Harp-maker and key figure in revival of instrument

Colm Ó Meachair: July 18th, 1947-September 28th, 2013

Harp-maker Colm Ó Meachair

Harp-maker Colm Ó Meachair


The harp-maker Colm Ó Meachair, who has died aged 66, was a key figure in the revival and development of the traditional Irish harp. His instruments are renowned for their design and craftsmanship, and have attracted buyers not just in Ireland but in the US, Canada, Paraguay and Japan.

Born in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, he was one of three children of Tom Maher, an Army officer, and his wife, May. He was educated by the Christian Brothers at Coláiste Mhuire.

A member of the FCA artillery corps, he also taught himself to play the trumpet and piano accordion, and performed in school operettas.

Beat group
In the early 1960s he and three fellow pupils formed The Phantoms, a beat group influenced by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The band, with Ó Meachair on lead guitar, played at tennis club hops and supported visiting showbands in local dancehalls.

The headmaster at Coláiste Mhuire detested “an ceol Gallda”, and all that went with it; he warned the aspiring rock stars that there was no future in “tin-can music”. In the event, all four group members made careers in music.

While studying for an arts degree at University College Galway Ó Meachair became involved in the local music scene.

After graduating he spent a year with the Jack Ruane band, from Ballina, Co Mayo, during which he toured England, Scotland and the US.

He then took up a teaching post at Dunlavin vocational school, in Co Wicklow. Living in Hollywood, an area to which he became very attached, he joined a local band Pooka. And he discovered craft work, as he told The Irish Times in 1984: “In Dunlavin for the first time I saw people making things – they had very good metalwork and woodwork courses. I had never seen a handsaw, or a plane, or a polishing machine.” He began to do his own guitar repairs.

His father was founder of the Mullingar Harp School, and the two of them decided to join forces to make a harp. “We knew we needed a soundbox. We knew we needed something to hang the strings from, something that looked a bit like a triangle – and that was about it,” Ó Meachair recalled.

He quit teaching after six years to become a full-time harp-maker, setting up his workshop in the Craft Courtyard, Marley Park, Rathfarnham, in 1975.

An early example of his work at the Christmas crafts exhibition in Ireland House, Dublin, in 1976 caught the attention of Quidnunc who wrote in this newspaper: “One exhibit of special interest is the traditional Irish harp by Colm Ó Meachair, as beautifully fashioned as any that came from the workshops of the famous McFall family.”

A full-size harp took a month to make. After experimenting for some years to find an economical way to make a smaller harp, he finally developed a model he could market in the US. The pillar and curve were made from a single piece of sycamore, while the box was fibre-glass made from a mould. In 1980 one of his harps was included in a display of Irish goods in Chicago.

While he did not describe himself as a harper, Ó Meachair knew the rudiments of playing and thus could understand what customers wanted.

He set himself high standards. Aware of the great changes in the making of musical instruments, he constantly sought ways of producing a better harp.

‘Comparing instruments’
“You have to combine the best of the old ways with the best of the new. Musicians are travelling more, comparing instruments, comparing sounds,” he said. “They are becoming more selective, more discriminating. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

In 1998 he participated in a DIT project to identify the characteristics of the traditional Irish harp, so as to advance harp-making in Ireland.

He never abandoned the guitar, and played for many years with the Earl Gill band among others. In recent years he began studying jazz guitar.

An enthusiastic walker, he enjoyed walking the Dublin and Wicklow mountains with fellow enthusiasts who included the recently deceased Irish Times journalist Seán Mac Connell.

Former Phantoms member and now classical composer Gerry Murphy remembers Ó Meachair as an “equable, hardworking journeyman musician”, who had an “infectious, boyish sense of fun, [and] was a born leader”.

Harpist Áine Ní Dhubhghaill said he was always generous with his time and talents, and had left a legacy of wonderful instruments.

A loving husband and devoted father, he is survived by his wife, Pat (née Swarbrigg), son, Shane, daughter, Clíodhna, and sisters, Máire and Fionnuala.