The History of the Irish Harp

February 27, 2018

Ahead of St. Patrick’s Day in just a few weeks’ time, we thought we’d provide a few blogs on Irish entertainment. When thinking about the Emerald Isle and the entertainment that it has provided to the world, an obvious place to start is the harp.

If one thinks of Ireland, the first symbol that springs to mind is probably the shamrock, but close behind should certainly be the Irish harp. It appears on currency, passports, the Presidential seal and on many other official documents. When you think of some of the largest Irish companies that have had an impact around the globe, the Irish harp is also present; both Ryanair and Guinness proudly display the instrument as their logo to reinforce their proud Irish connections.

Btu what is the history of the Irish harp? Unfortunately, the instrument’s origins are lost to time, but we are able to piece together a potted timeline from the past 1,000 years. The last High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, who died in 1014, was said to be an accomplished player whilst various documents state that the Celtic harp was the only music played during the Crusades in the 12th century. For those unaware, despite some minor differences, the Irish harp, Celtic harp and Gaelic harp are all terms used to describe the same instrument.

It is known that the harp was revered across Celtic culture and Europe in the 1100s with various leaders having their own resident harpist who enjoyed a high status and special privileges. What did they have to do? As one might expect, they were expected to play music in accompaniment to other forms of entertainment – poetry recitations or reading of psalms, etc. Alas, no music for the harp is written down from this period.

When King Henry VIII – he of six wives fame – declared himself King of Ireland in 1531, he opted to select the Irish harp as the national symbol of the country, also using it for the various coins minted during that time. As any lover of history may tell you, Celtic culture wasn’t as popular as it used to be and the social status of a harp player began to lessen as the years wore on. No longer retained amongst the higher echelons, they took to the streets, performing as travelling musicians to the delight of crowds. Perhaps they were enjoyed too much; although the Irish harp was a symbol of the country and embraced around the world, it was now see as an emblem of resistance against the Crown and England. It was henceforth banned from the end of the Middle Ages and in just a few centuries, the Irish harp had all but disappeared.

…Well, almost. In 1792, a group of harpists travelled to Belfast for a traditional harp festival. A passionate musician, Edward Bunting, noted down the music they played and it is thanks to him that traditional Gaelic music lasts to this day; it had never previously been written down on paper (presumably because nobody ever saw the point or most harpists couldn’t read or write sheet music.)

There are less than a dozen Celtic harps that have survived from the medieval period. The oldest one is also the most famous – the Trinity College Harp, upon which the official emblem of Ireland is now based. It can be seen if you decide to visit Trinity College in Dublin and no doubt, you’ll learn even more about this lovely instrument.



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By Henry Fosdike