From early times to the end of the 19th Century Ireland is unique in having a musical instrument, the harp, as its national emblem.
From antiquity to its decline in the early nineteenth century the harp was at the social centre of Ireland. Up to at least the seventeenth century harpists enjoyed a high status among all other musicians and in society. The woodcut illustrating an Irish feast in John Derrick’s Image of Ireland (1581) shows the bard praising the harpist (who plays an incorrectly drawn harp) while the host or chieftain looks on.
In the turbulent seventeenth century traditional musicians were outlawed or at least required a magistrate’s permission to travel. However, new settlers in the country fell into the Irish pattern of cultivating the harp and its music. With the disappearance of the old Gaelic society traditional harpers became itinerant musicians travelling from one patron’s house to another to earn a living. Carolan is a typical example of this and is often called the last of the Irish bards.
By the nineteenth century harp making declined, society and tastes changed and this way of life died out.
The harp is represented on early Christian stone crosses from the eight and ninth centuries and in early manuscripts. Usually the harpist resembles the biblical King David thus reflecting the prestige of the musician.
In about 1534 Henry VIII had a crowned harp appear on the Anglo-Irish silver groat (or 4 pence) and half groat coins.
After this, the harp on a blue background features on various official royal occasions. It is on Queen Elizabeth I’s charter to Dublin city in 1583. A banner with harp emblem was carried at her funeral in 1603. King James I incorporated the harp in the royal arms and standard of Britain in 1603 where it still remains.
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