The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world and also the national emblem of Ireland. The oldest surviving Celtic harps date back to the 15th century but the music of the harp has been an important emblem to Ireland for a lot longer.
It is possible the harp was introduced to pre-Christian Europe by the Phoenicians who brought it over from Egypt as one of their international trading goods.
In the days of the old chieftains, harpists were held in high regard. Stories were often told to the music of the harp and it encompassed the spirit of the country. Harpists used to travel the country performing their folk songs and stories for the public.
The most famous of these was the blind harpist, Turlough O’Carolan. His compositions are still popular today through the work of groups like The Chieftains and Planxty.
During the 16th century, the music of the harp was seen as such a threat that the British Crown attempted to crush the Irish Spirit by ordering all harps to be burnt and all harpists executed. It was almost 200 years before the music of the harp was freely enjoyed in Ireland once again.
In 1792, a festival was set up in an attempt to bring back the almost extinct tradition of the harp. Only 10 harpists attended. A young organist named Edward Bunting was hired to notate the harp music at the festival.
Bunting’s transcripts are the oldest records of traditional Celtic harp music in existence as it was the tradition to hand down the music orally through the generations. Sadly, with the harp being banned for so long, most of the music was lost.
Today the image of the harp as a national symbol of Ireland is almost as well recognised as the shamrock. It appears on the Irish Euro coins and is the logo for Guinness, considered by many to be Ireland’s national drink.