& Culture Music
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
tell the history
of the Irish harp is to tell the history 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
tell us the first harp was owned by Dagda, 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 acquired 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. So thus did the harp
became the dispenser of Sorrow, Gladness and Rest.
played throughout much of the world. From ancient artworks, epic
tales and poetry, we learn of harps in Babylon 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 traveled 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.
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,
There is one feature that all harps share: the strings run vertical
(rather than parallel) to the sound box.
Today, the Irish harp is Ireland's national symbol and is depicted most famously
Guinness label, the Irish coats of arms, and the Irish euro coin.
Wales employed harpists in his court at the end of the 11th century
and the monk-historian Geraldus Cambrensis admired the great skill
of the Irish harpers and remarked that some even considered the
Scots to be better players. For Irish and Scottish harpers commonly
visited each other’s countries to study, to learn and exchange
tunes and their music was admired throughout Europe. Another twelfth
century archivist, John of Salisbury, wrote that " ... had it
not been for the Irish harp, there would have been no music at
all on the Crusades."
were quite different from the large pedal harps we see in modern
symphony orchestras. They were much smaller, originally held on
the harper's lap, leaning against the left shoulder, had no pedals,
and usually were 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.
A distinguishing characteristic
of these Gaelic harps was that they were wire-strung, rather than
gut strung. The word "harp" 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 cláirseach.
The harp isn't
peculiar to Ireland but subsequently became its national emblem.
(Nowadays you can even see it on the Guiness label) 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.
this oldest emblem of Ireland is still with us today most of the
ancient airs and melodies it once produced are long gone, but
younger harpers are taking up the challenge to reawaken "the
pride of former days."
Susanna Duffy is a Civil Celebrant, grief counsellor and mythologist.
She creates ceremonies and Rites of Passage for individual and civic
functions, and specialises in Croning and other celebrations for