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The Irish Harp

Updated on March 16, 2014

The Harp that once through Tara's halls

The story of the Irish harp is the story of the Irish people. This ancient folk instrument with its beautiful, delicate sound is played today despite being ignored, derided and proscribed for centuries.

Harpers, who in earlier days would have been hanged for their art, now flourish throughout the world, as do the Irish themselves.

Harper Oona McOuat

Emblems of Ireland

The Harp that once through Tara's Halls

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.

No more to chiefs and ladies bright

The harp of Tara swells:

The chord alone, that breaks at night,

Its tale of ruin tells.

Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,

The only throb she gives,

Is when some heart indignant breaks,

To show that still she lives.

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)

The first Harp


Legend tells us the first harp was owned by Dagda, the Good God a chief among the Tuatha De Danaan.

At one time during a war with the Fomorians, the gods of cold and darkness, his harp was stolen but later recovered by Lugh and Ogma. When it was returned it had aquired two secret names and the ability to call forth summer and winter.

From then on, when Dagda played, he could produce a melody so poignant, it would make his audience weep, he could play an air so jubilant it would make everyone smile, or bring forth a sound so tranquil, it would lull all who listened to sleep.

Thus did the harp became the dispenser of Sorrow, Gladness and Rest.

Harper Declan Hegarty

The harp isn't peculiar to Ireland but subsequently became its national emblem.

Harpers were highly trained professionals who performed for the nobility and enjoyed political power - so much so that during the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation to hang Irish harpists and destroy their instruments to prevent insurrection.

Harper Mark Harmer

Harps elsewhere

Harps are played throughout much of the world. From ancient artworks, epic tales and poetry, we learn of harps in Babylonia and Mesopotamia. We see them in the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses III, votive carvings from Iraq and sculptures of ancient Greece.

From Africa, which has more than 100 harp traditions, the instrument travelled north to Spain and soon spread throughout Europe. Strung with sinew, silk or wire, harps vary in size, structure and decoration according to the physical and technological environments of their origins.

Harps are made in many a form. African harps have been made from wood and gourd covered with cowhide, the Burmese sang auk has an arched soundbox similar to the Turkish ceng while European harps feature a triangular frame,

But they all have one common feature that all harps share: the strings run vertical (rather than parallel) to the sound box.

Harper Sarah Deere-Jones

Sarah Marie Mullen

Sarah Marie Mullen
Sarah Marie Mullen

The Irish Harp on MP3

I just love the whole idea of MP3s.

They're easy to get, cheap enough for anyone, and I really appreciate the ability to get a handful of tracks. I play my MP3s when I set off walking and it's like being in another world.

Here's a small selection of my favourite music played on the Irish Harp

Surviving Celtic Harps

Irish Harps were quite different from the large pedal harps we see in modern symphony orchestras.

They were much smaller, and originally held on the Harper's lap. The harp was balanced by leaning against the left shoulder, and had no pedals. These early harps were usually carved in one piece from bog wood.

The Trinity College Harp and Queen Mary's Harp are the oldest surviving Celtic harps and both date from the 15th or 16th centuries and illustrate the similarity between the Irish and Scottish harps.

The Trinity College harp (also known as Brian Boru's Harp) is currently displayed in the long room at Trinity College Dublin.

Queen Mary's Harp (pictured) is dated to the 15th Century and on display in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

A distinguishing characteristic of these Gaelic harps was that they were wire-strung, rather than gut strung.

The word "harp" itself has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Old Norse words which mean "to pluck." In Gaelic they were known first as cruit and later as clarsach or clairseach.

Whatever you call them, they're beautiful.

I want to play the Uilleann Pipes
I have a near fatal obsession with pipes. I love all the pipes (and all the drums), the Great Irish Warpipes, the Scots lowland pipes and the Great Highland Bagpipes, the Breton Veuze, the Galician Gaita and the Italian Zampogna. But the most beautiful, th...

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Care to pluck a string? - Or just leave a comment ....

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    • profile image

      Kevidoo 5 years ago

      Hi there, you might be interested in checking out the symbolism of the Harp used today in Ireland as the national emblem. There are different numbers of strings to denote different things. For example the Presidents seal has 12 while the Courts have 13 and so on. Also the different parts of the harp represent different things, for example the sound box on the back is supposed to be symbolic of light passing through a prism, and relates to the sun coming through the passage at Newgrange every year on the Winter solstice.

    • mary lighthouse15 profile image

      mary lighthouse15 5 years ago

      Beautiful Irish harp! Thanks for sharing!

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 5 years ago from California

      Interesting...now if someone would just play that Irish Harp for me while I have my once a year Irish meal...well, then' I'd be thinking I'd gotten to that pot o' gold :)

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 6 years ago from So Cal

      This is quite beautiful. I have always appreciated the Celtic harp. Angel blessed.

    • Kailua-KonaGirl profile image

      June Parker 6 years ago from New York

      Another fabulous lens, Susanna, I love the harp and Celtic music.and you have presented it beautifully. Another Lucky Leprechaun Blessing for a lens well done!

    • Missmerfaery444 profile image

      Missmerfaery444 6 years ago

      I love the Irish harp! We were treated to it not long ago when we were staying at a hotel in Scotland. Beautiful and relaxing, and magical too, well how could it not be, coming from the Tuatha de Danaan themselves! Blessed by a lucky leprechaun and featured on Squid Angel Pagan Blessings!

    • profile image

      sandralynnsparks 6 years ago

      Happy St. Pat's, Susanna!

    • traveller27 profile image

      traveller27 6 years ago

      Nice to see the harp featured!

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 6 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Wow, the things I didn't know about harps that I learned from this lens. Great information.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Nice to see harps being talked about!! (and thanks for featuring my Carolan's Dream video - that was the earliest one I put up on youtube and still going strong). Nice to see all the pictures of harps in art, too.

    • JoyfulPamela2 profile image

      JoyfulPamela2 7 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      Harps are so beautiful! They give me chills every time I have the honor to play my flute with one! :D This will make an awesome addion to my Irish Music lens. Thanks!