Thomas Moore’s Harp


Contributor: Francesca Benatti

Location: Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin, Ireland

Description: Thomas Moore’s harp is held in Dublin in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, which also houses Moore’s personal library. It was donated to Moore in 1823 by Dublin harp maker John Egan to further publicise his recent line of Portable Irish Harps, for which he had obtained royal patronage by King George IV in 1821. Moore’s Portable Irish Harp features in the anonymous portrait of Thomas Moore in his Study at Sloperton (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), next to his cabinet piano. We know that, despite Egan’s success at expanding the sale of Irish harps in Ireland and Britain, Moore himself preferred the piano as an instrument.

During the eighteenth century, the Irish harp had become powerfully charged with nationalist symbolism through the publications of the Volunteers and the United Irishmen, who chose it as the emblem of their revolutionary movement. After the failure of the 1798 United Irish uprising, these politicised associations of the harp were shifted to a more cultural sphere by national tales such as Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806), which prominently features a harp-playing heroine (Morgan herself had purchased a John Egan harp in 1805). To this day, the harp remains a powerful symbol of identity in Ireland, being displayed prominently on Irish coins, within the emblems of Irish state bodies and in the logos of some of its most successful commercial exports.

The harp is the protagonist of several of Moore’s best-known Irish Melodies (1808-34), such as “The Harp That Once through Tara’s Halls”, “The Origin of the Harp” and “Dear Harp of My Country”. Compared to the belligerent United Irish harp or Lady Morgan’s wild one, Moore’s harp however appears to be domesticated, more likely to be “sweet”, “soft” and “sad”, or to “sigh”, “weep” and be “silent” than to exhort to armed struggle. Moore’s Melodies were based on traditional Irish harp music but, with the help of composer Sir John Stevenson, Moore had transposed them for the pianos of the urban drawing-rooms of the British elites. We could thus similarly see Egan’s harps as a drawing-room transposition of the traditional Celtic harp, in an (extremely successful) effort to provide the same type of high-end clientele with a more modern and versatile instrument.

Moore’s Melodies however make it clear to the discerning reader that the harp is not silent or singing of jolly frivolities by choice but because it has been shackled by the chains of oppression and tyranny through centuries of British domination in Ireland. The harp in Moore’s Melodies is an ambiguous symbol, carefully balanced between ominous silence and apparently sweet song, in Moore’s own words, dressed in wreaths that are “half flow’rs, half chains.”

Moore’s Portable Irish Harp is nowadays in a similarly ambivalent position. It is at once on permanent display within the most prestigious cultural institution in Ireland, the Royal Irish Academy (whose Council meets surrounded by Moore’s personal library), and yet, it is likely to be viewed only by a select scholarly public. Moore’s harp is thus a metaphor for Moore’s position within Irish cultural nationalism and within Romantic Studies, where traces of his former reputation are beginning to re-emerge, but where he is yet to reoccupy his past position of prominence within mainstream scholarly and popular discourse.

Creator: John Egan

Date: 1821

Subject: Moore, Thomas, 1779-1852

Media rights: Royal Irish Academy from Twitter; permission granted for display on blog

Object type: musical instrument

Format: wood, metal and ivory

Language: not applicable 

Publisher: Royal Irish Academy

Location: Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin, Ireland

Digital collection record: Harp owned by Thomas Moore

Catalogue number: SR/Harp Case


Cullen, Emily. ‘From the Minstrel Boy to the Blameless Bard: The Play of the Harp in Moore’s Irish Melodies’. Thomas Moore: Texts, Contexts, Hypertext. Ed. Francesca Benatti, Sean Ryder, and Justin Tonra. Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2013. 45–58.

Hurrell, Nancy. The Egan Irish Harps: Traditions, Patrons and Players. Dublin: Four Courts, 2019.

Kelly, Ronan. Bard of Erin: The Life of Thomas Moore. Dublin: Penguin Ireland, 2008.

Leerssen, Joseph Th. Remembrance and Imagination : Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century. Cork: Cork University Press in association with Field Day, 1996.

O’Donnell, Mary Louise. ‘John Egan: An Innovator and Inventor: From: Ireland’s Harp: The Shaping of Irish Identity c. 1770-1880’. American Harp Journal (2015): 14–28.

Thuente, Mary Helen. The Harp Re-Strung: The United Irishmen and the Rise of Irish Literary Nationalism. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994.