The Power of the Harp in Irish Mythology #stpatricksday

The Irish harp is recognized worldwide as being the 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.

The Power of the harp in Irish Mythology.

Artwork (c) Seamus McArdle.

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 Danann 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 jeweled 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 Danann 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.

image of harper kindly supplied (c) Seamus Mc Ardle


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30 Comments on “The Power of the Harp in Irish Mythology #stpatricksday

  1. Pingback: March 15 | A Writer's Utopia

  2. Pingback: Saint Patrick and the Cult of Crom Cruach | aliisaacstoryteller

  3. In Old Chinese culture, there was a musical instrument called as Konghou. It looked like a harp with a head of a bird (called as Feng-Niao). Its strings were made of silk.

    I wish it had not extincted. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to listen to music created by the collaboration of Konghou and Irish harp? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

      • I am curious about the sound too but I am especially wondering why there is a head of a phoenix-like bird on top of it.

        It was adapted from “western music”. (western = India & middle east, which are located west of China)

        Liked by 1 person

        • You will have to do some digging and see if you can find out any bird related mythology. Maybe it sounded like a bird singing when it was played? Maybe in your culture there was a bird particularly revered for its beautiful singing? Maybe there is someone who has made a copy of one of these instruments? For example I have written about an Irish trumpet of war from the Iron Ages called a Dord; I was amazed to find that someone had recreated one, and although no one is sure quite how it was played, he makes music out of it today.


          • Ah yes, there is a modern version of konghou and it is quite commonly used in China, but nobody really knows if it is supposed to sound the way it does.

            There is a pair of Celestial Bird in Chinese Myth called as Feng Huang. They are often called as Chinese Phoenixes. They are known to be musical.

            The thing is, the ancient Konghou was NOT from China. It was believed that the instrument was brought into China thru the silk-road from the west. I think it might come from Persia or Asia Minor where the Phoenix was said to dwell in.

            I’ll post about it if I manage to find more information about it 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: So what did we do in Winter before the Christians invented Christmas? | aliisaacstoryteller

  5. As part of the Irish cultural immersion I engaged in while writing my first novel, I bought an inexpensive zither, to write and play a few simple arrangements of tunes by Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin.


    • Wow that really is immersion! I guess I am immersed in Irishness all the time, living here. Ireland is holding onto its cultural heritage far longer than many other countries.


  6. Pingback: The Shamrock, the Shillelagh and the Leprachaun; Symbols of Irishness for St Patricks Day, or Sad Stereotypes? | aliisaacstoryteller

  7. Fascinating information about the harp, thank you for sharing. I have no Irish in me blood! My children have a little from their father. I would love to hear the harp when I need to get to sleep some nights. It must be beautiful!

    Thank you for stopping by my blog. I appreciate your like too. I will follow your fascinating blog. Best wishes, Ali!


    • Everyone has a little Irish blood in them lol! Thank you for your lovely comments, and the follow, you made my day!


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