The harp symbol has been associated with Ireland since 1581, when Vincenzo Galilei wrote that the harp was “the special emblem of the realm, where it is depicted and sculptured on public buildings and coins” (Fitzgerald and O’Flynn 20).
At a time when the Irish people were losing their identity by way of the loss of their native language, music became a way for them to cling to it. Music is a language in and of itself, a universal one.
Today, we can see this in the worldwide popularity of artists such as Celtic Women, Celtic Thunder, Gaelic Storm, and other such types of popular culture music pub rock.
Music’s role in the construction of Irish identity was but one of a number of specific elements, symbols, or signifiers consciously selected in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as expressive of a distinctive and recognizable national identity…the success of the identification of Ireland with (traditional) music is underlined by the commodification of ‘Irish music’ in the international branding of Ireland today (Fitzgerald and O’Flynn 21).
Music and identity and culture are closely tied. Edward Said says “Music, like literature, is practised in a social and cultural setting” (Said qtd in Davis 5). In Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond, Fitzgerald and O’Flynn write,
So what can we learn about Irish culture through their folk music? Not much is written about it - it’s a very oral tradition. For instance, when I studied in Ireland in the fall of 2015, I joined the traditional music society, TradSoc, in hope of learning some Irish music. However, I found it quite difficult to participate since there was no sheet music and it was difficult for the Irish students to teach me. They had grown up on the tunes and could easily pick up new things by ear. Though I’m an ear-trained musician, I could not learn the songs. This solidified the Irish music tradition as a very oral and aural one.
Music can also be interpreted as expressing the unconscious identity, the cultural environment that any social group establishes for itself by the choices it makes, in this case as to what music it plays or listens to. Such choices reflect the social and cultural identity of the group, and the identification of these choices…must contribute to a fuller understanding of the particular social group (22).
And this phenomenon is nothing new. Back in the eighteenth century when the English were publishing books of Irish folk tunes, there was the same kind of problem and push back. The minute an oral tradition is recorded on paper, something is changed forever. In Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender, Leith Davis argues, “The printing of native music undeniably both altered that music’s form and cultural significance and changed the terms on which native Irish music confronted Anglo-Irish culture” (Davis 29). It also affected how the tunes were played. “Printing, however, enforced more uniformity on the Irish tunes,” Davis argues, “Then, as with folk music now, printing would have served to give an outline to the tune, not to constitute absolute instructions. But notation of any kind, published or longhand, imposes a different system of order on music.” But Irish music is not ordered, and despite the damage that printing it for the whole world to access may have done, it still remains spontaneous.
This was especially clear to me whenever I tried to play in or attended a traditional music session. The performers would go from one tune to another, making things up as they went. Certain tunes were always played in a set, seamlessly flowing from one to the next. They would be sitting in a pub full of people and have no issue learning a new tune on the spot from another player, despite the audience. And somehow it always worked.
Traditional Irish music says so much about the Irish culture and identity of the time, and they don’t even need to have lyrics. But once we examine the lyrics of some popular Irish folk tunes, the story becomes even clearer.