Tuning the harp to suit a changing Ireland
Since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Irish harp has been employed as the official emblem of Ireland. In the aftermath of the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War it was necessary to create political and social stability, and national symbols, in particular, the tricolour flag, the Irish harp and the national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, were important unifying symbols in the early years of the new State.
A design based on the Trinity College harp by the English sculptor Percy Metcalfe was adopted as the basis for the Great Seal of the Irish Free State in 1923 and has remained the model for all official representations of the harp emblem on seals of state, Irish coinage and the coat of arms.
Ireland is the only nation to have a musical instrument as a national emblem. The Irish harp has been embedded in Irish politics and culture for centuries. The harp enjoyed a high status in early Gaelic society due to the sophistication of the instrument and the considerable technical ability of the harper.
The harper, along with the file (poet) and reacaire (reciter), were the epitome of Gaelic aristocratic culture until the demise of that order in the 17th century. In iconographical terms, the Irish harp emblem is a perfect symbol. Its visual potency results from its consistent employment by various institutions of the State since the 1920s.
Over the centuries, as the status of the country changed from colony to democratic republic, and to membership of a federal European Union, the Irish harp has remained a prominent image of stability and continuity. Since the mid 1990s there has, however, been a considerable shift in the representation of the harp emblem as employed by various institutions of the State.
This has coincided with a notable shift in how government departments operate. Apart from the considerable rise in the number of agencies to which power to perform governmental functions has been devolved, government departments view themselves increasingly in corporate terms as a commercial brand rather than as a political unit serving its citizens. Leading consultancy firms are engaged to create and build a “brand identity” represented visually by a unique logo.
In the past few decades, the Irish harp emblem, which is regarded increasingly as visually anachronistic, has been replaced by a variety of harp logos and, with the exception of the controversial rebranding of the Houses of the Oireachtas in 2007-8, the transformation of the emblem has gone largely unnoticed.
In 2007, BFK brand identity consultants was engaged by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to redesign the harp emblem as part of a corporate identity strategy for the Oireachtas. Four distinct logos, or “identity marks”, were designed “as part of a wider public communications strategy” and “a complete new visual identity system that unites the communication of all facets of the legislature”.