The Irish Harp – History And Meaning

The Irish harp is a stringed musical instrument that’s said to be one of the oldest in the world. This beautiful instrument is also the national emblem of Ireland and one of the popular Celtic symbols.

The emerald isle holds the distinction of being the only country in the world with a musical instrument as its national symbol. 

The Irish Harp – History And Meaning

The Harp

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Irish Harp History

The storied relationship between Ireland and the harp dates back to the pre-Christian times. The instrument was introduced to Europe by the Phoenicians who brought it from Egypt.

Back then, the hard was considered as one of the international trading goods by the Phoenicians. 

By the 10th century, the music of the harp is already regarded as an important symbol of Ireland. Back then, the last High King of Ireland Brian Boru, was said to have been an accomplished player.

The Celtic harp meanwhile, was the only music played during the Crusades as said surviving 12-century annals. 

Around that time, the Celtic/Gaelic harp was already much revered not just in Ireland but all over Europe.

King David playing harp
King David playing harp

Kings and chieftains even have their own royal harper. The harpists’ were accompanied by poetry recitations and the singing of psalms. These musicians were held in high regard back then and enjoyed special privileges.

One of the most famous during this era was the blind harpist, Turlough O’Carolan. He wasn’t just a musician, he also wrote songs, and even to this day, his music lives on through the groups like The Chieftains and Planxty.

In 1531, Henry VIII declared himself as the King of Ireland. He recognized how significant the harp was and made it the official national symbol of Ireland.

However, the harp was eventually seen as a threat to the British Crown because it was such a source of pride and hope for the Irish. Harps were ordered to be burnt, while harpists were condemned and executed.

Even traveling musicians were not spared. The harp was banned and the old Celtic harp tradition became extinct. As decades passed, people saw less of the instrument. 

irish harp flag
Green Harp Flag of Ireland

 

It took almost 200 years before the harp was heard and enjoyed in Ireland once again. A festival was set up in 1792 as a way to bring back the lost Irish tradition. Ten harpists attended and the event was documented by the young organist Edward Bunting.

It was through his transcripts that the succeeding generations learned about the existence of traditional Celtic harp music. 

Today the harp remains as the national symbol of Ireland. It is among the most recognizable images that are associated with the emerald isle along with the leprechaun, the Celtic cross, and shamrock.

The harp also appears on the Irish Euro coins as well as in the logo for Guinness, which is unofficially the national drink of Ireland.

Significance

the irish harp

The design of the Irish harp that we see in most emblems and logos now was based on the 14th century ‘Brian Boru harp’.

 If you’re in Dublin, you may see it up close in the museum of Trinity College. The old Irish flag also featured a harp, set against a green background. The harp, both as a musical instrument and as Ireland’s national symbol played an important part in its long, turbulent history.

Today, the existence of the harp in various items of importance signifies Irish pride. There may have been a time in history when there was a movement to get rid of the harp, but its music and all that symbolizes lives on. 

In Ireland, the harp is prominently featured in the presidential seal, as well as in many official documents. 

The harp is also in the logo of many important organizations and institutions such as the National University of Ireland. You may also find the harp in visual arts, decor, and even in tattoos.

However, the most iconic presence of the harp is definitely in all Guinness products.  The Irish harp has been the Guinness symbol since 1862, but they only had it trademarked in 1876. 


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