An Irishman's Diary


Playing the harp in the cause of peace is of course a naive idea. Even so, when harpists all over the world do just that for an hour later this month, as part of a movement that began on Facebook, you might think that Ireland would be well represented. And so far, at least, you would be wrong.

In fact, Ireland-the-nation has signed up to the Harpers for Peace initiative, if only just. The founder of the Armagh Harpers Association, Patricia Daly, will perform in Newry on the afternoon of July 19th, just as musicians from America to Australia, via the Middle-East, are doing likewise. But Ireland-the-state – the one officially represented by a harp, and the one that devotes 33 per cent of its flag to the peace concept – is still without a volunteer.

Our apparent lack of enthusiasm for the project has mystified Oonagh Linnett, a beautifully named musician from Chester who has been trying to stir up interest in these parts. One of 10 harpers who will perform in public places throughout Britain on July 19, Oonagh lived for a time in Ireland and wrote a dissertation on the Irish harp as part of her studies.

So she well understands the instruments history and significance here and she thought that, of all countries, this one would be ripe for recruits. But the song of the Linnett, as it were, has fallen on deaf ears. Having written to anyone she could think of in Irish harping, without success, she “got a bit desperate in the end” and e-mailed Bono and Bob Geldof too. Still nothing.

Many people just didnt reply. But the most poignant response was a polite one from Áras an Uachtaráin regretting that it could not be of assistance, even as the State symbol looked on mutely from the letterhead. The harp that once through Taras hall.....

As for the other part of the island, it probably doesnt help that the Harpers for Peace hour coincides with the height of the marching season. The instrument might struggle to be heard over the noise of the Lambeg drum in mid-July anyway. And then theres the question of its politics. I believe the harp is neutral on the Irish constitutional question: after all, as well as being the symbol of the Republic, it represents Ireland on the British royal standard.

But you never know in a part of the world where even instruments have to choose sides. Remember the old joke about the inspector visiting a Catholic school in the Sperrins and testing the children on their music vocabulary.

“What do you call a piano player?” he asks. The hands all shoot up: “A pianist, sir.” And so on until they get to the flute, when embarrassed silence descends on the class. “Come, come,” says the inspector. “What do you call a flute player?” Finally, a hand rises, shyly: “Sir, at home we call him an orange bastard.”

Musicians cant create peace, but they can occasionally make powerful gestures that live on in the minds of everyone who witnesses them.

Only last Sunday in Jerusalem, for example, players from across Europe and from both sides of the Israeli divide performed a now annual concert on the rooftops of the citys old quarter.

Sydney Corbetts Jerusalem Refrainswas specially written for the occasion and is played by 40 wind instruments, communicating back and forth across the citys roofs at sunset, “in a dialogue not yet possible on the ground”.

And then there was The Cellist of Sarajevo, who in 1992 created one of the most haunting images of the Bosnian war.

A member of the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, among others, Vedran Smailovic was so moved by the massacre of 22 civilians as they queued for bread one morning that he took to playing his instrument every day at the scene, performing Adagio in G Minorin full evening dress amid the debris, and constant risk to his own life.

The fame of his actions inspired several musical tributes, but its public ownership also had unwelcome consequences. Last year, a Canadian novelist wrote a fictionalised tribute called The Cellist of Sarajevo, which was much praised as a literary work but had been created without even consulting Smailovic.

In a rare and angry public interview at the time, the real-life cellist also complained that his story had been rewritten in other ways: including the popular myth that he played every day at the same time in Sarajevo. That would have been a gift to the snipers, but it didnt happen.

“Im not stupid,” he said. “I varied my routine.”

Smailovic could have exploited his celebrity ever since, but he didnt. In search of a quieter life, he moved to Ireland some years ago. Last time I heard he was still living here, unobtrusively, in Warrenpoint, Co Down.

But back to harpers. And however successful their gesture will be, at least musicians participating in the peace hour on July 19th are unlikely to be shot at, anywhere; or so one would hope.

This being the case, Irish harpers who might belatedly like to volunteer for the event can still do so by logging on to