New Documentary on the Downhill Harp

Banríon an Cheoil is a new documentary that follows lever harp player and singer, Nollaig Brolly, as she seeks out information about the Downhill harp and the technique required to play it. The Downhill (see the photo below) is a high-headed Irish harp that was once owned and played by the venerable Denis O’Hampsey, who seems to have lived to an extraordinary age that spanned three centuries. He is one of the fine old players who performed at the Belfast Harper’s Festival in 1792, and thanks to Edward Bunting, we have a good deal of information about what he played, and some of his terminology and techniques.

The Downhill @ Guinness. Photo by Sue, August, 2009.

Banríon an Cheoil is a pretty story, and traces Brolly’s interactions with a team of luthiers, and a wide range of harpers as they seek to reproduce the Downhill harp, and Brolly prepares to learn to play it in a concert. Some of the harpers that Brolly visits in the course of her inquiry include the great Scottish player Alison Kinnaird, and Bill Taylor of Ardival Harps in Strathpeffer. Locally, Brolly works with Paul Dooley, who gives her some lessons on his own instrument. Farther afield, Brolly visits with Myrdhin and Alan Stivell to learn about the Breton revival of the instrument.

The sections of the documentary that show the decisions of the harpmakers as they encounter various structural problems (cracks in the wood, soft wood pulp in a structurally important part of the instrument, and a change of plan from alder to willow) are interesting to watch. I enjoyed the filmed interactions with a number of well-known contemporary and a few historical players. It is impossible in an hourlong film to do justice to a subject of this size in any sort of depth, so the film is comprised of short snippets that juxtapose the harpmaking process with Brolly’s practicing for a concert scheduled for six months down the road. The concert’s invited performers represent a wide range of players and styles, some of whom are historical players, but many are not. I was glad to see Ann Heymann among them. In any case, judge the film for yourself.

Banríon an Cheoil appears on TG4, the Irish language television station. Be sure to check out the links to each of 3 parts.

Anecdotally, I felt rather sorry for the actual Downhill harp when I saw it at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin in the summer of 2009. It is housed in a large commercial building, under hot lights, and assailed by loud music and heavy tourist foot traffic hour after hour. The conditions are very far from dignified when one reflects on the rather grand history of this elegant old instrument that is in excess of 300 years old. –Sue

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