Cormac De Barra reinvents the harp as a rock and roll instrument


Cormac De Barra.
Cormac De Barra.

The lush, pulse-reducing sounds of the Irish harp – how rock and roll is that?

Not really, when you think about it. For Cormac De Barra, that’s what makes life so exciting.

De Barra is renowned internationally as a versatile harp virtuoso. He continually pushes the boundaries of the Irish harp through his work with a wide array of artists, including Hazel O’Connor, Julie Feeney and Clannad.

De Barra also tours and records with his brothers Fionán and Éamonn in the family group, Barcó. Besides his busy performing schedule he regularly gives workshops and master classes around the world.

Surprising audiences with what the harp can do is the most rewarding thing of all, De Barra says.

“I’m more steeped in trad and classical, but then I was invited by Hazel O’Connor to work on her punk rock album. She pushed me into a different realm where I had to arrange the harp around a punk and rock format,” he says.

“You hear these arrangements and then you have to make sense of it. I never set out to do this.  The people you work with push you into these areas you normally wouldn’t go.”

The people he works with just happen to be some of the most top-notch our culture has to offer.  In fact, he and I are having this chat in between shows of Moya Brennan’s holiday tour.

Brennan, the voice of Clannad, has recorded two albums of “voices and harps” over the last couple of years. Their cover of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” became a hit for them, and it is a testament to how a harp can be applied to almost any melody.

De Barra says he found a kindred spirit in working with Brennan and the Clannad crew. Both his mother and grandmother are accomplished harpists, with many brothers and uncles in his clan possessing a musical flare themselves.

“Moya is one of the nicest, kindest human beings ever to walk the earth,” De Barra gushes. “The music you grew up with, from where you come from, is a joy to play and I think that’s the thing we have in common which drives our creative partnership.

“Since we come from the same place we just naturally weave around one another. Djembe, double bass, bodhrans with the pop harmonies and Irish music is what was so groundbreaking about Clannad, and we did the same thing in our family growing up.

“Trad music wasn’t something that was a museum piece you put in the corner. You played it and put your own stamp on that.”

De Barra has also worked with Brian Kennedy, Maire Breatnach and many other greats throughout the years, and he has made many connections in the Irish arts community from his stint as presenter on the RTE show "Imeall," which means “the edge” in Gaelic.

“I was on TG4 on RTE every week for a few years,” he says. “The idea is that artists interview artists, so people from the same field are interviewing one another.

“It’s an interesting take on how to document the arts, as opposed to traditional ways that have news people try to get in the world of an artist. I did 100 programs over three years. It was a great fun and you got an insight into how other creative people worked.”

De Barra can be found giving back to the artistic community by keeping the harp alive through lessons and workshops on both sides of the Atlantic. He has worked with Brennan to sponsor workshops in Donegal and here.

“It was more of happenstance how I got into teaching,” he says. “There’s a harp festival every year in Ireland and I was asked to play there – eventually, I was asked to teach sessions.

“My grandmother was my first teacher and then I moved onto Leone Paulson, who was the grand dame of the harp, Julliard trained. She was a friend of my grandmother. She used to bring her harp students over to Ireland to play these festivals and then she would bring me over to America which was great.”

Making a difference in a student’s ability or their confidence level is a huge rush for De Barra.

“It’s always a challenge to find out how people learn and get them over whatever hurdle they have in mastering the instrument,” he says. “I really love that challenge, giving people belief in themselves.