Celtic Harp

The Celtic Harp


With my First Harp

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

Voice of the Ancient Bard

“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

Taliesin Stone

Strata Florida Abbey, Tregaron, Ceredigion

Bardic Inspiraton

By now, my northward road had taken me as far as mid Wales and the second stop on my Welsh pilgrimage: the isolated, ruined abbey of Strata Florida. I had gone to pay my respects to the 14th century bardic poet, Daffyd ap Gwilym, who is believed to be buried there.

I find it hard to describe my feelings about Strata Florida. Luckily, I bought a book of poems inspired by the abbey and the introduction says it for me:

Strata Florida

“Visitors to Strata Florida often remark that it seems a special place. What they consider to constitute this specialness varies – some feel it is the natural beauty, some its mythic and historical associations, and some its tranquility or holiness. Poets tend to perceive this specialness as inspiration. Often a visit is described as a ‘pilgrimage’, even where there is no spiritual intent.1

In the Bardic tradition, Awen is poetic inspiration. It’s always present, anywhere and everywhere, but some places have an abundance of it. Strata Florida is one such place. I found a bench out of the wind and, as three green-veined white butterflies danced around me, I listened. At first I could hear a family speaking in an affectionate German; then they left and I was alone. Strains of music danced through my mind like the butterflies, along with voices uttering sentences of beauty in languages I don’t speak but understood. I knew it was useless to try to capture it – none of it was mine to be reproduced, anyway. Hearing it for that moment was enough. Many places that I have listened to seem to need healing and I try to do what I can. But here, I was the one receiving. When I opened my eyes, the butterflies had gone and so had the words and the music. But the sense of Awen itself remained.

Daffyd's Yew
Dafydd’s Yew

I could see why Dafydd was a regular visitor here. Remembering the purpose of my visit, I went to find the yew tree that is said to mark his grave and pay my respects.

The yew-tree for the best young man
By the wall of Strata Florida and its mansion,
God’s blessing on you, paradise of trees,
That you have grown to be Dafydd’s house.
To the Yew-tree above Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Grave.

Gruffudd Gryg (trans. Dafydd Johnston)

As I left, I passed the two Taliesin Stones. I took this as a good sign, for tomorrow, I would be seeking out the great bard, Taliesin, himself.

1 Poetry from Strata Florida: An Anthology of work inspired by the Ystrad Fflur landscape, 1350-2013, edited by Martin Locock