Green’s Dictionary of Slang

harp n.1

[the reverse of an Irish coin once pictured Hibernia and her harp, the ‘national instrument’ of Ireland]

1. a woman.

[UK]Grose Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue.
[UK]Lex. Balatronicum.
[UK]Egan Grose’s Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue.
[US]Matsell Vocabulum.

2. (Irish) the ‘tail’ (reverse side) of coin; thus a halfpenny minted in Ireland (see cit. 1823).

[UK]Grose Classical Dict. of the Vulgar Tongue n.p.: Harp is also the Irish expression for woman, or tail, used in tossing up in Ireland: from Hibernia, being represented with a harp on the reverse of the copper coins of that country.
[UK]M. & R. Lovell Edgeworth Essays on Irish Bulls 128: A quarrel happened between two shoeblacks, who were playing at what in England is called pitch farthing, or heads and tails, and in Ireland, head or harp.
[UK]Lex. Balatronicum [as cit. 1785].
[UK]‘Jon Bee’ Dict. of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, etc. 93: Harp — the arms of Ireland, placed on the reverse of their copper coin, whereby halfpence get that denomination.
[Ire]S. O’Casey Plough and the Stars Act III: Go on, toss them again [...] Harps, a tanner.
[UK]Lancaster Gaz. (Lancs) 28 June 3/5: Palmers are persons who visit shops under pretence of collecting harp halfpence [...] while he pretends to search for harps, he contrives to conceal as much as possible in the palm of his hand.
[UK]Rochdale Obs. 24 Dec. 6/2: Sometimes [...] the ‘palmers’ indice the shop-keeper to search for ‘harp’ halfpennies or ‘lion’ shillings.
L. Fleming Head or Harp 30: ‘Toss you for it, head or harp.’ ‘Harp?’ ‘Look, stupid, this side of the penny’s the head, that’s the harp.’.
[Ire](con. 1930s–50s) E. Mac Thomáis Janey Mack, Me Shirt is Black 116: Up went the flyers – a head and a harp [...] The cheapest horse I ever saw wasn’t sold, he was gambled on ‘harps’ at the pitch-and-toss school in the Brickfields for ten pounds.
[Ire](con. 1930s) K.C. Kearns Dublin Tenement Life 124: See, on the penny there was a head on one side and a harp on the other and they’d be tossing that. It was ‘heads you win, harps you lose’.

3. (US) an Irish person.

[US]C.L. Cullen Taking Chances 238: This Harp from Connemara.
[US]C. Connors Bowery Life [ebook] About a week after dis big harp goes into a Chinese laundry for his wash wid anudder harp named Clancy.
[US]T.A. Dorgan Daffydils 9 Oct. [synd. cartoon strip] Honus Reilly the Dutch harp and Benny Dickteen were holding an earnest conversation in the Dingbat Cafe.
[UK]P. Marks Plastic Age 169: ‘He’s a harp,’ said a brother scornfully. ‘At any rate, he’s a Catholic.’.
[US](con. 1920s) Dos Passos Big Money in USA (1966) 792: The foreman was a big loud-mouthed harp.
[US]D. Runyon ‘Bred for Battle’ in Runyon on Broadway (1954) 623: A guy [...] by the name of Shamus Mulrooney, the Fighting Harp?
[US]N. Algren Never Come Morning (1988) 110: Adamovitch. Milano. Comisky. A Polack, wallio and a harp.
[US]B. Schulberg On the Waterfront (1964) 173: You dumb harp, you must like gettin’ hit in the head.
[US]R. Dougherty Commissioner 265: He was a very dumb harp that Paddy.
[US]G.V. Higgins Digger’s Game (1981) 32: Those’re hard Harps.
[US]T. Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities 104: He’s your basic Irish who made good, but he’s still a Harp.
[UK]N. Cohn Heart of the World 9: Friggin’ Harps, straight off the friggin’ boats.

SE in slang uses

In phrases

play the harp (v.) (also play a harp) [the harp-playing angels of heaven]

to die.

[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 12 July 9/3: [T]here were but two candidates, both just about seventy years old! As the term of representation is seven years, the lucky candidate will probably be playing a harp ere his term runs out.
[US]‘Max Brand’ ‘Fixed’ in Coll. Stories (1994) 247: ‘Little David, play on your harp!’ shouted the ringside jester.
[Aus]A. Weller Day of the Dog 90: ’E’s ’istory if I catch ’im. E’ll be playin’ ’is ’arp.
[US] (ref. to WWII) L. Cleveland Dark Laughter 115: For most World War 2 soldiers the concept of death was masked by euphemisms like [...] playing a harp.