When I first heard that Patrick Ball would be playing the Celtic harp, my mind naively went to the cute little hand harps you might find someone plucking on in an Irish pub on two-for-one pint night. But no, this is not a hand harp or a lap harp. Standing more than four feet tall, the harp’s base has two massive slabs of buttery maple joined together. They taper up to a graceful dip across the top before jutting out into a sharp point like a ship’s prow. It’s all strung up with 32 copper strings (nylon strings are for wusses, apparently), and when played, it creates a sound that connects you to more than a thousand years of misty islands, love, loss, violence and mythology that makes Ireland so compelling.
The presentation was truly the history of the harp itself, from an ancient tale about a mother who sold her soul so her boy could be the best harpist in all of Ireland to a personal account of how a laid off NASA scientist revived the harp after it had fallen into two centuries of disuse. Woven throughout are songs on the harp. Ball does not sing, as I had anticipated. Rather, the music speaks for itself, acting as a window into the emotional lives of the characters in his songs, deepening our understanding of who they are and their world. It all fits together seamlessly, almost like musical montages in a movie, and watching Ball’s graceful hands pluck and coax the strings while his foot moves in an almost balletic fashion beside it is a treat.
Ball’s telling style is theatrical, almost Shakespearean. His speaking cadence is idiosyncratic, with long pauses where one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them. It works for him, with his wild cotton candy-like hair, and is a wholly different telling experience than last year’s Irish teller Clare Murphy, though they covered some similar ground with tales of Finn MacCoul, Ireland’s great hero. The mythology is interesting, as it always is, but Ball shone when he recited a story about a pair of newlyweds milking a cow on a beautiful hill as the sun sets. Yes, there’s great strife and warfare and glory and ugliness in Irish history, but much of life on the emerald isle boils down to just this: people, animals, love, stories.
Those stories have kept a scattered, battered people whole, proud and happy after centuries of violence, all set to the mystical strains of the Celtic harp. Ball is a fitting successor of the great Irish bards.
Next up on Storytelling Arts’ season is Ghost Stories at Crown Hill on October 12. This was the highlight of the season last year. For those looking to get their Halloween fright on or just experience night in a beautiful and peaceful cemetery, you won’t want to miss this one. Tickets are available here.