Ireland's Harp: shaping a nation's identity - Transcript
Published on 15th May 2015
The following is a transcript of Mary Louise O’Donnell's talk and recital titled "Ireland's Harp: shaping a nation's identity", recorded at the Central Library, Ilac Centre, Dublin 1, on Thursday 12 March at 1.00pm.
Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode Mary Louise O’Donnell traces the history and evolution of Ireland's treasured national emblem, the harp and examines its glorious musical tradition. Recorded in front of a live audience in the Central Library, on 12 March 2015.
Music (00.22 – 04.02)
Thank you very much. Well you probably recognised one of the pieces there. Both pieces are by Turlough O’Carolan, probably the most famous of all Irish harper composers and the first piece was called Madam Maxwell. The second piece was his most famous piece called Carolan’s Concerto of course and every harper that’s worth their salt will know Carolan’s Concerto. So that’s the way to test if you’re a good harper or not, ask them if they can play Carolan’s Concerto.
Now of course Turlough O’Carolan is part of a tradition of harp performance in this country that goes back over 1,000 years. So we have some challenge today to get through 1,000 years of history in just under 55 minutes but I’ll hopefully give you as much of a sense of the history and the importance of the instrument to our culture, to our politics, to our society and how important it has been over the course of the last 1,000 years at least.
Now for an instrument that’s such an important part of Ireland and Irish identity we don’t know a huge amount about the origin of the instrument and to be truthful it’s speculation. There are two schools of thought about where the instrument came from. The first is it’s possible that it may have come from Africa. There’s a very strong tradition of harp playing, even to the present day, in Africa and the theory is that the instrument was brought up by tribes, successive tribes, up to North Africa, into southern Spain, through Europe and across to Ireland that way. So that’s one theory. The other theory is that it may have come from Mesopotamia, what we would call modern day Iran/Iraq, the cradle of civilisation, that it may have been brought over by successive waves of tribes across through Eastern Europe, through Germany, across to England and over to Ireland that way. So all we can do is speculate. What we can say for definite is that on stone crosses from about the 7th or 8th century we have the first appearance of what look like harps. Now they’re not in the shape that we would recognise them today, this triangular shape, but they’re sort of a four sided figure. So they’re very early stringed instruments. But our first kind of indication of an actual Irish harp is from about the ... circa 1,000 ... this is the shrine of St. Mogue and it’s the figure of David playing a triangular instrument, the Irish harp. So that’s the first visual representation that we have of an Irish harp and the important thing to remember is even though there are numerous traditions of harp playing around the world what distinguishes the Irish harp is this triangular shape, okay. So that’s something to bear in mind. So it goes back that far. It’s a tradition that we know was very, very important in early Gaelic society and early Gaelic civilisation. In fact the Chieftain, the most important person in his entourage was the poet because of course the positive could write positive poetry about him and extol his heroism and his great deeds or he could just as easily write very negative things about him and deride or mock him in his poetry. But as part of the entourage the poet never recited his own poetry, he had a reciteur to do that and the reciteur was always accompanied by a harper. Now the harper was extremely well revered in Gaelic society. He studied for often up to two decades to learn his technique, his repertoire, to learn how to accompany the recitations of poetry. So he was an extremely accomplished musician and he played the harp, it’s a very different type of harp than the one we play today. I don’t know if you noticed anything about my nails. I don’t have ... I can’t grow long nails unfortunately which is a terrible thing to have to admit but anyway. But the type of harp that they would have played, it was all male dominated, was they played with their finger nails and they didn’t play these type of strings which are nylon, they played wire strung harps. Now if you grow your nails long what tends to happen is they curl, okay, and they get weak the longer that they grow. So what they used to do was back the nails with wax to keep them nice and strong and as the nails grew they became almost like claws. So that was the kind of technique that they used. They picked these wire strings with their nails and they produced what is almost like a bell like sound, a beautiful, beautiful, ringing, ringing sound. Now, they were so well respected in Gaelic society that their nails were protected under Brehon Law. So if you dared to challenge any of them or to challenge them to a fight or something like that, their nails were protected because of how important the music that they could produce on their instrument was. So they had a reputation throughout Europe of being extremely brilliant and gifted musicians and how we know this is because after the Norman conquest in 1169 Prince John and a Welsh cleric called Giraldus Cambrensis came to Ireland and basically what they did was they surveyed the countryside to see what spoils they had gained after their conquest and needless to say they were appalled by everything that they saw. They thought Gaelic Chieftains were barbaric. They were appalled by how much time they spent out hunting and fishing, out in the open air, free. It was a terrible thing to behold. They were uncivilised basically. But the only redeeming feature, and this is the entire Gaelic civilisation, the only redeeming feature was their music and, in particular, the music of the harpers and he went back to Wales, Giraldus Cambrensis wrote this piece, it’s highly derogatory and very insulting to Irish people but he wrote about everything that he had seen and there’s a tiny paragraph in it that talks about he had never heard music produced so beautifully. He had never heard the harping played in such a way. How quickly they could run their nails up and down. The type of music, the sound that came from it. It was like something exotic. He had never heard of this before and he actually stated that he thought they were the best musicians he had ever heard. Now that was throughout Europe. Anything that he had heard, they were amongst the best. So Ireland was this strange place. It was anomaly in many respects. How could these barbaric people have such an advanced culture and how could their music and their musicians be so well trained. So this was always something that kind of didn’t sit very well during the course of centuries of colonisation afterwards. So the harp from that point became associated with Ireland. It was the redeeming factor, the redeeming feature, of Irish or Gaelic culture. Now, I mentioned to you just about the harper, how you would perform basically, this is a scene from John Derricke’s image of Ireland and you can see the reciteur reciting his poetry after a banquet. The Gaelic Chieftains are seated there and the harper is accompanying him. So that is typically the role that they would have played in early Gaelic society. The oldest of the harps that we know about, strung with wire and played with the finger nails, is the Brian Boru or Trinity College harp. Now there is something that you will notice about that straight away, it’s not the Brian Boru Harp, it’s not the harp that Brian Boru played the night before the Battle of Clontarf. It has a wonderful history and mythology associated with it which we’ll come back to later. But it’s dated from about the 15th century. Some people say it might be slightly earlier, 14th century, but obviously if the Battle of Clontarf took place in ...
... yeah we’re out by a few centuries (laughs). But needless to say, as I say, it has this wonderful tradition associated with it but it tends to be called the Trinity College Harp now because obviously it’s on show in Trinity but there’s something wonderful about leaving the title the Brian Boru Harp with it because of this mythology that’s kind of developed over the centuries. Now, as I saw the instrument became associated with Ireland and Irish people but the first use of the Irish harp as a symbol was in the 13th century on a French roll of arms and it’s a very important because even though we imagine that the Irish harp is such an important part of our own identity and we claim it as our own, the first usage of it was not in Ireland. So it’s one of these symbols that’s been kind of imposed on us in many respects because the gold harp on the blue background in this French roll of arms became the symbol of Ireland and it comes from a French context. It’s not realised in an Irish context, it’s very much French.
A few centuries later during the reign of Henry VIII you had the first issue of Irish coinage. It was minted in England but it had a harp on it as well and it was surrounded by a crown. Now, this was a kind of defining moment in the history of the Irish harp as a symbol because of course again it was used in an English context, not in an Irish context, an English context, and it’s very specific what’s being said here. The Irish people are subject to the English crown. So, in fact in its origin it’s more ... it’s not Irish as such and that’s something that’s very, very important to remember, even though we’ve embraced it as our own, it’s non-Irish in context.
A few years later, again, this is 1603, a coat of arms of James I, if you can see in the bottom right quadrant there you have another gold harp on a blue background and that’s the first time it was incorporated into I suppose the British coat of arms. It’s still used even to the present day on the British Royal Standard, you’ll have an image of the gold harp on the blue background, and as we kind of progress you’ll find that colours are very, very important. So, the gold harp is always something that remains but the context or the colour that it’s placed on is something that’s very important to remember because blue, if it’s placed on a blue background it’s always associated with colonial rule. So it’s used in a British or English context. Now, I don’t know if you can see the detail on the harp there, but there’s a figure slightly at the top, it’s not just a plain harp, it’s kind of got like what looks like a little animal figure just on the top. Keep an eye on things like that, how the harp changes, the image of it changing, because over the course of the next few centuries we find that it changes very gradually, okay.
Now, of course when you’re into the 17th century, you’re obviously very well up on your own Irish history, but 1601, the Battle of Kinsale, 1690, if we move all the way up to the end of the 17th Century, the Battle of the Boyne, and really Irish culture, Irish society, Gaelic culture, Gaelic society, was transformed during the course of the 17th century because of those various different battles where Irish forces were defeated and defeated very soundly. So in terms of the harp and the harpers, what you find is that those Gaelic chieftains that weren’t defeated what they tended to do was to leave for the continent, either for France or for Spain or for Belgium. Some of them brought their harpers with them as a sort of a prestige, a status thing. Other harpers were left behind to kind of fend for themselves. The harp tradition kept going but it change radically in the course of the 17th century and what I’d like to do is just to play a short piece for you now. This piece is called Marbhna Luimni, it’s a very well known harp piece. It was written after the Jacobite forces were defeated in 1691 at the Siege of Limerick. A beautiful lament but a lament in the death and loss of so many Gaelic Chieftains.
Music (15.50 - 18.24)
Now, as I say, when we move into the sort of late 17th/early 18th century, Irish society, Irish culture, Irish politics changed, changed dramatically. It was the Protestant Ascendancy that became the powerful force within Irish politics and Irish society and they became the patrons of the harpers. So what used to happen was that the harpers instead of being associated with a particular Chieftain or with a particular family, they used to travel around the countryside to the houses of the rich and famous at the time – the aristocrats, the Protestant Ascendancy, some old Catholic families. They would stay with them for a few days, up to a week. They would perform for them every night. Sometimes they would teach the children music, give them music lessons. Sometimes they would compose pieces of music for them. So that’s the role that they started to play in the late 17th and early 18th century and Turlough O’Carolan, of course, was the most well known of those harper composers and he made a very successful living out of travelling around to the houses of these people.
Now, you could give a whole other lecture on O’Carolan and all his exploits. He’s supposed to have had three major loves in life. First, his religion, second, drink and, third, women. So he is a very, very colourful character and he really, really does merit a discussion in greater detail. But it is important just to reference him and just to play some of his pieces.
Now in the 18th century what tended to happen was that the image of the harp changed because the Protestant Ascendancy were the important force they needed a symbol that was going to reflect their power or their position. So what you tend to get is this type of harp, a winged maiden harp, which becomes associated with them and literally what it is, it’s often called an angel harp, where you can see the face, the figure becomes the four pillar of the harp and the wings become the neck of the harp. So that’s always associated in the 18th century with the Protestant Ascendancy and their kind of tenure as the dominant force in Irish society. Now increasingly what tends to happen during the course of the 18th century is that the crown, which was the major kind of thing in previous centuries, is lost or it’s removed gradually and this is a seditious act, this is an act of treason. Any idea why you would remove ... what sort of the implication would be to remove the crown? It was basically kind of saying that you didn’t want to be ruled by a foreign power. So it was a seditious act, a treasonous act, and you’ll find that in a lot of the images going through the 18th century that the crown is taken away. Sometimes very subtly but it is a seditious act and this figure here is Hibernia. Hibernia, the figure, the personification of Ireland. So you have Ireland with her harp. So that’s the start of this association with a female figure and her harp and, as I say, through the course of the 18th century there were various different political movements. The volunteer movement that was formed in 1778. Again, they were largely drawn from the Protestant Ascendancy but a lot of the iconography associated with them tends to kind of centre around this winged maiden harp again.
Now, the Volunteer Movement are an interesting Movement in that they basically were a military force formed to protect Ireland again Spanish and French invasions following the American Revolution. That was their role and they embraced that and they were very positive about it. But they also wanted a certain amount of legislative independence. They felt that there was too much control being taken away from Ireland. They wanted their own parliament. They wanted to be able to levy their own taxes. They wanted to be able to control imports and exports and without their own parliament they couldn’t do that. So they were, again, a very radical organisation. They had political ideas they wanted to achieve certain things. So you’ll find that they used the harp to achieve this as well. Now this is the masthead of one of their newspapers and what you find increasingly is that the harp isn’t used on its own anymore, it’s put with other symbols. So you can see, there are two volunteers either side, they’re both armed. You can see that the harp, the winged maiden harp is surmounted by a crown and this crown is a very specific crown, it’s called an antique crown or Irish crown. So it’s an indication of Irish sovereignty rather than English sovereignty. So you can see that what distinguishes it from the other crown, the Stuart Crown, is the pointed arches on the crown as well and the phrase underneath is ‘libertas et natale solum’, liberty and my native soil. So all of this is to do with liberty, getting our rights, our freedom, our independence, etc. So these are all subtle little things but increasingly as the 18th century went on the harp, as a symbol, was at the centre of all of this.
Of course they got their parliament in 1782, Grattan’s Parliament, now the Bank of Ireland opposite Trinity College there. But a few years later another Movement, the United Irishmen, formed in 1791. They wanted something more radical again. They wanted complete separation from England and you can, again, this was the seal of the organisation. They adopted the winged maiden harp and their motto was ‘It is new strung and shall be heard’. So anybody ... I don’t know if there are any harpists here, but what tends to happen when you change the strings on your harp they actually sound brighter, they sound different, and this was a metaphor basically for if you change the strings on the harp then we’ll have a new nation. We’ve have something wonderful to look forward to. A brighter sound. Something different. And, again, the harp is kind of in the centre of all of this and there’s a cap of liberty ... I don’t know if you can see it just running through the harp at the top as well. Again, these are all symbols that would have been associated with the French Revolution. So all of these ideas are being absorbed into Irish politics and Irish political movements as well and that’s the badge of the United Irishmen. But it wasn’t solely on their badges or their seals, they used it on the mastheads of their newspapers as well and the Northern Star, one of their most popular newspapers, you can see how complicated it’s become. Do you see all the images that are thrown together with the harp now? So you nearly have to find the harp, the harp is the centre of it, the winged maiden harp. It’s surrounded by not a crown but by a star. You can see two female figures. One holding scales and a sword. The other holding lictor rods and an olive branch. So it becomes extremely complicated. The harp is in the middle of all this but basically the motto or the idea is always the same – liberty, equality, fraternity – all of those ideas of the French Revolution. ‘The public will our guide, the public good our end’, so striving for the betterment of the Irish nation as well.
Now, I suppose towards the end of the 18th century you would be familiar with the 1798 rebellion and unfortunately that was unsuccessful in some ways but in other ways it kind of set the tone for everything that followed in the 19th century, particularly the political movements that came afterwards and it’s important to say that the United Irishmen, their flag was a gold harp on a green background. Now do you remember we referenced earlier, I pointed out, the idea of the blue background? Everything to do with the 19th century is the gold harp on the green background. So they had their winged maiden harp on the green background on their flag and that became something that kind of recurred through the 19th century. This is a very interesting picture, you can see, again, the idea of Hibernia and she’s clutching her winged maiden harp and she’s protecting it and do you see what she’s protecting it from? A 3 headed dog. Now after the Act of Union of 1801 there was all sorts of I suppose collusion and accusations of collusion, how the Act of Union was passed, and there was assertions against three Irishmen, the three Jacks they called them – John Beresford, John Foster and John Fitzgibbon – and the rumour was sent out at the time that these three men had colluded with William Pit to pass the Act of Union. So in other words, these three Irishmen had betrayed their own. So that’s the representation of the hound, the 3 headed hound, pursuing Eireann and her harp. So it became ... like even in the 19th century the Irish harp became an important symbol of Irish identity. If you could protect the harp you could protect the Irish people and that was Hibernia’s role, to protect the Irish people.
Now in the 19th century the Irish harp was everywhere. If you could imagine, I often say ubiquitous, but it literally was. It was referenced in poetry, in songs. It was a very popular instrument to play at the time. It was visually an iconography of different political movements. It was very, very popular. So literally anywhere. It became very, very important symbol of Irish identity after the passing of the Act of Unit and Thomas Moore in particular was one of the people that used the metaphor of the Irish harp to represent the Irish people in his songs and those of you of a certain generation would probably be familiar with many of the Irish melodies – Thomas Moore’s melodies – The harp that once through Tara’s halls – exactly. He used the idea of the Irish harp metaphor in his songs and poetry to represent Ireland. So he talked about “the harp that once through Tara’s halls the soul of music shed, now stands as mute on Tara’s walls, as if that soul were fled”. So what he did was he harkened back to this great glorious age of early Gaelic civilisation when harpers were respected throughout Europe, when they were celebrated for their talents and their gifts and he wanted to return to that day. He wanted the harp, the Irish people, to relive those glorious days. So in his songs, in his poetry, that’s how he used the harp. There’s another beautiful strong, the Minstrel Boy, I don’t know if many of you are familiar with it? He uses the harp in that as well, “The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you’ll find him. His father’s sword he has girded on and his wild heart slung behind him. “Land of songs”, said the warrior bard, “tho’ all the world betrays thee, one faithful harp shall praise thee” and that’s the important thing, “one faithful harp shall praise thee”. So the harp was seen as this as this powerful instrument who could praise, who could almost like transform. It had a magical power to it almost in some ways, how it could change Irish society for better.
Now I’ll just play a ... obviously there’s ... I think there’s 124 or 126 Irish melodies. Again, you know it would be wonderful to have a session on Thomas Moore and his melodies. But I’ll play a couple of them on the harp. They particularly became popularised in the 19th century, people singing with harp accompaniment and of course Mary O’Hara picked up on that in the 1950s and 60s, re-popularising many of the world’s melodies. As I say, there are so many well known ones, but I’d like just to maybe focus on two. The first is The Last Rose of Summer and the second one is Believe me if all those endearing young charms.
Music (30.42 – 34.42)
Now, as I mentioned to you, the harp became so popular in the early 19th century that it became almost like an expression of your patriotism if you purchased a harp or if you played it or often actually if you purchased a harp just to have on your wall, that was an indication of your patriotism and a harp maker who was based in Dawson Street, Dublin, John Egan, again, he is probably the most influential harper in this period and harp maker in this period because he designed and invented a modern ... what we know as the modern Irish harp which is what I suppose I’m playing, a descendant of that today. So the type of technique that developed on these instruments was very similar to European types of harp. The pedal harp that you play in an orchestra etc. So, as I say, we don’t use long finger nails anymore. We tend to play with either gut or nylon strings, so not wire strings anymore. We tend even to hold our harp in a different way. So, for example, whereas the wire strung harpers of previous centuries would have either held their harps on their laps or when they got too big they would have held them on their left shoulder, we tend to hold ours on the right shoulder.
So in the 19th century the Irish harp changed, it transformed very, very radically. Now a wire strung harp tradition kept going up until the end of the 19th century when it gradually died out about the 1880s. So really up to the present day the type of harp that’s more popular now is the harp that developed in the early 19th century. But I don’t know if you can see the detail on these harps, do you see what they’re covered with? Shamrocks and they look quite gaudy, even the green is quite ... it does look quite gaudy actually. But they’re covered in shamrocks and the shamrock and the harp became sort of intertwined symbols from the early 19th century so that’s the first kind of indication that you really have of the two being used together.
Now, obviously the 19th century is a very complicated complex period in terms of the different political movements and political ideologies that were important and that were popular at the time. But just to kind of go up to the 1830s, in the 1830s, in the period after the granting of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, I suppose particular the Protestant Irish became very conscious that they were living in a society which was very dominated by Irish Catholics. They were in the minority. So they started to develop a sense of their own identity. A cultural nationalism which was very much based on a shared Irish heritage. So rather than Catholic Irish being able to claim that they were directly descended from Gaelic civilisation, the Protestant community started to absorb this history into their cultural identity as well. But the winged maiden harp which was the instrument that was very, very important as a symbol in the 17th and 18th century was no longer relevant. It was associated with kind of colonial rule, colonial power. So they adopted an Irish harp which was very similar to the Brian Boru Harp and that became the symbol of Irish identity from the 19th century and it’s still the symbol of our identity today on our coins, on Government departments, the Presidential Standard, etc., etc. So it dates from that period but again you can see it’s not just the Irish harp, the Brian Boru Harp, but you’ve got an antique crown on top. You’ve got old Irish symbols of weaponry. You’ve got the crum or the horn, again associated with Gaelic civilisation. I don’t know if you can see the wolfhound there as well and of course the round tower? So all these symbols became very important from the 1830s onwards as part of this cultural nationalist movement, very much led by Protestant Irish people. Again, the same idea, this is another one of their magazines, the Dublin Penny Journal, you can see the Brian Boru Harp is becoming more and more prominent. Again, the antique crown, more weaponry and the verses used underneath are actually Thomas Moore’s, “The harp that once through Tara’s halls. The soul of music shed”. So Thomas Moore’s melodies along with the Brian Boru Harp, coupled with the wolfhound, the round towers, all of these different things, they became all of the symbols of Irish identity in the middle of the 19th century and of course I suppose from the 1840s onwards the dominant political movement would have been Daniel O’Connell and the Repeal Association and once I suppose ... he is an interesting character in many respects because he surrounded himself with images of harps and harpers. This is one of the Repeal cards, one of the excellent Repeal cards, and you can see again the Brian Boru Harp, some shamrocks, the antique crown and of course he was very shrewd in how he presented himself because of course he wanted the repeal of the Act of Union. He wanted a parliament back to Ireland so that Ireland could govern itself again but he wanted it to exist as part of Britain. So hence you have this reference to ‘God save the Queen’ and that was something that was very popular on a lot of the flags associated with the Repeal Association. You would have the harp but you would also have ‘God save the Queen’ at some point. So he kind of I suppose straddled both sides really. But he not only liked to use the harp in the iconography of the Repeal Movement but he also had this ... I suppose he saw himself as a modern day Chieftain. So all of the big occasions. All of these monster meetings. Big gatherings. He would arrive on his carriage and a harper in front of him. Now the harper wasn’t just an ordinary harper, he was in sort of barda costume, he had a long tunic, long flowing hair, a beard, big conical cap, playing his harp. So you can see he basically saw himself as a 19th century reincarnation of a Chieftain. That’s what is the image he was trying to present. So this is a picture of one of the most famous of the Munster meetings at Tara in 1843 and the story goes that he left from his townhouse in Merrion Square on the morning of the meeting and he was proceeded by his harper who played “The harp that once through Tara’s halls” the entire way out to Tara. Now you can imagine how long that would have taken, hours and hours. He must have been fed up of that tune by the time he reached Tara. But, again, it’s this symbolic significance. That’s what it’s all ... it’s all to do with the image and how you surround yourself and what you portray and that piece, the Moore’s melody, “The harp that once through Tara’s halls”, almost became like an anthem in that particular period and of course Daniel O’Connell, very shrewd, associating himself with the harp.
Now obviously Daniel O’Connell was part of the Repeal Movement but the Young Irelanders, again, were very influenced by O’Connell and by his kind of teachings and his ideologies as well but they were very separate and different in many respects as well and they had a collection of songs called ‘The Spirit of the Nation’ and it’s not a terrible clear image, I apologies for that, but they had a different slant on the harp and the harper. I don’t know if you can see the harper, the old harper here at the front? What do you notice about his harp? The strings are broken, yeah. And I apologise, it’s not terribly clear. But the strings are broken. So their idea was that that represented something of the past. The old bard with his broken strings on his harp was something that needed to be moved away from and their perception or their understanding of the harp was as something that was vibrant. So do you see the young harper here? Standing upright, with his beautiful harp, full strung, ready to go. So they had a different take, a different slant on the image of the harp as well but the important thing is the harp still features even though various different political and revolutionary movements they tweak with the image as they go along with the harpist still the central image for them as well.
Now towards the end of the ... and again I don’t have images of this but the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Home Rule Party, all of those different movements, they all had a gold harp on a green background as their flag in various different shapes or forms. Even towards the end of the 19th century you find that the harp was used to agitate for self government and you’d find that the Brian Boru Harp along with the image of Eireann as she became known then was something that recurred constantly in images in various iconography as well. But I suppose it’s important just to say that just before we leave the 19th century we talked about the harp tradition changing and one of the big changes was the repertoire that was played on the instrument and I just want to play a short piece for you now. It’s called Mozart’s Theme and Variations and it’s really in the 19th century we have this kind of change in the type of music that was played on the harp. It wasn’t just Irish music anymore. People started, harpists started, to incorporate classical music as well. So just to give you an idea this is a typical of that kind of period.
Music (44.23 – 46.58)
So that gives you an idea of the variety and styles of music that were being played on the Irish harp from the 19th century on. Not only Irish pieces. Not only the Moore’s melodies but also classical pieces were gradually being incorporated as well.
Now in the 20th century, I suppose, everything was defined by the Brian Boru Harp and the image of the Brian Boru Harp even though the harp didn’t become the national flag of Ireland, the gold harp and the green background, the harp still plays a very, very significant role from the 1920s onwards. This is an example just of a very early stamp with the harp and the figure of Eireann there. But really it’s from sort of the 1922, from the foundation of the State, really is when you get the emphasis on the harp being the actual symbol of Ireland. Now it’s not protected under our constitution as the flag is but it’s still a very, very important presence, as I say, from the 1920s onwards. This is the great scene of the Irish Free State which was designed in 1928. It’s based on the Brian Boru Harp. It’s slightly different in terms of the orientation but the important thing to remember is that it’s left facing. So in all your coinage, on your passport, on Government department symbols and all that, it’s always left facing.
Now there was a huge controversy in the 1940s, it was decided that the harp was going to be incorporated into the coat of arms and the original design was basically the strings were slanted at a diagonal and it caused such a furore at the time that the actual coat of arms had to be completely re-designed. The argument at the time was that on the British Royal Standard the strings were diagonal so we couldn’t be seen to have some sort of remnant of colonialism on our coat of arms, so the coat of arms was completely designed so that the strings are vertical and again in addition to being left facing the strings are always vertical. So those are the two things that you look for as being the genuine representation of the symbol of Ireland.
Now, when I used to go around many years ago to schools and talk about harps and harp images and things like that and the history of the harp, I would always ask the question of the children where did they see harps or where were the places that they had come in contact with harps and of course somebody would always say their coins, Guinness was always one as well actually or Harp larger, apparently that’s the same, and the other place was on like flags or Government departments. Now, they didn’t say that but obviously I don’t know if you’ve ever been done for speeding or anything like that and a very official letter comes through the post with your harp on the back and you know that you’re in trouble or the tax man sends you something from Revenue and, again, they’re official documents. These are all the places that you’d expect to see. But it’s been changing very, very, very rapidly in the last sort of 10 to 15 years. I don’t know if you check your coins when you get them back after you purchase something, do you ever check your coins? Well, obviously notes now we don’t have ... they’re not specifically Irish, they’re generic, they’re European. But if you look at your coins, particularly your €1 and €2 coins, half of the €1 and €2 coins in your pocket or in your purse will not be Irish anymore. They won’t have a harp at the back of them. So in terms then of our coinage if they do decide to get rid of the 1, 2 and 5 cent coins then it’ll become rarer and rarer to see a harp on the back of your coin. So that’s a big, big change from the symbol that was on all of our coinage up until the early part of this century.
The other thing, Guinness will always be Guinness. Guinness will still have a harp in a 100 years’ time because they’ve spent a huge amount trademarking that logo and that earns them a lot of money. But in the last sort of 10 to15 years Government departments have started to change their use of the Irish harp symbol as well and, again, many of you may not have noticed it because certainly ... and obviously I play the harp, I only noticed it by chance, but whereas in the past say like, for example, this gold harp for the Department of Finance is the typical Brian Boru Harp, left facing with the vertical strings. What’s tended to happen in the last few years is they started to re-design them so they’re no longer treated as the symbol of the nation but as logos. More like in terms of a corporation or a business etc. So this is the Department of Justice, this is in a scales. This is for the Houses of Oireachtas, in 2007 €63,000 was spent to re-design, to modernise the harp, to come up with this. Now they jokingly call them the hula hoop harps, I think you can probably see why. Basically it’s the gold harp which it had always been and then a few sort of circles put around it. So I suppose a lot of that was Celtic Tiger years maybe when there was an awful lot of money around there was re-branding and logos and all of that kind of attitude to things. But in more recent years some of them have changed very radically. So, for example, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, I mean that’s obviously lovely to look at but it’s sort of ... it’s quite childish looking in fact. It doesn’t have that sort of sense of importance that a national symbol really needs. The Department of Transport, again, very artistic, very creative but more artistic and visual rather than actually symbolic. The same with the Department of Food and the Marine as well. Some of them are quite funny. I mean the Department of Expenditure and Reform, I call that the emaciated harp because it looks like it’s been eaten away which is very appropriate when you think of Department of Expenditure and Reform, but anyway. The Probation Service or the Prison Services is actually a harp that looks like it’s shaking which is quite a creepy image and of course the National Development Plan is the harp falling over. So I don’t know what that says about plans for infrastructure or whatever (laughter) but it’s certainly quite bizarre. And probably the most bizarre of them is NAMA, the National Asset Management Agency, which actually looks very one dimensional, very severe. Almost like prison bars. The strings look like prison bars. So, again, quite creepy sort of post modern representations of Irish society. But they are ... if you look, if you look at the visual representations of the harp, again, on our Government departments, that will gradually filter out probably over the course of the next generation.
So, as I say, I mean we talked about Guinness, Guinness probably will be the only one in another century that will actually have kept it actual harp image.
Participant: But they’ve changed it.
Participant: Ah, just a bit. Like this one is much more modern than the previous one.
It’s still basically the same kind of idea.
Participant: Yeah okay.
You see what disguises it from our harp or the national symbol is it’s facing the wrong way. So that’s why when we decided to incorporate the symbol as our symbol of Ireland we had to face the other way because Guinness had actually trademarked it in the mid 19th century. So that kind of has the influence. But what happens I suppose, you see like Ryanair, you’re all well used to seeing that, the Irish Independent, Guinness, etc., what tends to happen is if you have images of harps that are not based on the Brian Boru Harp everything just looks the same, there’s nothing to distinguish it and that’s kind of the danger really and that’s what’s happening increasingly. But who knows, who knows what the symbol will be like in another generation, in another 50 years, 100 years. We can only speculate. Certainly it’s not ever going to be as prominent or as prolific as it was 18th and 19th century, there’s no question about that, which is a pity.
Now, just if you are interested in finding out a little bit more about that, I wrote a book recently and there’s loads of library copies down the back if you are interested in taking a copy away and having a look at a little bit more about the history. As I say, there’s only so much we can get through in the course of 55 minutes but certainly that will give you a very, very good introduction with lots of images and that as well. And for anybody who is on email if you have any queries or if there is anything else that you’d like to find out about please contact me on that email address I’d be more than happy to answer any queries that you might have.
I’m going to finish off with a jig just since we’re coming close to Patrick’s week and we’ll let you go then, okay.
Music (55.29 – 56.30)
(Recording ends here)
Thank-you for listening to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. To hear more, please subscribe on iTunes or SoundCloud. You can also visit our website - dublincitypubliclibraries.ie and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.