Brian Boru is celebrated as a patron of the arts and is often thought to have played the harp.  Given his prominence as a figure in medieval Ireland, it is hardly surprising that one of the three harps surviving from medieval Ireland became associated with him.

 

© Trinity College, University of Dublin

Although the the so-called 'Brian Boru harp', now kept in Trinity College Dublin (hence its other name, 'the Trinity harp'), has long been claimed to be the harp of Brian Boru, the harp actually dates from the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

Roman Holiday

According to one legend, Brian Boru’s son Donogh/Donnchad is said to have presented the Pope with his father’s harp and crown on a visit to Rome in 1064.

The story goes that it resided in the papal collection until 1521 when Pope Leo sent it to King Henry VIII of England to celebrate his new title as ‘Defender of the Faith’.  Although Henry's relations with the pope went rapidly downhill after his split from Rome, he must have hung onto the harp, because he apparently gave it to the first Earl of Clanricarde.  The harp is then said to have had a number of owners until, eventually, it was presented to Trinity College Dublin by William Conyngham in 1782 where it can now be viewed in the Long Room Library.

Did you know? The Brian Boru harp was stolen for a short period in 1969.

A Symbol of Ireland

In the mid 1700s the blind Tyrone harper Arthur O’Neill was invited to restring the Brian Boru Harp and play it in a parade through Limerick.

He describes the event in his memoirs:

I played several tunes … and I was followed by a procession of upwards of five hundred people, both gentle and simple, as they seemed to be every one imbibed with a national spirit when they heard it was the instrument that our celebrated Irish monarch played upon before he leathered the Danes at Clontarf out of poor Erin.

The Lord be merciful to you, Brian Boru! I hope in God I will tune your harp again in your presence in heaven!  And if it should be the case, upon my honour and conscience I will not play the tunes of July the First nor The Protestant Boys; but I would willingly play God Save the King, and that would be for yourself, Brian! "

Arthur O'Neill, ‘Memoirs’ in Donal O'Sullivan, Carolan, the Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, (London, 1958).

Whatever its history, the Irish harp remains central to the depiction of Irishness.  A harp has appeared on Irish coins since King Henry VIII’s time, and the Brian Boru harp is now the national symbol of Ireland.

© Caoimhe Ní Faoláin 2014

As the official emblem of Ireland it also appears on the Presidential seal, every Irish passport, and is used in the coat-of-arms of the National University of Ireland as well as being recognised (backwards) around the world as the symbol of the black stuff: Guinness, the quintessensial drink of the Irish.

© Caoimhe Ní Faoláin 2014

Music in Medieval Ireland

Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman chronicler is not known for his praise of the Irish but he has some positive things to say about their music (so it must have been pretty impressive).  Giraldus explains that:

The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments, in which they are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen. 

For their modulation on these instruments, unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the harmony is both sweet and gay. 

It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved, and that throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments, the harmony is completed with such a sweet velocity, so unequal an equality, so discordant a concord, as if the chords sounded together fourths or fifths. 

… It must be remarked, however, that both Scotland and Wales strive to rival Ireland in the art of music ..."

Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), The History and Topography of Ireland,  trans. Thomas Forester (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), p. 71.

© British Library

Are you in Dublin on the 29th of April 2014?

Check out the free lectures 1.10-1.50 p.m in the Council Chamber, City Hall, Dame Street, Dublin 2

Dr. Janet Harbison The Brian Boru Harp and its Musical Legacy

This talk will include a live performance on the Irish Harp:

http://www.brianborumillennium.ie/dublin/2014/04/dublin-city-hall-lunch-time-lectures/

Are you in Limerick in August?

Check out the Harp Festival, August 18th – 24th 2014:

http://brianborumillennium.com/history/

Sources: 

Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), The History and Topography of Ireland,  trans. Thomas Forester (Cambridge, Ontario, 2000).

Arthur O'Neill, ‘Memoirs’ in Donal O'Sullivan, Carolan, the Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper, (London, 1958).

Nancy Hurrell, 'The "Brian Boru" Harp' History Ireland, March/April 201, p. 49.

J. C. Walker, Historical memoirs of the Irish bards (Dublin, 1786).

Trivia: 
The Brian Boru harp was stolen for a short period in 1969.