Akron Irish: Siobhán
By Lisa O’Rourke
A few weeks ago, I answered the phone only to hear my usually bubbly friend sobbing into the receiver. Her mother died and she needed something for the funeral, something unique, something Irish.
Her mother was a steely, music loving woman with a strong sense of her Irish ancestry. I needed to find help, since my musical abilities have yet to be discovered.
Enter the old cliché that a friend in need is, and here you can sing it with me, a friend indeed. And those clichés are ridiculous until you are in need and that person seems to descend from heaven to help you out. Siobhan McCarthy was that friend, and for the second time in our brief acquaintance.
If you imagined an Irish female harpist, you could not improve on Siobhan McCarthy. She certainly looks the part, with long copper hair, blue eyes and a light dusting of freckles on her not-for-intense-sunlight Irish skin.
She plays the harp and sings. She has talent and range on both of her instruments. She plays everything from classical and opera on through to folk music. Siobhan’s passion though is Irish music, and all things Irish for that matter.
She grew up in a small neighborhood in Terre Haute, Indiana. A significant childhood memory for Siobhan was feeling different. She was the only redhead that she knew and since she didn’t look like anyone else, she felt obliged to find her own path in her other pursuits.
So, when it was time to choose an instrument to learn as a child, the harp was it. It was a unique choice and one that she believed spoke to her identity. After all, the harp was pictured on the pre-Rising Irish flag, on old coins and is the national symbol of Ireland.
Looking as stereotypically Irish as she does, she had to be drawn to the most Irish of instruments. But harps are not found in every music store. It was an expensive and esoteric instrument for a young girl to want to play. Siobhan was lucky to find a teacher who had one for her to practice on. As soon as she had the money, Siobhan bought her own Irish harp.
The Irish harp is a smaller, portable version of the larger concert instrument. The classical harp has pedals that allow each string three sounds. It is very heavy, prohibitively expensive and sensitive to movement. The Irish harp uses levers at the top of each string to create sharps. While it has less range, it is more affordable and portable. It seems a bit like the violin versus the fiddle.
The Irish or Celtic harp has music that was written just for it, which is predominately Irish in origin. The most famous of the composers is Turlough O’Carolan. Although, he lived over three hundred years ago, his legend is large in the history of Irish music, and the harp in particular.
Blinded by smallpox at the age of eighteen, he travelled the country for fifty years playing, singing, composing and telling stories. His legacy is celebrated in Ireland to this day.
O’Carolan is a particular inspiration to Siobhan. She enjoys playing the old songs and partnering those songs with stories. She teaches music at Our Lady of the Elms and also privately. Performance is her first love. She honed that skill attending the camp at Interlochen School in Michigan, which she said was a “real life Hogwarts.”
Siobhan does all kinds of performances, weddings, events, just about anything at all. She was once hired to perform at a wedding that happened to be in a hall with several function rooms. While she thought it was an odd request to have an Irish harp at a Mexican wedding, she played on, only to find out an hour later that she had been directed to the wrong room. She has entered two local Rose of Tralee competitions and been a guest on the Gerry Quinn show.
I was getting ready to write a nice little conclusion about how a need for a song led to the renewal of an acquaintance, when I realized that there was a different thread that runs through this story. This story started with a friend, looking for a way to give a voice to grief and to the passions of her mother. And in a moment of serendipity it led to a girl at the other end of her life looking for a similar type of authenticity.
We have let convenience homogenize us, and we are all clawing our way back in some capacity. The handmade things that were kind of ridiculed in the past are now part of the artisanal, shop local, individual things that we value again. The authentic and specific are what provide the Velcro to our memories.
In this life, there are times when we want to be seen for who we are, what we stand for and a farewell is certainly one of them. It was serendipitous that it was Siobhan who was the person who was able to help. She answered my “why the harp?” question by telling me that the harp seemed to her to be the best way to get into her identity, her authentic self and to give that self a voice.
Soibhan was drawn to an instrument that has depth and a legitimate place in Irish heritage. Being Irish is part of many people’s search for identity.
Leave the green beer to the once a year crowd and look for the things that are genuine parts of the culture. I will remember the girl who was keeping the Irish spirit alive with a harp.
It seems. a perfect fit.
Siobhan is working on her web site but it is not quite finished yet. Look for the Red Harper on Instagram and YouTube.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She enjoys spending time with her puppy, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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