One person’s trash is another's treasure.
Quite the understatement for Julie Finch, who found a rare and priceless 200-year-old Irish harp a few weeks ago in a dumpster on W. 26 St. in New York City.
Finch saw the harp, which looked quite old and was painted with shamrocks, but at first passed it by. Then, thinking the instrument might be worth showing to Lorcan Otway, an Irish friend and musician, she took it from its perch atop the trash.
She called Otway and described the damaged but intact harp with the colorful shamrock design. Then she told her friend one other detail: A scrawl on the harp read "John Egan, inventor.”
"My God," was all that Otway could say.
When Finch brought the harp to him, Otway immediately recognized the harp's unique craftsmanship.
“I gasped, because its teal blue color means it’s an original,” he said. It was definitely "an Egan."
The average New Yorker may not know what "an Egan" is, but most know what a Stradivarius is. Otway's dusty Egan harp is almost as rare, and just as valauable for harp collectors as a Stradivarius is for violinists. It is thought to be one of the earliest known examples of the work of John Egan, the inventor of the modern Irish folk harp.
Egan, “the last of the great harpists in the O’Carolan tradition,” according to Otway, is credited with saving Irish harping and inventing the modern Irish folk harp.
In the 1800s, Irish harping was dying out, mainly because harpists were playing medieval instruments that were hundreds of years old.
Egan set out to revive the Irish harp tradition by inventing a modern, sleek, abbreviated form of the Irish harp. Working from 1792 to about 1830, he made over 2,000 harps, many of which were sent to schools for blind children in Belfast.
Egan even made harps for the likes of legendary Irish singer/songwriter Thomas Moore, author of “The Minstrel Boy” and “The Last Rose of Summer.”
“This harp maker not only made wonderful harps, but is in many ways is responsible for saving Irish harp music,” Otway says.
Of course, to the Irish, the harp is much more than a wonderful and ancestral musical instrument.
The harp has been used as a political symbol of Ireland for centuries. It dates back to the age of the legendary Brian Boru, a famous "high king" of the whole island of Ireland who played the harp. In Celtic society, every clan would have a resident harp player who would write songs in honor of the leader.
The Brian Boru harp is featured on the Republic's Presidential flag, state seals, uniforms, and even bottles of Ireland's most-famous drink: Guinness (which also brews the popular Harp). The same Brian Boru harp design was also the inspiration for the gold emblem on the green flag that rebels flew in the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916.
The harp has also been emblazoned on Irish coinage -- all the way from the from the Middle Ages to the current Irish euro coins. And even relatively new organizations use the harp as a logo, but often redesigned to reflect a theme relevant to their organization. The Irish airline Ryanair uses a modified harp, somewhat in the form of an angel taking flight,
The 20th century has seen a great resurgence of popularity for the Irish harp. Thanks to traditional musicians such as Derek Bell of the
Chieftains, Celtic harps are returning to the fore. No longer just an ancient symbol of Ireland or museum collectible, Celtic harps find their music rising heavenward once again, raising the spirit of Ireland.
Today, almost all Irish harps played in "seisiuns" around the world are in the Egan style, and almost all young harpists in Ireland and
Britain play "descendants" of the Egan harp.
There are only 70 surviving authentic Egan Irish harps in the world today, and just five, including Otway’s, are privately owned.
Nancy Hurrier, a leading authority on Egan harps, told Otway his Egan was crafted between 1813 and 1820, making it one of the oldest of its kind.
So, how did this rare Irish treasure end up in a dumpster?
After conducting some research, Otway discovered that the building's previous owner had unsuccessfully tried to sell the instrument in her
shop. When she lost her lease on the building, she dumped all her unsold merchandise into the trash.
Otway says the harp is in great shape for its age, and has probably not been played for at least 100 years. “The soundboard is in great condition, which determines whether an antique instrument can be restored to playing condition,” he says.
In October, the Irish musician plans to take his rare find to Britain, where experts will “balance aesthetic conservation with restoration.” The process is expected to take several years, after which Otway will bring the Egan back to New York.
“Harps like these really belong to the community,” Otway says. “I want to make sure it is played, and has a life.”
Otway plans to hold an annual concert – featuring music on the Egan – that will benefit charitable causes.
“It will be a magnet for great musicians who’d love the opportunity to play it publicly,” Otway says of his new treasure.