May is a beautiful month in Ireland. The fields are resplendent in their famous 40 shades of green. And of course, the luscious green emerald is May’s birthstone – a bonus for Irish folks born in this glorious month. But grass is green everywhere. How did green become a symbol of Ireland?
Once upon a time, green wasn’t especially linked to Ireland. More Irish symbols were blue. St. Patrick was associated with blue and pictured in a blue robe. That might have been inspired by Flaitheas Eireann, the mythological female figure who represented Ireland and also wore a blue robe. The Order of St. Patrick, a chivalrous order of knights established by King George III in 1783, wore a distinctive shade of light blue that became known as Patrick’s blue. Yet Irish gifts today are more likely to be green than blue. So what happened?
The Color of Freedom
While American school children grow up learning about the Redcoats and the battle for their nation’s independence from Britain, the British flag features both red and blue. And the British in Ireland were associated with blue. The patriots fighting for Ireland’s freedom needed a different look.
Inspiration was all around them – literally. We rarely pause to consider how green became Ireland’s color because it seems obvious. Those rich, vibrant fields and their 40 shades of green along with Patrick’s famous use of the shamrock seem like obvious reasons. And those facts did factor into the rebels choosing green to represent Ireland in the 1800s. Its popularity grew along with the momentum for independence.
When Thomas Francis Meagher designed the current Irish flag, he used the green to represent Irish Catholics. The orange was for Protestants in Ireland, who used the color in reference to William of Orange. The white in the middle symbolizes peace.
The earliest recorded reference to Ireland as the emerald isle is in the poetry of William Drennan. His 1795 poem When Erin First Rose refers to Ireland as ‘The em’rald of Europe.’ The poem also uses the exact phrase ‘the emerald Isle’. Drennan was a founding member of the United Irishmen as well as a physician. His poem describes Ireland as a jewel. The first stanza reads:
When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;
The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,
In the ring of the world the most precious stone.
Such a fitting description endured. This wee island is indeed a precious gem to those who love it. A nation of poets and romantics are prone to be sentimental about their homeland. The lush green beauty of Ireland is only more obvious now than it was centuries ago because we have the technology to see it from the sky, even from space.