had been looking for: the Irish harp. My body shook, partly from the chilly air and partly out of excitement. I desperately hoped for an opportunity to play before the night ended, but I was nervous too. What would everyone think of me, an American, playing Irish music on an Irish instrument? I hoped that I would do it justice.

When my name was called and I was asked if I wanted to play the harp, I nodded eagerly. Rising from my seat, I stepped toward the front of the room, where the harper from the ensemble set the instrument next to an empty chair. I sat down to get familiar with the harp while Denis Carey introduced the piece I was about to play, which was an original composition of his. I am glad he did the talking; I couldn’t have spoken if I wanted to, my voice being scratchy from my cold. While he spoke, I ran my fingers over the strings, feeling the sound. The tuning was slightly different from what I was used to, so I decided it would be easier to transpose the piece from its original key to the harp’s current tuning so I wouldn’t have to change it. The harp itself stood probably less than 4 1/2 feet tall –– shorter than my harp back home. It rested just beneath my right shoulder as I stretched my arms over the soundboard, ready to play. In a matter of seconds, the introduction was over; it was time to play.

I began to play the first chords of a sad, sweet farewell tune, and the magic melody resonated off the soundboard, reminding me of my harp back home. My fingers glided over the unfamiliar strings –– rougher than nylon, but smoother than gut –– I’m not sure what they were made of, but I enjoyed their timbre. In those few moments, my nervousness, the cold, and the people listening all disappeared as I became absorbed in playing. In those moments, nothing existed but the music and me. I played a few wrong notes, which I hoped I covered up smoothly enough, but it almost didn’t matter. The harp was playing itself, and I was along for an enchanting ride.

As the notes of the final chord drifted away into the air, the room erupted with applause. I stood, smiling, and began to walk back to my seat. I received several compliments on my playing from people on the way, but there was no greater compliment than the praise from the composer himself, Denis Carey. I hoped he hadn’t noticed the wrong notes I had struck, and he didn’t appear to. His smile was almost as wide as mine as he told me how much he enjoyed my playing.

I sank back into my seat, filled with a joy deeper than words. My dream had come true.

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