The Symbols of Ireland and their Significance in the Irish Culture Explained
Updated On: December 16, 2022
Irish heritage embraces numerous symbols and each one has its own significance. Most importantly, the symbols of Ireland unravel the creativity of the folks who use them. Let’s check out these Irish symbols and learn about what they really mean!
Many centuries ago, the Celts built their own civilisation with unique customs, festivals and beliefs. Many countries in Western Europe were influenced by the Celtic people, but perhaps none more than the island of Ireland.
There are many other reasons behind the existence of the symbols of Ireland which we will now explore.
Tri-Color Flag of Ireland – Irish symbols
Over the years, flags of countries can change for different causes and political reasons. This happened in Ireland. In 1848, Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish nationalist and revolutionary, introduced the Irish flag that we see today. He introduced it after Ireland became independent from the British Empire; Meagher received the tricolour as a gift from a group of French women who were sympathetic to Irish Nationalism.
This flag has become recognised as one of the symbols of Ireland, because of what the colours represent. The three colours of green, white, and orange, respectively, have an important meaning of unity.
The Significance of the Irish Flag Colours as Irish symbols
The green colour on the left side of the flag represents Roman Catholic people.
On the right side of the flag comes the orange colour. It represents Protestants. You may be wondering why exactly orange was used? Well, William III of England was popularly known as “William Henry of Orange”. People used to associate the orange colour with William III of England. Thus, orange was used to represent Protestants. Finally, the white colour in the middle symbolised peace and unity. The flag was adopted to illustrate that the two cultures have finally made peace and a lasting truce with one another.
Yes, the green colour has always been associated with Irish culture. We can see this on streets during Saint Patrick’s Day, where everyone wears green. Everything turns green on that day, even food, rivers and famous landmarks. It’s also the colour of the shamrock leaf and the costumes of the fairy Leprechauns.
The Shamrock – Symbols of Ireland
Here is one of the most iconic symbols of Ireland, the shamrock. The shamrock is a three-leafed clover that grows all around Ireland.
What this little plant signifies can be divided into two different things. The first thing is that some people believe that this clover is very lucky. The reason behind this is that the Celts consider the number three to be a very magical one. In mythology for example, there are triple gods and goddesses such as the Morrigan who are extremely powerful. Therefore, because of its three leaves, the shamrock is seen as a fortune bringer and Irish people like to keep it in their homes.
On the other hand, some people claim that the three leaves in the shamrock represent the Holy Trinity. There are claims that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, spread Christianity by using the shamrock. Did you know? It is an Irish tradition to wear shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day.
A four leaf clover is also considered lucky. This is because it is a rare mutation of the white leaf clover plant and the chances of finding it are said to be 1 in 10,000! You can find out the real reason behind the luck of the Irish in our dedicated blog! As the old Irish proverb goes: ‘An rud is annamh is iontach’ which mans rare things are beautiful!
Irish Harp – Symbols of Ireland
The harp may be easy to overlook as a symbol of Ireland if you are not familiar with it, but its significance as an Irish symbol is up there with the shamrock!
Music was highly integrated into the culture of the Celts. They love music and art and they express that through the festivals they hold every year. Even their pantheon of Gods, the Tuatha de Danann were skilled in and valued one’s musical ability; they saw magic, intelligence, proficiency in the arts and strength as necessary skills for any champion of the Gods.
While music is a worldwide spoken language, the Irish in particular have their own musical instruments and style of music.
Such instruments are symbols of Ireland, including the Irish Harp and the Bodhran Drum. Although both of them are related to Irish culture, we don’t see the Bodhran Drum portrayed as a symbol of Ireland as often. However, the Irish Harp is one of the most popular symbols of Ireland. People also refer to it as either the Gaelic Harp or the Celtic Harp. It’s not limited to Ireland, for it’s also popular in Scotland, in which people refer to it as the clàrsach.
What does the Irish Harp symbolise? Well, during the Gaelic times, the Irish people loved entertaining their guests. They did so by using their harp to play some nice rhythmic music. In the 8th century, Benedictine monks wrote documents in which the harp was featured, once again highlighting its importance in Ireland.
More signs include having the harp featured on the coins that were used during the 1500s. Even the currency used in the Republic of Ireland today (Euros) features the harp. All Irish Euro coins feature the same iconic harp design.
Before the tricolour, the harp was actually used in the design of the flag of Ireland as far back as 1642. From the 18th to the 19th centuries, the harp became part of the national flag of Ireland, it was even featured in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It was only in 1916 that the tricolor replaced the original flag. This flag had a green background and a golden/yellow harp.
As you can tell the Irish Harp became and still is a very important symbol of Ireland. Even the Guinness logo is a harp!
Claddagh Ring – Symbols of Ireland
This is actually one of the most romantic symbols of Ireland, known as the Claddagh Ring. It consists of a crowned heart that is held by two hands. The Ring is often exchanged as a promise ring and is one of many eccentric Irish wedding traditions for it represents love, friendship and loyalty.
The hands represent friendship, the heart represents love and the crown represents loyalty.
The rings are traditionally given as gifts; couples gift them to each other as a promise ring. You can also receive it as a gift from a friend or loved one. It can also be used as either a wedding or engagement ring and these Claddagh rings are usually inherited; mothers often handed them down to their own daughters.
Claddagh rings can be worn by either men or women and you can buy one for yourself if you want. One thing worth noting is the way you wear the ring can tell people about your relationship status. According to tradition:
- There are four ways to wear the ring which tell people of your relationship status. If you are engaged the ring is worn on your left ring finger facing outward. If married, the ring remains on your left hand, but is turned so the heart is facing inwards or ‘closed’.
- If the ring is worn on the right ring finger with the heart pointing out, the wearer is single and looking for love. If the ring finger is worn on the right finger facing in, the wearer’s heart already belongs to someone.
The Origins of the Tradition
All of the customs we practice today originally began somewhere in the past. This applies to all of the symbols of Ireland, including the Claddagh ring. The origin of this tradition is shrouded with mystery. People are not sure how the customs they are carrying out nowadays originated but, we have two stories telling us about the creation of the Claddagh ring and why it became one of the symbols of Ireland. However, both stories feature different members of the Joyce family.
The Slavery of Richard Joyce
Galway is a county in the West of Ireland, popular for being a famous fishing village. A group of the most influential people who lived there many centuries ago were known as the 14 Tribes of Galway, and this included members of the Joyce family. One of the most famous figures of the Joyce family was Richard.
One day, when sailing from Galway to the West Indies, Richard was captured by Algerian pirates and sold into slavery. His master was a goldsmith and Richard remained under his sponsorship for 14 years, becoming an expert craftsman. However, in 1689, William III of England released all of the British subjects and Richard was finally free. His master goldsmith was sad to see him leave; he tried to convince Richard to stay by offering half of his wealth and his daughter’s hand in marriage, but still, Richard refused.
On his way back home to Galway, Richard learned that his one true love was still waiting for him. Thus, he created the Claddagh ring to offer it to her, as a marriage gift. He married his beloved and led a healthy and happy life as a successful goldsmith with his wife wearing the first ever Claddagh ring.
Until this very day, Claddagh rings exist as an Irish symbol of love from ancient times. You can see the earliest surviving Claddagh ring at Galway City Museum. They seem to be the earliest surviving ones and they are marked with Joyce’s initials. That is one reason to attribute the origin of the custom to him, while it can’t be proved 100%, the historic timeline can be supported.
Why is it called the Claddagh Ring?
The ring is named after the little fishing village in Claddagh where it is believed to have been first created by Richard Joyce. The Claddagh literally means ‘rocky shore’. The small village is within walking distance from Galway’s city centre (2km) and beside the city’s museum (850m). It is a beautiful picturesque location.
An Eagle Dropped the Very First Claddagh Ring
Another theory about the origin of the Claddagh ring is a bit more far-fetched. Have you read the title of the story clearly? Well, that is pretty much all of it! This time, the story concerns Margaret Joyce. She was rather known as Margaret of the Bridges as she built the bridges of Connacht. She actually built them by using her substantial inheritance from her first marriage to a wealthy Spanish merchant.
It all started when she married the mayor of Galway in 1596. His name was Oliver Ogffrench. On a regular day, an eagle flew over Margaret’s head and dropped a ring into her lap. It was the very first Claddagh ring. Margaret believed it was a gift from heaven. And that was how the Claddagh ring became one of the most recognised symbols of Ireland.
Which story do you prefer? Both are interesting to say the least!
The Celtic Cross – Symbols of Ireland
The Celtic cross is instantly recognisable for its beautiful design. It’s one of the main symbols of Ireland and Scotland. It can be seen across hundreds of cemeteries in Ireland. It also extends to different places around Europe, including England and Wales.
We cannot quite confirm where these special crosses originated from. There are different competing tales which describe different origins about the tradition we observe today. One popular theory claims that St. Patrick was the one to introduce this Celtic cross to Ireland. He converted many people from Paganism to Christianity.
The circle represented the sun which pagans worshipped. Adding it to the cross was Saint Patrick’s way of showing that Christianity would incorporate their culture instead of just destroying it. Celtic Christianity existed in Ireland which preserved part of Celtic customs, festivals and traditions before it was overtaken by a more traditional form of Christianity.
However, there are different groups of people that believe those sources that claim otherwise. These sources actually profess that the introduction of this cross was done by either St. Declan or St. Columba.
The difference between the Celtic cross and the ordinary one is the circle found intersecting both the stem and arms. It may not represent the sun. Such are the joys of Celtic traditions; many things were only written down centuries after Christianity arrived in Ireland and some things were not recorded at all, so early Irish history can be a bit murky at times.
The Celtic Tree of Life – Symbols of Ireland
This is another recognisable icon among the symbols of Ireland. You can often see them on different types of decorations including tapestries. The a tree has been the symbol of harmony and balance to the Celts of the ancient times. They believed that trees were the ancestors of man and acted as the gateway to the Otherworld or afterlife.
Generally, the Celts have always appreciated the existence of trees. They played a part in shaping their culture and beliefs. The Celts also believe in the power of Fairy Trees and respected them greatly. Those trees are usually found alone in the middle of a field and were believed to be the property of the fairies. Fairies trees were feared centuries later because of their mysterious origins, but there is evidence to suggest the Celts created the magical trees.
Back in ancient times, people used to refer to trees as ‘Crann Bethadh’ which means the tree of life. They embraced the belief that trees held magical powers. Thus, they honoured the presence of trees in the world by leaving big ones in the middle of the fields they had cleared for farming. They believed that the trees’ powers in healing and providing food and shelter were beneficial not only for human beings, but also for other creatures of natures, including animals and insects.
The ancient Celts were keen on keeping their trees alive as they were a great providence for all life. They also considered chopping trees down as a serious crime. People used to get back at their enemies by cutting their trees down, it was a sign of great victory and disrespect to cut someone elses tree down.
What Do Trees Actually Represent in the Celtic Culture?
Trees, in general, have been a great significance to the Celts. It was normal for them to become among the most prominent symbols of Ireland. According to Celtic traditions, the Tree of Life represents the forces of nature. It depicts how nature’s forces intermingle to create harmony and balance. It also tells us about the fact the combination of numerous trees results in a tremendous forest or that there is strength in numbers.
Trees have big branches and grow tall, similar to how nature’s forces are widespread and strong. Trees combine their life forces to provide homes for countless species. The cycles of life are balanced. The Celtic Tree of Life is a symbol for these ideas.
One more thing that the tree symbolises was resurrection, for the leaves fall down during autumn only to regrow. They also hibernate during winter and come back to life when spring is here and the sun is up.
In some areas around Ireland, people used to believe that trees were doorways into the spirit world. They believed that they guarded our lands and separated us from the Otherworld. The ancient folks regarded the roots of the tree to connect us with the lower worlds or other worlds as they grow far down. Besides, those roots are connected to the trunk and the branches that grow outwards and show up in our world.
Irish Practices around the Trees – Irish symbols
People used to gather around trees, believing in its superpowers and magic. Upon reading tales of Irish mythology, you’ll realise that trees made an appearance in more than a few scenes.
Moreover, there are practices in the Irish culture that are usually linked to the presence of trees. One example of those practices is the Irish blessings. They are just like any other blessing known in different religions; you pray to God asking for blessings. Just as simple as that; however, it’s not mono thesistic-related. In fact, it also dates back to the pagan era.
People gather around those trees and tie clooties to the branches after damping them in the well’s water nearby. Such trees are rather referred to as either May Bushes, Wishing Trees, Fairy Trees, or even Hawthorns.
There is also another practice called the Celtic Knots. They are basically knots, but ones that are hard to know where it begins or ends. Those knots are endless to represent the aspect of eternity just like nature does. More precisely, those ceaseless knots refer to the eternity of nature and its forces. People of the Celts use this method to demonstrate their belief in the continuous life cycle where everything is woven together. They even use it as a design for different forms of art, including tattoos.
The Trinity Knot (Triquetra) – Irish symbols
The Trinity Knot is a beautiful Irish symbol. In fact, it’s popular in almost all of the Celtic cultures. Yet, its significance may differ in every culture. People also refer to it as the Triquetra and you can see the churches using them to represent the Holy Trinity. The origin of the term Triquetra is known to be Latin and it means “three-cornered”.
This defines the symbol’s design as it consists of three corners and, sometimes, it includes a circle in the middle. One great aspect of this magnificent symbol of Ireland is its versatility. Different religions and cultures use this symbol with a different significance. Even people of today’s world still honour this among the important symbols of Ireland.
Generally, the Celts honour the number three and believe it to be a magical number. We’ve already illustrated that with the Shamrock symbol. It goes back to their belief that the world came in three main domains: sea, sky, and earth. While the trinity seems to belong to the Christian beliefs, it has roots that date back to the pagan times.
We can today see the Trinity knot used in several things in the modern age. In fact, it appeared in more than a few TV shows, including Charmed. The series happened to feature three witches (Yes, three again) and their “Book of Shadows” had this symbol on it. It signified the power of being united. People often use this symbol as a Celtic tattoo idea as it is also aesthetically pleasing.
Different Meaning to the Symbols of Ireland
Well, people may agree on the fact that number three always represents something powerful to the Celts, they didn’t always agree on why it was important. There are many documents that claim different things regarding the origin of the Trinity Knot.
One assumption states that it probably had something to do with the solar and lunar phases. his was because during some excavations that took place the trinity knot symbol alongside lunar and solar symbols. That was one reason that drove some to believe that they actually related during ancient times.
But then again, Christians seemed to have a different opinion. The Christian faith claims the Holy Trinity to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, they applied the same belief to the knot that, coincidently, happened to have three corners. Many Christians believe that the symbol appeared with the monks who came to Ireland to convert people. But according to historians; it dates back earlier than the Christian era.
The Neopagans and the Wiccans had a different opinion as well. They regarded the Trinity Knot as a symbol of the Goddess’ threefold nature. This nature included mother, maiden and crone, which represent creation, innocence, and wisdom, respectively. The knot also represents the earth, water, and fire. Yet, the circle in the centre represents female fertility. There are triple goddesses in Irish mythology who are usually sisters, namely the Morrigan.
You may have already realised that the symbols of Ireland are numerous. They all represent valuable meanings to different people. Our next symbol is called the Triskelion or the Celtic Triskele. The word Triskele is a Greek word that means ‘Three Legs”. Once again we can see the significance of number three. Some people also refer to it as the Triple Spiral as it actually seems like three separated twirls.
Historians claim that it dates back to the Neolithic or the Irish Megalithic era. There are many of these symbols at the entrance of Newgrange tombs in Ireland. Despite its archaic appearance, it only gained popularity in 500 B.C in Ireland.
The Significant of the Triskele Symbol – Symbols of Ireland
While the Triskele symbol does not seem that complicated, it’s not easy to illustrate the meaning it represents. The basic meaning of the magical number three for the Celts remains consistent with this symbol. Just like the ancient Trinity knot, the Triskele has many different interpretations.
Some scholars also believe that the Triskele is deemed to be the most complex of all of the symbols of Ireland because of its mysterious origin. It holds a variety of possibilities, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. We can even see the Irish use it in modern day jewellery.
Anyhow, one of the meanings that the Triskele may represent is motion. Sounds a bit weird? Well, the three arms of the spiral lie in positions that make the symbol seem to move outwards. They seem to move away from the centre, representing motion and signifying the power of energy. It can imply the significance of progress and evolution.
Another source claims that those spirals represent the three Celtic worlds. Yes, the Celts used to believe the existence of more than just our world. They even believed that trees were the doorways into the underworld. Such worlds are the present world, the spiritual world or afterlife, and the Other world.
The Green Man – Symbols of Ireland
While reading about Irish mythology, you may come across the Green Man figure. Not only is he a prominent character and deity in Celtic mythology, he is also deemed as one of the symbols of Ireland. His depiction usually involves a man’s face, covered in leaves and branches.
Some images also feature fruits and flowers sprouting out of the man’s face. In some rare cases, you may see a full figure rather than just the head. But, people commonly know the symbol just with the face of Cerunnos.
The green color also represents the natural vegetation process. In fact, the Green Man is usually identified with the Vegetative deities. According to Celtic mythology, Cerunnos is referred to as the Green Man, for he was the God of the Forest. He also represents the aspect of resurrection and the growth cycle of plants.
The Rituals of Honouring the Green Man
Aside from the symbols of Ireland, Celtic Gods are countless as well. Each of them was worshipped in a specific way. In other words, worshipping gods depended on what they used to represent. Let’s take Cernunnos as an example; being the god of the forest, people worshipped him around the woods in ancient Ireland.
Most of the worshipping of Celtic gods included offerings related to the deity’s identity. Folks who worshipped the Green Man made their offerings in the forests. Celts went to the forest carrying a goblet in which they poured holy water or milk. In some cases, they added wine into the goblet, too. Once those requirements were ready, people started calling for the Green Man whilst pouring the contents on the ground.
Such an act meant you believed in the Green Man, called for him, and asked for his blessings. Yet, that was not the only way people used to call for this God.
The Green man was both the God of the hunt and the God of the forest, meaning he protected people and animals. This is why the Celts were so respectful towards nature; Cernunnos warned humans to only kill what they needed to survive, being disrecptful or greedy would invoke his wrath.
Brigid’s Cross – Irish symbols
Brigid’s Cross is another immensely popular symbol in Ireland. The Brigid’s cross is believed to bring good luck to the home and you often see one over the entry door of a traditional Irish home.
Many of the symbols of Ireland stem from a cultural belief, while others emerged from tales of Gods. Here’s one example of the symbols of Ireland that bear a connection to a Goddess; the Brigid’s Cross. Well it’s not that simple because Brigid’s cross is also a Christian item in modern times.
Brigid was the name of both a Celtic deity and a Christian saint from Kildare. It is believed that the goddess inspired the stories of the saint which involve many miracles. Whether or not the cross originated in Celtic worship or as part of Christianity is hard to know.
This Goddess, in particular, has many symbols surrounding her yet this one remains the most prominent of them all. She is the Goddess of Sun and Fire. In some cases, people refer to the symbol rather as the Imbolc Cross. That is because the Goddess’ holiday falls on the Imbolc festival in which people started making her cross.
This Celtic practice continued into Christian worship as people still bless them at mass on St. Brigid’s day today.
A Brief History About the Honoured Goddess
Before becoming one of the symbols of Irelands, Brigid or Brigit was a worshipped deity. While it may be obvious that saint Brigid belongs to Christianity, the Goddess herself goes way back to the pagan times. Brigid appeared in the mystical tales of the pagan eras as the Goddess of the sun and flame, the hearth and the home. Her image depiction usually included a beautiful woman with a bustling red hair that symbolises the heat of the sun. Legends have it that she was born with a fire coming out of her and that explains the redness of her hair.
However, when Christianity stepped into the borders of Ireland, worshipping of the pagan gods was no longer accepted. People were not allowed to worship any deities outside the Christian religion.
According to the tales, Goddess Brigid was afraid that the new religion would cost her followers and worshippers. Thus, we see her in the tales written in the Christian times transforming herself into a Saint.
People are usually confused between the two versions of Brigid; however, there were sources that proved them to be the same. Another theory is because of her immense popularity -even more so than other Celtic gods- it was difficult to get people to stop worshipping her. So an acceptable version of Brigid was adapted into the Christian faith. Maybe there is no correlation at all, such are the joys of Irish myth!
There were so many tales in the Irish folklore featuring the Goddess of Sun. It put emphasis on her significance in having power over our world. Given the Irish’s impulse to embrace those beliefs, it was anticipated that gods become among the most important symbols of Ireland.
Brigid was the first person to keen in Ireland according to mythology. This was an ancient type of mourning that was like a musical, sorrowful lament and is just one of many Irish wake superstitions.
The Story Behind the Cross – Symbols of Ireland
Just like any other tale in the Celtic mythology, there is usually numerous competing versions of the origin of this Irish symbol. But this time, we are just concerned with the Christian version of the Cross’s story. Legends claim that the cross was first made at the deathbed of a pagan lord. That lord was dying from his illness and he asked his people to call for Saint Brigid before he was gone.
When St. Brigid showed up, she started telling him the story of Christ as per his request. She sat next to his bed and started to make a cross out of the rushes on the floor. That action was actually an illustration of how the cross looked like and what the father, son and holy trinity meant. It turned into one of the most prominent symbols of Ireland that lives on until this day. Before the pagan died, he asked Brigid to baptise him.
Some other versions of the story claim that the dying man was actually Brigid’s pagan father. They claim that she succeeded in baptising her own father before he died. Afterwards, people started customising the cross on their own. It became part of the festivities of the Imbolc holiday for people to make crosses.
Some people identify with the cross in Christianity, but others believe it’s a bit more archaic. That is because some pagans of nowadays still use this symbol an attribute to the Goddess and not the saint. Either way making the cross is a fun activity that many Irish families and schools do on the first of February.
Awen of Three Rays of Light
The Awen of Three Rays of Light is another one of the symbols of Ireland with a simple design and a profound meaning. It goes back to the 18th century, according to many sources. The invention was initiated by a Welsh Poet, lolo Morgannwg. This symbol has always signified inspiration, for the word “Awen” means inspiration in Welsh mythology and it was believed to be the inspiration of poets and creative people in general.
Awen sometimes translates into “essence” as well. When you first glance at the symbol, you may find it a bit confusing. However, it consists of three dots above three rays that move upwards and they are usually enclosed in three concentric circles. This actually brings us back to the same point; the significance of number three in the Celtic culture.
This number usually holds the representation of our world’s realms; the land, sky, and sea. It could also mean either the division of oneself, mind, body and soul, or the three worlds. Those worlds include the Underworld, the middle world, and, lastly, the upper world.
Aside from the representation of the domains, some people also believe that the three rays are a demonstration of balance. They think that the outer rays represent the energies of a male and a female. On the other hand, the middle ray represents the balance between both of them.
Awen and its Solar Connections
The sun itself is a significant element in the Irish folklore. Some people believe that Awen has connections with the sun. Hence, the three rays that appear on the design of the symbol. This concept professes that the Awen, division of light rays, happens during the sunrise of midsummer. It’s the time when the sun casts three different rays to open the Annwyn; the doorway to the Otherworld.
It’s believed that this symbol goes way back to pagan times, but was Christianised later. Some also claim that the symbol was commonly used by priestesses and druidesses. Thus, they profess that the energy of the sun was also invoked by a female spirit.
A practice that was associated with the symbol included a cauldron that belonged to the Tuatha de Dannan. The association was featured in a tale in which Gwion stole drops of inspiration. Thus, bards used to drink three drops of the cauldron as an attribute to Gwion.
Rainbows – Symbols of Ireland
Rainbows are one of the symbols of Ireland. Yet, they are not as well recognised as other Irish symbols. That’s also because there is not a lot of inclusion of the symbol throughout history. However, it’s quite significant in the tales of the Leprechauns; one of the main symbols of Ireland.
Rainbows signify hope and goals within Celtic cultures. The origin of this belief goes back to, again, the Leprechauns. They are tiny elf-like creatures that were popular for being a skilful sly. Leprechauns loved money and materialistic goods, so they sold people fake promises in exchange for goods. It was popular in tales that when leprechauns convinced people to track down the end of the rainbow. They promised them to find hidden gold pots and other treasures. In exchange, they get whatever they wanted.
But, wait. Do rainbows actually have an end? Well not exactly. However, people still kept trying, hoping they would get there. That is the story of how the rainbows became the symbols of goals. It signifies your attempts to pursue your dreams and hopefully reach them someday.
It’s also worth noting that we get plenty of rain in Ireland, so it is common to see a rainbow on the emerald isle!
Merrows: the Irish Symbols of Fairies
Merrow is another one of the interesting symbols of Ireland. In fact, they are also popular in Scottish culture. Those creatures are the equivalent of other cultures’ mermaids and mermen. Even the world itself comes from two Irish words, Muir, which means the sea, and Oigh, which means a maid. While there were males of those creatures, they were mostly females, who seduced the mortals with their beauty.
Unlike their female counterparts, mermen were rare and had hideous pig-like features. Moreover, they are all known to be members of the Sidhe or the Irish fairy world. They lived on the lands found beneath the waves of the ocean. Many regions around Ireland regarded them as signs of death and doom.
While their names mean the sea-maids, they look nothing like the world-wide known mermaids. They are basically human beings with some distinct features. But, they don’t possess the tails as most mermaids do.
Some images features the Irish merrow quite like humans but with wider and flatter feet. They also had thin webs interlaced between their fingers. To travel through the currents of the ocean, they wore red capes made from feathers. However, some of them took the shapes of the seals until they reach the shores. Selkies are also found in Celtic mythology especially in Scotland and Ireland. Selkies are the name given to the creatures that could turn into seals underwater by wearing a seal skin.
While some regions feared them, others believed they were beautiful. There were also some notions that mortals married those creatures. This explains why some Irish families claim to be descendants of the merrows.
Intermarriage of Merrows and Mortals
When the merrow reaches a shore, she abandons her cape in order to walk on the shore. If a man finds her abandoned cape and hides it, she is forced to become his wife. They are considered as symbols of wealth since they own the treasures from shipwrecks. Later on in the story, the merrow usually finds their capes or cloak. This urges them to go back to the sea and thus, they go back to their water world and abandon their human families.
Merrows in Other Cultures
Again, the cultures of the modern world perceive mermaids as creatures with an upper human body and fish tails. We are unsure of where this mermaid’s belief first originated, but such an appearance was not among the symbols of Ireland. However, this is not the case with the Irish version of mermaids. They are basically human beings that travel through the ocean with a cape. The appearance of the cape differs from one region to another. One half believes the cape is red and made from feathers, while others believe it to be a seal-skin cloak.
In Scottish cultures as we have mentioned, Merrows are believed to be shapeshifters called selkies. They are human beings that have the ability to shed their skin and turn into seals.
Leprechauns – Symbols of Ireland
Leprechauns are a popular legend all around the world. It remains one of the prominent symbols of Ireland. The little fairy-like creature made its first debut in Gaelic folklore, making him popular in Ireland and Scotland. Just like we previously mentioned, Leprechauns are famous for having pots of gold. They usually tell their catchers to go find these pots by tracking down the end of the rainbows. The legend of the leprechauns invoked the rainbows to be among the most important symbols of Ireland.
Their depiction is usually a bearded dwarf in a green costume. This is another reason why green is seen as a symbol of Ireland.
More characteristics of the Leprechauns include their love of music and dancing. They are also popular for being the world’s best shoe menders. In fact, they can be quite fun sometimes as they love performing all types of pranks. However, that does not change their sly nature which they are famous for.
Leprechauns are Irish Fairies and Symbols of Ireland
Have we mentioned that leprechauns are capable of granting wishes? Well, they are actually some type of fairies that belonged to the Tuatha de Danann before becoming the Sidhe. However, they only became popular after being sent to the Underworld. Nonetheless, they aren’t typical types of fairies; they don’t have pixie dust or wings. In fact, they are ones that enjoy causing damage and engaging in destructive behaviours. Even their story in folklore states that they were exiled for their unforgivable deeds.
According to legend, if a human was capable of capturing a Leprechaun, the latter had to grant three wishes. After those wishes came to pass, the Leprechaun is free to go. Given the fact that it’s really hard to catch one, there are only a few tales surrounding the leprechaun. But, even if it happens, they usually manage to flee using their deceptive skills.
Why are the Leprechauns One of the Symbols of Ireland?
The reason that those little-bodied fairies became associated with Ireland is its popularity in folklore. However, the origin of the Leprechauns is quite confusing as they were found in multiple sources of folklore. Despite the many sources Leprechauns it showed up in, they became popular around Ireland and Scotland.
Even the world associate the Leprechauns’ symbols with the Celtic culture, and Ireland in particular. On the other hand, the earliest Leprechaun’s story that the world knows is “Adventure of Fergus”. It’s a medieval tale that is quite popular in Irish mythology. Thus, that is how the Leprechauns are usually associated with the symbols of Ireland.
The popularity of the Leprechauns increased with the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day. While there is no obvious connection between the two of them, people associated them together. The reason behind that association is that St. Patrick’s Day falls on the 17th of March. On this Irish national holiday, people celebrate not only for religious purposes but also for cultural reasons. They celebrate the heritage of Ireland and that is why the Leprechauns take part in the day.
Going back to the 20th century, it was the first time people suggested to wear green on the St. Patrick holiday. It was probably because the colour was common in many parts of the Irish folklore. As a result, we today see the three symbols; Leprechauns, Shamrocks, and St. Patrick Day as inseparable.
Random Facts about the Leprechauns – Irish symbols
We have gathered a bunch of random facts about the tiny-bodied creatures so you can learn more about them. They are quite interesting and one of the most thought-provoking legends in the Irish folklore.
- Irish Leprechauns are only males. The reason behind their one-gendered depiction is unknown. But, they are known to be the unwanted or lone fairies. This had nothing to do with their gender, but rather with their unfriendly nature.
- Some sources claim that the Irish Leprechauns were originally gods. Well, we have already mentioned that they descend from the Tuatha de Danann. It’s said that they specifically derive from the God of the Sun, Lugh. When Christianity arrived in Ireland, worshipping the pagan Gods started to fade away. It was when the Celtic Gods and goddesses started transforming themselves. According to God Lugh, it’s said that he downgraded his status to a shoemaker when he was no longer worshipped. This links to the fact that Leprechauns are known to be skilful shoemakers.
- In the real life, there is a disease linked to the Leprechauns called Donohue Syndrome but rather referred to as Leprechaunism. It’s a very rare genetic disorder where the body experiences abnormal insulin resistance. This results in the formation of some elf-like features like small hands and tiny bodies.
Grogoch – Another Irish symbol and fairy
Here are more fairy-like creatures that are deemed to be one of the symbols associated with Ireland. However, they are not as popular as their counterpart, the Leprechauns. They are friendlier, more social and not as aloof as the Leprechauns.
But, the reason behind their unpopularity might be due to the fact that they were invisible. One thing that both creatures share, is that they are only males as far as we know. Not a single tale documented that there was ever a female Grogoch.
Well, the Grogochs are half-human, half-fairy creatures. They originally came from Scotland but settled in Ireland later on. Thus, they became one of the symbols of Ireland. The images illustrated of it usually includes an elderly man who is small in size with dense red hair.
Those creatures don’t wear any clothes and are usually covered in filth and dirt. Their bodies were made to resist any temperatures; they don’t respond to either freezing cold nor intense heat. They were also water-resistant and that may explain their unhygienic nature. Such creatures resided in caves and hollows. Even in the northern part of Ireland’s countryside, there are large leaning stones that people call the Grogochs’ houses.
Characteristics of the Grogoch – Symbols of Ireland
Again, the Grogochs are known to be very sociable. They love being around people and are so helpful. Yet, they have the power of invisibility, they roam around using this power most of the time. They don’t let people observe them unless they are trusted.
When they are invisible and not around trusted people, they will look for peculiar jobs to do. They love keeping themselves busy. However, they have some bizarre habits that include getting under one’s feet and roaming around houses. If they think someone is friendly, they will go in their house, start socialising and helping. However, if the house is resided by a priest or minister, they will be too afraid to come inside.
Changelings are not really considered symbols of Ireland but they are interesting creatures that have fascinated and terrified Irish people for a very long time. Their impact on folklore earns them a place on this list however. There are also some illustrations of changelings that were found in Irish folklore.
Well, what do these creatures actually look like? Their true form is unknown because they have the ability to shapeshift. They posed as humans, but always had some fairy characteristics or traits that were difficult to hide. It usually replaced a real child.
People in ancient times believed that children were supposed to be born healthy. If one had any medical issue, then it could be a fairy child rather than their real one which is quite sad. Changelings were sometimes thought to be elderly fairies who were brought to die in the mortal world.
The Fairy World is the Most Prominent Among the Symbols of Ireland
If this changeling belief proves one thing, it will be that people believed in the Fairy world in Ireland. Among all the symbols of Ireland, the fairy world should stand the tallest. That is because it shaped most of the heritage and cultural beliefs of the Irish. People used the fairy worlds myth to explain what they had no control over in their real lives.
For example, changeling was used to describing children who suffered from autism or ADHD. Because medicine was not advanced back then, people hung their problems on the fairy hook. They could not explain why their children were acting the way they did. So, they assumed that their child was a fairy. Their real child was taken, according to myth.
So, what happened when a child’s condition got better or they learned how to behave to avoid being called a fairy? They would explain that by assuming that the fairies returned them back.
The Origin of the Belief in fairies – Irish symbolism
Centuries ago, Ireland witnessed a high percentage of deaths among pregnant women due to the lack of medical advancement at the time. Many women either died or suffered from a miscarriage from pregnancy. This was most common in the rural areas of the country. It was believed that the fairies preferred to steal boys over girls. When a mother lost her child, they would assume that the fairies abducted him/her. This explains why mothers dressed their boys in the past just like the girls.
Dresses were common among young boys to confuse the fairies. They used to believe that fairies exchange or steal boys more often. So, they believed dressing them as girls would make them stick around. People put the blame for a lot of problems on the fairy world. It helped people to have something to explain parts of life which had yet to be explained logically.
The Banshee – Irish Symbols
Seemingly, symbols of Ireland are endless and they are all almost equally significant. Some of them are recognised by the whole world as the most prominent symbols of Ireland, while others are only known in specific regions of Ireland. To the Celtic folks, all symbols of Ireland are recognisable, but around the world only the most famous are associated with Ireland. Our next famous Irish symbol is the Banshee.
What Exactly is a Banshee? Explaining this haunted symbol of Ireland
The Banshee is a mythical creature that appears throughout Irish mythology. Also, it’s known by different names. Despite its popularity, it’s not one of the pleasurable symbols of Ireland, instead, it’s an omen of death, but this female spirit is not as scary as you think. Again, mythology shaped a lot of Irish culture during ancient times.
The Role of the Banshee in the Irish Mythology
The Banshee is popular on a wider range than just Irish culture. This mythical creature appeared in many tales in the Scottish folklore as well. According to mythology, the Banshee is a female spirit that notifies the people of an approaching death.
The Banshee either shows up to the family of someone who’s going die soon and is heard wailing. People in the past used to believe, wailing at funerals was an important part of the Irish wake. It was thought that wailing helped to guide the deceased souls to the afterlife. Professional wailers even existed going from funeral to funeral to perform the musical lament.
The mythology gave us different versions of how the Banshee appeared. One version claims that she was much like Mother Gothel; an old lady who transformed into a young beautiful woman. She would stun people with her unusual beauty, yet she remained a sign of demise. As part of the Banshee lore, it was accepted that she could change her appearance into an old woman, beautiful young lady and even a crow, similarly to the Morrigan, the Goddess of War and Death.
The appearance of the Banshee varies from one region to another, some parts of Ireland don’t think it was a woman. Those regions still believed that the Banshee was a female spirit. However, they thought it showed up in the form of a bird-like creature rather than a human being. They believed that this creature landed on the soon-to-die person’s window and stayed there until the clock ticked.
The Origin of the Banshee
Just like a lot of cultural notions, it’s not always easy to learn about where the Banshee came from. Most of the myths carved in our cultures go way back to ancient times. People started believing in certain things or carrying out customs because they learned about them when they were young.
Well, to make a long story short, it’s not clear where the Banshee myth comes from. However, this brings us back to an important point; blaming everything on the fairy world. It was a way out of explaining everything we had no control over.
But, there is a story behind the evocation of the Banshee. In the past, people believed that it was unjust for young women and pregnant ones to die before their. Thus, they pictured those Banshees to be the deceased women who came back to watch over her family. However, the Banshee has an origin according to Irish mythology. She is a fairy that descended from the supernatural race of the Tuatha de Danann.
More Depictions of the Irish symbol of the Banshee
It is widely known that the banshee is usually a beautiful woman or a bird-like creature. However, some regions perceived the banshee with a different eye. But, those differences are to blame on the tales of the mythology. There are times when a creature shows up in a tale with all the traits of the Banshee.
This led people to identify different creatures of the same characteristics with the Banshee. Aside from the bird-like theory, the Banshee featured in many tales as rather a woman, either young or old. There were tales where the Banshee showed up as a spooky old woman sitting in the woods. The depiction included her wearing a green dress and a grey cloak. Her hair was also long and grey with a comb sitting nearby. This leads us to the reason of the comb being among the symbols of Ireland. It’s highly related to the tale of the Banshee.
In other stories, the Banshee showed up as a mesmerising woman with flaming red hair and an all-white attire. For that, some scholars identified the Banshee with popular goddesses like Brigid or the Morrigan. She sat by the river and wept for hours, thus, her eyes were usually red.
The Armor Laundress
There is one more depiction of the Banshee in the folklore. But, this time, it stems from the Scottish folklore. The Scottish mythology states that the Banshee appeared near rivers as a washerwoman. She usually sat there washing blood-stained attires that belonged to soon-to-die soldiers. Men who got to see the Banshee around the rivers knew they wouldn’t survive the battle. Going back to the bird-like theory, the Banshee has actually appeared in many tales in the form of other animals. This included a weasel and a hare.
The banshee was a tragic figure. People feared her even though she never hurt humans or caused their death. Instead she had the gift of foresight and wanted to warn families of their loved ones death.
The cry of the Banshee is often compared to the screech of the barn owl. The barn owl is nocturnal and makes an eerie cry which may have fuelled the fear of the Banshee legend for many people.
Pookas – a michevious Irish symbol
If you think you’ve read enough scary stuff in Irish mythology, think again. Pookas are considered the most frightening of all the symbols of Ireland. Briefly, it’s another myth that people of the ancient times used to have faith in. You can find plenty of tales in the Irish mythology featuring the so-called Pooka.
The main trait of this creature is that they enjoying freaking people out. There wasn’t a single source that claims they were hostile, yet they were bold and wild. They reside over the mountains and hills. While most of the tales indicate that they had a disastrous behaviour, others claimed otherwise. Such differences varied depending on which part of Ireland you come from. There are some parts around the country, rare though, where Pookas helped with harvesting and cultivating.
Opinions regarding the creature’s behaviour vary, but it’s still deemed to be a sign of bad luck. They have often been associated with Halloween.
The Pookas and the Halloween
People of ancient Ireland used to believe that the month of the Pooka was November. They even used to dress up as Pookas during Samhain. Samhain would become modern day Halloween and was at the time, one of four ancient Celtic festivals. Others stayed at their homes, afraid of the stories that they heard about Pookas; they believed that they did harm to children.
What makes Irish mythology interesting is its connection to the mystical creatures of the modern world. More recent incarnations of the Pooka includes the Boogeyman and the Easter Bunny. Some sources claim that those fairy-like creatures derive from the Pooka
You can find different forms of the name, including Puca, Plica, Puka, Phuca, or Pookha. However, they all refer to the same creature. Pooka derives from the old Irish word, Puca; it means a goblin or ghost; it’s an ugly dwarf-like creature.
Other sources claim that the word Pooka is a Scandinavian word, Puke or Pook. The literal meaning of the word is the nature spirit or the spirit of nature. Irish people feared and respected the Pooka, as it was thought of as a mischievous creature that enjoyed causing chaos.
What is a Pooka? Explaining this Irish symbol
Ok, let’s get to the point of what that Pooka actually is. The Pooka is a creature that can take any form; people refer to these kind of creatures as shapeshifters. They could be a goat, goblin, rabbit, dog, or even a human being; an old man in particular. Besides, they only appear at night which made their form even harder to identify.
Despite all of these forms, people are familiar with the Pooka as a dark horse that has golden eyes. Above and beyond, they possess some powers that make them capable of communicating with human beings. These dark horses were able to speak just like human beings. Interestingly, their amusement lies in exaggerating the truth in order to make those who they talk to stray. In spite of their bad reputation, no records ever proclaimed that a single human being had experienced any damage from them; sometimes they actually helped with the harvest.
Facts about Pookas
The Pooka is sneaky and sly; they are cheaters and good at deception. People also refer to them as a fertility spirit, for they have the power to destroy as well as craft. And, most importantly, they can speak as fluently as human beings do and give accurate predictions and prophecies. Irish mythology states that the Pooka enjoyed certain acts of mischief. The Pooka usually roams around the countryside performing chaotic acts like destroying gates and knocking down fences.
Final Thoughts on the Symbols of Ireland:
There’s an endless list of symbols associated with Ireland, but these are some of the most interesting and famous ones. Each symbol offers a different look at how seemingly random things have impacted Irish Cultures, past and present.
Do you have a favourite Irish symbol? Maybe it’s the Irish Leprechaun or the Irish Clover Symbol. Whatever it is, please share with it us below!
Now that you recognise some of the most popular symbols of Ireland, you may begin to notice them during your travels around the Emerald isle. Here are some of our favourite Irish travel guides that you may enjoy reading:
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