Since Ireland’s twelfth century, when the island was ruled by Gaelic High Kings and chiefs, the harp has been a prominent – and prideful – symbol. Once seen as symbol of sophistication, the decline of Gaelic civilization to English colonization saw the harp bastardized as the sole measure of articulation in the otherwise barbaric – and mostly subjugated – Gaelic people. The Irish poet Thomas Moore, in his poem The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls, invokes both initial pride – and subsequent English tainting – in portraying the harp as a bittersweet symbol of Gaelic nostalgia and oppressed outrage.
The title of the poem, and also the first line of the poem read, “The harp that once through Hara’s halls” in reference to the Hill of Tara, an ancient Gaelic site and, allegedly, the seat of the High King of Ireland. Moore writes of the harps music in the past tense implying that, like the defeated and colonized Gaelic peoples, the harp’s beauty – and therefore it’s reflection of Gaelic sophistication and pride – has been erased or at least altered. To Moore, the harp – and therefore the “soul” of the Gaelic people – is “fled,” and his choice of verb here is intentional; fled implies a conflict prior to the flight itself, and this is a clear reference to Gaelic warriors that fought and died against English colonization. They have been broken, and they have fled, and “the pride of former days” now “sleeps.” Although indirectly, Moore relates the harp’s music to the beat of Gaelic hearts and – just as the music has been silenced – those pulses are “no more.” In the next stanza, and in continuance of the heart/harp motif, Moore writes that “the harp of Tara swells,” as though the heart of Ireland is swelling in grief over the “chiefs and ladies” who are “no more.” Implicating a loose narrative into his poem of remembrance, the harps chord breaks – in the same vein as a heart breaking over a lost love – and what is told in the final twang is a “tale of ruin.” Wrapping up his very clear message – in a thesis like line – Moore claims that “freedom” now “so seldom wakes” and that the “only throb she gives is when some heart indignant breaks to show that she still lives.” Moore, in implying that the damaged heart – and the defeated soul – of the Irish people is resurrected in painful, “broken” spurts – but only to show that there is still some pathetic morsel of life left. This follows the actual progression of the mechanisms and meaning of the harp; following English conquest, the harp’s design was changed to a portable version – one that completely altered the original sound of the harp – that was more adept for what the harp – and it’s artists – had become. Harpists were curried into English courts and made to perform. The harp had become the lone semblance of Irish intelligence and even then, that semblance – and the interpretations of that intelligence – was controlled by the English on a direct and symbolic level. Yes, the harp – and the heart – “breaks” to show proof of life, but that heart is still tainted by the indignance of the original unjust breaking. 000