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A blend of Celtic stories and music

An English teacher was talking with friends about James Joyce when he recognized Celtic harpist and storyteller Patrick Ball, who had performed earlier at a music festival in California. Introduced to Ball, the teacher told the musician he had his spoken-word recording of Joyce's notoriously difficult novel "Finnegan's Wake."

"So you're the guy who bought it," Ball deadpanned. "You and my mom."

Ball won't be doing Finnegan when he returns to Ashland, but he will be doing old Irish songs, and telling some of the old stories. Ball performs on a harp based on an ancient Celtic one and built by master harp builder Jay Wircher of Houlton, Maine. He has programs based on Turlough O'Carolan, the 18th-century Irish harpist and composer, and on the legend of Tristan and Isolde. But he says in a telephone interview that this show will be a sort of Celtic olio.

"It's a mix of old stories and music," he says.

Ball also plans a music workshop from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Center. Cost is $30. The workshop is for professional and amateur musicians alike, age 12 and up.

It's no secret that the Irish have long delighted in storytelling. And usually, amidst the stories, there was music: jigs, reels and airs. First among Irish instruments was the Celtic harp, which some say seems to speak to the imagination.

"It was on Irish money before they went to the Euro," Ball says. "O'Carolan was on the Irish 50-pound note."

Ball once thought he'd be a lawyer, but he studied piano and guitar and in college was drawn to words, and to writers from Ireland. He made his way there and fell in love with both the Irish oral tradition and the Celtic harp. After earning a master's degree in history from Dominican College, he lived at the Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, working as a groundsman.

There among Appalachian storytellers he deepened his love of the spoken word. Once he found a maker of the rare wire-strung Celtic harp and taught himself to play, he began gathering old stories and blended them with the music.

His harp is made of maple, strung with 32 brass wire strings, and very strong to stand the tension. It's smaller than the harps in symphony orchestra.

"They go back 1,000 years," he says. "But they died out 200 years ago. Important people had harpists in their households. When the English came, the players hit the roads."

Ball now tours extensively throughout the United States and Canada. He has recorded nine instrumental and three spoken word albums and has won many awards.

He's just returned from another Celtic festival.

"People try to pinpoint what started the Celtic music craze," he says. "They say it was 'Riverdance.' The music was in the limelight, then it merged into Celtic fusion or things like that. If you go to a Celtic festival now they have traditional musicians, but they also have Celtic rock. It's lively, but it's loud. Your acoustic performance depends on how close you are to the Celtic rock stage."

Ball says part of his show will be based on "Gwilan's Harp," an Ursula K. LeGuin story about a young woman who got a harp, and her mastery of it, from her mother. Ball discovered it one day back in the 1980s in a women's magazine in a beauty salon where he'd been sent to present a performance as a Valentine's Day gift.

"It's a love story," he says, "of sorts."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at bvarble2mailtribune.com or at 776-4478

Patrick Ball performs on a harp based on an ancient Celtic one. - Photo courtesy of St. Clair Prod