Celtic/irish/Scotland/Welsh harp Symbol meaning and origin

Many people consider the shamrock as the official symbol of Ireland, while, in fact, it is the Irish Harp that holds this exquisite honor. This article aims to explain the importance, meaning, and history of the Irish Harp.

If you are from Ireland but not caught up with your local history or if you are simply visiting Ireland, you may view the shamrock as the symbol of Ireland. However, the Irish Harp is the official symbol of Ireland, and it dominantly features on Irish coins, Irish passports, and is the symbol of the president of Ireland. It is true that the three-leafed clover triumphs over the Harp when it comes to fame. However, the Irish dates back a couple of centuries and tells much about the island’s history.

What is the meaning of the Irish Harp?

The Irish Harp is a vital emblem in Irish culture and heritage. Often known as the Celtic Harp, clarsach as known in Scotland, Gaelic Harp, or clàirseach (its name in the modern Irish language), this symbol is common in Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Wales. It is a musical instrument belonging to the harp variety and made from a solid block of wood and carved to create a carved fore pillar and neck. It contains brass strings strung in the center, ready to be plucked to produce a melodious tune.

The Irish Harp distinctively features on the Ireland Coat of Arms, which serves as a symbol of royalty. The strings of the harp represent the arms of the king, making the Irish Harp symbolize the arm of many kings.

Generally, the Irish Harp has three common interpretations. One of them is that it represents a composed individual with excellent judgment. The symbol is also construed to symbolize a mysterious bridge that connects the earth and the heavens, allowing one to cross at their whim. Another interpretation of the Irish Harp is that it shows the power the British colonizers had over Ireland.

What is the origin of the Harp as an Irish symbol?

The Irish Harp dates back more than 1000 years ago. High King Brian Boru, the last King of Ireland who died in 1014, was a skilled player of the Irish Harp and held it in high esteem in the Royal Court. At around this time, the Celtic Harp was well-known in Celtic culture. It was the de rigeur among Irish and Scottish Chieftains and kings to have their own resident harper, who in turn enjoyed special privileges and high status among the royals.

When England’s monarch Henry VIII proclaimed himself as king in 1531, the harp became the official national symbol Ireland and was put on the coins that were produced during Henry’s new reign. As the decades passed by, harpers lost their status, and they reduced in number. It came to a time in history that the Gaelic Harp was an emblem of resistance to the British Crown and England as a whole.

As a result, it was banned until the end of the medieval period, making the old Celtic Harp tradition to wear out. By the 18th century, the Scottish clarsach disappeared, and the Irish Harp also became extinct a century later.

Fortunately, in 1792, a group of harpers made their way to Belfast for a traditional harp festival. Folk music collector and musician, Edward Bunting, recorded the music played during the festival on paper, as well as the terminology of the harpers. As such, this was the first time to record traditional Gaelic Harp music, and these records are still in existence to date.

How many strings does an Irish Harp have?

Irish Harps come in a variety of sizes, but no smaller than a lap harp with 22 strings and no-larger than a floor harp with 38 strings. A full-sized pedaled harp has 47 strings. Depending on how portable you want your harp and the type of music you want to play, the harp is a versatile instrument with the extensive use of a resonant and rich bass.

Celtic music is often regarded as therapeutic music, meaning you will require a smaller harp. The most commonly used harp for this purpose is the 27-string harp, as it is well-built and quite portable. On the other hand, some people find it easier to learn hand position from a floor harp, because you do not have to hold the instrument on your being.

What is the Irish Harp made from?

The Irish Harp is a traditional musical instrument that existed in Medieval Ireland and Scotland mainly. It is a massive soundbox made from a solid block of wood and contains a curved and heavy neck as well as a deeply out curved fore pillar.

Its unique shape and material construction are designed to bear high tension from the heavy brass strings on the instrument. Usually, the strings range from 30-50 in number. Once you pluck the instruments using your fingers, it produces a bell-like ringing sound. Normally, it is strung seven notes per octave (diatonically).

What is the difference between a harp and a Celtic Harp?

Celtic harps are quite distinct from the classical harp. Gaelic harps feature the use of wire strings, usually made of brass, and their resonating chamber carved from a willow log. The strings are highly tensioned to produce a clear sound. They also have a smaller range.

However, harps were redesigned with gut strings and manual tuners to accommodate the versatility of producing different sounds. As a result, you could retune the harp more easily than the wire-strung harp. Traditional harps, mostly pedal harps, have numerous chromatic strings with a range of six and a half octaves. They are also quite large in size and have nylon or gut strings.


The design of the Irish Harp is world-renowned. From unique pieces of jewelry to clothing designs to national trademarks, as in the case of Guinness, the Irish Harp is a symbol of Ireland’s national pride and heritage. It is also a national treasure as some of the oldest surviving harps, like the Lamont Harp and the Queen Mary Harp, exist to date.


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