Ireland's Harp: A Story of Survival and the Shaping of Irish Identity

Ireland's Harp: A Story of Survival and the Shaping of Irish Identity


by Mary Louise O'Donnell

The history of the wire-strung Irish harp tradition from the twelfth century to the late nineteenth century is a story of a fight to survive through regeneration and adaptation in a changing society.

The Irish harp enjoyed a high status in early Gaelic society due to the sophistication of the instrument and the considerable technical ability of the harpers that was acquired from a young age. The harper, along with the file (poet) and the reacaire (reciter), were the epitome of Gaelic aristocratic culture.

Figure 1: The Kingdom of Ireland

In Topographia Hiberniae, Giraldus Cambrensis, a Welsh cleric who accompanied Prince John on a visit to Ireland in the late twelfth century, identified the skill of the Irish harpers as the sole redeeming characteristic of an otherwise barbaric race. The anomaly of an uncivilized race fostering such an advanced culture was difficult for Cambrensis to reconcile, but his acknowledgement of the supremacy of Irish harpers was cited regularly over the following centuries as proof of the existence of a highly advanced precolonial Gaelic civilization with a great tradition of harp music.

Over the course of the next five centuries the parallel decline of Gaelic civilization and increasing colonization of Irish society by the English meant that the role of the Irish harp and harper was gradually redefined. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the wire-strung Irish harp became a popular instrument at the English court and formed an important part of a distinctive ‘hybrid musical tradition’ called the harp consort. Irish harpers employed at court adapted aspects of their playing style to perform the compositions of William Lawes and others in ensembles which included a bass viol, theorbo, or other instruments.

Following the decisive defeat of a combined army of Gaelic chieftains by English colonial forces at the Battle of Kinsale (1601), many members of the Gaelic aristocracy fled to continental Europe. Some chieftains brought their harpers with them but the harpers that remained in Ireland were forced to find other sources of patronage, often amongst English settlers. The complex social fabric of Ireland from the seventeenth century onwards was reflected by the many groupings within society which included the aristocracy, gentry, and the Protestant, Dissenter and Catholic professional and commercial middle classes of Gaelic, English, or Scottish origin. Irish harpers adapted their repertoire, technique, and instruments to cater to the musical demands of their new patrons and this often entailed assimilating foreign musical influences into their repertoire and compositional techniques. In the early seventeenth century, in an attempt to emulate contemporary continental developments in keyboard instruments, some harp makers even tried to facilitate limited chromaticism on the Irish harp.

In the late seventeenth century, when contemporary audiences viewed the technique of playing with long fingernails as obsolete, some harpers modified their technique so that by the eighteenth century, most harpers were performing on thinly-strung high-headed harps with a fingertip technique.  In the eighteenth century, as musicians were encouraged to become multi-skilled instrumentalists and pedagogues, Irish harpers, including Turlough Carolan and Arthur O'Neill, duly obliged and derived an income as travelling musicians and teachers. Every moment in the history of the tradition was characterized by an impulse to save the tradition and drive it forward, and its survival was largely due to the ingenuity and versatility of Irish harpers to adapt constantly to social and cultural changes.

Although members of the Protestant Ascendancy and Catholic gentry in Ireland continued to provide patronage for harpers, in the eighteenth century, the Irish harp tradition was increasingly regarded as a dying tradition whose practitioners were relics of a past glorious civilization and whose ‘ancient’ music was in need of urgent rescue from oblivion. In 1760, the writer Oliver Goldsmith declared the renowned Irish harper/composer Turlough Carolan (1670–1738) the ‘last Irish bard’ and a gathering of ten Irish harpers to perform and compete in Belfast in 1792 was interpreted culturally and politically as the end of Gaelic culture.

As the practice of wire-strung harp declined through the centuries, however, the harp icon became increasingly prominent as a symbol of Ireland under English rule and later as a marker of identity in contemporary Irish politics and culture. The harp was employed as a symbol of English rule in Ireland from the mid-sixteenth century when a harp surmounted by a crown was minted on Irish coinage in England during the reign of Henry VIII. During the eighteenth century, a winged-maiden harp was used as the symbol of the Protestant Ascendancy, the dominant political power in Ireland.

Figure 2: The Three Jacks

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the visual and metaphoric significance of the Irish harp usurped its musical importance as every aspect of the Irish harp tradition was linked with changes in contemporary Irish politics, society, and culture. In the final decades of the eighteenth century, images of winged-maiden harps were ubiquitous amongst political and revolutionary movements, including the Society of United Irishmen who adopted an uncrowned harp icon along with the motto 'It is new-strung and shall be heard' as the official insignia of their Movement in 1791. From the 1830s onwards, an image of a harp similar to the oldest extant Irish harp, the 'Brian Boru' or Trinity College harp, gradually replaced the winged-maiden harp icon. This type of harp, often referred to as a 'plain harp' because of the absence of the winged-maiden design, was a recurring image in the iconography of various movements seeking political autonomy for Ireland, including the Repeal Association and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, writers such as Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) and Thomas Moore (the 'Bard of Erin') used the Irish harp and harper metaphors in contemporary literature and song to address social injustices, in particular, the extreme poverty of many of the native Irish. In Patriotic Sketches of Ireland (1807), Owenson considered the voice of the poor as analogous to the music of the Irish harp; she noted that the tender, indignant voice of Ireland's poor, 'like the tones of her own harp, vibrates in sad and plaintive fondness unheard or unheeded.'

Patronage of Irish harpers in the early nineteenth century was perceived as a tacit articulation of patriotism and the establishment of Harp Societies and schools at Belfast, Dublin, and Drogheda to provide harp tuition for disadvantaged and/or visually impaired boys and girls was seen as an important means to revive the Irish harp tradition and symbolically revitalize the Irish people and the Irish nation.


Figure 3: John Egan Harp

The political and cultural significance of the Irish harp in this period fueled an unprecedented interest in the performance of harp music. There was an increase in the production of wire-strung Irish harps for the students of the Harp Societies, but also mass production (in contemporary terms) of a newly-invented type of portable Irish harp by John Egan c. 1819.

 This newly-invented instrument, and the tradition which originated from it, was influenced by the design and technique of performance of the European pedal harp and, although it had little in common with the wire-strung harp tradition in Ireland, Egan's portable harp was the genesis of the modern Irish or folk harp.


Figure 4: Patrick Byrne, Harper

The revival of interest in the wire-strung Irish harp and harper in the early nineteenth century, however, was short-lived. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, a period marked by increased Anglicization and urbanization, Irish harpers struggled to find patronage. Some of the harpers who were educated at the harp school of the Irish Harp Society of Belfast travelled abroad and sought patronage in Britain or North America. In this cultural vacuum, a tradition of pedal harp performance, which had been growing steadily from the early nineteenth century, established itself as the dominant tradition of harp performance in Ireland. Although the Irish Harp Revival Festival which took place in Dublin in 1879 failed to achieve its objective of reviving an interest in the instrument, it was a seminal event in the history of what would later be called the ‘early Irish harp tradition’. The Festival was significant for two reasons, firstly, the performance by a blind Irish harper was a rare opportunity to hear a wire-strung Irish harp played in public, and secondly, it was the last formal attempt to revive an interest in the performance and patronage of the wire-strung Irish harp in the nineteenth century.

Various attempts to revive the Irish harp in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in a tradition of wire-strung Irish harp performance which, by the time it died out in the late nineteenth century, differed significantly from what remained in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In the nineteenth century, harpers primarily played popular contemporary repertoire, for example Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, with fingertips on wire-strung harps made by John Egan and earned a living performing at public houses or hotels. The wire-strung Irish harp tradition up to 1880, however, was part of an unbroken tradition or cultural practice that tried to regenerate itself through the centuries in order to survive and to meet the demands of Gaelic society, Hiberno-Norman society, Anglo-Irish society, and the bourgeoisie.


The popularity of the pianoforte, the genesis of an Irish pedal harp tradition, and a period of social and cultural flux in Ireland from the 1840s onwards transformed the Irish harp tradition into a complex, fractured tradition, which struggled to survive. The paucity of information on Irish harpers in Ireland from the 1880s onwards suggests that there were few, if any, professional harpers deriving an income from performance. The unique and intimate connection between wire-strung harp performance, patronage, and Irish society, which had its origins in early Gaelic civilization, was broken forever by the 1880s. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries harpers such as Owen Lloyd and Gráinne Yeats attempted to revive the performance of the wire-strung Irish harp in Ireland. Because these harpers were self taught and acquired their knowledge solely through the study of extant sources of harp repertoire, they were not part of the unbroken tradition of wire-strung Irish harp performance which was passed down orally from generation to generation in Ireland for almost a millennium. Although there has been a revival of interest in the performance of the wire-strung Irish harp in recent decades, the modern Irish or folk harp (strung with gut, nylon, or carbon) is now the most widely practiced type of harp in Ireland.


Figure 5: The Spirit of the Nation

The Irish harp icon has remained an important marker of Irish identity in Irish politics and culture to the present day. The Coat of Arms of Ireland and the Presidential Standard include an image of a gold harp (similar to the ‘Brian Boru’ harp) with silver strings set against a blue background. The instrument is also the main element in the seals of office of Uachtarán na hÉireann (the President of Ireland) and all government ministers and departments. For centuries the Irish harp tradition and harp icon has been embedded in Irish politics and culture. The history of Ireland's harp is one of resilience and reinvention; it is the story of a tradition which endured for so long because it was a mediating symbol between Irish and colonial cultures and it became the quintessential musical, visual, and metaphoric representation of Ireland and the Irish people




Figure 1: A map of Ireland which reinforces the harp as a symbol of colonial culture from The Fovrth Booke: Containing the Kingdome of Irelande, by John Speed (London, 1612). (Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick.)

Figure 2: The three-headed hound represents three figures – John Fitzgibbon, John Beresford and John Foster – who served in the Irish parliament in the late eighteenth century and who were regarded in the nineteenth century with scorn for their perceived betrayal of Ireland. The hound is pursuing Erin clutching a winged-maiden harp which represented Ireland and the Irish people. 'The Three Jacks', The Irish Magazine, and Monthly Asylum for Neglected Biography (June 1809) (Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick)

Figure 3: Portable Irish harp with blades, by John Egan. (Courtesy of Museo dell'Arpa Victor Salvi, Piasco Cuneo)

Figure 4: Patrick Byrne, often referred to as the 'Last Minstrel', was one of the most renowned Irish harpers of the nineteenth century and he spent much of his career in England and Scotland. 'Patrick Byrne', The Illustrated London News (11 Oct. 1856). (Courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin)    

Figure 5: The Irish harp and harper were frequently used during the nineteenth century in the iconography of various political and revolutionary movements. The Young Ireland movement employed the contrasting images of the old bard with his harp of broken strings and a young, virile man carrying a harp on the frontispiece of The Spirit of the Nation (1845), by F.W. Burton. (Courtesy of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin)  

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