Yeats, Gráinne (1925–2013), harpist, singer, teacher and historian, was born on 14 April 1925 in Dublin, the youngest child of Patrick Sarsfield ('P. S.') O'Hegarty (qv) and Wilhelmina (Mina) Rebecca (née Smyth). Both parents were steeped in the politics and traditional culture of Ireland: her father had been a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB and of Sinn Féin, and was secretary of the Department of Post and Telegraphs on the foundation of the state. Her mother, the daughter of a presbyterian minister from Co. Derry, was an active suffragist and member of Cumann na mBan, and the first female to graduate in science from Bedford College, London. Mina met P. S. whilst attending Irish classes in London, and they returned to Ireland where they lived most of their lives in Highfield House on Highfield Road in Rathgar, Dublin.
Gráinne, along with her older brother and sister, was raised bilingually through Irish and English, and their family holidays were spent in the Gaeltacht, where she heard traditional Irish music and songs. She attended Scoil Bhríghde, an Irish language primary school, and then went to Alexandra College in Milltown, Dublin, before going on to study at TCD. After graduating with a degree in history in 1947, she went on to study singing and piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) in Dublin. Although she considered singing to be her main interest, she excelled in both areas, receiving several prizes and scholarships such as the Vandeleur scholarship, the Joseph Robinson memorial prize and the Radio Éireann award in 1950 for both singing and piano. In 1949 she married the politician Michael Butler Yeats (qv), the only son of W. B. Yeats (qv).
About 1950, she developed her love of the harp after allegedly hearing the instrument played by the Abbey Theatre actress Joan O'Hara, sister of harper Mary O'Hara. She purchased a second-hand Scottish harp and was taught basic harp technique by Sheila Larchet Cuthbert and Mercedes Bolger. Together these three women played an important role in the revival and promotion of the Irish harp and, along with Elizabeth Hannon, founded Cairde na Cruite ('Friends of the Harp') in November 1960. The aim of the newly-founded society was 'the restoration of the Irish harp, symbol of an ancient culture, to its place of honour.' This came after a challenging decade for Irish harpists. In an interview given in 1981, Yeats lamented the lack of instruments, teachers and published music at that time. She noted that it was extremely difficult to find a good harp and that, even when an instrument was found, there was practically nothing to play.
Given the paucity of instruments and music, Yeats was forced to innovate. In 1959 she collaborated with a vocal ensemble called the Dowland Consort which brought her into contact with Irish composers such as Brian Boydell (qv) and Joseph Groocock, who composed or arranged music for her. In turn they were exposed to the music of traditional harpers such as Turlough Carolan (qv) and Cornelius Lyons, and this opened new avenues for collaboration.
In the early 1960s Yeats approached Sean Ó Riada (qv) to compose harp music for her and he agreed, but only on condition that she source a traditional wire-strung harp. Modern harps were gut-strung and Ó Riada disliked their sound so much that when he was putting together the ensemble group Ceoltóirí Chualann, he had them substituted with harpsichords. Yeats was now confronted with a dilemma. If she wished to move Irish harp music forward she needed to look to the past, to the traditional wire-strung harps that had died out in the early nineteenth century. She initially approached an aeronautics designer and a furniture maker, both of whom let her down. Finally, she made contact with Jay Witcher, an American harp-maker, who made for her a replica of a seventeenth-century style Sirr harp. She then had to learn to play the instrument, declaring it 'fiendish' at one stage. Nonetheless, she mastered the instrument and, in doing so, revolutionised Irish harp music. Together with Mercedes Bolger she founded Irish harp schools with standardised courses and techniques throughout Ireland. In 1975 Yeats was one of the contributors to Sheila Larchet Cuthbert's seminal text The Irish harp book, which put into print for the first time sheet music suitable for the Irish harp. Through her marriage to Michael Butler Yeats, she also had unprecedented access to her father-in-law's works, and she commissioned and performed new works specifically based upon his texts and poems.
As a performer Yeats travelled widely, touring in Europe, Russia, India, Japan and the US. She debuted in London in 1966, and in the same year won the Harriet Cohen International Award for solo instruments. By 1969 she had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the US, confirming her international standing. Mary Kenny, in an article for the Irish Press, named her amongst Ireland's twenty-five most influential women, describing her as 'one of Ireland's best cultured ambassadors' (Ir. Press, 23 March 1971). In 1993 Yeats and Máire Ní Chathasaigh were the first to perform on the Irish harp at the World Harp Congress, held in Copenhagen that year.
However, Yeats's contribution to Irish harping was not confined to performance and teaching. She also wrote extensively on the subject, using her TCD history background to write texts such as The harp of Ireland: The Belfast harpers' festival (1992), as well as entries for Carolan and other Irish harpers in the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (1980–).
In addition to publishing books and articles on the harp, Yeats also produced much recorded music. Her first album, Irish folk songs, was released in 1962 and was well received, but it is her album Féile na gCruitirí Béal Feirste 1792 (The Belfast Harpers' Festival 1792) that is considered her seminal work. First produced in 1980 as a double LP, it was re-issued by Gael Linn in 1992 as a double CD featuring forty-two tracks, many of them new, to coincide with the publication of her book on the same subject. After more than fifty years reviving and revolutionising the music and instruments of Irish harping, Yeats crowned a lifetime of achievement when, as president of Cairde na Cruite, she oversaw Ireland hosting the World Harp Congress for the first time.
Gráinne Yeats died on 18 April 2013 in Dublin and was buried in Shanganagh cemetery. In a filmed interview with singer Mairéid Sullivan in October 2000 she expressed one of her few regrets: never hearing the harp as it might have been played in the halls of the great Gaelic lords. 'I would just sit in the back with my video recorder, and tape everything. Wouldn't that be wonderful? The only trouble with that is you might be terribly disappointed!'