Short story: Origins of the Irish harp

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Ali Isaac, author of Grá mo Chroí and The Tir na Nog Trilogy celebrates St Patrick’s day with our readers by sharing some background information and history on the Irish harp.

The Irish harp is recognised worldwide as being Ireland’s national emblem. We see it everywhere, from our pint of Guinness to the flag of Leinster; on our coins, our stamps, our passports. Nowadays, this symbol of ‘Irishness’ is known as the Cláirseach, but its origins go much further back.

Brian Boru, the last High King of Ireland (he died in 1014) was said to have been an accomplished player. It is reported in an ancient document known as the Accallam na Senorach, that St Patrick (5th century) is said to have remarked about Irish harp playing, “Nothing could more closely resemble Heaven’s harmony… but for the twang of the Fairy spell which infests it.”

By Fairy, he meant the Sidhe, who in Irish mythology were descended from the Tuatha de Denann, a semi divine race of beings who ruled Ireland about four thousand years ago. The Denann themselves had many famous harpists; Nuada himself was said to have been a fair player, Lugh, the Dagda, Cas Corach, Aongus Óg, were all skilled harpists. It was thought their playing could inspire and teach; destroy their enemies; summon animals or spirits; heal the sick; protect one’s home, even increase prosperity.

Traditionally, the strings of an Irish harp would have been made from wire, usually brass, but Aongus Óg’s harpstrings were said to have been made of silver. These wires would have been plucked with the finger nails, producing a very clear, sharp sound.

The resonating chamber of a traditional harp would have been carved from a single log of wood, usually willow. The Dagda’s harp was called Uaithne, was carved from oak, and richly decorated with a double headed fish design, studded with jewelled eyes.

There is a lovely story about the Dagda’s harp, which clearly explains the power harp music was believed to have.

After their defeat by the Denann in the Second Battle of Moytura, some of the Fomori stole Uaithne and made off with it. They believed Uaithne was so powerful that its music could put the seasons in order, and even command the order of battle.

The Dagda gave chase, and came upon them in their feasting hall. No-one had been able to play the harp, for the Dagda had cast a spell so that it answered only to him. When he called to it, it flew across the hall into his hand, killing nine men along the way who happened to stray into its path.

The Dagda strummed his fingers across the strings, and began to play the ‘Three Noble Strains of Ireland’. First, he played the strain of weeping/ melancholy, known as the Goltrai, and everyone who heard it was moved to tears; then he played the strain of joy/ merriment, the Geantrai, and everyone who heard it fell about in fits of great mirth.

Finally, he played the soft and soothing Suantrai, and everyone who heard it fell deeply asleep. Then he was able to make his escape with his beloved harp back in his possession.

It is interesting to note that the word ending trai actually means ‘enchanter’. Very apt, in my opinion.

Copyright Ali Isaac, 2015

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