It once graced the flag of the Republic, it still appears on official government documents as well as the Presidential flag, and it is displayed on Irish coins. For centuries, the harp has been a beloved emblem of Ireland. In fact, it is said that the Irish concentrated so much of their musical ability into playing the harp, that for many years, the development of music in Ireland was brought to a relative standstill.
So, how did the harp become an emblem synonymous with the Emerald Isle? According to tradition, an early king of Ireland whose name was David, took the harp of the Psalmist as his badge. This might explain why it was once called a cruit which can mean lyre.
Whichever way the harp became Ireland’s own 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 were often asked to accompany a bardic poet who was giving a reading. However, with the emigration of Ireland’s leading families in the 17th and early 18th century, there was a steep decline in the harping tradition and the last traditionally-trained harpist died in the mid-19th century. Interestingly, these superb musicians played with their fingernails and not with the flesh of the fingertips as is done today. It’s also interesting to note that new families of English descent were hospitable to well-known harpists such as O’Carolan, and it was a man from the north, Dr. Michael MacDonnell, and an Englishman, Edward Bunting, who assembled the last harpers in Belfast in 1792. Even though very generous fees were offered, they were able to attract only 11 players from the whole country. Bunting attempted to write down as much of the music as he could and his collection is incredibly important because it contains the only remaining remnants of what the ancient tradition must have been like.
So, while this oldest emblem of Ireland is still very much apparent – even to appearing on the Guinness label – most of the ancient airs and melodies it once produced are long gone. Perhaps the first verse of a famous poem by Thomas Moore says it best:
“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.”
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