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Erin go bragh! Irish Music from the NLS Music Section

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Although St. Patrick’s Day may remind you of tin whistles, bodhráns, bagpipes (even though bagpipes are, strictly speaking, Scottish–the Irish musical tradition uses Uilleann pipes), or some other such traditional Irish instrument, one may neglect to think of the Celtic harp.

The Celtic Harp and O’Carolan

The harp is ubiquitous to most musical cultures, but the Celtic harp is set apart from other chordophones due to its construction and its prevalence in the Celtic regions. Today, those areas considered Celtic would include Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall (UK) and Brittany in France. Traditionally, the strings of the Celtic harp were made of metal, which gave the instrument a percussive and reverberant sound. Unlike the classical harp that one would see in orchestral settings, the Celtic harp is smaller, and Celtic harpists use a different playing technique than their classical counterparts.

One of the most well-known composers for the Celtic harp was Turlough O’Carolan (or sometimes just Turlough Carolan) who was an itinerant harpist in Ireland. Turlough was born in the late 17th century, and lived until 1738. When O’Carolan was 18 he contracted smallpox, which rendered him blind. He then apprenticed with a harpist, and became a roving musician, traveling around Ireland composing songs for his patrons (many times making the patrons the subject of the tunes). At the time, Irish Gaelic was the predominant spoken language of Ireland, so the majority of his compositions were originally set to Irish lyrics. Today, these tunes are typically set to English lyrics, as English has become the principal language of Ireland.

In the NLS Music Section, we have a collection of O’Carolan tunes for both beginning and more advanced harpists. The book, 40 O’Carolan Tunes for All Harps, contains easier and more advanced arrangements of O’Carolan’s most famous tunes. This braille title comes in four volumes and is available on BARD and in press braille at BRM 32673. The compiler of this book, Sylvia Woods, also has a second collection of Irish harp tunes, 50 Irish Melodies for All Harps, which can be found at BRM 35992.

A lithograph of Ireland's Historical Emblems, including a harp, shamrocks, and Celtic crosses.
Ireland’s Historical Emblems. 1 print : lithograph, color. Eagle Litho. Co., 1894.

Other Irish Music Items

Don’t be deterred if you are not a harpist or do not have a harp at your disposal–this music can also be played on the piano or guitar, and the melodies can be played by anyone who is able to read music.

Along with this the above titles, we have the following (and some other!) Irish music items in the collection:

BRM 29896: The Dance Music of Ireland–1001 Gems (braille)

This is a set of reels, jigs, hornpipes, and other dance tunes for traditional Irish instruments, including fiddle, tin whistle, and mandolin.

DBM 01306: Learning the Irish fiddle (audio)

This book gives introductory lessons to those who know how to play the fiddle, but would like to learn traditional Irish music (including ornamentations). This course assumes that the listener has had basic training in violin or fiddle. (Looking to learn violin basics? Just check out DBM 02631–Bill Brown’s Intro to the Violin for the Visually Impaired)

Even though St. Patrick’s Day may have been a few days ago, the Irish spirit lives on every day of the year–Erin go bragh! If you’d like to order any of the above material, please contact the NLS Music Section!


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