Trinity College Dublin

Brian Boru's Harp

Currently on display in Trinity College Dublin, is a harp that was made in 1220 for Donnchadh Cairbre O'Brien, King of Thomond and descendant of Brian Boru High King of Ireland from 1002 until 1014. Donnchadh had transferred his capital of Thomond from Cashel and Limerick to Ennis to preserve his reduced kingdom, which was now coping with the Norman arrival.

The harp was sent in 1221 to Scotland to settle a ransom for Muireadach O’Daly, a celebrated bard who had killed a steward of another noble in defence of his trade, and fled to Scotland. Despite many efforts by O’Brien to buy back the harp it did not reappear until the time of Henry VIII, when the King of England granted it to the Earl of Clanrickarde in 1543.

The Earl sold it on to a Lady Huxley, from whom it passed to one Henry McMahon of Clenagh Co. Clare, at least once again on Irish soil. It had various owners then from McNamara, R. Ouseley in 1778 and a Colonel Conygham in 1781. This latter gave it to Trinity College Dublin the following year.

Brian Boru was High King of Ireland from 1002 until 1014 when he died at the Battle of Clontarf. His armies were victorious and had defeated the combined rebel forces of the King of Leinster Mael Mordha and King Sigtrygg of Dublin, and their Viking allies from overseas. It is thought that this was an attempt by the Danes to establish total control over Ireland via Dublin, as they had done in England from their seat in York.

This victory for Brian was of mythic proportion ending as it did any Viking pretensions and his death whilst High King was almost martyr-like. The originator of the Clan O’Brien, Brian Boru’s legacy is a reminder of the strength of a unified Ireland, the symbol for which has become the harp. This symbol was used as the official seal of the Irish Free State in 1922 and remains the Presidents’ Seal. It is used on many state documents, as well as the Irish passport and flag of Leinster, and Irish euro coins. Both Guinness and Ryan Air use this symbol commercially.