Riverdance-style dance spectaculars, four-leaf clovers and drunken leprechauns are a dime a dozen, but ambassadors of less-corny Irish culture are hard to come by. Enter Patrick Ball, Irish harpist and storyteller, who will present his holiday show, A Christmas Rose, on Saturday at the Indiana History Center as part of the Storytelling Arts series. Ball was born in the States, but he was drawn to an ancient sound while out a-wandering one day.
“The first thing [that drew me to the Celtic harp] was just the sheer sound of the instrument,” Ball says. “I was walking in a Renaissance faire and heard this sound, and it’s a sound heard by few people in the last 200 years. ... The man who was trying to sell harps at the Renaissance faire was the first man to make the harps after they died out 200 years ago.”
The Celtic harp is shorter than a modern harp — it’s about four and a half feet tall — and it's most notable for its brass strings, which are played with the fingernails.
“It’s a very striking, beautiful design that comes from hundreds of years before modern harps were invented," Ball says. "The main thing you notice is the sound. It is tremendously evocative, very moving. Even people who know nothing about or have little experience with Irish culture, music or history are swept up by the sound of the instrument. It’s a captivating, enchanting sound.” Ancient Irish poets likened the sound of their harps to the pealing of bells.
“It’s going to sound romantic,” Ball continues, sheepishly, “but when I first heard it, it sounded like the veil between me and the past was torn aside and I could step back unto the past.”
Ball's heritage is Irish, though he grew up in and studied in California.
“Happily at that time I had just finished my master’s degree in Irish history, so I knew a great deal about the times when these harps were played centuries ago,” Ball says. “But I never felt what it was like until I heard the sound of the harp.”
Around that same time, Ball discovered the oral traditions of Appalachia.
“Before I became a storyteller I was hitchhiking around the country after grad school and ended up in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” he says. “The first time I heard someone telling stories I was thoroughly captivated by the music of the speech. I had never heard anyone talk in such a lyrical way. I know people in the mountains don’t think they are lyrical, but for me it was a transformative experience to hear people tell stories in that way. When I left I went straight to Ireland and found that same musical, lyrical quality in the storytelling. When I found the [Celtic] harp, the musical quality, sound and history blended perfectly with my experiences in the mountains and in Ireland.”
Since the original Irish tradition had been lost, Ball had to rely on recordings to recreate the stories and music of his ancestors.
“By the time I got interested in stories and was rambling about Ireland, no traditional storytellers were left,” Ball explains. “Most of the stories they told are relatively new or happen to them or in the countryside. I got the feeling for stories from listening to stories in houses and pub. To get the old stories I had to go to sound archives, because before they died away many scholars and historians recorded the old storytellers and kept [the recordings] in archives in Ireland and England.”
Many of these tapes were recorded around the turn of the 20th century and were in Gaelic, which Ball doesn’t speak, but others were in English. “[The tapes are a] wonderful way to feel like you’re right there, only 100 years before.”
Most recently, Ball wrote and currently performs two solo musical theater pieces: O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music, the story of the last and most celebrated traditional Irish bard, and The Fine Beauty of the Island, which tells of the abandoned Blasket Islands.
Ball says The Christmas Roseis different from his other shows.
“This show is quite literary in a sense that the stories and some of the anecdotes are from books written in the early part of the 20th century, as well as other pieces," Ball says. "For instance, one is A Child’s Christmas in Wales and another is The Wind in the Willows, and these are truly beloved stories. When I was growing up I ran across [these books] at a formative age and fell in love with them. Books that are really deep and kind of had a visceral quality to them, filled with, particularly Dylan Thomas’, a variety of stuff: the sensory descriptions of a childhood Christmas, the sights, smells, feelings. These are recollections that seem to be universal to everybody.”