The Symbols of Ireland

Irish sheep at Sheep's Head Peninsula

Quick- what’s the first thing you think of when you think of Ireland?

Green?

OK, now what’s the second thing?

Shamrocks in Ireland
Shamrocks in Ireland

Did you say shamrock? The green tri-leaved clover is often associated with Ireland thanks to St. Patrick who is said to have used the young clover to explain the Holy Trinity to the Celtic kings of Ireland in the 5th century.

Speak Irish: seamair óg (shamir og- it almost sounds like shamrock!) means ‘young plant’ in Irish.

 Symbols of Ireland

The prominence of the shamrock in Irish images, clothing, and tradition might lead you to think that it is the official symbol of Ireland. 

But though it it the flower of Ireland, the official symbol of Ireland is something different….

The Official Symbol of Ireland

Brian Boru Harp at Trinity College
The official emblem of Ireland is the harp. This Celtic harp, called the Brian Boru Harp, from the 14th or 15th century is on display at Trinity College in Dublin.

Ireland’s official emblem is the harp. Or, more specifically, the Celtic harp. The harp used as a model for the Presidential seal and Irish passports (as well as the world-wide symbol of Guinness) is the Brian Boru Harp, which is on display in the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin.

Speak Irish: Cláirseach (clor-shuch) is the Irish word for harp.

Color a Celtic harp (printable)

More Irish Symbols

The shamrock and harp aren’t the only symbols that may cross your mind when you think of Ireland! 

How many of these symbols do you associate with Ireland?

Celtic knots Found on Irish dance dress and jewelry, these ‘never-ending’ knots were inspired by ancient carvings and the Book of Kells. 

Foy School of Irish Dance

Claddagh The heart, hands, and crown signify love, friendship, and loyalty. The claddagh ring is said to have been created by Richard Joyce in the late 17th century. 

gold claddagh ring

Brigid’s Cross This small cross woven of rushes are associated with St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints.  These crosses are usually made to mark St. Brigid’s Day, February 1, and are usually set over doorways or windows to protect the home from harm.

Saint Brigid's cross By Culnacreann

Celtic Cross or High Cross  First appearing in the 9th century the Celtic Cross is a ringed cross on a stepped base. Made of stone these crosses are usually found at monastic centers or churches and are carved to depict biblical scenes.

Celtic Cross at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Ireland

Sheep It’s hard to imagine Ireland without sheep dotting the hills!

Irish sheep at Sheep's Head Peninsula

Leprechauns and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow Leprechauns are a fairy of Irish folklore known for cobbling shoes when not playing jokes on unsuspecting humans. Their wealth lies in pots of gold which can only be found at the end of the rainbow. If you capture a leprechaun it is said he will offer you three wishes in exchange for his release!

leprechaun with pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

What other symbols of Ireland can you think of?

References if you wish to know more:

Learn about Celtic knots on Irish dance dresses.

Read the legend of the Claddagh ring.

Learn about the colors of Ireland.

The Colors of Ireland

40 shades of green on Inis Oirr, Aran Islands, Ireland

The Emerald Isle. A country with more verdant shades than the eye can distinguish.

It just stands to reason that the national color of Ireland is green.

Or is it?40 shades of green on Inis Oirr, Aran Islands, Ireland

How many shades of green can you see?

Does Ireland Really Have 40 Shades of Green?

During a visit to Ireland in 1959 country singer Johnny Cash wrote a song titled ‘Forty Shades of Green’.

But are there truly 40 shades? It would seem a good guess, though no one has ever recorded all 40 distinct shades if the green in Ireland.

But if you count everything from the yellow-green of new spring grass to the deep blue-green of the ocean, I bet you could come up with at least 40 different shades.

Speak Irish: glas (pronounced gloss) is the Irish word for green

St. Patrick’s Blue

Long before Johnny Cash’s ’40 Shades of Green’, St. Patrick’s Blue was considered the national color of Ireland. A dark, rich hue, St. Patrick’s Blue was adopted by the Anglo-Irish Order of St. Patrick in the 1780s.

Today this blue is seen on the Coat of Arms of Ireland and the Standard of the President of Ireland, as well as the racing colors of horses at the Irish National Stud.

Coat of Arms of Ireland and the Standard of the President of Ireland
The coat of arms of Ireland is a St. Patrick’s Blue background with an Irish harp

Speak Irish: gorm (pronounced ger-um) is the Irish word for blue

Gold

The Irish Harp, the official national emblem of Ireland, is always shown in gold.

Speak Irish: óir (pronounced  or) is the Irish word for gold

The Irish Tricolor

The national flag of Ireland is three colors: Green, White, and Orange, with the green at the hoist.

The first tricolor Irish flag was presented to Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848, a gift from a group of French women sympathetic to the Irish nationalist cause. It was intended to symbolize the inclusion and hoped for peace (white) between the Roman Catholics (green) and the Protestants (orange).

Flag of Ireland | Irish Tricolor
The Irish Tricolor has been used as the national flag of Ireland since 1916.

Speak Irish: oráiste (pronounced er-aw-ste) is the Irish word for orange

What is the Official Color of Ireland?

The short answer is that there isn’t one.

While the Irish government uses the blue of the Coat of Arms for everything from the President’s standard and the cover of the Irish constitution to the carpets in the Dáil (Parliament) and Seanad (upper house of Parliament), green is recognized the world over as being the color of Ireland.

References if you wish to know more:

Hear spoken words in Irish:

Green

Blue

Orange

Learn more Irish! Get a free Irish for Beginners course from Bitesize Irish Gaelic.

Collins Very First Irish Words (affiliate link from Amazon) is a great resource for learning the first, simple Irish words. The paperback version should come with a CD to assist with pronunciation.

What Do the Celtic Knots on Irish Dance Dresses Mean?

Foy School of Irish Dance

The next time you’re at an Irish Festival or a dance competition take a few minutes to look at the dresses that surround you. While the flashy solo dresses will first catch your eye, look to the groups of matching dresses.

Young students at the Foy School of Irish Dance
The Celtic knot for the Foy School of Irish Dance is easily recognizable on the young dancers’ dresses.

Celtic Knots on Irish Dance Dresses

The Celtic knot work on the dresses tells you, at a glance, which school the dancer attends.

The Celtic Revival movement by the Gaelic League to promote Irish culture – including Irish dance, language and sport- in  1893 led to development of Irish dance ‘costumes’ for performance and competition.

Popular Irish dance legend says that each school chose their individual knot from the Book of Kells but according to Dr. John Cullinane, historian for The Irish Dancing Commission in Dublin and author of eleven books on the history of Irish Dance,

“There is no truth at all that schools had to choose Celtic knots from the Book of Kells. None what so ever.

 Each school was free to design their own Celtic designs from whatever sources or even / usually designed their own. Originally (the designs were) very broadly based on the Book of Kells  and other similar Celtic works of art –  to justify their Irishness and use on costumes .”

 

Can you find your Celtic knot, or a similar one, in the Book of Kells?

Is There a Purpose of the Celtic Knot on Irish Dance Dresses?

Because each school has their own knot-work dancers can be instantly recognized by their dresses, jackets, or clothes. Think of the school knot as a ‘team emblem’ that shows your pride, loyalty, and support of your school.

Printable Celtic Knots

The Foy Celtic Knot

Foy School of Irish Dance

The Foy School of Irish Dance knot is a Celtic shield knot. An ancient symbol of protection, this knot was placed near ill people or on battle shields for warding off evil spirits.

If you think about it, this is the perfect knot for wearing into your own ‘battle’ at a Feis!

The shield knot is recognized by its four distinct quadrants or corners.

References if you wish to know more:

The Meaning of Celtic Knot Symbols

The Evolution of Irish Dance Dresses (opinion article)

Order Dr. John Cullinane’s books directly by email: cullinanejohn@eircom.net