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The Legend of the Harp

The Irish Harp has many distinguishing features, such as a sounding box carved from a single block of willow wood, T-shaped fore-pillar, a heavy neck and thick brass strings. These combine to give the harp a unique sound for which it has been famous since medieval times. Irish Harpists also had a special playing skill and were much in demand among the ancient kings for entertainment. The harp is now a national emblem of Ireland and appears on Irish coinage and all official documentation. History tells us the that the people who played the Irish Harp were highly trained professionals who usually performed for the nobility. Irish Harpists were held in very high regard and were often asked to accompany a bardic poet who was giving a reading. However, with the emigration of Ireland's leading families in the 17th and early 18th century, there was a steep decline in the harping tradition and the last traditionally-trained harpist died in the mid-19th century. Interestingly, these superb musicians played with their fingernails and not with the flesh of the fingertips as is done today. Unfortunately, because the Irish Harp was such a central part of Irish life, the harp became a target of the English establishment. Their efforts to subdue and replace the Irish native culture included a series of laws which made it unacceptable for kings and chieftains to eat at table with their musicians and servants. Going even farther, Queen Elizabeth I issued an order to hang harpers and destroy their instruments. While this oldest emblem of Ireland is still very much apparent - even to appearing on the Guinness label - most of the ancient airs and melodies it once produced are long gone. In recent times there has been an active effort to bring this beautiful piece of Irish heritage back to life. While most anceint harp tunes have been lost to history, there are a few remaining remenants of what the ancient tradition must have been like.