Harping in the Traditions
PLUS Biography (Courtesy of the Artist's site, 2005).
PLUS Potted History (Courtesy The Knotted Chord Archive).
SEE also Chris Newman
Maire Ni Chathasaigh blesses the day that Christy Moore and his colleagues in Planxty released their first album. Because until then people would follow her and her sister down the street, singing, "diddly idle do."
As a member of the only family playing traditional music in Bandon, West Cork, Maire was left in no doubt that even her friends considered her deeply unfashionable. "We used to be laughed at by other kids because they thought we were being old hat, she says. But that first Planxty album let people see that traditional music could be modern and sophisticated, that it wasn't some sort of hick music."
Now, of course, with traditional music's resurgence, she knows that she and her sister were actually ahead of the times.
As her name suggests (it's pronounced Moira Nee Ha-ha-sig, by the way), Maire comes from Irish Gaelic-speaking stock. She grew up steeped in Irish folklore. There are poets dating back to the early eighteenth century on her father's side and singers and fiddlers going back just as far on her mother's, so it was pretty much inevitable that she and her sister, the well-known fiddler and singer Nollaig Casey (who uses the Anglicised version of the family name), should take up music.
Close in age, Maire being the elder by a year, they started learning traditional songs when they were tiny. Then, having begun classical piano lessons at the age of six, taken up the fiddle shortly afterwards when Nollaig began violin lessons and then later in another show of sisterly support, had a go at the uilleann pipes, Maire was one day presented with a harp which her mother had found in a sale.
"We used to play traditional music at home and classical music with our teachers and my mother later told me that for some reason I'd always wanted to play the harp," says Maire. "She never knew where I'd heard one or why I wanted to play one, but when this instrument came up for sale in the shop, she bought it."
As Nollaig went on to play violin in baroque music and with the RTE Symphony Orchestra before reverting to traditional fiddle styles with the briefly reformed Planxty, her husband, guitarist Arty McGlynn, and Donal Lunny's Coolfin, Maire concentrated on revitalising the harp tradition all by herself, in time incorporating fiddling and piping ornaments into her harping technique.
She won the All-Ireland Fleadh at under-fourteen and under-eighteen levels and then, in the mid 1970s, she won the Senior version three years in succession.
"Since then, there've been lots of young people playing traditional music on the harp but there wasn't anybody else playing when I was coming up," she says. "If you played the pipes there were loads of recordings and a whole tradition to learn from. But I had nobody, just my ears, and I created techniques and ornaments, ways of doing things, and it was all done by trial and error, by myself. So if I got a lot of attention, it was because I was the first to do it."
In 1985, Maire became the first harper to produce an album of primarily Irish dance music, The New-Strung Harp on Temple Records, a recording which has proved enormously influential on the wave of young harpers which has followed her lead. Two years later, in another sisterly coincidence, she also teamed up with a guitarist, Chris Newman, who would lead, and follow, her into a brilliantly eclectic repertoire, from Irish airs and racing Scott Skinner intricacies to bluegrass and swing.
Their albums together, including The Living Wood, Out of Court and Live in the Highlands, combine elements of fun, elegance and the sort of technical proficiency that makes you want to count - or if you're the jealous type, break - their fingers, and their live performances crackle with invention and good humoured musical challenges.
"When I met Chris, he liked, but didn't know that much about, traditional music, so he spent a lot of time learning from me," says Maire. "Then we started experimenting with things he was proficient in, like swing, which he played with Stephane Grappelli as a teenager. We're completely open, if we hear something nice, we'll just say, 'let's play that.' It's extremely enjoyable to experiment and see just what your instruments can do, and we never run out of things to play."
Maire Ni Chathasaigh is one of Ireland’s most important and influential traditional musicians, described by the late Derek Bell as “the most interesting & original player of the Irish harp today”. She grew up in a well-known West Cork musical family who were active in the Cork Pipers' Club and was already proficient in a variety of other instruments by the time that she began to play the harp at the age of eleven. Using her knowledge of the idiom of the living oral Irish tradition, she developed a variety of new techniques, particularly in relation to ornamentation, with the aim of establishing an authentically traditional style of harping - “a single-handed reinvention of the harp”. Her originality was quickly recognised and she made a number of TV and radio broadcasts as a teenager, going on to win the All-Ireland and Pan-Celtic Harp Competitions on several occasions. Her live performances had been creating a stir since 1978, when she first toured Germany as part of the hugely-influential and commercially-successful Irish Folk Festival tour. Her very first recording was made for the live compilation album released to commemorate that tour; other artists featured were Liam O'Flynn, Andy Irvine, Dolores Keane & John Faulkner, Mick Hanly and Máirtin O'Connor. In 1985 she recorded the first harp album ever to concentrate on traditional Irish dance music, The New-Strung Harp, described by The Irish Examiner as "an intensely passionate and intelligent record… a mile-stone in Irish harp music”. Her approach has had a profound influence on the new generation of Irish harpers and she was awarded Gradam Cheoil TG4 (Irish Traditional Musician of the Year) in Ireland in 2001 - a very public national recognition of her pioneering work. “If Máire wasn’t around, Irish harping would be so much the poorer: her work restores the harp to its true voice." - The Irish Times
Her “celebrated virtuoso partnership” (The Daily Telegraph) with Chris Newman, “one of the UK’s most staggering & influential acoustic guitarists” (Folk Roots), made its début at the 1987 Cambridge Folk Festival. Their performances have been described as “music of fire & brilliance from the high-wire act in traditional music” by The Irish Times, they've made many appearances on TV and radio and their busy touring schedule has brought them to twenty-one countries on five continents. Click here for their latest news. Of their five albums together, The Living Wood (1988) was the Daily Telegraph’s Folk Album of the Year, Out of Court (1991) was "stunning... one of the most refreshingly innovative releases in recent years" - Folk Roots, The Carolan Albums (1994) was “a masterpiece of virtuosity” - The Daily Telegraph, Live in the Highlands (1995) was “One of the best live albums I’ve heard for a long time... captures the essence of these remarkable performers in a rare and priceless way. Absolutely essential.“ - Folk Roots and their latest duo album Dialogues:Agallaimh is “Terrific: brilliant, beautiful, rich, virtuosic, delightful, classic, perfect!”
The unique atmosphere of their live concerts as a duo continues to generate some extraordinary reviews. “Their virtuosity leads them on: Máire chomps on the bit of the harp's respectability, playing storming jigs & reels...” - The Irish Times “This celebrated duo took the place by storm. Stately Carolan tunes, jazzy Django-ish numbers, dazzling flat picking fliers, driving Irish dance tunes - this pair can nonchalantly do the lot. Guitar players applauded & went sadly home to burn their instruments!” - Belfast Telegraph “Their blinding technique and sizzling Irish reels brought an extended standing ovation...” - The West Australian “A truly electrifying combination" - The Stage "The audience were charmed and dazzled by the speed, the deftness, the emotional range of their playing... Máire's clear, warm and expressive voice... Their stagecraft was masterly and their introductions informative and funny..." - Christchurch Press (New Zealand) “Newman led us on death-defying sprints while Máire confirmed her status as one of the world’s greatest harpists” – Edinburgh Evening News "It isn't every day one gets to hear musicians whose playing and singing are so moving, so wonderfully executed with such technical brilliance and beauty, that they actually bring tears to one's eyes; they did to mine, and that evening in Tallaght will remain a lasting and unforgettable memory." - Irish Music Magazine “Managed to do things I have never heard a harp do before… The gasps from the audience, particularly from the other harp players, made one realise that here was a very special performer indeed… I was alternately astonished and delighted with the entire concert: the skills with which they interacted, and the beautiful music they performed left a lasting impression on me and surely anyone else who was privileged to witness this extraordinary event.” - Classical Guitar Magazine
Máire holds an honours B.A. degree in Celtic Studies from University College Cork. Two books of her harp arrangements, The Irish Harper Voume I and The Irish Harper Voume II have been published by Old Bridge Music.
Máire contributed two articles about the Irish harp and modes in Irish music to the Companion to Irish Traditional Music (Cork University Press) & is profiled in Celtic Women in Music (Mairéad Sullivan, Quarry Music Books, Canada). She's also profiled in the Rough Guide to Irish Music.
Máire now concentrates primarily on performance. However, she’s always placed a high priority on passing on her knowledge & techniques to the next generation, with the aim – now largely achieved - of re-integrating the Irish harp into the mainstream of the living oral Irish tradition. To this end, she has taught the senior class every summer for the past eighteen years at the Summer School / Festival held by Cairde na Cruite (Irish Harp Society) in Termonfeckin, Co. Louth. (Contact the Secretary of the Society and Director of the Festival, Aibhlín McCrann, at email@example.com for further details.)
Chris & Máire are featured on Celtic Harpestry, the major 1998 Polygram USA Celtic harp album & associated TV special. Máire is harp & voice soloist with the New English Chamber Orchestra & the Choir of New College Oxford on John Cameron's major work Missa Celtica, released by Erato Disques, Paris. (Further information at www.johncameronmusic.com) The Goldcrest film Driftwood features her singing, and her harping & compositions feature with Dónal Lunny, Sharon Shannon, Máire's sister Nollaig Casey and other luminaries of the Celtic music world on Dan ar Braz's Gold Disc-awarded album for Sony France Finisterres.
Musicians of Cork: (Courtesy The Knotted Chord Archive).
Maire Ni Chathasaigh(1956- ) Harp.
Born in Bandon, County Cork into a music family. She started harp at age 11.
Throughout the 1970’s she won Oireachtas and Fleadh All Ireland titles as well as Pan Celtic titles. Maire was the first harper, in 1976, to teach at Scoil Eigse(the school connected to the All Ireland Fleadh) and adjudicated at these competitions for several years. Maire toured Ireland, Britain and North America with the Comhaltas tours appearing on several related recordings. She also appeared on the television programmes The Long Note and The Pure Drop.
Maire graduated with an honours degree in Celtic Studies from University College Cork(UCC).
Her harp playing technique has been regarded as innovative and highly influential, making the bridge between old style harp playing and the modern-day expression of traditional Irish music. This was particularly reflected in her 1985 solo debut "The New Strung Harp" which showed a fresh approach to fingering and ornamentation.
Maire has had 3 more solo albums since then.
In 1991 she published a book called "The Irish Harper"(Old Bridge Music) which detailed her technique and arrangements. This was followed later by "The Irish Harper, Volume 2".
Her regular recording and concert performing partner is Chris Newman, the highly regarded guitar player, and they have made several albums together. They tour regularly and Maire also appears at many of the harp summer schools. Their latest release, in 2001, is "Dialogues". Derek Bell of the Chieftains described her as "the most interesting and original player of the Irish harp today".
She has appeared on numerous compilation albums and has guested on many more including those of Rod Stewart, Brendan Power and Caroline La Velle.
Maire is also an accomplished singer, pianist, violist and tin whistle player. In 2001 she was honoured as TG4(Irish language television)s "Traditional Musician of the Year". The citation reads "for the excellence and pioneering force of her music, the remarkable growth she has brought to the music of the harp and for the positive influence she has had on the young generation of harpers"(FV)
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