A Drogheda Harp: Instrument & Icon

With the recent bid for Drogheda to hold the Fleadh Cheoil, the subject of local traditional music comes back to the fore, and the town has always had a long history of excellent traditional musicians. One such person was the harper Ackland Kane or Echlin O'Cahan who was by all accounts a musical genius but was a rogue to go along with it.

He was born in Drogheda around 1720 and had such a taste for adventure that, not withstanding his blindness, he traveled throughout Europe, mainly Spain, France, Italy & Scotland. He visited Rome where it is said he played before 'the Pretender', then resident there. In his subsequent travels through France and Spain he met many Irish exiles, and was introduced to his Majesty the King of Spain. He was so much acclaimed by the court that he was almost awarded a pension by the King, but due to certain indiscretions he exhausted the patience and patronage of his fellow countrymen and had to leave Madrid. He set out for Ireland on foot, and by all accounts was a physically strong man, and so reached his destination unscathed.

He didn't stay in Ireland long but set off for Scotland where he stayed for the remainder of his life. His behaviour once again landed him in trouble, with one noted incident being, after being presented with an antique silver harp key by the Lord McDonald of Skye, subsequently sold it in Edinburgh and drank the proceeds. At one time his patrons in the Highland gentry cut his fingernails to curb his behaviour, thereby putting him out of business for a while. Kane died in Scotland around 1790.

Ackland Kane was widely seen to be a musical prodigy and was highly regarded by the maestro's of the day. His execution and proficiency were a credit to his teacher, Cornelius Lyons, harper to the Earl of Antrim. Had he conducted himself throughout life with a degree of decorum he might have been one of the most famous musicians of his day.    

Drogheda harper at Tara monster meeting 1843
The Drogheda Harp Society was set up in 1842 and was aligned with the temperance movement and the Catholic faith, believing that if young boys were occupied with learning to play the harp they would certainly reject the temptations of alcohol. It was a successful venture by all accounts, and was the only surviving institution to teach the Irish harp. Its founder Fr. Thomas Burke, OP appointed Hugh Frazer as a teacher, himself a graduate of the then defunct Belfast Harp School. It's claim to fame was the fact that five pupils of the school played for Daniel O'Connell at his monster meeting in Tara in August 1843. One of the harps, played by the student William Griffiths, still survives today in the possession of the a Drogheda family.

Drogheda harp
Harp detail

The surviving Drogheda Harp is notable not only for its historical significance but for its interesting artistry & construction. It was locally made, with the timbers for Drogheda harps supplied by Mr. Ball of Ballsgrove House. Local craftsman Francis Flood oversaw their construction and decoration, with the boys painting their own harps. The surviving harp is decorated with scenes from Irish history, Catholic and Nationalistic imagery.

Traditional music, such as harp playing, lives on today and if the town's bid for the Fleadh is anything to go by it will continue to do so for a long time to come.

An excellent article on harpers and the Drogheda Harp from History Ireland:  http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/a-drogheda-harp-instrument-and-icon/

'Drogheda Harp Society' by Patrick Cooney, O.D.S Journal 1976    

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