Harping on Writing

by Sheila Connolly (who apologizes for the bad pun!)

I recently went to an event where eleven (I counted!) Irish harpers performed together. It’s the New England Irish Harp Orchestra, and they’re getting ready for a competition in Limerick, Ireland, next month: the Brian Boru Festival, which will honor the 1000th (yes, four zeroes) anniversary of the death of Brian Boru, one of the greatest High Kings of Ireland.

The New England Irish Harp Orchestra
The New England Irish Harp Orchestra

I’ve heard harpers before, including the leader of this group, and I have to say the sound made by an Irish harp is quite lovely. At this event, held at a local art gallery that features Irish artists, we were treated to a brief explanation of how the harps work (and modern ones do not work the same way the ancient ones did, back in Brian Boru’s day when they were the principal source of music in Ireland and harpers were revered figures).

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? (Sheila, drop that metaphor. Drop it, I say!) For one thing, playing the Irish harp requires focus and skill. There are two sets of strings, one for the melody, one for the accompaniment. So the right hand and the left hand are doing different if related things. Then there’s the tuning: Irish harps have levers to change the pitch of individual strings. You can tune for each piece of music, depending on the key it was written in, which involves flipping a batch of the levers at the top. But in some cases, you need to change the pitch of a string or a series of strings during a song (and then switch them back again). Did I mention that all the players were doing this without written music in front of them?

So, you’ve learned what to do with your right hand, your left hand, and the pitch. Now try to do that in coordination with ten or more other people!

Yo, Sheila, the writing? I believe that sitting alone in a room randomly strumming strings on an Irish harp can be delightful. I can visualize learning a couple of songs, after much practice (confession: many years ago I played the lute, and I had a real thing for Julian Bream, and saw him perform several times, including in England, and still have a number of his vinyl albums. Alas, the lute is long gone.).

But the idea of sitting down with a group all of whose members are playing the same instrument and producing music that is all in the same key, and in synch, and manages to sound good, is daunting. And yet these people do it, willingly. They practice together at least once a week (and none are professional musicians, so they have day jobs). They schlep their large and unwieldy instruments around with them, even on airplanes. And they look like they’re having a good time doing it!

In a way this is the antithesis of what we as writers do. We often work in solitude, and we’re striving to find our own unique voice. Yes, often we write within a genre; we conform to generally accepted, stated or unstated rules (e.g., cozies must have small furry animals; thrillers must have blood). But we also try to stand out somehow. Which is more important: the similarities or the differences? Still, we are part of a broader community of wordsmiths, whatever our genre or style.

The Irish are known for their music seisúns (pronounced sessions). These are kind of haphazard events. Word will go out that the music will be happening at the XYZ pub that night at nine o’clock. You go to the pub before nine o’clock and order your pint and wait. Around nine-fifteen a musician wanders in with an instrument. Nine-thirty, two more. Maybe around ten a group of five or six people with a variety of instruments will start playing.

What is remarkable about this is that the musicians all share a common knowledge of the music—the same repertory, the same musical language. Nobody has sheet music. The players confer for a moment or two, and then they start playing a piece—that they all know. And half the local audience knows it too. Playing music is an integral part of the Irish culture. Some of the songs go back centuries, others only a few years.

And that’s what going to a writers conference or workshop is like. We are speaking the same language about writing rather than playing it as music.

By the way, I’ll be going to Ireland this month. I’m going because the pub that is the model for Sullivan’s in my County Cork Mysteries is reopening after a decade-long hiatus. Back a couple of decades it was, somewhat improbably, the center for contemporary music in West Cork. The music is coming back, and I’ll be there for it. And the name of the place? Connolly’s.


Connolly's of Leap, back in the day
Connolly’s of Leap, back in the day

11 Thoughts

  1. What a treat, Sheila! Will you be the guest of honor at the reopening? And go ahead with the metaphors – we all know creative endeavors have a lot in common.

  2. It’s kind of a “soft” opening–they’re hosting a wedding, and I was invited to the party after (wonder what the odds are that I’m related to the couple?). But the owner Eileen (Connolly, what else?) said I could pull a few pints behind the bar. But who knows who might drop in?

    1. I found only recently that on the Guinness website there are detailed instructions on how to do it. The first pour should reach the top of the harp (on an authentic Guinness glass!). Let that settle, then top it off, with the head reaching just above the top. See, I’ve been doing my homework!

  3. Oh what fun. I’ll be with you in spirit and keep hoping to see Ireland in person one day.

  4. Lovely blog. Makes me want to go back to Ireland. We were there earlier in June. I would go back in a heartbeat. Enjoy your trip and the reopen ins of Connolly’s.

  5. I can’t seem to stay away–it always seems to be the right balance of peace and quiet and interesting things to do, but only if you want to. And I love to talk and listen to people there. Even tourists–I can ask, why did you come? What have you seen?

  6. I imagine music played simultaneously by several harpists would be wonderful. I’ve only heard one at a time. Have a great time in Ireland and have fun pulling those pints.

  7. I dream of going to Ireland someday and tracing back the other side of our family the Dunne side =) Have a wonderful trip!

  8. Beautiful, Sheila! Beautiful! I would love to be at Connolly’s for that!

    Can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned that the great-grandmother I lived with for a time was a Sullivan from Cork—who married aTroy from Dublin—who had a daughter—who married a Harrington—who had a father from Clon—who, like many great Irish mariners, settled in Salem, Massachusetts…

Comments are closed.