The Irish harp, also known as the Celtic harp, the Gaelic harp, and an cláirseach, is one of the most distinctly beautiful and uniquely mellifluous instruments in the world. Over the course of centuries, it has grown to become synonymous with Irish traditional music and is now the officially recognised emblem of Ireland.
In this article we are going to look at the history of the Irish harp and how its dulcet tones have reached the hearts and the ears of people right across the globe.
The History of the Harp
The tale of this wonderful instrument’s rise to become one of the leading symbols of Ireland is as complex as it is fascinating. Stringed instruments similar in nature to the Irish harp date back thousands of years across Europe and Asia. In Ireland specifically there are remnants of smaller portable stringed instruments from castles and courts across the Emerald Isle from over one thousand years ago.
While the instrument might have changed over time, the status of the harpist did not. They were and always have been held in high regard for their skill and composure in playing such a challenging instrument. Harpists’ compositions filled the banquet halls of Ireland and often provided background accompaniment to poetry and bible verse readings.
Today the angelic sounds of the Irish harp are heard in pubs, live music venues, and at festivals and gatherings not only in Ireland, but in countries around the world.
The Irish Harp at a Glance
You’d be mistaken if you thought that the Irish harp was solely beautiful for the sounds that it makes. In fact, it is just as stunning to look at and admire as it is to listen to. The traditional Celtic harp uses wire strings, usually made of brass, to achieve its angelic sound. This is complimented by a resonating chamber which is carved from a single log of willow.
More modern Irish harps use gut string and multiple pieces of wood glued together as a resonating chamber which produces a very distinctly different sound. Surprisingly modern Irish harps tend to be much larger than the ones of centuries gone by.
No matter the size or the construction of the harp, it is a simply gorgeous music instrument to look at, especially when watching someone command the strings so intricately.
The Harp in Irish Society
As mentioned earlier, the harp is the official emblem of Ireland. The appointment of this instrument as the symbol of the Emerald Isle dates back to 1531 when Henry VIII assumed position as King of Ireland and declared it as the national symbol.
Fast forward 500 years or so and the Irish harp appears on the official seal of the Taoiseach (which is Ireland’s equivalent of a political Prime Minister), it is also present on Ireland’s version of the Euro coin, and the front cover of all Irish passports.
Irish brands have also embraced the harp, with both Guinness and Ryanair proudly displaying the Irish harp as part of their respective logos.
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