Scoil na gCláirseach

By Róisín Allen

Scoil na gCláirseach was one of the most magical and inspiring workshops I have ever been to. The motivation and enthusiasm put into the event was completely evident when it came to the keen participation of the students and the smooth running of the day-to-day agenda. Having been introduced to the sweetness of the Irish wire-strung harp only last autumn, I was very excited about the event taking place at home here in Ireland and I had very high hopes…I was not disappointed!

The event ran from Monday to Friday. Siobhán warmly welcomed all the students and tutors together on the Sunday prior, to meet as a group over a glass of wine and have time to mingle. On the following Saturday there was an optional trip to Dublin to have a look at what still survives of the ancient harps. Walking around the various museums with such an interested and knowledgeable collection of people was fascinating and a chance of a lifetime.

A typical day involved two or three class tuitions; these were generously timed to allow for plenty of playing and questions. The tutors rotated between the three classes so students could get a taste of different approaches to pieces and styles. The class never exceeded four people so it was almost one to one personal tuition.

In between the first two classes, each day, there was a short tutor talk: this gave your fingers a moment to relax and allowed time for group discussions. Topics covered were harp maintenance, fingernail care, differentiating traditional and historical playing and a brief general history of the Irish harp.

On three of the days, we had a school seminar in the third tuition period. This was held by each of the tutors in turn. These were fascinating: Siobhán went through Edward Bunting’s ‘graces’ and demonstrated idiomatic Irish ornamentation; Bill described the relevance of the Robert ap Huw manuscript for wire-strung harp players, also giving demonstrations, and Ann discussed the Scottish Gaelic harp repertoire in the 17th century including sources of harp tunes in Scottish Renaissance lute manuscripts.

Our tutors were very patient and informative, always available and gladly willing to answer any questions or to help with any difficulties throughout the day. Every afternoon we either had a concert or a lecture from a guest speaker. We were blessed with the company of both Seán Donnelly, one of Ireland’s leading harp historians and Paul Dooley, a well-known, professional wire harper from County Clare.

On Thursday evening, Siobhán, Bill and Ann gave a public concert in Rothe House, Kilkenny. Students were welcomed as part of the workshop. The sound of the wire harp in this perfectly fitting, medieval house was magic. The unique performances performed by our three tutors were equally breathtaking and certainly brought the audience’s thoughts back in time.

Our days were spaced out well with plenty of breaks and a long lunch. The food was delicious: all homemade by Siobhán herself, using locally sourced and organic produce. Soup and sandwiches were served for lunch and what seemed like a never-ending box of biscuits with various teas and coffee were available throughout the day.

On our final day, the students had an opportunity themselves to perform. We held a concert, or, more like an open platform. It took a little while for the musicians to gain confidence but once that line was crossed we couldn’t be stopped! It was a perfect opportunity for students to perform for their first time and to see our progress. We couldn’t have had a more appreciative and understanding audience. Since I played at our open platform that very scary day I have found it so much easier to relax and play in front of friends at home. I really feel a small wall has been knocked down.

Held as it is, in the picturesque Kilkenny town centre, it couldn’t be more perfect. It is a buzzing town full of history, lively pubs and great restaurants. Only two hours from Dublin and Shannon, being on both the rail and bus route services, it is very easily accessible. Kilkenny is a beautiful area for walking, cycling, art, crafts and music.

At the end of the week I left both exhausted and excited, full of new knowledge and with new friends. It is an intense week of fun and challenges and I would recommend it highly to anybody interested in music and history alike. Thank you and ‘Well Done’, Ann, Bill and Siobhán!

Róisín Allen 2004