Having a complex history of musical and folk tradition, Ireland has become a widely renowned country for its musical influences and many different folk instruments. However, there is one instrument in particular that is the most important in displaying the vast history of Ireland: The Irish Harp (or ‘Cláirseach’ as gaeilge).

That begs the question, how did the Irish Harp become one of Ireland’s most important symbols? And more importantly, why

(credit: https://earlymusicmuse.com/medieval-harp-development/


The Early History of the Irish Harp

It’s no secret that the Celtic harp is a particularly ancient instrument, spanning thousands of years of history. Depictions of the harp have even been found by Archeologists from the likes of Egypt and Mesopotamia dating back to 5000 years ago!

However, the earliest records of the harp appearing in Ireland go back as far as the 8th century AD. During the late 12th century after the Norman Invasion of Ireland, Prince John and the royal clerk Gerald of Wales wrote an account stating that the Irish people were a barbaric group of people but showed incredible skill in their musical abilities and harp playing, even going so far as to claim that the people of Ireland were unmatched in their talents. 

This may have been because harpers were held in high regard in the ancient Gaelic society in Ireland at the time, with chieftains of tribes and clans often being accompanied by harpers to play for them.

As such, the harp was often associated with Ireland abroad from this point onwards.


The Harp’s Transition from Musical Instrument to National Symbol

Following on from the origin of the Harp in Ireland, the harp had been synonymous as Ireland’s national symbol, and was historically put against a dark blue background. However, King Henry the VIII introduced a new design; a harp topped with a crown on the back of coins, when Henry announced Ireland as a kingdom under the British Empire.

The design of the harp and its association with Ireland changed a number of times over the years, but when Eoghan Ruadh Ó’Néill fought the English in 1642, he took the symbol of the harp with him into battle, but this time it was paired with a green background. This pairing of the Irish harp with a green background would be carried throughout history, eventually becoming the coat of arms for the Leinster Province during the 17th century, and is still used to represent Leinster today.

Not only that, but the harp was still being used as a political symbol during the late 18th century by the United Irishmen. This society, influenced by the revolutionary ideals of France and America, adopted the harp as a symbol in their fight for parliamentary equality and their eventual uprising against English rule in the renowned 1798 rebellion.

Finally, the harp was also used as the emblem of Ireland’s newfound independence in 1922 to represent the Irish Free State. As a result, the image of the harp is still used on all Irish passports, coins, official seals, official documents, and the coat of arms of Ireland.

(credit: Setanta Saki, Widipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coat_of_arms_of_Leinster


The Irish Harp’s Prominence and Status

The Irish Harp throughout the years reached new and unprecedented levels of popularity throughout history thanks to the incredibly talented musicians who played them. These Irish harpers were held extremely high regard within the ancient Gaelic society, with old Celtic kings often employing their services for their courts and banquets.

However, the number of Irish Harpers dwindled significantly over the years. This can be attributed to a number of certain factors such as general British influence, the suppression of Gaelic customs, the decree passed by Queen Elizabeth I executing Irish harpers and the burning of their instruments, and ultimately time.

That being said, one of the most important figures in the history of the Irish harp was Turlough Ó’Carolan. Turlough, born 1670, is considered one of Ireland’s most important composers and last Irish travelling Harpers. Turlough became blind at 18 and was subsequently trained as a harper and travelled throughout Ireland for many years, gaining a substantial reputation as a composer and performer. However, his compositions received the most praise and notoriety.

His ability to write music that resonated deeply with the occasions and families he visited made him a celebrated figure in Irish music, so much so that Turlough is often considered ‘Ireland’s National Composer’. As a result, Turlough O’Carolan was responsible for keeping the Harping tradition alive in his time, and his influence can still be felt in Irish music to this day. In fact, his tunes are still being played by artists such as Planxty, The Chieftains, and The Dubliners! 

(Statue of O’Carolan in Mohill, County Leitrim. Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/113175018@N06/11787828055/in/photostream/


Continuing the Harp’s Legacy in Irish Music

The story of the Irish harp is a testament to the resilience and cultural pride of the Irish people. From its ancient origins to its status as a symbol of national identity, the harp has endured through centuries of change and challenge. Today, it continues to inspire musicians and audiences alike, reminding us of Ireland’s rich musical heritage and the enduring power of its cultural symbols.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Join Our Mailing List

Get all the latest Irish music news right in your inbox!