14th Jul 2022 in Community

‘Manifestation’ urges action to save the site of Harpers’ Assembly 230 years ago

The public has been urged to join a gathering on Saturday July 16, to urge Belfast City Council to save the historic Assembly Rooms that sit at the junction of North Street and Waring Street.

The event – entitled ‘The Manifestation: Belfast Harpers Assembly Gathering’ – is part of the Harps Alive Festival, which commemorates the 230th Anniversary of the Belfast Harpers’ Assembly that took place in the building at the height of Belfast’s enlightenment period.

In speeches, the Council will be urged to acquire the building for public use, after years of neglect for the Grade B1 listed building that was built in 1769.

Co-Chair of the Harps Alive Festival, John Gray, explained that the Assembly Rooms is listed on the ‘Heritage At Risk Register’ since 2003. “The Assembly Rooms is the oldest public building in Belfast dating from 1769,” he said.

“That famous assembly of harpers which we are commemorating took place here in this building in 1792.

“Many other important cultural and civic events in that enlightenment era took place here. It was here that the Belfast Harbour Commissioners were established.

“It was here that, famously, the citizens of Belfast rejected plans to create a slave trading company, and it was here that United Irish leaders, including Henry Joy McCracken, were court martialled and sentenced to death in 1798.”

In the 19th century, the building was converted for banking, but even those changes retained the neo-classical style and it was listed in 1975 after being acclaimed as Belfast’s Best Kept Public Building in 1979.

The Ulster Architecture Heritage organisation has said that general maintenance of the building has “fallen by the wayside and has suffered from vandalism”.

Frank Bunting, a descendant of Edward Bunting, who famously transcribed the music of those harpers in 1792 will be part of the gathering on Saturday. 

“230 years ago Belfast sponsored the long acclaimed assembly of harpers in this venerated building,” he said. “To Belfast’s shame this historic asset now stands neglected and decaying, yet far from lost. 

“The Assembly Rooms are ripe for immediate and respectful rejuvenation, whilst seizing a glaring opportunity for the city. 

“The building should become one of Belfast’s cultural and tourist centrepieces – not just as a monument to traditional Irish music, loved the world round, but as a broader cultural venue of international appeal. It has been slow coming, but it’s not too late for the City Council to act.”

The Harps Alive Festival is a celebration across the city from July 15th to 17th with numerous events that recall the ancient harp music and the contemporary music of harpers across Ireland.

The festival is the product of a joint north-south project aiming to commemorate, celebrate and educate people on the cultural history, heritage and development of Irish harping. The main schedule of events will take place in locations throughout Belfast’s inner city from July 15-17.

An extensive schedule of events are set to be held throughout the city over the course of the festival, ranging from an exhibition at Linen Hall Library, to workshops, lectures and concerts and will conclude with a commemorative service in Dublin.

Harps Alive is as celebratory as it is informative, providing festival goers with an opportunity to hear historic harp tunes performed live, as well as to learn about the history of the harp, an instrument that is so deeply ingrained in Irish history. 

Aibhlín McCrann, Chair of Cruit Éireann │Harp Ireland and Co-Chair of Harps Alive, commented on the significance of the festival.

“Cruit Éireann│Harp Ireland is delighted to be bringing harpers from all over Ireland together to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the Belfast Harpers’ Assembly in Belfast and in Dublin,” she said.

“Our harping heritage transcends boundaries and has really connected the partners, north and south. It is wonderful to hear the harpers’ music reflecting our living tradition and to see that there is so much interest in it. 

“We are looking forward to welcoming audiences across the city of Belfast to our concerts, talks and exhibitions.”

A prelude to the festival took place on July 9, with an event honouring the life and legacy of the harper Denis Hempson, who hailed from Magilligan and who is known for Edward Bunting’s transcriptions of his playing of ancient harp tunes.

John Gray commented on the impressive scale of the event, saying: “The festival, in bringing more than 50 harpers to Belfast, will create the largest ever such assembly in Belfast.

“Marking the 230th anniversary of the assembly of harpers in Belfast, the festival will be the first harping festival to take place on such a wide scale, all-island basis since 1992.

“By hosting various events across the city, from Sailortown to the Shankill Road Library, Harps Alive strives to make harping more accessible.”

In bringing harping to a wider audience, John hopes that the festival will “achieve the widest possible engagement with the public”, and that it will “leave a lasting legacy”

To find out more about Harps Alive, and to view the full schedule of events, visit www.harpireland.ie

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