A fairytale in New York

 

A rare Dublin-made harp – one of only 70 of its type left in existence – has been saved from a cruel end in a New York skip

ONE afternoon in early July, actor, baker and New Yorker, Julie Finch, was walking home down West 26th Street in Manhattan. Outside her building was a skip and, just as she has done all her life, Finch couldn’t pass without getting up on her toes and having a good look inside. She saw filing cabinets, discarded papers and some tacky wood veneer – run of the mill discarded goods. And then she realised every dump-gazer’s dream.

“I was standing on the bottom rung of the dumpster and peering in. There, lying over the top, was a nasty-looking old harp. I picked it up and thought, this is interesting, although to be totally honest, I had no interest in keeping it,” she says.

Yet something about the broken-stringed, warped instrument made Finch think twice. She took it from the skip, thinking she might offload it with a neighbour who liked to restore old furniture. Julie gave him the instrument, but 15 minutes later his wife called. “We’re not keeping this,” she said, “You want it back?”

“Sure,” said Finch, who only then began to examine her acquisition more closely. “I realised how beautiful it was. It was filthy, with wires going everywhere but I got some soap and began to wash it down and wipe it dry. There was a brass plaque on it, which said ‘John Egan, Dawson Street, Dublin’. So naturally I googled the name.”

Finch soon discovered that John Egan was one of the most important Irish harp makers of the past two centuries, often regarded as the father of the modern Irish harp. Egan made instruments from his workshop in Dublin between the late 1700s and the 1840s. Experts estimate that there are only about 70 known Egan harps left in the world. Julie had chanced upon the find of a lifetime. Harp historian Nancy Hurrell, currently writing a book on Egan, says of the Dublin instrument maker: “Egan was a harp maker to King George IV and gave lessons to the royal family. This harp appears to be a particularly early version, though, as it doesn’t have a royal seal, which means it pre-dates 1820. I have examined about 30 of these instruments in my lifetime and know of about 70 left in existence, almost all of which are in museums or universities. It is extremely rare to come across one in private hands.”

Next, Finch contacted a friend of hers, Lorcan Otway, who played Irish music at her local Quaker meeting house in New York, and had a lifelong interest in Irish harps. She told him of her find and he came to take a look.

“When she first described this harp with shamrocks, I thought oh God, it sounds like a St Patrick’s Day nightmare,” Otway says. “I asked her, ‘does it say anything?’ When she said the words ‘John Egan’, my heart stopped.”

Otway offered to buy the harp, and attempt to have it restored to its former glory. “I paid $300 (€210) for the harp. I offered a bit more but Julie would only take $300 and told me to donate the rest to the conservation and restoration. Which is remarkable, because when restored, Egan harps start at $10,000 (€7,012) upwards.”

KEN MOORE, curator in charge at the New York Metropolitan Museum, says the occurrence of a harp like this in a skip is very rare. “We have one Egan harp in our collection and it dates to 1819 so it may not be as old as this one. Most of the ones I have seen are either in museums or in collections such as the Irish Historical Society here in New York.”

Otway is currently in touch with a well-known restorer in London, and hopes over the coming months to have the instrument restored. “We estimate it dates to between 1813 and 1820 and hasn’t been played for probably 100 years. But I’m confident we can get it playing again,” he says.

Happy that the harp has now gone to a passionate and dedicated home, only one question remained for Finch. Who would throw away a 200-year-old rare musical instrument? “I still thought perhaps it had come from the theatre company nearby. So I asked the superintendent of the building next door who put the skip out. He told me it was the Augustine Guitar String Company,” Julie says.

The harp, it turned out, had belonged to the president of that company, Rose Augustine, who along with her husband, Albert, was responsible for inventing nylon strings for classical guitars. Following Rose’s death in 2003, the factory had moved to Long Island and now the contents of the old site were being cleared out. The harp, part of a personal collection of rare musical instruments, had been thrown out because of its poor state of repair.

“I spoke with the executor of her estate who told me Rose never threw anything out and had a huge collection of old instruments,” Julie says. “They had to go through all her belongings and move everything by a certain date. It was a scramble, and at the last minute the harp was placed on top of the dumpster.”

Now that Julie knows the true value of the instrument, is there a twinge of regret that she didn’t hold out for a bigger finder’s fee?

“It cost me nothing to find it,” she says, “I knew it cost thousands to restore it and Lorcan did offer me more. But it’s not about the money; it’s about making sure it is taken care of. We do joke about how I have visitation rights. My ambition now is to see it being played, and I’m happy.”