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Symbolic breakthrough

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STRINGS TO HER BOW Harpist Laoise Kelly, who has been named TG4 Gradam Ceoil Musician of the Year. Pic: Marianne Mangan

Westport harpist Laoise Kelly to receive her prestigious Gradam Ceoil music award this weekend

Interview
Edwin McGreal

Laoise Kelly’s enduring love affair with the harp will culminate in her receiving the coveted TG4 Gradam Ceoil Musician of the Year award on Belfast on Sunday night.
Now living in Dooagh on the western end of Achill Island, Kelly is considered one of the most significant harpers of her generation. But she was taken aback when TG4 announced in November that she is the Gradam Ceoil Musician of the Year, one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious award to date.
“It was a total shock. I wouldn’t have thought I was in the running,” she told The Mayo News. “So many of my heroes have won that award. People like Matt Molloy, Mary Bergin, Liam O’Flynn, Máirtín O’Connor, Tommy Peoples and so many more. To be put on the same level as them is amazing.
“It is fantastic for the harp too. It feels like a turning point for the harp. Before Christmas it was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which recognises the harp’s unique place in Irish music and cultural life.
“As long as I’ve been playing, the harp hasn’t been considered on a par with any other traditional instrument. It’s a bit of a paradox when you consider it is our national symbol, so it is great to see it being properly acknowledged now too,” she said.
Laoise will be presented with her award at TG4’s Gradam Ceoil gala concert, which will take place in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall next Sunday night. In their citation from the announcement of the Gradam Ceoil award winners, TG4 describe her as ‘one of Ireland’s most significant harpers of her generation [who] uses a style of playing combining the techniques of fingerpads in the bass and fingernails in the melody on a 34 gut strung Paddy Cafferky harp’.
Along with long-time Mayo resident Matt Molloy, Kelly is the second winner of the award from this county.
Laoise Kelly has enjoyed an illustrious career, and her list of achievements is remarkable. She was a founding member of traditional group Bumblebees, with whom she recorded two albums and toured extensively. She is a founding member of Fiddletree, a group from America, Cape Breton and Scotland who play eight instruments made from the same tree, and they have two albums to date. Her latest album release is ‘Ar Lorg na Laochra’ with Monaghan Uilleann piper Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn.
Throughout her solo career she has recorded on over 60 albums with many of Ireland’s foremost artists, including Seamus Heaney, The Chieftains, Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon, Dónal Lunny, Tommy Makem, Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, Mary Black, Maighread and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, as well as Kate Bush and American country/bluegrass icon Tim O’Brien.
Laoise tours regularly with different collaborators: piper Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn; Albiez Trio – Cormac Breatnach and Tola Custy; singer and accordion player Breanndán Begley; award winning Scottish Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes; fiddler Diarmuid Gielty; piper Allan MacDonald; fiddler Michelle O’Brien; double bassist Martin Brunsden.
She composed new music in 2018 for Theatre Gu Leòr’s Scotties, a co-commission of the National Theatre of Scotland and The Abbey, Dublin. She was Musical Director on Brendan Beehan’s ‘The Hostage’ and Seán O’Casey’s ‘Purple Dust’.
She has performed for Irish Presidents Michael D Higgins, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, and she has represented Ireland with the Irish Embassy in Nigeria, Ghana, Russia, Argentina, and represented the country at the World Harp Festival in Paraguay.
She has also won three All-Ireland Harp competitions and the Waterford Crystal harp at the Belfast Bicentennial Harp Festival 1992.
Laoise Kelly is also director of the successful Achill Harp Festival, now in its fifth year. She believes this was a crucial factor in her success.
Plans are advancing for his year’s festival, which includes a unique collaboration across several Irish islands. Watch this space for more.
And it all started with watching a girl playing the harp at a party in the family home in Westport.
“I remember a girl from Kilmeena, Rose Jordan. Herself and her siblings were playing at a house party in our house, and it was amazing to listen to it. That was a huge moment in my life. I was nine.
“My father wanted one of us to play the pipes or the harp, and I was the last one coming along. The pipes wouldn’t be my thing, but the harp was. Back then, too, you had to wait a couple of years before you got a harp; they were not as readily available as they are now. I got my first harp when I was 12. Anne-Marie Scanlon in Louisburgh taught me.”
And since then she has never looked back.