Beyond the Shamrock

In March, everyone wants to be Irish and show off their connection to this island. As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, people around the world will search their closets for something green to wear and don a shamrock. It might be on a t-shirt, daubed on with face paint or even a fresh green sprig pinned to a jacket lapel. The shamrock is not only a classic symbol of Ireland, it is specific to St. Patrick because he used it symbolize the three-in-one concept of the Holy Trinity when he converted Ireland to Christianity. So those familiar three leaves will be everywhere from parade floats to Irish gifts.

It’s all about the shamrock this month, but it isn’t the only symbol of the Emerald Isle. How much do you know about these other popular symbols of Ireland?

Other Irish Symbols

Three has always been a significant number in Ireland. Before Christianity, our ancestors worshipped a triple goddess.  Ancient megalithic sites feature triple spiral stone carvings. The trinity knot is a natural symbol of Ireland, combining Celtic knotwork and our favorite number. It can represent many concepts, from the ancient triple goddess to the Christian Father Son and Holy Spirit to the more secular and universal past, present and future. However it is interpreted, it’s a popular motif for Irish gifts, particularly jewelry.

Another religious symbol dots the Irish countryside. Pretty much every village has a church, and every church has a graveyard. Clusters of Celtic crosses rise up there, but the symbol is not specific to graves. The most ancient Celtic crosses were used to display important stories from the Bible in pictorial form. Today, a Celtic cross is an essential piece of Irish jewelry.

The Irish government’s official symbol is not the shamrock. It’s the harp. This is a nod to our literary and musical heritage. In ancient times, the harpist did more than play music. He travelled from town to town, sharing news along with tunes. So the harp is part of our storytelling tradition. Under Brehon Law, harpists were nobility while other musicians were not.

A tiny fishing village in County Galway lends its name to a very romantic Irish symbol – the Claddagh. The hands represent friendship, the heart love and the crown loyalty. Originally designed as a ring, the symbol is now popular in pendants, earrings, and as a motif for many different Irish gifts.

Every March, St. Patrick shares the stage with another beloved Irishman. Is it even Paddy’s Day with a few leprechauns joining the festivities? This wee man, a denizen of the fairy world, is typically clad in a green suit and hat with black buckle shoes. He sports a red beard and, being immune to the health worries of us mere mortals, is fond of a pipe. And of course, he’s also usually wearing a shamrock.

Whether you are shopping for Irish gifts or just trying to pick out what to wear, it helps to know your Irish symbols. Knowing a bit about their history and meaning can help you decide which ones speak to you and which ones suit your friends and family.