A Tribute to the Music of Gráinne Yeats
During this interview she demonstrated the extraordinarily resonant sound of her wire-strung harp, while giving us a little history lesson on the role the harp played in Irish culture. Gráinne told us that she would rather not sing for us, because she hadn't sung for months, but she did recite a poem in Irish, and afterward explained it. Gráinna generously shared her experiences as a touring and recording artist, and of her illustrious family: her parent's extraordinary work during the lead up to and the establishment of the Irish Free State, and the remarkable careers of her four children.
Gráinne Yeats: A short biography
Gráinne Yeats: Four, they’re all well grown up now.
M.S. Do any of them play music?
G.Y. My daughter, Caítriona is a concert harpist with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. My daughter, Siobhán, is a genetic scientist in Munich. My third daughter, Síle is a producer of a Radio Current Affairs Show here in Dublin. My son, Padraig lives in Ohio, and he is an engineer.
M.S. You must be very proud! There are all so creative.
G.Y. They are all doing great stuff, I think.
M.S. My mother says that each one of her seven children is like an only child to her. You have had an enormous career in music while bringing up your children. I know that you hold a very high place in Ireland as a singer and for your support of harp music. I want to find out why you were drawn to the harp?
G.Y. I can never remember a time when I didn’t sing. I can’t imagine not being able to sing. As a family, we used to spend two months in the Gaeltacht every year and I learned a great many songs there. And, of course, we sang lots of lovely songs at school, which I still sing. And then I began studying piano, studying classical music. I have very wide interests in all kinds of music. I love all kinds of ethnic music, folk music, classical music, and the whole gamut. So, my whole life has been filled with music.
I studied the piano and I studied singing, but I started my career as a singer. I was singing oratorio and giving recitals and that kind of thing. I used to sing unaccompanied songs in Irish. Whenever I gave a concert, I would always sing a few unaccompanied songs in Irish. But that is difficult for people to listen to, if they don’t know the language, since Sean Nos is the old style of Gaelic singing.
I was invited to sing at a special function, and there I heard a harp player who impressed me. Before that the harp never affected me very much. I had heard it played at Gaelic League functions here in Dublin and it was used only as an accompaniment instrument.
I heard Joan O’Hara, who is an actress here in the Abbey Theatre, playing the harp and I immediately thought I wanted to learn to play it. The next thing I had to do was find an instrument, because harps were rarely played in Ireland at that time, around 1950. It was shortly after I was married that I became interested in it. I found a second-hand Scottish harp, a Briggs, in one of our music shops. It had gut strings, because the traditional wire-strung harp, which had been played for hundreds of years, had given way to the much lighter gut-strung instrument in the nineteenth century. This harp was painted bright green. I got the shop to strip all the green off. I played that for quite a bit and, gradually, became increasingly interested in it.
I learnt basic harp technique from Sheila Larchet Cuthbert and Mercedes Bolger. Mercedes and I formed a duo and played all over the country for years and later on we taught together and we still do.
I majored in history in Trinity College Dublin, so I have a strong interest in history. I discovered when I started playing the gut-strung harp that it has a very interesting history. So I read up on all that and I have all those precious books that nobody can get anymore in my library.
But I couldn’t get anybody to make me a wire-strung harp. I went around to the harp maker, and said, “can you make me a wire-strung harp?” And he looked at me and said “Mrs. Yeats, what would you want with that”. I just said, “I want to hear what it sounds like”.
I continued with my search. I found a man who designed airplanes who was very interested, but he never did anything. I had an engineer who was interested in it and he never did anything. I had a man who made lovely furniture and the only thing that came of that were harp back chairs. He didn’t even offer me one!
Finally a Welsh friend of mine said, “I have a friend who is a carpenter, and I’ll get him to do something. So the carpenter in Wales made me a very small, rather inefficient wire-strung harp. At least, it was a wire-strung harp. This was about 1970.
M.S. Even then, it was still hard to find one?
G.Y. Oh yes. You couldn’t get them, they weren’t made. Nobody was playing wire-strung harps then. I went to America on one of my regular tours there, and I landed in a place called Alamoso, a small college town in Colorado. After that concert I was talking to a man from the college, and he said, “By the way, we have an Irish harp.” I expected it to be one of those Clark harps. They’re gut-strung and very like a small Irish harp, but an American style Irish harp. He brought it out, and it was a Jay Witcher.
Well, Jay Witcher is the best harp maker of that kind in the world. At that time he lived in California but now he lives in Maine. He began to make replicas of well-known harps, so when I saw this I was enthralled. I wrote to him and asked him to make me a harp, which he did. He asked me which one I wanted. I asked for the seventeenth century style SIRR harp, and he made it for me. He’s been making harps for me ever since, and we became close friends. He revived the making of wire-strung harps. In addition, I revived the playing of them. So, between the two of us, we were proud of having restarted that.
M.S. That’s why you are known as the grand matriarch of the Irish wire-strung harp.
G.Y. I’ve been described as a grand dame, which is not a name I like very much, but I will admit to being opinionated. (Laughter) Anyway that’s how that started, so I have a number of Jay’s harps now. I also have some of his nylon-strung harps. They are simply beautiful as well.
M.S. What is the difference between playing a wire-strung harp, and a nylon-strung harp? Musically, how different are they?
G.Y. Totally different: They are simply two different harps. The big thing about the wire-strung harp is that it has a long decay of the notes. When you strike a wire-string, it goes on and on and on. When you strike nylon or gut, it will go on a little bit, but then it dies. It is such a different world. You have to dampen the strings on the wire-strung and no matter how much you damp, the overtones always sound on. You get a very resonant sound. If you have a resonant room, it’s not easy. It’s a completely different technique.
M.S. That’s what Ann Heymann was talking about.
G.Y. The great thing about Ann is that she has never played any other kind of harp, so she didn’t come to it with her hands fixed in any sort of position. Also, she has worked very hard and she is very dedicated.
M.S. She actually mentioned something exciting about having played one particular Burns’ March that taught her to use both hands.
G.Y. (More laughter) I’ve known Ann since she began, and we’ve had some great sessions together. She used to come to Ireland and we would play together. It’s very good to use your left hand to help out your right. We’ve both come to the same conclusions about that.
M.S. I got the impression that she was talking about the old lessons used in becoming a harper. These particular pieces of music were part of the very old training techniques for the wire-strung harp. They taught the skills one needs to develop to the next level.
G.Y. Oh yes, these are the studies, according to Edward Bunting, for teaching students the basics of wire-strung technique. His manuscripts are unique in that he collected music ‘live’, so to speak, from the last of the traditional harpers in the late eighteenth century. In many cases he gives the names of the musicians, so we know what harpers were playing. There are a number of earlier collections of Irish music but no prominence is given to the tunes, except in the case of Carolan, though it is clear that much of his music was collected from harpers.
Burns’ March was the fourth lesson. We have lesson number one, and lesson number two, but number three is missing, so you have to invent your own. Bunting also wrote down lists of ornamentation and the traditional stories and lore of the harpers. In fact, he grilled them to extract all of the information that he could. He did wonderful work, and but for him, most of our harp music would have disappeared or, at best, become anonymous. I’ve covered a good deal of this in my book about the harp of Ireland.
M.S. What’s the name of your book?
G.Y. “The Harp of Ireland: The Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, and the Saving of Ireland’s Harp Music by Edward Bunting”. I have also recorded much of his music on a double CD, on which I play seven different harps.
As to how it should be played, with traditional music you have to make up your own mind. In classical music, once a composer has written it out you’re not supposed to change it, you’re not allowed too. In traditional music it’s up to you, although you shouldn’t change the basic tune very much. It’s more a change in rhythm here and there and the ornamentation.
M.S. Maire Ni Chathasaigh was talking about the subtle miniature improvisation in the structure.
G.Y. She’s great! I never get tired of listening to her. She invented a new technique for playing dance music on the gut and nylon-strung harps. She invented that, and that has been great for the harp, because the harp has always been playing all kinds of things, but not dance music.
But back to the technique of the wire-strung instrument … if you don’t do the damping properly, it just sounds horrible. The people who heard the Irish harp, of old, always talked about the booming of the bass and the tinkling of the treble notes. So, you can get all kinds of clues on how to play the music. The less bass you put in the better. I use selective dampening, so I get harmony from the tunes.
If I have a run of say five notes, C D E F G, and if I land on the G, I would dampen the D and the F and I would then be sounding a nice chord. You can only learn that by fiddling around with the instrument. I certainly don’t dampen all the time. I dampen the dissonant notes. I do love to have this gorgeous noise going on, so long as it’s not dissonant. I also use the harp as an accompaniment to an actor reciting poems. The old harpers used to do that. In that case, I’ve found that you can use it as a sound resource and can be as dissonant as you like. You don’t have to play tunes all the time, you can use all kinds of peculiar things in it to illustrate the words. That is very exciting too. It’s a fascinating instrument.
M.S. Do you get a thrill out of imagining how it might have been played in ancient times.
G.Y. If anybody gave me a time machine, I would go back to Ireland in the thirteenth century.
M.S. Why the thirteenth century?
G.Y. The old style of playing began to decline when the Tudors came conquering. Before that the harp was at its height. I would have like to have been present in the hall of one of the great Lords of Ireland, who would have had a wonderful harp player. I would just sit in the back with my video recorder, and tape everything. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The only trouble with that is you might be terribly disappointed.
Most of my career has been with the gut-strung harp, and later the wire-strung harp. People have written all sorts of songs for me and music for me to perform. I used to perform music from many countries, but the second part of my program was always entirely Irish.
M.S. Do you have many recordings of your music?
G.Y. Yes, I have a double CD, which was recorded for the bicentennial celebration of the Belfast Harp Festival in 1992, and I have LP’s which have been recorded on to cassette. I have been planning a new recording but there have been so many interruptions that I have had to delay the process.
While things have improved tremendously for the music of the harp, not long ago, in Ireland, people were not very interested in it. The harp has been regarded, for hundreds of years as the instrument of the great houses, not an instrument of the people. This is true to some extent.
In Norman times, the Norman’s were all Irish speaking, and they adopted the Irish customs. Of course, harp players were professional musicians, paid by their patrons. From the 13th century up until the 16th and 17th, they played for the great houses. A lot of the harpers were resident in the homes of their patrons.
M.S. Your parents were involved with the establishment of the Irish Free State.
G.Y. Yes. My parents both worked for the 1916 Rising in their own ways. My father, P.S. O’Hegarty was on the IRB, which was the inner committee responsible for organizing things. My mother, Wilhelmina (Mina) Rebecca Smyth, was a member of Cumann na mBan, the equivalent woman’s group. My mother was from Derry, and my father was from Cork.
When the civil war broke out, after the setting up of the Irish Free State, my parents supported the Free State but took no active part in that bitter struggle. My father became a civil servant so politics was closed to him. It was not politics that brought them together but their desire to learn Irish.
Neither of my parents spoke Irish in their younger years, so they both had to learn it, which is how they met. They were both attending the Gaelic League in London. They were both learning Irish together.
We spoke both Irish and English at home. As time went on, we began to speak more English than Irish as there were always a lot of people coming to the house who didn’t speak Irish. Irish was my first language, and I did go to an Irish language school. Anyway, that was how I was brought up. Therefore, I have always had this great affection for anything to do with the language.
M.S. The thing that has enthralled me, in what Irish speakers say about their language, is its capacity for poetic expression. They say that the Irish language has a capacity to capture a much broader field of imagination than the English language.
G.Y. It is a very poetic language, and it is a very beautiful sounding language too. Our language has changed a great deal over hundreds of years. There’s Old Irish, which I don’t understand, which doesn’t mean a thing to me. Middle Irish, I can make something out of, and modern Irish, from about 1600s, which I do understand. The language has changed quite a lot. Even in my lifetime, they’ve standardized it and changed the spelling.
M.S. The music has also changed. It must be a real pleasure, and a great source of inspiration, for you to see the revival of the harp by so many harpers who are really excellent musicians.
G.Y. It’s a great pleasure. Mercedes Bolger, who’s been my friend all these years, was the teacher at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. She and I, and few other teachers, were determined to try to raise the standards of playing.
M.S. So, you had a ‘mission’ back then?
G.Y. We had a mission; we were tired of people’s attitudes to the harp. The attitude was that nobody could play and it was just being used for cabaret. We started on a little crusade. We were trying to teach some technique.
When Mercedes left the Academy to have a baby she ‘dragooned” me into replacing her there, and I said, “Listen here, I can hardly play the harp myself, let alone teach anyone else”. She said, “Oh yes, you can. Yes, you can! I’ll show you.” That shows how few people there were. Therefore, I went in to teach. I left because I was touring so much in America, and I couldn’t keep up with it. But, I then “dragooned” a friend of mine, Elizabeth Hannon, and she said, “I can’t possibly teach”, and I said, “ Oh yes, you can! I’ll show you.” She was there for about five years, and then there were one or two other people coming along. Now there are all kinds of teachers and pupils in many areas.
We also instituted harp schools around the country. We organized a team of teachers, and laid out a course. We took turns going down to the country. For instance, we went to Derry, and we used to go to Wexford. We had everyone teaching the same thing, so that everyone had the same technique.
You might be interested in this little insight about the time before we really made our effort to improve the standards for teaching the harp. When the harp was beginning to come back, I went down to a conference at a local center to examine the students, on behalf of the Academy. I examined a few students who really weren’t very good. Then their teacher, a nun, came to me, to do the exam, and she was just one step ahead of the pupils. That’s the way it was before we launched our program.
The Wexford and the Derry Schools have gone, long since, but there are now schools in other parts of the country. There were practically no country harp teachers when I was learning. There were just a few around Dublin. I am delighted to have contributed to something like that.
M.S. Are you following the latest resurgence of interest in Celtic culture?
G.Y. I’ve always been conscious of the Celtic culture if you want to call it that. The six Celtic countries, Brittany, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Ireland and Scotland.
M.S. I know some academics that are frowning on the whole concept of Celtic being used to cover so many cultural ideas.
G.Y. We can’t really call ourselves true Celts anymore, I think, because everybody is so mixed. I remember meeting an American man who had a real thing about the Celts. I said, “What do you mean by Celtic?” and he said, “Oh, you Irish are all Celtic”, and I said, “We’re not, you know,” and I went through all the people that come into Ireland, and he was absolutely lost! I think you can say that there are the Celtic languages, there is the poetry that goes with these languages, and, in some cases, the music that goes with these languages, not always. I think in Cornwall, there’s practically nothing left, and the Isle of Man is pretty weak. Brittany is very strong, but they never had a harp, up until Alan Stivell started to play the Irish harp. His father made him a replica of our old harp, the one you see on our coins. That was his first harp. He plays all kinds of harps now. I think it was he who coined the phrase Celtic harp.”
But anyway, I think the term Celtic is perfectly all right if you apply it properly. Now the term Celtic harp, I can’t stand. It doesn’t mean anything. We call it an Irish harp.
M.S. What about the ancient philosophy of the Druids? Do you know anything about that?
G.Y. I read books about the poets and Bards, and Bardic poetry.
M.S. Any recommendations for books?
G.Y. I’d recommend Donal O’Sullivan’s book on Carolan. It really is a must: “TurIough Carolan: Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper”. I’d also recommend Edward Bunting’s, “The Three Collections of Ancient Irish Music”, published in 1797, 1809, and 1840. They were republished about twenty years ago, all three together. They are very hard to get now, but well worth the effort for the serious scholar. These are books of music and about the music.
M.S. How did you manage a career and a household as well?
G.Y. When I was a young mother, you could still get house help very cheaply. I used to have a girl, who spoke beautiful Irish, living in with us. When my children were born, I had that assistance, and I was able to go out and do things. I was always there when the children were small, because I didn’t want to hand my children over to anybody else. I wouldn’t like to imagine what could happen if I did that. That is how I was able to cope with all that. I was about twenty-six, and it was then that I learned to play the harp. I was learning it between pregnancies. I remember there was always a period when I couldn’t get close enough to the harp.
M.S. You’re husband is Michael Yeats, son of W.B. Yeats. Did it make a major impact on your life to be married into such a great literary family?
G.Y. Well, we’ve been married nearly fifty years and I just married the man I fell in love with. People would always come up and say, “The son of W.B. Yeats!” and I said to him, not long ago, actually, “Probably, the first time I met you, I would have said, ‘Oh! That’s the son of W.B. Yeats, the man whose poetry I so love.’ I was nineteen when I met him, I don’t really remember making much to do about that, but people make that comment all the time. My husband has always been a great help to me, with the rearing of the children, helping me to set up concerts, all that kind of thing, and he helps me with my typing. He is a marvelous man!
Double CD ‘The Belfast Harp Festival 1792’
Book: The Harp of Ireland: The Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, and The Saving of Ireland’s Harp Music by Edward Bunting.