If you asked the average person on the street the national symbol of Ireland, 99% of people are probably going to guess the shamrock. It’s for good reason—when Saint Patrick came over from Wales (that’s right--Saint Patrick isn’t Irish!) to bring Christianity to the largely Pagan population of Ireland, he used a three-leaf shamrock to explain to holy trinity. And it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing--Ireland is more than 67% grasslands, making it the country with the highest proportion of natural vegetation in all of Europe. But the true national symbol of Ireland is something closer to the spirit of the Irish than the land: the harp.
The Celtic/Gaelic Harp or “Cláirseach” (having its own origins differing from those of European/Diatonic Harp or older, less complex harps in ancient Egypt) is believed to be approximately 1,000 years old. Even though the unpredictability of Ireland’s tradition of oral history means it could be even older, there’s less than a dozen Irish harps remaining from before the 1700s, so our knowledge of the harp before this time is a bit light. What we do know is harpists were celebrated in ancient Ireland, and legend tells us that the last high king of Ireland, Brian Boru (who died in 1014,) loved the harp so much that his son is said to have presented his father’s beloved instrument to the Pope as a sign of respect.
With the Irish love of music (that’s so closely tied to the love of dance,) it’s no surprise that the harp makes an appearance all over Irish historical annuals. A document dating from 12th century Ireland implies that the harp was the only music played during the Crusades, and we know the harp was so revered all over Europe that most monarchs and lords had a resident “Master Harper/Harpist.” As Christianity made its way to Ireland, the harp came to represent biblical King David and the symbol can be found all over early stone crosses, reflecting the status of musicians at the time. Harpists can be found all over art from these earlier time periods as well, from courtly and pastoral scenes to battlefield depictions.
The harp was so recognized as a part of Irish culture that the 1700s saw the British begin to oppress the use and production of the instrument, as well as travel for musicians. As there’s nothing more quintessentially Irish than rebelling against a controlling faction, we have this oppression to thank for what surviving Celtic harp music we have today. By the end of the 18th century, the ancient Gaelic harp was nearly extinct, and if not for the efforts of a musician named Edward Bunting, it may have been lost forever. In 1792 Bunting lured as many harpists as possible to Belfast, where he recorded their terminology and as much of their traditional music as possible—without him there’d likely be nothing left!
But even while the harp might not be as common as it once was in Ireland, the symbol remains. The image of the Irish harp are featured on numerous items all over Ireland, including: the presidential seal, the royal coat of arms (which Henry VIII chose for Ireland himself when he declared himself King of Ireland in 1531,) Irish Euro coins, countless official documents, and as a logos for many prominent state-supported groups. Before 1922, when the Irish Free State officially adopted the current tri-color flag we all know, the Irish flag was a gold harp on a green background (as early as 1642!) It’s also a symbol that many a business chooses to denotes their essential Irishness: Guinness is, of course, the first one that comes to mind (though their harp is backward,) but there’s also innumerable pubs across the world and budget Irish airline Ryan Air!
But besides Ireland’s love of music, what has the harp come to symbolize? While it’s use on the Irish royal coat of arms means the harp is often associated with royalty, it is more closely associated with the Irish fight for a free state that goes back hundreds of years. Notably, The Society of United Irishmen, a political organization aimed at achieving Irish independence, even took on the harp as their flag with the motto: “Equality: It is now strung and shall be heard.” Many versions of the harp flag appeared over time before the uniting nature of the tri-color (the green representing Roman Catholics, the gold Protestants, and the white between them the hope for lasting peace.) While it might not be as emerald as a shamrock, the harp as Ireland’s national symbol seems more fitting—it’s come to represent the rebellious and proud spirit we still associate with Ireland to this day.
This is Volume II of a series. Read Volume I, about the history of Irish Halloween, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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