Irish Harp: Did Ireland’s National Symbol Come from Guinness?


Irish harp: Which came first? Symbol of Ireland or stout company?

An emblem used by both Ireland and Guinness brewing; the harp stirs quite an Irish tune. It is synonymous with green pastures and frothy black beer. Just like the four-leaf clover and lively leprechaun, it’s a symbol that can be endearing or cringey.

But where did this symbol truly come from? It could be assumed that Guinness donned the moniker in tribute to the brewer’s original homeland, however, it may come as a surprise which harp came first.

Irish harp: Beginnings

Despite Ireland’s prolific use of the symbol on flags, brewing giant Guinness actually registered the harp as its moniker in 1876; long before Ireland even had its own government. In fact, in order to avoid copyright issues with the beer company, the Irish Free State Government had to strategically flip its harp emblem in 1922.

One hundred years later, the harp remains the official national emblem of the Republic of Ireland while also decorating Guinness bottles and glasses globally. So did Ireland truly, and quite comically, copy the harp from Guinness?

Although it would seem like great craic for the Irish to style their national symbol off a brewing company, this was not really the case at all. The harp is deeply embedded in Irish history. The icon was drawn on manuscripts and Christian crosses as early as the 8th century.

In 1541, with Ireland’s upgrade from lordship to kingdom, a gold coin was introduced featuring a crown-topped harp. The golden harp was fashioned on green flags and carried onto the battlefield when fighting against the English army in 1642. Following these historical events, the Irish state has continued to assert its independence with the flipped design of 1922 being added to stamps, passports, seals and official documents.

Boru and Harps

So, where did this Irish affinity for a harp originate? The actual instrument that inspired the symbol of Ireland and Guinness, known as the Boru/O’Neill harp, was gifted to the Pope by Irish King Brian Boru’s son in 1064.

Brian Boru was revered by his people for his penchant for the arts and musical instruments. The harp was then exhibited and admired all around Europe and England for over 700 years. Blind harper and secondary namesake, Arthur O’Neill, was invited to restring and play the treasured instrument through Limerick. This is before it settled at its final resting place at Trinity College in 1782. The Boru/O’Neill harp is one of only three medieval harps that has survived to the present day.

Guinness Harp

One crucial detail of this story that has evolved in recent times is the ownership of Guinness. With a microbrewery and cultural hub planned for London, the company is now British-owned. On the flip side, the company has paid homage to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin with an almost identical design proposed for the new building in London’s Covent Garden. Paired with a trendy taproom in Chicago on the horizon, the Guinness brand is truly branching out; all with the famous Irish harp embossed.

The golden harp, although monetised by Guinness, is truly an Irish emblem through and through. With roots set deeply in the sometimes-tumultuous history of Ireland, the harp plays the song of the rich Irish ancestry.

Perhaps the real question to ask is whether now British-owned Guinness should give back the Irish moniker? Or should it continue to honour its Irish heritage?



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