Have you ever wondered why Ireland is often symbolised as a harp? The association was popularised by the 19th Century Irish poet, Thomas Moore. Moore was hugely popular in Ireland and remains so, but also enjoyed success in England too. Many of his lyrics were written to be put to music, but some stand alone as very good poems. Here is one of the poems that popularised the image of the Irish harp:
The harp that once through Tara’s halls
The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara’s walls
As if that soul were fled.
So sleeps the pride of former days,
So glory’s thrill is o’er,
And hearts, that once beat high for praise,
Now feel that pulse no more.
No more to chiefs and ladies bright
The harp of Tara swells:
The chord alone, that breaks at night,
Its tale of ruin tells.
Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
The only throb she gives,
Is when some heart indignant breaks,
To show that still she lives.
Moore is not considered a particularly nationalistic poet – he was thought to express the kind of nationalism that the English could be comfortable with, lamenting far off days, and an idealised image of an ancient, aristocratic Ireland that had little to do with the Ireland of the 19th Century. He supported Catholic emancipation strongly, but was no republican. Nevertheless, there are distinct political overtones in this poem.
Tara, which is -significantly – near Dublin, is a place that was once reckoned to be the seat of the High Kings of Ancient Ireland. When this poem was written, Ireland was ruled by the British, and had long been dominated by the ancestors of successive English invaders. Dublin was not the capital city of Ireland as much as a provincial capital within the British Isles. The poem laments not just the glory of the days of old, and the Celtic culture that the harp represents, but an Ireland ruled by the Irish.
The harp as a symbol of Ireland is a particularly appropriate one, given the country’s still healthy musical culture. Pubs across the country will be enlivened by bands sitting and playing live music which, while not for the chiefs and ladies of Ireland perhaps, isn’t just for the tourists either.