Aileen MacArdle obituary

Other lives: Distinguished player and teacher of the harp

My mother, Aileen MacArdle, who has died aged 93, had a distinguished career as an orchestral harpist, and for 30 years was an influential harp teacher in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Her parents, Alice (nee Begley) and Patrick MacArdle, moved from farms in Co Armagh to raise their family in Belfast, where Patrick opened a store, and where Aileen was born. She began playing the Irish harp aged 10, and won gold medals for dancing, as well as for her harp playing, at the All-Ireland dancing championship, afterwards moving on to the concert harp. She went to school in Lisburn, and then began performing with orchestras in Cork and Belfast. She made broadcasts from 1942 with BBC Belfast and BBC General Forces, as well as recordings of Irish songs and ballads with the Ulster tenor Richard Hayward.

In 1954, after studies in London with Tina Bonifacio, she was appointed principal harp with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which made a pioneering tour behind the iron curtain under Rudolf Schwarz, Charles Groves and Constantin Silvestri. She married Derek Powell, a violinist in the orchestra, in 1956.

In 1972 she retired from Bournemouth to freelance with the major London orchestras, notably the Philharmonia Orchestra, and also played with the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra and other provincial ensembles. On receiving a diagnosis of osteoarthritis that was projected to cut short her playing career, she adopted the De Coti-Marsh diet, with its emphasis on fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses, and remained active for a further 40 years.

Aileen taught throughout her career. She developed a technique anchored in the Paris Conservatoire school to support an intense focus on quality of sound, a priority that, along with an inexhaustible patience and a playful sense of humour, became her hallmark.

In the late 1970s and early 80s she was head of harp at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, and then at Limerick University, and in 1993 she began a 13-year association with the music service of the Southern Education and Library Board of Northern Ireland (now part of the education authority) in Portadown, which awards a cup each year named in her honour. The music service set up a harp school in Newry that became the model for others in the province.

Aileen was a widely respected teacher, coach and adjudicator, fostering talented pupils who went on to concert careers of their own. She took part enthusiastically in gatherings of harpists both formal and informal, including the World Harp festival celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Belfast Harpers Assembly of 1792 at which Edward Bunting had recorded the already vanishing tradition of Irish harpers.

Her husband, from whom she had been separated since 1978, and her sisters, Cora, Leontia and Patricia, predeceased her. She is survived by her sons, Brian and me, and by her grandchildren, Joshua and Isabelle.

Ardal Powell

The GuardianTramp

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