"The harp that once through Tara's halls the soul of music shed,
now hangs as mute on Tara's walls, as if that soul were fled.
So sleeps the pride of former days,
so glory's thrill is o'er,
and hearts that once beat high for praise,
now feel that pulse no more."
(First verse of a famous poem by Thomas Moore).
The harp once embellished the flag of the Republic, it still appears on official government documents as well as the Presidential flag. It is displayed on Irish coins. Even appearing on the Guinness label. The Irish harp, though not as popularly well-known around the world as the shamrock for being an Irish symbol is the official emblem of Ireland.
The harp became Ireland's unique instrument, and subsequently, its national emblem. History tells us that the people who played it were highly trained professionals who usually performed for the nobility. They were held in very high regard and often requested to accompany a bardic poet who was giving a reading.
There are a number of names for the Irish harp. It is also known as the Celtic harp, the Gaelic harp or the clairseach (modern Irish language).
HISTORY OF THE GAELIC HARP:
While its earliest origins are lost, the Irish harp dates back at least 1000 years. Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland, is said to have been an accomplished player. Surviving 12-century records refer to the Celtic harp being the only music played during the Crusades.
At this time the Gaelic harp was venerated in Celtic culture (and all over Europe). It was socially proper 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 declining by this time and as the decades passed, harpers lost much of their status. Some became travelling musicians, playing their harps and singing, because rich clients no longer retained them. In many ways, the harp's success became a problem. Very much still recognised as a symbol of Ireland and Irish pride, the Gaelic harp became an emblem of resistence to the Crown and England. It was banned at the end of the medieval period and the old Celtic harp tradition began to die out.
Happily, a group of harpers enticed to Belfast in 1792 for a traditional harp festival where the musician and folk music collector, Edward Bunting wrote down the music they played and the terminology of the harpers. This was the first time traditional Gaelic harp music had been recorded on paper and it is thanks to Bunting that these genuine Celtic tunes were not lost forever.
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES OF THE CELTIC HARP:
The traditional Irish harp's characteristic features are its use of wire (usually brass) strings and its resonating chamber carved from a single log (traditionally willow). The highly tensioned strings are played with fingernails, producing a very clear sound.
Today, many Irish harps use gut or synthetic string and the construction of the chamber is also significantly different. Rather than being hollowed out from one piece of wood, the soundbox is more likeby to be assembled from sawn pieces of wood glued together which creates a different sound.
Less than twelve Celtic harps survive from the medieval (pre-1700 period).
The oldest is the one on which the 'official national emblem of Ireland is based: the Trinity College Harp. Also known as the Brian Boru or O'Neill harp. This 15th century Irish harp is displayed in the Long Room of Trinity College. Dublin.
Two other medieval harps are preserved in the Museum of Scotland: The Queen Mary harp (15th century) and the Lamont harp.