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Why Emeralds Feature on Irish Gifts

Why is Ireland called the ‘emerald isle’? The ‘isle’ part is obvious as this is a small island, but how did emeralds come into the picture? They are mined in Africa and South America, not Europe. Most European royalty has always been fond of gems from afar, but Irish royalty were generally more down to earth than their counterparts. Ancient Irish kings and queens were generally more interested in livestock and weapons than jewels.  It would be easy to assume that this wee island became linked with a stunning green gemstone because of the landscape of rolling, verdant green fields. While that’s the image that might come to mind when people hear the phrase ‘the emerald isle’, that isn’t quite how Ireland gained that nickname.

Why is Ireland called the Emerald Isle?

The answer lies where we find so much of Irish culture examined and explained – in poetry. The oldest known use of the term ‘emerald isle’ is in a poem written in 1795. ‘When Erin First Rose’ by William Drennan twice compares Ireland to an emerald. The opening verse describes Ireland as ‘the em’rald of Europe’ and later in the poem he uses the exact phrase ‘the emerald isle’.

It isn’t entirely clear if Drennan coined the phrase, but scholars haven’t found an older reference to the term, which is pretty compelling considering how much poetry and song this island has produced for centuries. Regardless, the name stuck. Celtic jewelry is one of the most popular Irish gifts, and rings, necklaces, earrings and other pieces often feature emeralds in a traditional motif such as the Newgrange triple spiral or the Claddagh.

Emerald Jewelry
Who First Called Ireland the Emerald Isle?

William Drennan was an extremely accomplished man. Ireland has always embraced leaders who love literature and the arts. Our history books are full of political leaders who were also writers. Drennan was a physician, a poet and a political leader. Along with Theobald Wolfe Tone and others, he was a founder of The Society of United Irishman. The United Irishmen formed in 1791 in Belfast to advocate for Irish independence. Influenced by the French revolution, the United Irishmen were a driving force behind the 1798 rebellion.

William Drennan

Born in Belfast in 1754, Drennan was the son of Presbyterian minister. After earning his medical degree in Edinburgh, he returned to Belfast for a few years before moving on to Newry and eventually settling in Dublin. Over time, he became a passionate supporter of Catholic Emancipation. He was also vocal in his support of American independence. He was tried and acquitted of sedation in 1794 for his political activity in support of Irish freedom. Throughout, he continued to write, and he practiced obstetrics until 1800, when he returned to Belfast and devoted himself more fully to writing. Drennan died at age 65.

William Drennan might not be a household name, but his eloquence gave us an enduring term – the emerald isle. That in turn helped make sparkling green gemstones such a popular choice on Irish gifts, specifically Irish jewelry.