“It’s going to be magical,” promised Virginia Munro, program director at the Edgartown library. She discovered Aine Minogue through Spotify, and traveled off-Island to hear her perform, then invited the harpist to play here. “We have such a beautiful room for live performances, particularly for acoustic music,” Munro said.
While the nor’easter stormed outside, Minogue’s concert transported listeners with songs of fairies, selkies, and the turning of the year. Her 40-string folk harp has levers to change the tone on the strings, instead of a concert harp pedals. She flips them seamlessly as she plays, her touch light on the strings at first, then varying to draw out a wide range of effects. She sings softly and speaks with gentle, self-effacing humor, but her list of musical accomplishments is impressive.
She began to play the harp at age 12 while attending a boarding school in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland. “I’m still friendly with my teacher there, Sister Eileen. There were several nuns there who were amazing,” Minogue said. “When I was 15, she took me aside and said, ‘Think twice about getting married too young. Go up to the orchestra in Dublin, you’re good enough.’” That early encouragement set young Aine Minogue off on a lifelong career as a harpist, from lead of the harp section in her school’s orchestra to playing at Bunratty Castle, then across the Atlantic to the Boston area.
“I was a very bad secretary for a very short time,” Minogue said of her early days in the U.S. She soon went back to doing her own thing and making records, over a dozen of them. At one point she returned to Ireland and earned a master’s degree in traditional irish harp performance from the University of Limerick. “I came back from doing the master’s and made an album of intricate Irish music, that I’ve never put out and never will,” she said. “The master’s relieved me of ever having to prove myself again.” She launched into a series of meditative albums built around spiritual themes of grief, death, pilgrimage, and, most recently, Eve. She will be releasing a Christmas album soon.
Minogue said she feels blessed to have made the transition to the new world of music, with a strong listenership across digital media, but she also plays for many family and community events. “I’ve always been playing for the weddings and the celebrations in people’s lives,” she said. “I feel like a big part of people’s family celebrations.” She sees it as a bardic role, especially when she is invited back to play for multiple occasions within a family, whether it’s a funeral, a wedding, or another celebration.
In Edgartown, she played a selection of pieces related to Samhain (pronunciation varies by region, but it’s something like sah-win, or sow-in). Samhain is the ancient Celtic festival set at the end of October, the ancestor of our Halloween. It’s a time when the veil between the worlds is thin, and the songs Minogue played evoked the otherworlds of Celtic lore. First, there was a piece about the King of the Fairies, from the fairy realm under the earth. Later came a tune about Tír na Nóg, the Land of Youth, which originated in Brittany. Another world is the one beneath the sea, to which the selkies return when they find their hidden skins, leaving their families on the shore.
Minogue describes the song about the selkie as one of “those old Irish songs where no one wins. It has several different interpretations, and there’s no moral,” she said. She finds wisdom and comfort in those songs despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of a definite meaning, and appreciates the timeworn traditions. “It has that real ancient feel,” she said of an earlier song. “Those are the airs that I love most on the harp.”
As the sounds of the harp and Minogue’s voice filled the room, listeners were transported, if not to the land of fairies, then perhaps to its threshold, or and away from the howling winds outside.