Symbols of Ireland: The Harp

From Farmleigh Bridge it is a mere step - via the iconic imagery of Guinness - to brand ‘Ireland’ and a potent symbol of a nation: the harp.

The harp first flew for rebel Ireland atop the mast of the St. Francis, a rebel ship, proclaiming the cause of Irish freedom from English domination. Eoghan Rua O’Neill boldly borrowed ‘this Irish harp in a green field, in a flag’ from royalty itself - King John in the 13th century coined pence and farthings with triangular shapes representing the Irish harp, Henry Vlll had his silversmiths hammer a harp upon an Irish groat and Elizabeth l was carried to her grave under a banner emblazoned with the harp set in a pious blue. These clever, conquering royals had, in turn, reached into the hearts of the Irish, where music and poetry stirs, and had taken the harp for their own. For harpists, from ancient times, were kings among musicians, recognised and welcomed through the length and breadth of Ireland for the beauty of their music.

Ultimately O’Neill’s rebellion of 1641 failed - he, his clansmen and their allies did not rout the English from Irish soil - but they had reclaimed the emblematic Irish harp. Rebel blood once again stirred for freedom in the late 18th century. The Society of United Irishmen, leaders of the 1798 rebellion, bravely unfurled the green flag, boldly dismissed the image of the imperial crown topping the harp, loudly proclaimed that their harp was ‘new strung and shall be heard’ and defiantly adorned it with the cap of liberty.

Robert Emmet too dared to rebel in 1803 under the green flag with the golden harp and ’Érin go Bragh’ - ‘Ireland Forever’ - emblazoned on it. However elusive freedom remained, the message of the flag was clear. Green symbolises spring and new beginnings and an obligation to defend all who work on the land and the harp, a delicate instrument which is hard to master, indicates patience and inner strength.

In 1916 the final notes began to play out in the cause of Irish independence. When the rebels entered the G.P.O. they did so under the tricolour - and the green flag. It was the tricolour which ultimately became the flag of the nation but with independence in 1922 came the restoration of the Irish coat of arms - the golden harp, modelled on a Gaelic harp now in Trinity College, against a background of St. Patrick’s blue. Since 1945, this is also the Presidential standard, flown over Áras an Uachtaráin, a mere stone’s throw from Farmleigh Bridge, when the president is in residence.

As the River Liffey stretches from under Farmleigh Bridge towards Dublin Bay, it carries the symbol of the harp into the heart of the city where the green flag with its golden harp is often proudly hoisted upon the flagpoles adorning the river bank.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 09th September 2013