No musical instrument has ever had to carry so much baggage, surely, as the Irish harp. It has been the symbol both of Ireland under English rule and of the Irish Free State. Unadorned, on a green background, it was a rebel flag in 1916.
While its earliest origins are lost, the Irish harp has a certain history dating back at least 1000 years. Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland (d 1014), is said to have been an accomplished player, but while he is attributed with all manner of skills for which there is no evidence, surviving 12-century annals refer to the Celtic harp being the only music played during the Crusades.
At this time, the Gaelic harp was revered in Celtic culture (and all over Europe). It was de rigueur for Scottish and Irish kings and chieftains to have their own resident harper who, in turn, enjoyed high status and special privileges. The musician’s main duties were to accompany poetry recitations or the singing of psalms. While they may have composed their own music, they did not write them down.
The English monarch Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1531. Such was the fame and prestige of the county’s harp, it was chosen as the official national symbol of Ireland and stamped onto the coinage of Henry’s new realm.
The Celtic social order was on the wane by this time and as the decades pass, harpers lost much of their status, and their numbers declined. Some become travelling musicians, playing their harps and singing, because rich patrons no longer retained them. In many ways, the harp’s success became a problem. Still very much recognised as a symbol of Ireland and Irish pride, the Gaelic harp became an emblem of resistance to the Crown and England. As such, it was banned at the end of the medieval period and the old Celtic harp tradition began to die out. By the 18th century, the Scottish clarsach had disappeared. A century later, the Irish harp, too, was extinct.
Since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Irish harp has been employed as the official emblem of Ireland. In the aftermath of the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War it was necessary to create political and social stability, and national symbols, in particular, the tricolour flag, the Irish harp and the national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, were important unifying symbols in the early years of the new State.
A design based on the Trinity College harp (Brian Boru harp) by the English sculptor Percy Metcalfe was adopted as the basis for the Great Seal of the Irish Free State in 1923 and has remained the model for all official representations of the harp emblem on seals of state, Irish coinage and the coat of arms.
Ireland is the only nation to have a musical instrument as a national emblem. The Irish harp has been embedded in Irish politics and culture for centuries. The harp enjoyed a high status in early Gaelic society due to the sophistication of the instrument and the considerable technical ability of the harper.
Today, a representation of the traditional harp is to be found on the Presidential Seal and on many official documents, on passports, on the flag of Leinster (but not the national flag), on Irish euro coins and as a logo for a number of prominent state-supported organisations such as the National University of Ireland.
§ Excerpts taken from Mary Louise O’Donnell’s ‘Death of an Icon: Deconstructing the Irish Harp Emblem in the Celtic Tiger Years’