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

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”.

The logos, which cost €63,000 to design, were described by former Fianna Fáil minister Tom Kitt, as “something you’d see on the top of a restaurant menu”, and by the Genealogical Society of Ireland as “the insidious mania of ‘corporate logoism’”. The harp logo was introduced with the proviso that “the logo should not appear on its own without text”. The idea of affixing text to an image to create a context for interpretation is becoming increasingly necessary as the harp emblem is redesigned or rebranded.

Unusual objects

Many of the most unusual transformations of the Irish harp emblem can be found on the logos of various government departments. The harp logo of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs includes the outline of a harp, incorrectly oriented, with human-like figures taking the place of the strings. The logo of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport also includes a human-like figure, but it is intertwined with the harp as if the figure and the harp are in an embrace.

Combining visual elements is now a common practice in the design of harp logos and is exemplified by the union of multiple images, including a fish, an ear of wheat and blades of grass (to take the place of strings) to form the logo of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Distortion of conventional images and manipulation of the dimensions of objects are common techniques employed in the design of logos. The Department of Defence logo uses an abstract figure holding a spear and shield that when combined form the outline of a harp with strings, while the most dramatic harp logo used by a government department belongs to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which was established following the General Election of 2011. The logo, which resembles an emaciated harp, is, perhaps, an ironic if unconscious visual comment on the economic crisis; it is also an indication that, although a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour is now in power, its attitude to the Irish harp emblem is no different to that of its predecessors.

The Irish harp emblem is increasingly rejected in favour of a selection of random, fluid, oblique images of harps that reflect postmodern Irish society and culture. The most diverse collection of false harp images can be credited to Irish quangos. Each of the approximately 350 quangos uses a different logo and the majority are not based on the Irish harp emblem.

Quango harp logos are best described as a collection of ironic, comic, pathetic and bizarre images of harps. The logo of the National Crime Council, which was formed in 1999 to focus on crime prevention, uses a harp that is cartoon-like in appearance, while the logo for the Probation Service uses disconnected fragments of a harp that appear to be quivering.

Many of these images can be read as disconnected metaphors commenting on contemporary Irish society, politics and culture. The National Development Plan logo presents a tilted harp, or one that is on the verge of falling over, an apt visual representation of the current economic climate. The logos of the National Asset Management Agency, established in December 2009, and the National Treasury Management Agency, are strikingly similar. Both are rigid, one-dimensional images whose diagonal strings are more reminiscent of prison bars than the strings of a musical instrument.

The significant manipulations and transformations of the Irish harp emblem in recent years have caused little or no controversy. Sadly, it seems that the Irish harp emblem has no significant role in the image-driven culture of postmodern Ireland.

The Irish harp emblem has an uncertain future. This is exemplified in the logo for Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2013. Ireland last held the presidency in 2004 and the logo used consisted of a harp with three stars coloured white, blue and navy – a visual representation of a nation that was part of the European Union, but which retained its own identity.

In 2011, Red Dog design consultants was commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to design four logos for Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union in 2013, none of which reference the State’s official national emblem. Members of the public were encouraged to vote for their favourite logo and the winning design was launched last February.

The winning logo, which was described by Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton as an “integral part of the development of a visual identity for Ireland’s presidency”, does not include a harp. The national symbol, the potent visual representation of centuries of Irish politics, culture and history is evidently not an “integral part of a visual identity” for the period of the presidency.

In light of the transformation of the Irish harp emblem over the past two decades one wonders how much longer it can remain an integral part of Irish identity.

* Mary Louise O’Donnell is an IRCHSS government of Ireland postdoctoral fellow at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick