Symbols

While no one would argue that green clothing and shamrock jewelry may be adequate attire for celebrating St. Patrick”s Day, the authentic symbols of this Irish feast day have a long and complicated history.

Shamrocks

Shamrocks may be the most recognizable of all of the symbols of St. Patrick”s Day. Stylized versions adorn stationery, flyers announcing parades and St. Patrick”s Day greeting cards. Collections of clip art featuring Kelly green sprays of shamrocks are also readily available on the Internet.

Irish legend has it that St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the unity of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

In fact, no real shamrock plant exists. “Shamrock” comes from the Irish Gaelic word seamrog, which means “little clover.” The Irish national emblem typically refers to the white clover plant.

The four-leaf clover is the known bearer of good luck. While three leaves of the clover plant are said to represent faith, hope and charity, the fourth leaf symbolizes good luck.

The Celtic Harp

The Celtic harp or Irish harp is far more visible in Ireland than the shamrock. As the national symbol of Ireland, the triangular harp is found on:

  • currency
  • the Great Seal of the Irish Free State
  • the historical green flag of Ireland
  • various government seals and documents.

You”ll even see it on Guinness labels, glassware and other Irish merchandise.

Snakes

Although no historical evidence supports the event, St. Patrick is credited with driving all the snakes out of Ireland. Depending on the version of the legend, he drove them into the sea either after giving a sermon on a hilltop or by fasting and meditating for forty days on a mountain. Either way, the snakes fled into the sea and drowned. Actually, the Ice Age took care of any snakes that might have been in Ireland.

During the Ice Age, Ireland was buried in a deep layer of ice, and snakes were unable to survive. By the time the enormous glacier had melted and the land was able to sustain snakes, Ireland had drifted twelve miles away from England. With the Irish Sea as a barrier, no snakes were able to migrate back to Ireland. For this reason, snakes aren”t indigenous to Ireland. However, the legend of St. Patrick is an allegory that represents the deliverance of Ireland from paganism.

Leprechauns

Leprechauns have little to do with St. Patrick”s Day”s. In Irish legend, leprechauns are a far cry from their happy-go-lucky modern counterparts. They were generally seen as bad-tempered spirits, capable of great mischief. While they did have pots of gold that they would have to relinquish if a human caught them, the leprechaun was likely to come after you later to get revenge.

Modern depictions of the leprechaun are usually paired with pots of shiny gold coins situated at the end of a rainbow. In 1959, a Disney film called Darby O”Gill and the Little People starred a crafty old Irishman who was determined to make a fortune by capturing the King of the Leprechauns.

Shillelaghs

Right alongside shamrocks and leprechauns as ubiquitous symbols of St. Patrick”s Day is the stout walking stick known as the shillelagh (pronounced shah-lay-lee).

In Irish history, the shillelagh was made of oak, blackthorn or another hard wood and was often used as a weapon. The stick had a knobby burl on the handle end that could be hollowed out and reinforced with lead, creating a deadly cudgel. Young boys practiced warrior arts with shillelaghs, much as kids today feign martial arts skills with long sticks.

A common Irish saying goes “An Irishman”s heart is as stout as a shillelagh.” This analogy comparing the heart to a solid piece of wood is meant to highlight the loyalty and strength that serve as two ideal Irish qualities.

Other Irish Symbols

The ornamental Celtic knot and the Celtic cross are also well-known Irish symbols. Celtic knots appear in sculptures, jewelry pieces, masonry and burial mounds all over Ireland.

The Claddagh ring, another sentimental Irish favorite, is still used at traditional Irish weddings. It features a crown on a heart held by two hands. The crowned heart symbolizes loyalty, and the hands represent friendship. The Irish phrase that accompanies the Claddagh ring goes, “Let love and friendship reign.”

Resource

Emick, Jennifer (n.d.). Celtic Symbols. Retrieved April 15, 2008, from the About.com Web site.