How the harp became the symbol of Ireland

In April 1185, not long after the Norman invasion of Ireland, Prince John arrived in Waterford for a year-long tour of the country. He was accompanied by his royal clerk Gerald of Wales, who was a chaplain and a historian. His records of the visit show that he wasn’t impressed by what he saw:

“This people… is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress, but suffering their hair and beards to grow enormously in an uncouth manner… indeed, all their habits are barbarisms.”

He condemned the locals as lazy and uncivilised. But, for him, the Irish did have one redeeming quality: their harping skills.

“The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments… they are incomparably more skillful than any other nation I have ever seen.
For their modulation on these instruments, unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the harmony is both sweet and gay… It must be remarked… that both Scotland and Wales strive to rival Ireland in the art of music.”

Gerald of Wales was taken aback by the unusual combination of what he considered barbarism and advanced culture. Thanks to his accounts, from this point forward, Ireland became associated with the harp abroad.

The early history of the harp

Line drawing of seal of the united Irishmen

Seal of the United Irishmen (1791-1798)

The harp’s presence in Ireland dates back over a thousand years. It can be seen on manuscripts and Christian stone crosses, which date back to the 8th century.

While the origins of the harp aren’t known, archaeologists have found 5,000 year old depictions of it from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In old Gaelic society, Chieftains wouldn’t go too far without their entourage which included a bard and a harper.

Harpers often studied for decades and were at the centre of Gaelic social life. They were so valued that their nails, which were used to pluck the wire strings, were protected under Brehon Law.

But after the Norman invasion of Ireland, this all began to change. By the end of the 17th century, Gaelic leaders were defeated and Irish society had been transformed. Now, harpers had to rely on Protestant patrons to earn a wage. Talented musicians, like Turlough O’Carolan, travelled from town to town entertaining wealthy families in their homes.

Becoming a symbol of nationalism

When Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1541, he upgraded Ireland’s status from a lordship to a kingdom. As a result, the country’s own unique coinage was introduced and it featured a harp topped with a crown. This symbolised Ireland’s place, but over the years different designs emerged.

Since the 13th century, the harp had been considered the heraldic symbol of Ireland. It was originally set on a dark blue background which, according to the National Library of Ireland, was intended to represent the sovereignty of Ireland in early Irish mythology.

However, in 1603, when James I brought England, Scotland and Ireland under his single monarchy, he added the golden harp and blue background to his royal coat of arms. This effectively ruined the design’s original meaning.

But, in July 1642, the golden harp appeared once again and this time it was set on a green background. Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill brought it onto the battlefield when he fought the English army.

In 1601, he had seen his uncle – the Earl of Tyrone – suffer defeat at Kinsale. So when a popular rebellion began, he returned from Spain to fight in the Irish Confederate Wars. He led the Ulster army and is known for his victory at the Battle of Benburb in 1646.

Different versions for different visions

Photo of Brian Boru's harp in Trinity College Dublin. The instrument is displayed on top of a wooden case, it is laid on it's back and it does not have any strings.

Trinity College, Brian Boru’s Harp – Dublin City, Co. Dublin

In the centuries that followed, musicologist Mary Louise O’Donnell says that the harp was used alongside other symbols to communicate different visions of Ireland’s future.

In 1778, the Volunteer movement used a harp with a crown above it as its symbol. But it didn’t feature the traditional English crown. Instead, the Protestant-led group used an antique or ‘Irish’ crown because they wanted an Irish parliament, as well as an English monarchy.

Similarly, in the 1840s, Daniel O’Connell consistently associated himself with the image of a harp. But, as he didn’t want complete independence, he used it alongside the phrase ‘God Save the Queen’.

However, during the 1798 Rebellion, Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen placed a yellow harp on a green background once again. The group, who wanted total independence from Britain, even adopted an accompanying motto: “It is new strung and shall be heard”.

Thanks to them, Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill’s representation of the harp became synonymous with Irish nationalism once more. In the years that followed, the Fenians, the IRB and Home Rule advocates all used this green harp flag.

Shared with the world through business and politics

Photo of the gate of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin with its iconic logo of a harp painted on wood.

Throughout the 1800s, the harp became associated with the Guinness brewery.

Throughout the 1800s, the harp became associated with another well-known Irish entity – the Guinness brewery.

Despite the difficulties with sea crossing, the company began to export to Europe, Africa, The Americas and New Zealand. In 1862, it started using bottle labels which featured a harp to distinguish its brand. The design was based on the Brian Boru harp, which is still on display today at Trinity College.

In 1876, Guinness trademarked the symbol. So, when the Irish Free State was established in 1922, it had to flip Guinness’ design in order to use the harp as a symbol of the new state.

Over the years, this left-facing design was added to stamps, coins, passports, seals and official documents as the state asserted its independence.

Today, the harp continues to be used by Government departments and political parties, as well as Irish companies like Guinness and Ryanair. As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, there is no doubt that images of the Irish harp will be seen in homes and businesses around the globe, confirming its continued status as a symbol of Ireland’s identity.

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