“The Roots of Music : The Irish Harp in Poetry & Legend” [Collection handmade by Malachi McCormick]

I put out this handmade collection about ten years ago. The Harp –and especially The Irish Harp– was being talked about a lot, and a lot of people were becoming interested in picking it up and learning to play it.
Many of those folks knew little about the Irish Harp, it’s history –musicological, cultural, and general– and its significance. I decided to bring out this collection so that people could get a strong sense of what lay behind it all, and avoid the exploitation and the verbiage –nay, the blather– that can get in the way of well-intentioned curiosity.
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To that end, I found three long “harp” poems in Irish–the earliest is from 1385; the other two are 15th century– that I translated. They are fascinating, and charming, and truly get across the exalted position that The Harp held in Ireland.
In addition to the three poems, I retell a few of my very favorite old legends that add to this exalted sense.
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There is a saying, in Irish, that gets across this sense of exalted specialness:
“Caid cach ceol co cruit.”
It means “All music is sweet until (you hear) the harp.”
Enough said.
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Well, almost.
This saying is in the classic Irish form –poetic, short and alliterative– the better to be remembered, especially in those days before there were “mechanically reproduced books”.
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(I caught myself here, before I could say “books” or even “printed books”: of course, we had books before we had Gutenberg, and we had printing before we had Gutenberg. After all, my calligraphy –“hand-done” of its very nature– is a form of…printing,yes?)
So –the better way to say all this is “mechanically reproduced books”, which started with Gutenberg in 1452.
Printing didn’t start with Gutenberg. It started in…lots of other different places: China, Korea, Japan. Sumer, anyone?
Of course, it depends what you mean by “printing”.
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But now we are getting pedantic.
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OK –now I AM getting pedantic. (If you REALLY want to get pedantic about it.)
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But I digress.
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HERE NOW the wonderful Legend of Craiftine and Labhridh Lorc, from my “The Roots of Music” collection:
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“Craiftine, Ireland’s legendary master of the harp –invoked in one of our poems (in this collection) about Nicholas Dall Pierce as the harpist’s supernatural instructor– features in several lively mythical tales. Possibly his most famous exploit is the one involving Labhraidh Loingseach, a mythical king of Leinster, known as Labhraidh Lorc, or Labhraidh the Cruel.
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Labhraidh Lorc had a dread secret: his ears were not human but equine. It was true: Labhraidh Lorc had horse’s ears! He went to great pains to conceal this fact, from his subjects and especially from his enemies. One of the “pains” that he went to involved putting to death each and every barber that cut his hair, since the very proximity necessary for proper tonsuring also inevitably compromised Labhraidh Lorc’s secret.
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But the truth must always out and sure enough the time came when Labhraidh Lorc could no longer bear hiding it. He had to unburden himself. And so, one day as he walked along the river bank, he picked out a certain willow tree and, putting mouth to trunk, confessed his secret to it.
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We are not surprised to learn that shortly thereafter Craiftine needs a new harp. He of course knows that the true Irish Harp has a soundbox which is hollowed out from a single block of willow wood. Predictably, the willow tree that Craiftine chooses for the soundbox of his new harp is none other than the one that recently had been cast in the role of Labhraidh Lorc’s arboreal confessor.
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The new harp is soon ready. As ever, a large crowd assembles to hear the great Craiftine play. But instead of the familiar strum of a harp, the crowd was startled to hear the instrument sing.
And the song that it sang was “Labhraidh Lorc has horse’s ears!”
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[I love that story. Friends have told me of similar legends from different backgrounds. Do you know of any such?]
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“The Roots of Music: The Irish Harp in Poetry and Legend” is still available, price thirty dollars, and makes a lovely (and unique: how ‘unique’ is that?) and affordable handmade gift, which I will sign and even inscribe for you, if you email me the inscription. No charge for that –but do keep it short: ‘the calligrapher’ appreciates brevity.
You will find all the ordering information elsewhere on this website.


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