Second only to the shamrock, the harp is one of the most recognized symbols of Ireland.
Referred to as the Celtic harp, Gaelic harp or cláirseach in Gaeilge, the native Irish tongue, the emblem of the nation is found on flags, coats of arms, passports, currency and even the packaging of various forms of libation.
What is the history behind this stringed instrument holding such significance for a people revered around the world for their rich traditions of music, literature and eloquence?
Like most things Irish, there is disagreement on how the harp found its way to the Emerald Isle. Similar wooden, stringed instruments existed across Europe and Asia as early as 3000 BCE. As far back as a millennium ago, the portable stringed instrument appears in the castles and courts of tribal Ireland. The harpist held positions of great prominence in the realm. Their original compositions filled the banquet halls. They also provided the soundtrack for the readings of poetry and bible verses. Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland himself, is rumored to have plucked a note or two in his day.
“Scotland, because of her affinity and intercourse [with Ireland], tries to imitate Ireland in music and strives in emulation. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the harp namely, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the harp, the tympanum, and the crowd. In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances her and excels her in musical skill. Therefore, [Irish] people now look to that country as the fountain of the art."
In 1531 when Henry VIII assumed the position of King of Ireland, he declared the harp as the national symbol. With the decline of the Irish courts and kingdoms, music of the harp grew more silent. Over the years, the instrument itself became a symbol of resistance to the Crown. Due to its subversive power, it was eventually outlawed by England.
Small pockets of individuals tried to preserve the Old Gaelic traditions. The 1792 Belfast Harp Festival failed to preserve the remnants of the near endangered musical traditions, due mainly to lack of skilled players and transcription skills.
The Gaelic Revival of the 19th Century sought to resurrect the shared heritage of the Irish people through the celebration of mythology, literature, language and music. The vibrations of harp strings were the heartbeat of this cultural resuscitation.
The golden harp adorns the green Confederacy of Ireland flag, which was an unofficial flag during the 18th and 19th Centuries as well as the Leinster Provincial flag. It is currently designated on the Ireland coat of arms and has appeared as such in various forms since the 13th century.
Other modern representations include the official seal of the Taoiseach, the front side of Irish coins including the current euro, and the cover of Irish passports. (P.S. The photograph page inside passports includes a hologram harp as well as an Ogham watermark symbol as security features.) Irish businesses have embraced the golden instrument for years in their logo - Ryanair, Guinness®, Harp® Lager….you get the idea.
The primary inspiration for most depictions comes from the harp on display in the Long Room at the Library of Trinity College Dublin.
While the original owner of this 29-string harp made of oak and willow remains a mystery, its last owner, William Conyngham, donated it to Trinity in 1782.
It is often called ‘Brian Boru’s Harp’ even thought it is estimated to have been created in the 15th century, hundreds of years after Boru’s death.
Today the angelic sounds of this national emblem fill concert halls and Irish Festivals around the world. Moya Brennan, “The First Lady of Celtic Music”, Cormac de Barra of the Moya Brennan Band, Órla Fallon (formerly of Celtic Women) and Máire Ní Chathasaigh are just a few of the most famous harpists keeping the tradition alive.
This October, County Mayo hosts the 3rd annual Achill International Harp Festival (Féile Chruite Acla), highlighting today’s brilliant musicians celebrating the cultural importance of Ireland’s treasured hallmark.
As part of Ogham Art’s mission to present and preserve Celtic heritage, we created our Ceol print. The Ogham writing integrated in the harp string reads Ceol, the Irish word for “music”.
“But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.” - James Joyce ("Araby", The Dubliners)
Ogham Art is committed to presenting and preserving this beautiful writing system in unique presentations.