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Why the "Trinity Harp" is also known as the "Brian Boru" Harp?

Why the "Trinity Harp" is also known as the "Brian Boru" Harp"?. This was the question I often made to myself the first time I saw this delightful surviving instrument.

Certainly the so called "Brian Boru" Harp now in Trinity College Dublin, does not date from the time neither belonged to the Irish king "Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig", (c. 941–23 April 1014), High King of Ireland from 1002 to 1014; but was made in 1220 for "Donnchadh Cairbre O'Brien", King of Thomond.

Therefore, I do firmly believe that the main reason for why it is called so, is for being constructed for the O'Brien's clan sake.

Let us recall regarding this point, that the descendants of Brian Boru were known as the "Ui Briain" (O'Brien) clan, hence the surnames Ó Briain, O'Brien, O'Brian etc.

"O" was originally Ó which in turn came from Ua, which means "grandson", or "descendant" (of a named person). The prefix is often anglicised to O', using an apostrophe instead of the Irish síneadh fada: "´". The O'Briens subsequently ranked as one of the chief dynastic families of Ireland.

It bears the coat of arms of the O'Neills but although there are many theories about its ownership through the centuries, none can be substantiated, with no verifiable evidence remaining to indicate the harp's original owner, or subsequent owners over the next two to three hundred years until it passed to Henry McMahon, of Co. Clare, and finally to The Rt. Hon. William Conyngham, who presented it to Trinity College in Dublin in 1760.

Throughout its history the harp was in the possession of of many people some of which were kings.

Related Ownerships

In 1221 it was sent to Scotland to pay a pledge for the return of Muiredach O'Daly of Lissadil, County Sligo a noted bard of the time. O'Daly had fled Ireland to Scotland after killing Finn O' Bradley, a stewart of Donal mor O'Donnell, Prince of Tyrconnell, apparently O'Daly took exception to an insult O' Bradley made against the bardic profession. O'Daly was pardoned in his absence.

O'Brien tried unsuccessfully to buy back his harp from Scotland in 1229, little was heard of the harp for over three hundred years, it was in 1543 that Henry VIII of England appointed Ulick MacWilliam de Burgo Earl of Clanrickarde and presented him with the Brian Boru harp, it seems the harp had been seized by the English many years earlier.

MacWilliam only kept the harp a short period of time and sold it to a Lady Huxley, the next owner was to be a Henry MacMahon of Clenagh, Co. Clare.

The next owner was a Councilor at Law named MacNamara from Limerick who received it in a will, MacNamara was for many years the recorder for Limerick city. It is recorded that the famous harper Arthur ONeill played the Brian Boru harp through the streets of Limerick in 1760.

Next the Brian Boru Harp became the property of one Ralph Ouseley of Limerick in 1778, three years later in 1781 he passed it on to a Colonel Conyngham, the next year Conyngham presented it to Trinity College where it remain to this day.

Other state it passed to Henry McMahon, of Co. Clare, and finally to The Rt. Hon. William Conyngham, who presented it to Trinity College in Dublin in 1760.

Related Harps

The Trinity College harp is currently displayed in the long room at Trinity College Dublin. It is an early Irish harp or wire strung cláirseach. It is dated to the 14th or 15th century and along with the Queen Mary Harp and the Lamont Harp, is one of the only three surviving medieval Gaelic harps.
It is a “low headed” Celtic harp, about 33 inches high; with brass pins for 29 strings, the longest being c.62 cm. One extra bass pin was added at some point in its playing life, the sound box is carved from a single piece of willow, with a fore pillar of oak, and strung with thirty brass strings. It is about 80 cm (32 inches) high, and the harp was plucked.

In 1961 the harp was exhibited in London, and it was dismantled and reconstructed by the British Museum into the wider shape it has nowadays, being the playable medieval form. The earlier heraldic and trade mark designs that were modelled on it were based on a thinner form that was the result of a bad restoration in the 1830s. Visitors are therefore often surprised at how wide the real harp is, compared to the harp on Irish coins.

Related to the Trinity College Harp, there are two greatest medieval harps of Scotland, the "Queen Mary" and the "Lamont" harps. Both kept in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.

Both “low headed” Celtic harps date from the 15th Century, and each is from a single piece of wood, possibly hornbeam, hollowed out from the back.
The Lamont harp, which is unadorned, is the larger harp at 37 ½ “, with 32 wire strings.
The Queen Mary is ornately carved with intricate designs, including griffins, a lion, a dragon and a unicorn, almost 31” high, with 30 wire strings. The Lamont is the more worn, probably more used, of the two.

It is uncertain who commissioned the Trinity College harp, although structural evidence suggests it was made in the 15th century. It is similar in construction and design to the Queen Mary Clarsach in Scotland. It is likely, however, that the harp was made for a member of an important family, for it is skilfully constructed and intricately ornamented.

The Trinity College harp is the national symbol of Ireland, being depicted on national heraldry, Euro coins and Irish currency. A left-facing image of this instrument was used as the national symbol of Ireland from 1922, and was specifically granted to the State by the Chief Herald of Ireland in 1945.

A right-facing image was registered as a trade mark for Guinness in 1862, and was first used on their labels in 1876.

All three surviving Gaelic harps (the others are the Lamont Harp and the Queen Mary Harp) are considered to have been made in Argyll in South-West Scotland sometime in the 14th-15th century.

You may find further information about this marvellous instrument and it's history on my eBook "The Celtic Harp" Now Available at Amazon.com!

1 comment:

Celtic Harp Music by Anne Roos said...

I love reading this history. Thank you for sharing, Eliseo!


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