By Helen Morgan
National Harp Day will take place on the 20th October this year. All over Ireland events will be held to celebrate Ireland’s national instrument which dates back over 1,000 years. Organised by Harp Ireland, the organisation established in 2016 by harpers in collaboration with the Arts Council, to promote the Irish harp.
As one of the National symbols of Ireland, a representation of the Irish Harp can be found on the Irish President’s seal. It also appears on Irish Passports, Irish EU currency, official Irish documents and on many state supported organisations such as the National University of Ireland. In addition, the harp symbol is used by commercial enterprises such as Guinness’s Brewery and the budget airline Ryanair.
In the early 1920s, the Irish Government set up a committee chaired by Senator W. B. Yeats to determine a suitable design for the new coinage. The harp was chosen as the symbol of Ireland. The instrument selected was the modified 16-string version of the Brian Boru or Trinity Harp, which had already existed on Irish coins since the 1530’s.
The harp is one of the oldest stringed musical instruments in the world. It was depicted in various forms in pre-Christian times; it is mentioned in the Bible, and has been played in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France since the 9th century.
It is said that Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland who was killed at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, was an accomplished harper.
The word ‘harp’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse words meaning ‘to pluck’. The earliest Gaelic word for harp was ‘cruit’ but over time this evolved into ‘clarseach’ the name used today.
But how did this aristocratic musical instrument with its dulcet tones become so much a part of Irish culture?
It is not known where the harp in its present form originated but it is generally accepted that it evolved from the lyre; a simple stringed instrument played in ancient times in Greece, Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia. The earliest drawings of a triangular shaped harp appeared in the Utrecht Psalter in the 9th century.
The Irish are generally credited with bringing the harp to Europe but many believe that the Phoenicians brought it in pre-Christian times. Whatever its origins the harp has always played an important role in Irish folklore and legend and has remained the emblem of Irish Nationalism throughout the centuries.
In the early Christian period, the harp was the only musical instrument allowed in church. Accompanied by a harper the monks vocalised the sacred music of the day? The Papal Music School was established in Ireland shortly after the arrival of St. Patrick in the 5th century.
Early harps were much smaller and lighter than they are today and were played in the presence of kings and chieftains. A successful harper was required to evoke three emotions in his audience; laughter, tears and sleep. As well as acting as advisor in the absence of the King or Chieftain, the harper was also responsible for leading the army into battle. Respected by both sides, he was immune from injury or death.
Harping was banned at the end of the medieval period as it was seen as a symbol of resistance to the English Crown. All harps were destroyed and many harpers were executed. This was to prevent a resurgence of nationalism, as for centuries travelling harpers were known to be the focal point of rebellions. The few remaining traditional harpers became wandering minstrels.
By the end of the 18th century, traditional Irish harpers were almost extinct. In order to preserve what was left of Ireland’s harping culture a music festival was held in Belfast which was attended by the 10 remaining harpers. Henry Bunting, a church organist, was employed to notate the music during the festival but became so interested in harp music that he continued to collect traditional tunes for the rest of his life.
Turlough O’Carolan, the celebrated blind harper (1670-1738), wrote hundreds of harp tunes many of which are still played today. It is thanks to Henry Bunting that so many of O’Carolan’s melodies were preserved.
Over time the harp has continued to evolve and has had many significant improvements made to it over the past two centuries. Today the Irish harp is a tall, stately 34 stringed instrument, usually made of cedar wood. A good quality harp can cost as much as £5,000.
Today, the harp is once again an important part of Irish culture and the 21st Century holds great promise for its continued popularity.