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History of the Harp in Ireland

March 1, 2016

Ever wondered about the symbolism of the harp in Ireland? Find out why this unusual musical instrument has such a strong presence in Irish culture.

Despite It’s origins in Sumer in the ancient Middle-East (around 3,500 BCE) the harp can be found in countless places on the emerald isle and has become synonymous with Irish-ness worldwide. The music of this traditional Celtic instrument has been part of Irish folklore for a long time and has survived as a symbol for almost 1,000 years. Today it is used on Irish euro coins, passports and the presidential seal. It is also to be found emblazoned upon the logos of some famous Irish companies such as Guinness and Ryanair.

Its association with Ireland is said to date back at least to the days of Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland (died in 1014 AD in the battle of Clontarf), who himself was said to have been an accomplished harpist. There is more evidence to suggest that the harp provided the music of the time as surviving 12th century records tell us that the Celtic harp was the only instrument played during the Crusades. It was Henry VIII who chose the harp to be used as the symbol on Irish coins when he declared himself King of the land in 1531.

However during this period of Irish history Celtic traditions were losing ground to imposing British influence, and the harp became a symbol of the resistance to the Crown of England. Because of this, the harp was banned at the end of the medieval period and the Celtic musical tradition began to fade away.

Despite the British influence reigning supreme, a group of traditional harpists met in Belfast in 1792 at harp festival hosted by musician and folk music collector Edward Bunting. Bunting wrote down the music they played and recorded the terminology of the harpists. This was the first written recording of traditional Gaelic harp music. This record survived and today it gives us access to the traditional Celtic songs which would otherwise have been lost forever.

As am Irish symbol the harp is well known internationally, perhaps due to its stylised presence on the Guinness logo. It has been synonymous with the drink since 1862 when it was used for the first time on the label for a bottle of the black stuff.  The harp was also chosen as the emblem of the Irish Free State Government due to its notoriety as a symbol of Irish rebellion, but since Guinness had registered the harp as a trademark in 1876, the Irish Free State Government of 1922 had to invert the instrument in order to differentiate its chosen symbol from the brewery’s logo. This is why the harp found on official government documents faces left; the opposite direction to right-facing Guinness harp.

Today harpists can sometimes be seen busking on the streets of Dublin. Their graceful playing seems effortless and as if less important, they appear small next to their instruments. They command a presence. Their sound has a timeless quality, and one sometimes cannot help but stop and observe a harpist filling the streets with Irish nostalgia. 

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