The Irish Harp, Ireland’s Official Symbol.


What do Irish passports, coins and pints have in common? Why, it’s the Irish Harp of course! Despite the fame of the shamrock, it’s the harp that has the honorable position of Ireland’s official emblem. But why is this musical instrument so important to our country? Let us start at the beginning…

The Early Harp

The Early Harp was first recorded circa 1000 AD and flourished in medieval Ireland. It was also known as the Celtic harp, the Gaelic harp, the clàrsach (in Scotland) or the cláirseach (in Irish). Long fingernails plucked the wire strings to produce loud, rich sounds. They were originally quite small as they were designed to be placed on the knee. Over time they gradually grew larger.

Harpists held a prestigious position of respect in Gaelic society and were regular features at important events. The host often seated them at their table such was their high status. Intricate carvings, jewels and even precious metals decorated Early Harps. A twelfth century explorer noted at the time how skillful the Irish were with musical instruments. The harp was an elegant instrument and redeemed Ireland’s reputation in the eyes of its British rulers. The perceived “barbaric nature” of the Gaels juxtaposed against their graceful skill on the strings. Increasing governance from the English diluted the power of Gaelic royalty and in turn their patronage of the harpists dwindled. Eventually, the Early Harp fell into decline in the 17th century and totally disappeared by the 19th. There is no connection between the old harpists and modern.

Patrick Byrne, c.1797 – 1863. One of the only Early Irish Harp players that was photographed (by Hill & Adamson (1845),Scottish National Gallery)

One famous harpist from Irish history is the Last High King of Ireland, Brian Boru. Boru was a fearsome medieval King, who was a patron of the arts during his unusually long life. He was the reputed owner of the oldest harp in existence, now on display in Trinity College Dublin. Originally dated from the 11th century, it’s now believed to be from either the 14th or 15th century. Because of the intricate decorations, a member of a wealthy family likely commissioned the harp.

Trinity Harp
The Brian Boru Harp (copyright Trinity College, University of Dublin)

Neo-Irish Harp

The Neo-Irish harp is what many recognise as the harp played across the island of Ireland. During the decline of the Early Harp, increased travel ushered in European styles of harps, including Medieval, Renaissance and pedal. This lead to the creation of the Neo-Irish Harp. The harpist was able to reach a greater range of notes thanks to the addition of levers. Playing styles changed, players now used the finger pads instead of the nails on gut strings which produces a brighter sound.

Irish Mythology

There are many Irish myths featuring the harp, including it’s creation. The mythical race of the Tuatha de Danann are often credited with introducing the harp to Ireland. One of the kings of the Tuatha de Danann, The Dagda, owned a beautiful harp. This harp featured intricate carvings and embellishments. Unusually, it would only produce music when played by The Dagda. The Dagda bought his harp with him everywhere. He played so beautifully that he could make the audience sorrowful, joyful or lull them to sleep. The Dagda played it fiercely to rouse his men when they faced into battles. Finally, he played it joyously on their return journey to allay their weariness and grief.

As the legend goes, the Tuatha de Dannan were to face their greatest rivals, the Formorians, in battle. This malevolent race were a constant threat to the rulers of Ireland. The Formorians heard the stories about this magical harp and decided to steal it. While the battle raged on, a number of Formorian warriors snuck in and carried off the harp. They then retreated to an abandoned castle to wait out the fighting. Not long after, the battle finished and The Dagda discovered the theft. Outranged, he and his warriors set out to find his beloved harp.

Eventually, they came upon the weary Formorians. They had hung the Dagdas harp on the wall. The Dagda, delighted to be reunited with the harp, magically summoned it into his hands. This caught the attention of the Formorians, and they rose to regain possession of the harp. The Dagda began to coax a tune from the harp and the thieves were brought to laughter, then tears and finally they were lulled into a deep slumber. The victors departed with the harp, which was never to be stolen again.

Emblem of Ireland

Since the 13th century, the harp represented Ireland internationally. Henry VII adopted the harp as the official symbol of Ireland and the first Irish flag was born. Under the rule of Henry VIII Irish coins were first minted featuring the harp. The Standard of the President of Ireland continues to use the harp on a blue background to this day. This use by the British monarchy reflects the impression this instrument left on them. However, this also lead the Irish themselves to resent the harp and what it represented.

Various volunteer groups and Irish rebels were to use the harp as a symbol for Irish Independence over the following centuries. The Society of United Irishmen used the harp on a green background as their flag in the 1798 Rebellion, and this heralded a new era for the Irish instrument. This green flag proved extremely popular over the next 200 years.

In Modern Ireland

Nowadays, the harp is recognisable from its use by international brands Guinness and Ryanair. Official government documents issued by the Irish state feature the harp in the header. It’s also on the reverse of the Irish Euro coins. Every Irish passport carries a harp as well as does the presidential seal. You can pick up your very own Irish symbol by following the links below.