I was at a festival in 1993 when I first heard Robin Williamson play the Celtic harp. I knew straightaway that was what I wanted to do. Still, it took over a year of obsessing about harps before I finally got my hands on a small, knocked about one. By 1995 I had grown out of my first harp and Eleanor, my first proper Celtic harp, came into my life. A few years later, Eleanor and I found ourselves in Ireland, where we had an 18 month residency at the luxury Gregan’s Castle Hotel, in County Clare. We then moved to Dublin, where we played in a children’s intensive care ward. Although I later took up the classical pedal harp and enjoyed a career as a wedding and function harpist, the Celtic harp remained my first love.
To understand the haunting allure of the Celtic harp, it helps to know something of the depth of tradition behind it.
The Music Behind the World
The ancient Celts were very aware of the transformative power of music. In the Irish tradition, music was said to be comprised of three strains – joy, sorrow and rest. Anyone who heard true music would instantly be compelled to laugh, sob or sleep.
The Celts also spoke of The Music Behind the World. This music can occasionally be divined during moments of communion with nature or loved ones, in dreams or entheogenic experiences, or in actual music. The music that is felt or heard, but not seen, reveals the invisible otherworld that stands beside this one. According to Frank MacEowen, knowledge of The Music Behind the World has always been a part of the daily awareness of Irish and Scottish practitioners of Celtic spirituality: to them, this primal music is known as the Oran Mór¹. He quotes Stuart Harris-Logan, who says “Out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mór as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen.²”
The Bardic Harp
“The harp is the Bardic instrument par excellence. For many the Bard and the harp are inextricably entwined, and for some, the Bard’s ability to play it is their badge of office.3” – Kevan Manwaring
The Celts saw that the life and art of one who is in tune with inspiration is permeated by the Oran Mór. The quest for this inspiration – Imbas in Irish and Awen in Welsh (literally ‘flowing spirit’) – is the Way of the Bard.
The bards were and are musicians, poets, storytellers, lore keepers and remembrancers. Mediating between the seen and unseen, an inspired bard uses words and music to remind people of the Great Song that is continuously sounding at the heart of all Creation. This is just what Robin Williamson did that day when I first heard him play. And, as the bards of old before him, he did that through the music of the Celtic harp.
1MacEowen, Frank The Celtic Way of Seeing: Meditations on the Irish Spirit Wheel, 2010
2Harris-Logan, Stuart Singing with Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk-Tradition, 2006
3Manwaring, Kevan The Bardic Handbook: The Complete Manual for the Twenty-First Century Bard, 2006