March-April 2019

The Grandest Symbol of Ireland

By Chris Wilson

Brian Boru Harp and Guiness LogoIt has been said by partygoers everywhere that on St. Patrick’s Day “everyone is Irish.” But, I wonder what would have happened had Jay Leno visited some busy pubs on that day with his “Jaywalking” segment? For those who may not recall, Jay would leave the studio, microphone in hand, and ask random folks some garden variety questions such as “what countries border the United States?” Perhaps they became tongue-tied because he was a celebrity or because they wanted to look silly in order to appear on TV, but in any event, the televised outcome was a parade of individuals who gave amusingly incorrect answers or no answer at all.

If Jay went to an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day he might ask “what is the official national symbol of Ireland?” Some would have no idea, some would say the shamrock, which is understandable but no, it’s not technically the official symbol of the country. One of the revelers would likely come the closest by hoisting the famous dark stout and shouting “it’s Guinness, of course.” Why is this the closest answer? Because of the logo on the bottle, not its contents. The national symbol of Ireland is the harp.

The harp can be found on the back of Irish Euro coins, on the websites and publications of many government offices and in the logo of Trinity College and many other Irish educational institutions. Trinity College also has on display the “Brian Boru Harp” and, while scholars question the claim that it actually belonged to the High King who died in battle in 1014, it is generally known as the oldest harp in the country.

Brian Boru Harp

All that being said, this is FolkWorks, so it is time for me to quit harping on about the history (yes, I did say that) and move on to the music!

Probably the most famous of the early harpers was Turlough O’Carolan who was born in County Meath. He became blind at the age of 18 and went on to make a living as a composer and performer, traveling among the houses and castles of the wealthy, sometimes composing “planxties” to honor certain individuals.

The harp music of Turlough O’Carolan still survives, as demonstrated by multi-talented local harper Aedan MacDonnell. There is much more about Aedan on her website including her extensive performance resume, more beautiful videos, links to harp instruction and much more about the instrument itself.

Aedan also worked on The Big Bang Theory television show helping Mayim Bialik (as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler) actually play the harp. She arranged the pieces Mayim played which she says was a challenge because they had to be simple for someone new to the instrument yet still convey the feeling of the song. Here's a snippet:

Dennis Doyle is a Celtic harpist, singer, storyteller, and college professor. He has released numerous albums, presented public and private performances, and has hundreds of YouTube videos to his credit. There is much more on his website. With so much to choose from, I decided to link to his beautiful recording of “Dear Harp of Erin” given the subject matter of this column:

Some of you reading this may notice that I have used both “harpist” and “harper.” Many say that one who plays the classical harp is a harpist and one who plays the Celtic harp is a harper. As I play neither, I follow my general rule of calling people by the term they themselves use.

So, now you know (in case you didn’t already) that the national symbol of Ireland is one of beauty, not only to the eye but to the ear as well.

Chris Wilson was the creator and co-producer of "Audiofile," an award winning radio feature which ran internationally for 14 years on public and community radio. She is currently best known in the local folk community as manager for Irish musician Ken O'Malley. She is also an RN/Attorney/Bioethicist and publishes a blog addressing health care issues and seniors. You can reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


All Columns by Chris Wilson