Hear someone say “Ireland,” and any number of Irish symbols and meanings come to mind: shamrocks, the tricolor flag, pints of Guinness—maybe even leprechauns. But there are many symbols associated with the Emerald Isle, many of which have roots in Ireland’s distant past, even before Saint Patrick. Read on to learn a little more about the Irish symbols you do know, and some fun facts about the ones you don’t.
One of the most iconic celtic symbols in Irish jewelry, the Claddagh ring features a crowned heart clasped by two hands. Each of these elements has an important meaning that can be both a friendship symbol or one of many family symbols—the heart symbolizes love; the hands, friendship; and the crown, loyalty. The position in which a person wears the ring, too, has a meaning: if the heart points outward, the wearer is assumed to be single and looking for love, but if the heart points inward, the wearer is in a committed relationship. It is an immensely popular gift that signifies not only romantic love, but familial love and friendship as well.
The ring is believed to have its origins in the 17th century, when a man named Richard Joyce was captured from his home village, Claddagh, County Galway, by Algerian pirates. The pirates then sold Joyce to a goldsmith, who taught him the trade, and in his captivity, he designed the ring, intending it for the sweetheart he hoped waited for him back home. King William III ordered the release of any British subjects in captivity in Algeria—which, at the time, would have included the Irish—and after 14 years a slave, Richard Joyce was reunited with his faithful sweetheart, to whom he gave the ring he’d fashioned for her.
Whether or not this legend is true, the loyalty of both Joyce and his sweetheart makes for a perfect background to such an iconic piece of jewelry, and it is quite frequently set with gemstones and given as an engagement ring. Even mainstream American jewelry chains have caught on to the 300+ year-old “trend.”
The triskele—also called a triskelion—is a design featuring a triple spiral with rotational symmetry and appears as a motif in the artifacts of many early European cultures. Most notably in Ireland, the triskele appear in the calendar at Newgrange, the Neolithic tomb in County Meath, Ireland, built circa 3200 B.C. Though the symbol has now been incorporated into Celtic culture and Celtic jewelry, the construction of Newgrange—and thus, use of the triskele motif—actually predates the Celts’ arrival in Ireland. It is thought to be associated with the Irish sea god, Manannán mac Lir. The design was easily folded into Celtic imagery, and as Christianity spread throughout Europe, the three-part spiral took on a new meaning in relation to the Holy Trinity.
The symbol figures prominently in Celtic jewelry, as its swirl design is easily adaptable to brooches, pendants, and earrings. It has also become a popular image among contemporary pagan groups, especially Celtic Reconstructionists, who use the triskele both for its association with Manannán and to highlight the numerous triplicities in their beliefs. Many modern flags and logos, as well, use the triskele symbol, and the image has appeared in numerous science fiction and fantasy television series, including Star Trek.
The famous Celtic knot has various forms and is normally shown as a graphic representation of a decorative knot comprised of interlaced strands. The motif is ubiquitous throughout Celtic Insular art (meaning art created after the Roman period in Britain and Ireland, beginning roughly around 600 A.D.), and many various illustrations of Celtic knots can be seen in the Book of Kells. Most Celtic knots drawn, painted, and carved are endless knots of varying degrees of complexity. The meaning of the celtic knot is generally taken to signify the interconnectivity of the world along with continual emergence and rebirth, making it a favorite symbol of Ireland for representing family, love, and new beginnings.
The Trinity knot is an example of a slightly simpler, three-cornered knot, which sometimes features a circle in the center. The exact trinity knot meaning of the three corners is unknown, though, as it’s name suggests, many posit that the three points represent the Holy Trinity, as in the seventh century, Christianity had already begun to gain popularity in Ireland. It is possible, too, that the symbol is pre-Christian, as the number three held much significance to the pagan Celts, who believed the world was made up of three realms: earth, sea, and sky.
Like much Celtic art, the decorative knot fell somewhat from popularity, but was revived at times of political upheaval. During the Celtic Revival of the 19th century, with its emphasis on decorative arts that highlighted Ireland’s ancient past, the Celtic knot once again was regularly produced in jewelry and drawings. Since then, the image has not faded, and in in recent years it has even become an immensely popular design for Irish and Celtic tattoos.
The three-leaf clover is most widely-recognized symbol of Ireland, and since 1985, the most commercially official, when the government of Ireland trademarked the shamrock so that its image can be used only for Irish goods and companies. The plant takes its name from seamróg (Irish for “little clover” or “young clover”), and is not to be confused with its four-leaf cousin! Saint Patrick is rumored to have used the trefoil as a means of explaining the Holy Trinity to the druidic people of Ireland, and he is often depicted holding the clover in one hand and his staff in the other. In the late 18th century, as many nationalist groups began to form and agitate for an Irish republic independent of Britain’s rule, the shamrock began to take on a new meaning. After the failed rebellion of 1798, led by Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, it was used as a metaphor in of many of the ballads and poems eulogizing the fallen republicans.
Now, the shamrock can be stamped on glassware, sweatshirts, umbrellas, and even on the side of Aer Lingus planes. The shamrock on glassware is not only a decoration, but a nod to the Saint Patrick’s Day tradition of “drowning the shamrock,” wherein revelers place a sprig of the clover for good luck in a glass of whisky or beer before downing the beverage. Sláinte, indeed.
TREE OF LIFE
Called crann bethadh in Irish, the tree of life was a multi-faceted symbol for ancient Celts. The tree united the different planes world: the roots reached down into the underworld, the trunk grew in the earthly plane, and the leaves and branches grew up to the heavens. As in many cultures, the tree of life symbolized knowledge, as well as strength and longevity. It also represented the cycle of life, as it shed its leaves in the fall, remained dormant in winter, and was reborn in spring. Trees were both a gateway to the spiritual world and the origin of human life, as many Celts believe that mankind descended from trees.
More practically, a tree also represented shelter from the elements, firewood for cooking and warmth, and a place to meet. Celtic communities would often plant a large tree in the middle of their settlements and tend them with reverence and care, highlighting both the physical and spiritual centrality of the tree in ancient Irish culture. To cut down an enemy’s tree of life was considered a crushing victory.
Many images of the tree of life also incorporate the endless Celtic knot in the roots and branches, symbolizing the infinite cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Ogham is the alphabet used to write ancient Irish script, and is generally believed to have been in use from the first through the ninth centuries. Eventually consisting of 25 distinct characters, Ogham was written along a straight line that could be oriented either vertically or horizontally. The letters are represented by various combinations of shorter straight or diagonal lines inscribed perpendicular to or bisecting the baseline. The names of the different letters are also names of various trees and shrubs, and when Ogham writing is presented vertically, the words even resemble trees themselves.
There are nearly 400 surviving Ogham inscriptions throughout Ireland and western Britain, and the majority of the Irish ones can be found in southern Munster. While the remaining Ogham writing is seen only on stone monuments, Irish legends suggest that it was also done to convey short messages on wood and metal.
Like the triskelion, Ogham writing has experienced a small resurgence in popularity among many modern Druid and Neo-Pagan groups, who use Ogham writing for forms of divination, much like how people use ancient Norse runes to tell fortunes. It can also be seen in a popular jewelry motif in the form of the Anam Cara charm – anam cara translates from Old Irish as “soul mate.”
ST. BRIGID’S CROSS
St. Brigid’s Cross is a small, simple cross normally woven from rushes, featuring four arms tied at the ends and a square in the middle. It is thought to have pre-Christian origins but is today most associated with Saint Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s three patron saints. The cross was typically made on February 1st, the feast of Saint Brigid, and hung over windows and doorways to protect homes from harm.
Saint Brigid is believed to have been an early Christian abbess who founded several monasteries, the most famous and venerated of which is in Kildare, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries. The story regarding her namesake cross is as follows: when a pagan chieftain in a nearby town lay on his deathbed, Brigid visited the man to talk to him about Christ in hopes of converting him. Unfortunately, by the time she arrived, the man was raving, and seemed unable to understand any religious teachings. Brigid is said to have picked up some reeds from the floor and begun weaving them into a cross. The chieftain calmed enough to ask her what she was doing, and she explained to him about the teachings of Christianity, which inspired him to ask that he be baptized before he died.
However, there is some debate as to whether she was a real person, especially since she has the same name as the Celtic goddess Brigid, whose feast day, Imbolc, also falls on February 1st, when the Irish pagans would celebrate the beginning of spring. It is possible that the veneration of Saint Brigid began as a practice to syncretize emerging Christian traditions with existing pagan ones.
A tall stone cross with a circle around its intersection, carved with intricate knots—it’s an image you’ll see in everyone’s vacation snapshots from the Emerald Isle. The Celtic cross has become an iconic representation of Ireland, especially of the country’s Christian and Pagan heritage. Many associate the Celtic cross meaning with Saint Patrick, who is rumored to have combined the symbol of the cross with that of the sun in order to explain to pagans the importance and the strength of Christianity. Some crosses are inscribed with Ogham writing.
Large Celtic crosses still dot the Irish countryside, usually at the site of ancient monasteries. The first known examples of these crosses date from the ninth century and scholars believe that by roughly 1200, the fervor for building these crosses slowed.
Now, the Celtic cross can be found all over the world, on walls, depicted in painting or stained glass, or more popularly, as jewelry. Many Christians of Irish descent choose to wear a Celtic cross pendant in lieu of a standard one in order to display both their beliefs and their heritage with pride. Some Celtic cross jewelry even exchanges the circle for the Claddagh, combining two iconic emblems of Irish tradition and faith.
The harp has been the symbol of Ireland long before the shamrock rose to prominence, and while it may not be as ubiquitous today as the clover, you’ll still find it stamped on everything from Irish Euros to Guinness glasses—the brewery trademarked the harp as its emblem in 1876 (the Guinness harp faces right, whereas the left-facing harp is the national symbol of Ireland). In ancient Ireland, the bard was one of the most important figures, as they would act as transmitters of culture and history through their poems and songs. Despite not being nobles themselves, bards were held in especially high social regard, as their chronicles, tunes, and stories wielded no small amount of power in a culture that was largely oral. The harp was typically the bard’s instrument of choice. The figure of the bard began to lose significance in Irish culture as the English Tudor dynasty reasserted power in Ireland, as many aspects of ancient Hibernian society began to go the way of legend.
Like the shamrock, the harp regained popularity as a symbol among nationalist groups, especially as it represented Ireland’s rich legacy as an enlightened, musical culture—a sharp contrast to the stereotype of Irish people as drunken, uneducated bandits that many English colonizers attempted to promulgate. Today, not many antique Celtic harps remain—one of the estimated oldest is called the Brian Boru harp, a 15th century harp on view at Trinity College. It was once purported to have belonged to Brian Boru, an 11th century High King of Ireland, but this assertion was quickly disproved. It is, nevertheless, a beautiful example of the medieval Celtic harp.