The Harp - a Symbol of Ireland

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.

The harp on a green background symbolising Ireland first appeared in July 1642 when Eoghan Rua O Neill returned from Spain to head the Ulster armies in the 1641 rebellion. Gradually the green flag with yellow harp came to be seen as the emblem of Ireland. The tricolour did not come into use until he 1916-19 period.

The Society of United Irishmen was instrumental in the development of the harp as a national symbol, particularly during the 1798 rebellion.

The Society's seal device shows an elaborate harp with two mottoes " It is now strung and shall be heard" and "Equality". The cap of liberty, replacing the imperial crown, recalls that given to freed Roman slaves and is a recurring freedom motif in classical art.

Robert Emmet tried to continue the United Irishmen's revolution in 1803. He used a similar flag with the slogan "Erin go Bragh".

The national flag, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was known as the Green Flag and always showed a gold harp on a green background. All national movements, the Repeal Association, the Fenians, the Home Rule movement and others, used a version of this flag. Many songs of the time celebrate the Green Flag.

The tricolour, inspired by the French revolution, was used with the Green Flag and both were flown during the 1916 Rising. In 1922 the Irish Free State officially used the tricolour and through usage it became the national flag.


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