Laoise Kelly Keel

‘I really want to take the harp off the tax envelope’

Winners of this year’s TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards on what the award means to them

National symbol

Harpist and founder of the Achill International Harp Festival, Laoise Kelly is the Traditional Musician of the Year.

“I’m just so delighted for the harp. Its time has come,” Kelly says, on the phone from her home on Achill Island. “I can’t express how grateful I am. But for the harp most of all. It’s fantastic. And for all my great music teachers who gave so generously along my path.”

Kelly’s great passion is for pushing the harp to find its outer limits – and not being afraid to go there. She looks to Scotland, where the harp has been thriving amid a vibrant traditional music scene that receives extensive state support. South America too, can show the way when it comes to excavating more from our national instrument, she believes.

“Take Paraguay,” says Kelly. “They have these amazing players who use a percussive bass to enhance their melodies and their singing. Or Cape Breton, where you hear great funky accompaniment to fiddle music. A lot of South American harpers play with their nails on their right hand. I play with my nails with my melody hand and I find that it cuts through the tunes a bit better. All these things have seeped into me over the years. That’s my great fortune to have travelled and to hear these things.”

And the future? What might it hold for the harp, Kelly’s beloved, and our national instrument?

“I’d love to see Ireland more proud of our national instrument,” she says. “I think we have a long way to go. The popularity has grown but I’d love if the ordinary person on the street was really proud that we have a musical instrument as our national symbol.

“I really want to take the harp off the tax envelope. People laugh when I bring this up. When I get the brown envelope with the harp on it, I say that four letter word. That is very real. So at a very subliminal level, it is doing something negative to the harp. Why aren’t we doing something to counteract that? The government should be bringing a harp player with them everywhere they go in the world, because we have tons of brilliant harpers.”