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Trio performs ancient Irish songs, stories

Centuries ago, the secretary of an English nobleman wrote a memoir about his time in conquered Ireland. In that memoir, the secretary describes a part of Irish culture that, according to Celtic harpist Patrick Ball, he and his fellow Englishmen found both moving and frightening.

“The memoirs contained a passage about hearing an Irish harp player,” Ball said, “and it’s astonishing that the English would be so deeply affected by the music.”

Ball said the harpist, performing inside the English nobleman’s manor, chose a song composed in honor of a great Irishman who was killed by the English. The power of the song — so wild and mysterious to the Englishman’s ear — only grew as destitute Irish peasants appeared in the manorhouse windows and joined hands in the darkness.

“The secretary was totally unnerved,” Ball said. “It shows how little the English understood about the Irish and how frightened they were by the depth of Irish culture. But one of the great things about it is he describes the music [the harpist] would have played. By that time the music had mostly died out and there were very few examples left of what it sounded like.”

Now the Celtic harp is being revived by musicians like Ball. He and three fellow harpists, Lisa Lynne and Aryeh Frankfurter, will perform “Legends of the Celtic Harp” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Walters Cultural Arts Center.

“We chose the name not because we think of ourselves as legends,” Ball said, “but because we tell the stories, myths and the history of the instrument.”

Ball says the Celtic harp is a symbol of the Irish culture and an integral part of its history. Together, the trio has melded Irish folk music and stories by telling those tales with musical underscoring.

“I started telling stories a long time ago because I had lived in some of the places where people still told stories — the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina,” Ball said. “Around the same time I saw my first wire-strung Celtic harp.”

Though he had seen them in museums in Ireland, Ball said that for the last 200 years, very few people had played the Celtic harp and the instrument nearly died out.

But while walking through a Renaissance fair near Ball’s home in Santa Rosa, Calif., he said, he heard an amazing sound.

“It was the first time I’d ever encountered a [Celtic] harp outside a museum,” he said. “It’s not a complicated instrument. It’s played in one key and pretty much anybody can sit down and make some nice sounds. I had enough of a musical background to play with it. When I started 25 years ago you could count on both hands and maybe both feet the number of people still playing them. Now there are thousands.”

One of the oldest stories Ball tells in “Legends of the Celtic Harp” is about a young boy who finds a harp washed up on the beach. When he picks it up, he hears its extraordinary sound, but when he takes it home he becomes depressed because he can’t play the instrument. His mother, heartbroken by her son’s sadness, trades her soul to a Druid man so that her son may have the gift of music. When the mother dies, she sings a song to her son from the other world.

“It’s a very sad song,” Ball said, “It’s at least a thousand years old, almost certainly more and I love the way it gives you a good idea of the way people thought.”

Ball believes that song is a testament to the Irish people and their strong oral tradition.

“They took great pride in passing along stories to the next generation,” he said. “It’s part of the reason the English came close, but failed to eliminate the Irish culture. They couldn’t drive out the stories and lineages that people kept in their heads.”

Now, from ancient Ireland to Hillsboro, those stories continue to be passed on.



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