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The Symbols of Ireland

by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

St. Patrick’s Day celebrations
In Moscow, Russia, 2012
by Кирилл Сергеев – wikimedia

This Irish feast has taken on a life of its own in countries around the world. On March 17, we are inundated with cartoons, clothing, even cards, embellished with images of the day: shamrocks, harps, elaborate crosses. Familiar as they may be now, what do they really have to do with St. Patrick’s Day?

Symbols provide a glimpse into the psyche of an artist – or an entire culture. Sometimes, patterns and figures evolve to express an idea. Other times, the meaning follows the motif. (For example, when previously pagan symbols take on Christian significance.) Just like language, a culture’s symbolism serves both as a time capsule and an evolving conveyance of modern ideals. Today, we’ll take a look at some common symbols associated with Ireland, and discover the meanings they carry.

 

St. Patrick
with a shamrock

Shamrocks and Four-Leaf Clovers

When you think “St. Patrick’s Day,” do you visualize a lucky four-leaf clover, or is it a shamrock? With its three leaves, the seamróg, or shamrock, is the true symbol of Ireland’s patron saint. Legend has it that Patrick used the plant to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity to pre-Christian Ireland. So, while you might want to wear a rare four-leaf clover to represent the “luck of the Irish,” only the tri-lobed seamróg represents St Patrick himself.

Of course, pre-Christian Irish art indicates that the island’s inhabitants already had a concept of “three-in-oneness.” But it’s still a nice legend, and a great example of how we can find new significance in existing symbolism.

 

Spirals and Knotwork

Trinity knot

triskelion

One ancient motif resembling the Trinity is the triskelion. Three arms spiral out from the center, with rotational symmetry. Spirals feature heavily in ancient Irish art, but there’s no way of knowing what the earliest artists wished to convey. Perhaps the spiral represented the course of heavenly bodies through the night sky.

detail from the Book of Kells

The triquetra, also known as a Trinity knot, is another indigenous emblem that found a Christian meaning. Its three distinct wings form an unbroken, never-ending whole. In one variation, a circle winds through the wings, further unifying the design. The triquetra is the simplest element of Celtic knotwork. Elaborate examples can be found in the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells, and on decorative crosses in churchyards up and down Ireland.

 

The Celtic Cross

A beautiful design that looks as striking on a tattooed arm as on a headstone in a cemetery, the Celtic cross is composed of a traditional Christian cross with a circle around the intersecting lines. The stem and arms of the cross are often decorated with elaborate knotwork.

Legend attributes this cross to St. Patrick himself. According to the story, Patrick stamped the cross over a circle representing the pagan sun god, emphasizing the spiritual importance of the cross by associating it with the life-giving powers of the sun.

 

A golden Claddagh ring by Royalcladdagh – wikimedia

Claddagh Rings

A heart for love, a crown for loyalty, and two hands for friendship: these are the elements present in every Claddagh ring. They originated in the small fishing village of Claddagh in Galway, possibly earlier than 1700, and are now popular as wedding rings the world over. The hand on which the ring is worn, and whether it’s worn facing inward or out, can communicate the romantic status of the wearer to one in the know.

 

The Irish Tricolor

Ireland’s flag has three vertical bars, of green, white, and orange. The green represents the sovereign Republic of Ireland, traditionally a Catholic nation. The orange represents Northern Ireland, which is thought of as a Protestant land, and has been part of the United Kingdom since 1921. And the white field in between? Referring to the strife between his divided countrymen, Irish nationalist Thomas Francis Meagher explained, “The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between Orange and Green and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.”

It’s a concept that’s still relevant, as governments discuss what the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will look like in a post-Brexit UK.

 

The Maid of Erin

Guinness by swissbhoy – Flickr

The Harp

As a nation of poets, storytellers, musicians, and bards, Ireland has long been represented by a harp. Before the tricolor flag, a banner commonly used was a golden harp (sometimes with a winged woman, the Maid of Erin, carved into it) in the center of a green field.

The Irish government wanted to trademark the harp symbol – but Guinness, hallowed creator of Ireland’s most famous stout, had gotten to it first, back in 1876. That means you’ll always see Guinness’s harp facing one way, and the government’s harp facing the other.

 

Beer

Speaking of Guinness, why does alcohol feature so heavily in modern St Patrick’s Day celebrations? It has to do with the calendar. No matter when Easter falls, the Lenten fast is already underway by the time March 17 rolls around. Until the 1970s, pubs in Ireland were closed – by law – on the day. The festivities were quiet indeed.

Dog and men gathered in Patrick Sullivan’s Bar, c. 1963

But somewhere along the line, Irish-American Catholics wanted to celebrate their honorary patron saint while still remaining pious, and so the restrictions on food and alcohol came to be lifted for the day. Try to fit 40 days’ worth of revelry into 24 hours, and excess is the natural result! This Americanized aspect of the holiday made its way back to Ireland in the 1990s, largely as an effort to promote tourism.

If you choose to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in this way, you’ll need a ready toast. Raise your glass and say “Sláinte!” (pronounced something like “SLAWN-chə” to drink the health of your party.

Thanks for joining me on this cultural expedition! I hope you’ll enjoy your St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all the more, having these few fragments of knowledge. Slán go fóill! (Bye for now!)

Vintage St. Patrick’s Day postcard with the motto “Erin go bragh,”or “Ireland forever”


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