The ears and minds of a group of people gathered near Cleveland, Ohio will experience a uniquely Irish moment on Friday: St. Patrick’s Day.
Songs will emanate from Siobhan McCarthy’s Celtic harp. Seventeenth-century blind Celtic harpist Turlough O’Carolan – a legend in Ireland – wrote several tunes that McCarthy will play. Her listeners will probably notice her long red hair and talent.
What the public probably won’t realize is that McCarthy’s road to a career as a classically trained performer and educator specializing in Irish music began in Terre Haute.
Sparks flew when McCarthy, then a sophomore at Ouabache Elementary School, gave an oral report on her family history to her classmates. It encompassed the background of her father Daniel’s McCarthy family lineage, stretching back to its roots in the city of Cork, Ireland.
The moment also coincided with Siobhan and her family developing a deeper bond with each other. She, her two siblings and parents moved from Kent, Ohio, to Terre Haute in 1990 when her father held a music faculty position at Indiana State University. They didn’t know anyone here. Their relatives lived in Ohio or elsewhere.
“It was a time of learning about our family and who we are and learning about Terre Haute, and really appreciating a small Midwestern town,” said McCarthy.
Her second-grade report on her heritage helped the young girl feel rooted, even as a Hoosier newcomer.
“When I did that project in school, it put me on a path to who I was, where I came from, and why I had red hair,” McCarthy recalled by phone from Akron Wednesday morning.
She already knew that her father was Irish. That fascinated McCarthy, whose “very Irish” first name is the Gaelic version of Joan.
“In Terre Haute, growing up, I was the only redhead in school, and I had this romantic ideal in my head that I was Irish,” she recalled.
McCarthy’s mother, Marcia, gave herself an assignment at the time. “My mom tried to introduce Irish food and Irish music into our family after that project,” McCarthy said.
Her mother bought her an Irish Barbie doll. “She had long red hair and a beautiful green dress,” McCarthy said. Her mother also started cooking Irish dishes, including colcannon, a favorite comfort food of Ireland with cabbage, potatoes, onions and bacon. Initially, the taste of cabbage “threw” her 8-year-old taste buds.
Now 34 years old, McCarthy considers colcannon one of her must-have dishes on St. Patrick’s Day, along with corned beef.
Her mother’s efforts “really fueled that idealization in my mind of Ireland as a magical place with the food and the music,” McCarthy said.
In Siobhan’s second grade class at Ouabache, McCarthy’s mother took another step in Irish exploration that changed her daughter’s life. She took young Siobhan to a harp ensemble at Indiana University. “I was really fueled by it,” McCarthy said.
Although McCarthy didn’t have a Celtic harp—a somewhat rare and difficult instrument to learn—in their Terre Haute home, she developed her skills on the instrument during summer music camps at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. She continued those summer camps through her elementary years in Ouabache and then as a high school student in Chauncey Rose before her family returned to Ohio in 2000.
McCarthy attended boarding school in Interlochen, studied opera and musical theater, and received a music degree from the University of Akron, then began teaching piano and voice to children, teens, and adults, as well as performing on her two Celtic harps.
She paused those performances during the pandemic and after the birth of her daughter Daniella. She has been a stay-at-home mom, teaching some classes, while her husband Fernando works as a dentist. Now McCarthy is just starting to resume some performances. Friday’s St. Patrick’s Day performance offers her a step into that routine in a smaller, more intimate setting than some of her others. She has performed with the Cleveland Chorus and in productions of “Dracula” and “Spamalot” at Weathervane Playhouse in Akron.
She will continue a history of Celtic harp music that dates back at least 1,000 years and was developed by the Gaelic Society in Ireland, according to the official website of the Irish Emigration Museum of Dublin. Or in Scotland. (Its origins are disputed, McCarthy explains.)
The style is also unique and different from larger orchestral harps. Celtic harps are also known as “lever harps”. They create a clear, ringing sound. Small levers mounted on top of each string allow the harpist to change the pitch, rather than having to do so with pedals like an orchestral harp. The smaller size of Celtic harps meets the needs of traveling harpists employed by royal courts to carry and play the instruments to inspire troops in war, soothe sick people and entertain royalty, McCarthy said.
Perhaps the most famous Celtic harpist was O’Carolan, whose songlist McCarthy uses in her performances. O’Carolan lost his eyesight to a smallpox attack at the age of 15, according to the Library Ireland. At age 22, he became a traveling harpist, aided by a benefactress who provided him with horses and an attendant to carry his harp, says the library’s historical record.
“He made a living traveling from house to house, composing songs for his patrons and telling stories about Ireland and its history,” explains McCarthy.
Her favorite O’Carolan composition is “Eleanor Plunkett.” O’Carolan wrote it for a woman of that name, and McCarthy’s great-aunt was named Eleanor. “It’s a really nice melody, and every time I play the music it’s more fleshed out,” McCarthy said.
It’s an artistic progression that started a quarter of a century ago in Terre Haute, when an 8-year-old girl fell in love with her Irish roots.