The harp is the oldest instrument within the Irish music tradition and has been played in Ireland for over a thousand years. This iconic instrument serves as the national emblem of Ireland, and in 2019 it was inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, recognising its unique place in Irish music and cultural life.
Today the Irish harp is played by musicians all over the world. At the helm of this harping revolution is ‘the most significant harper of her generation’, Laoise Kelly.
With her unique style of driving, instrumental harp playing, Laoise has pioneered a new identity for the Irish harp and changed the landscape of traditional Irish harp playing forever.
Birth of a Harper
The youngest of four siblings, Laoise Kelly was born and raised in Westport, Co. Mayo. Born into a musical family she was surrounded by music from day one. Her father played the piano, and she followed in his footsteps.
Having come to music later in life himself, Laoise’s father wanted to make sure his children were equipped with all the necessary musical skills, and taught Laoise to play the piano and read music from the age of four.
It wasn’t until the age of twelve however that Laoise took up the harp. She had first encountered one in a neighbour’s house at the age of nine and it was love at first sight. So three years later when she came home from school to find a harp sitting in the kitchen, courtesy of her father, she thought she’d died and gone to Heaven.
She was initially taught by Annmarie Scanlon from Louisburg who was herself a student of the great Nancy Calthorp – a legend of the harping world.
While Laoise took to the harp, she wasn’t quite so thrilled with the repertoire she was learning. The focus was largely on classical technique, and singing whilst accompanying songs on the harp, which wasn’t quite her cup of tea.
‘It was the accompaniment for these songs… it wasn’t my thing. The singing wasn’t cool, the repertoire was super uncool… Those kind of things were dated by about 30/40 years. It definitely was uncool… If I was bringing the harp to school for any reason, which didn’t happen too often, I’d wait til everyone was gone to walk in with it. Mortified.’
It wasn’t until her teens, under the instruction of Roscommon harp player, Kim Fleming, that Laoise Kelly discovered the joy of playing traditional Irish dance tunes on the harp, using the harp as a melody instrument rather than relegating it to the role of accompaniment. That she did this was lucky for modern Irish harp playing:
A Bold Move
On finishing school, Laoise went on to study Music and Irish in Maynooth University. Her focus there was entirely classical however. She went on to continue her musical studies in University College Cork where she studied with the great Irish piano player and master of the tradition, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin.
Mícheál recognised Laoise’s talent and invited her to feature in a TV series he was presenting for the BBC – A River of Sound: Between the Jigs and the Reels. This iconic TV performance served as a breakthrough in Laoise’s musical career, and launched her into the spotlight, where she has remained ever since.
For the recording in question, Laoise was invited to perform the music of the great Irish harper and composer, Turlough O’Carolan, in Kinvara Castle. Conscious of avoiding stereotypes however, Laoise initially refused. She didn’t want to be seen as the ‘cailín with the gúna (the girl in the dress) in the castle’, preferring to avoid this outdated image.
Thankfully, it was agreed to move the shoot to another venue, and Laoise was permitted to choose her own repertoire. While she did perform the iconic Carolan’s Receipt, she also recorded a selection of jigs. You can enjoy a very blurry clip of this legendary performance here (starting at 1:30:32).
The show itself caused some controversy, with trad purists – Tony MacMahon amongst them – claiming that there was ‘nothing Irish in it’. But that’s a story for another day…
Laoise’s bold performance, interpreting traditional Irish dance tunes for the harp, was seen as revolutionary. A new modern Irish harp playing style was born.
Laoise’s Unique Playing Style
Laoise originally started out plucking the strings with her fingertips (this is how most harp players, both classical and Irish, play the the instrument). From the year 2000 onwards however she altered her playing style and began to play the melody in her right hand by plucking the strings with her nails instead.
‘It was difficult to change, having to alter the whole technique. One of the primary purposes was, I was playing with Steve Cooney on guitar and he was playing Spanish guitar. So, we sounded the same, and the nail gave me a little advantage you know? You can hear the little zing off the nail. The little bit of nail just gives it that tiny kick.’
Plucking the strings with the nails rather than the fleshy tip of the finger creates a bright, resonant sound. This playing technique is reminiscent of the ancient Irish harping tradition.
Traditionally the Irish harp was wire-strung, and harpers used long carefully shaped fingernails to pluck the strings. This produced brilliant and sustained tones, and created a resonating ‘bell-like’ sound which differs greatly to that of the modern Irish harp. Sadly this playing style largely died out by the 18th century due to the decline in Irish harp playing.
While Laoise’s instrument is strung with modern gut strings, her playing style is still an homage to the great Irish harp players of old. Her bright, bold sound is easily identifiable.
‘Her right hand fires out tunes with a fluidity, creativity and clarity that has revolutionised the harp as a solo instrument; her left hand is the source of a new voice in the world of accompaniment and groove, rooted in her engagement with the contemporary world of guitar, bouzouki, bodhrán and keyboard while being distinct in its own right.’
– Niall Keegan, Irish World Academy
The bright nail-plucked melody contrasts beautifully with the softer finger-plucked left hand accompaniment. You can hear it in action in the video below:
The Musical Legacy of Laoise Kelly
Throughout her illustrious career Laoise Kelly has recorded on over 70 albums with legendary Irish artists including The Chieftains, Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon, Tommy Makem, Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, Dónal Lunny, Mary Black, and Maighread & Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill.
She is a founding member of the musical ensembles Bumblebees and Fiddletree, and tours regularly with a number of musicians including piper Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn.
‘Laoise has made it okay for a harp to sit in the centre of the session and be the heart of the trad band headlining the festival.’ – Niall Keegan, Irish World Academy
In addition to all of this Laoise has three critically acclaimed solo albums to her name – Just Harp, Ceis and Fáilte Uí Cheallaigh. These masterful recordings showcase Laoise at her very best, as a true virtuoso of her instrument. When left alone with her beloved harp Laoise Kelly makes magic:
Not content with just creating music, Laoise has always been keen to grow the reputation of the Irish harp, encouraging others to follow in her footsteps. In 2016 this culminated in the founding of The Achill International Harp Festival.
Located off the coast of County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, Achill Island is where Laoise Kelly now calls home and raises her own family (also all musicians). So naturally, for this proud Mayo woman, it was the perfect location for an annual event to celebrate the majesty of the Irish harp.
In Laoise’s own words the initial purpose of the festival was to have a ‘cool festival’ that would ‘highlight to these young people that there’s way more to the harp’. As a result, each year harpers of all ages, from all over the world, gather on the beautiful Achill Island to showcase harp playing from a number of musical traditions.
A Most Humble Ceoltóir na Bliana
Despite being an award winning musician with a number of titles under her belt (she won the Waterford Crystal harp at the Belfast Bicentennial Harp Festival in 1992 and three all-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil harp competitions) Laoise Kelly seems eternally surprised by her own success.
When the phone rang in 2020 for example – in the midst of the madness that was the harp festival – to inform her that she was being awarded the prestigious TG4 Ceoltóir na Bliana Gradam Ceoil (musician of the year award), she couldn’t quite believe it:
‘I found it a very difficult process to accept that they would want to give this to me… I think it’s a huge honour and then I think it’s fantastic for the harp, but all my life, in my head, I’ve never been good enough, so to suddenly say “they think you’re good” has been a hard acceptance.’
The award came as a surprise to no one else however. When she did finally begin to wrap her head around the honour, Laoise responded in her usual humble manner:
‘I’m just so delighted for the harp. Its time has come. I can’t express how grateful I am. But for the harp most of all. It’s fantastic. And for all my great music teachers who gave so generously along my path.’
‘I’m delighted to accept it for the harp world, for the players all over the country and from abroad.’
Laoise’s reverence for her instrument is clear, but it doesn’t play itself. There’s no denying the skill and musicality she brings to her playing. Years of hard work combined with her own talent.
‘In Irish music, there is no hierarchy, everybody is the same whether you are a teenager or an 80 or a 90-year-old playing tunes. We are all the one, really.’
Though she may be loathe to accept it, Laoise has most definitely earned her place among the greats and is fully deserving of this recognition for the impact she has had on the world of traditional Irish music. She has succeeded in inspiring generations of musicians who otherwise may not have looked twice at this once outdated, ‘uncool’ instrument.
Her musical legacy is long-lasting and far-reaching and so it feels fitting to leave you with one more video – a beautiful performance from Laoise and her son, Caoilte Ó Cuanaigh:
Follow In Her Footsteps
If like so many before you, you’re feeling inspired by the magical playing of Laoise Kelly then when not take a look at my selection of Irish Harps and see if one catches your eye.
Learning to play the harp is a truly rewarding experience. Not only that, but this unique instrument guarantees you entrance to a thriving, flourishing community that will welcome you with open arms.