The Symbols of Ireland & Their Great Significance in Irish Culture Explained

Irish Tri-colour flying in clear sky

Updated On: November 10, 2023 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

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.

Symbols of Ireland Grogogh House min
Irish Symbolism | Leaning stones, called Grogochs’ houses, can be found throughout the Irish countryside.

There are many other reasons behind the existence of the symbols of Ireland, which we will explore in this article. Scroll down to read through the Irish symbols, or click on a heading in the table below to jump ahead!

Irish flag - Symbols of Ireland
Irish flag – Symbols of Ireland

The Irish Flag – Symbols of Ireland

Over the years, the flags of countries can change for different causes and political reasons. The history of the Irish flag is no different. In 1848, Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish nationalist and revolutionary, introduced the Irish flag that we see today.

It was introduced 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 most well-known symbols of Ireland because of what the colours represent. The three colours, green, white, and orange, respectively, have an important meaning of unity in Irish culture.

The Significance of the Flag Colours as Irish Symbols

The green colour on the left side of the flag represents Roman Catholic people. The colour green 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 that day, including food, rivers and famous landmarks. It’s also the colour of the shamrock leaf and the Irish Leprechaun from mythology.

On the right side of the flag comes the orange colour. It represents the Protestant community in Ireland. You may be wondering why orange was used, as it is not a colour commonly associated with Ireland in the same way green is.

William III of England was known as “William Henry of Orange”, and many associated him with the colour. Thus, orange was used to represent Protestants.

Finally, the white colour in the middle of the flag 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.

The Shamrock – Symbols of Ireland

A clover patch, featuring shamrocks & a four-leaf clover
Shamrocks are the most famous Irish symbol of St. Patrick’s Day | Irish clover symbol

The shamrock, or clover, is one of the most iconic symbols of Ireland. 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 associated with the Irish clover symbol is that some people believe a 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.

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‘ – Rare things are beautiful!

Did you know? It is an Irish tradition to wear shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Irish Harp – Symbols of Ireland

Irish Harp - Symbols of Ireland
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 the Celtic pantheon of Gods, the Tuatha de Danann, were skilled in and valued one’s musical ability. The Celts 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 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? 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.

Guinness Harp - Symbols of Ireland
Guinness Harp – Symbols of 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.

Additionally, 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. This flag had a green background and a golden/yellow harp. It was only in 1916 that the tricolour replaced the original flag.

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

The Claddagh Ring is one of the most romantic symbols of Ireland. It consists of a crowned heart that is held by two hands. The ring is often exchanged between couples as a promise ring and is one of many eccentric Irish wedding traditions.

The hands on a Claddagh Ring represent the friendship between the couple, the heart represents their love, and the crown represents their loyalty to each other.

Although the rings are associated with romantic partners, you can also receive them as a gift from a friend or loved one. It can also be used as either a wedding or engagement ring. Claddagh rings are frequently inherited; mothers often hand them down to their daughters.

Claddagh ring - Irish symbols
Claddagh Ring – Irish symbols

The Claddagh symbol can also be found on other pieces of jewellery, such as bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.

Claddagh Rings can be worn by either men or women and you can even 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 the Claddagh Ring is worn on the right ring finger with the heart pointing out, the wearer is single and looking for love. If worn on the right ring finger facing in, the wearer is in a committed relationship.

If you are engaged, the Claddagh 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 faces inwards or ‘closed’.

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 Irish word Claddagh literally translates to ‘rocky shore’. The small village is within walking distance from Galway’s city centre (2km) and is beside the city’s museum (850m).

It is a beautiful and picturesque location to explore. Make sure to check it out if you’re ever visiting Galway!

The Origins and Irish Symbolism of the Claddagh Ring

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.

Symbols of Ireland Claddagh min
Irish Symbolsim | Women and men can wear Claddagh Rings.

However, we have two stories that tell us about the creation of the Claddagh Ring and why it became one of the most prominent symbols of Ireland. Both of these legends 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. Richard’s master was a goldsmith. He remained under his mentorship for 14 years, becoming an expert craftsman.

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 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.

To this very day, Claddagh Rings exist as an Irish symbol of love from ancient times. You can see the earliest surviving Claddagh Rings at Galway City Museum. They are marked with Joyce’s initials, which is one reason many believe he was the creator of the custom. While it can’t be proved 100%, the historical timeline can be supported.

The Claddagh, Galway city
Panorama of the Claddagh in Galway City, Ireland.

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 commonly known as Margaret of the Bridges because she built the bridges of Connacht. She funded their construction by using her substantial inheritance from her first marriage to a wealthy Spanish merchant.

This story started when she married the mayor of Galway in 1596; his name was Oliver Ogffrench. On an otherwise ordinary 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. 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 Symbols of Ireland & Their Great Significance in Irish Culture Explained
Irish symbols of love: Claddagh Ring

The Celtic Cross – Symbols of Ireland

The Celtic cross is instantly recognisable for its beautiful and intricate design. It is one of the main symbols of Ireland and Scotland and can be seen across hundreds of cemeteries in both countries. It also extends to different places around the United Kingdom, including England and Wales.

We cannot quite confirm where these special crosses originated from. There are different competing tales which describe different origins of 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 represents 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 some Celtic customs, festivals, and traditions before a more traditional form of Christianity overtook it.

Celtic Cross - Irish Symbols
Celtic Cross – Irish Symbols

However, there are different groups of people who 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. Although it is believed by many to represent the sun, this may not be the case. Such are the joys of Celtic traditions!

Many aspects of Celtic life 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.

Celtic Cross - Symbols of Ireland
Celtic Cross – Symbols of Ireland

The Celtic Tree of Life – Symbols of Ireland

The Celtic Tree of Life is another recognisable icon among the symbols of Ireland. You can often see them on different types of decorations, including tapestries. The Celtic Tree is believed to have been the symbol of harmony and balance to the Celts of 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 believed in the power of Fairy Trees and respected them greatly.

Fairy Trees are usually found alone in the middle of a field and were believed to be the property of the Fairies or Fey. Fairie Trees were feared centuries later because of their mysterious origins, but there is evidence to suggest the Celts created the traditions and Irish symbolism around 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.

Celtic Tree of Life_Fairy trees
Celtic Tree of Life Fairy trees – Irish symbols

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 nature, including animals and insects. The ancient Celts were keen on keeping their trees alive as they were a great providence for all life.

The Celts 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 destroy someone else’s tree.

What Do Trees Represent as Symbols of Ireland?

Trees, in general, have always been of 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. The legend also tells us that 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 also combine their life forces to provide homes for countless species. The cycles of life are balanced, and the Celtic Tree of Life symbolises these ideas.

Celtic Tree of Life Designs - Symbols of Ireland
Celtic Tree of Life Designs – Symbols of Ireland

One more thing that the tree symbolised for the Celts was resurrection. This is because the leaves fall down during autumn only to regrow in the following spring. They 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 thought the trees guarded our lands and separated us from the Otherworld. The ancient folks felt the tree’s roots connect us with the lower worlds or other worlds as they grow far down.

Practices and Traditions Around the Trees – Irish Symbols

The ancient Celtic people used to gather around trees, believing in their superpowers and magic. Upon reading tales of Irish mythology, you’ll realise that trees have made an appearance in more than a few legends and tales.

Moreover, there are practices in the Irish culture that are traditionally 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 aid and good health. However, Irish blessings are not mono-theistic. In fact, they date back to the pagan era.

People gather around the trees and tie clooties to the branches after dampening them in the nearby well’s water. Such trees are often referred to as either May Bushes, Wishing Trees, Fairy Trees, or Hawthorns.

More Celtic Tree of Life Designs - Symbols of Ireland
More Celtic Tree of Life Designs – Symbols of Ireland – Irish Celtic Symbols

There is another practice in Irish symbolism called the Celtic Knots, which are closely related to the Irish symbols of trees. The fascinating thing about Celtic Knowts is that it is difficult to know where they begin or end. These seemingly endless knots represent the aspect of eternity, similar to how the trees in nature do.

More precisely, the ceaseless knots refer to the eternity of nature and its forces. The ancient Celtic people would use these symbols of Ireland to demonstrate their belief in the continuous life cycle where everything is woven together. Celtic Knots and trees are often seen in designs for different art forms, including tattoos.

The Trinity Knot (Triquetra) – Irish symbols

The Trinity Knot is one of the most beautiful symbols of Ireland. It is widespread across almost all of the Celtic cultures. However, its significance differs within every culture.

People also refer to the Trinity Knot as the Triquetra, and you can see churches throughout Ireland using them to represent the Holy Trinity. The term Triquetra originates from the Latin language, and it means “three-cornered”.

This translation defines the symbol’s design as it consists of three corners. Sometimes, the Trinity Knot also includes a circle in the middle.

One significant aspect of this magnificent symbol of Ireland is its versatility. Different religions and cultures use this symbol with different significance. Although the Trinity Knot has been adopted worldwide, it is still believed to be one of the most essential and well-known symbols of Ireland.

Trinity Knot - Irish Symbols
Trinity Knot – Irish Symbols – Irish Celtic Symbols

Generally, the Celts honoured the number three and believed it to be a magical number. This has already been illustrated with the Irish clover symbol. It goes back to their belief that the world came in three main domains: sea, sky, and earth.

We can today see the Trinity knot used in several things in the modern age. It has 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 to signify the power of being united.

People often use this symbol as a Celtic tattoo idea as it is aesthetically pleasing, especially descendants of Irish immigrants in the United States.

Different Meanings of Trinity Knots as Symbols of Ireland

While many people may agree that the number three has always represented something powerful to the Celts, they do not always agree on what it symbolises. 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. This was because, during some excavations, the Trinity Knot was seen alongside lunar and solar symbols, which drove some to believe that the Irish symbols were related during ancient times.

Symbols of Ireland trinity knot min
Symbols of Ireland | A Trinity Knot made using different species of trees in the Hills of Glencar, County Sligo.

But then again, Christians seemed to have a different opinion. The Christian faith claims the Holy Trinity to include the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, they applied the same belief to the knot that, coincidently, features three corners.

Many Christians believe the symbol was brought with the monks who came to Ireland to convert the Celts to Christianity. However, according to historians, the Trinity Knot dates back earlier than the Christian era.

The Neopagans and the Wiccans also had different views on the Irish symbolism of the Trinity Knot. They regarded the Trinity Knot as a symbol of their Goddess’ threefold nature. This nature included mother, maiden and crone, representing creation, innocence, and wisdom, respectively.

They also believe that the knot represents the earth, water, and fire and that the circle in the centre represents female fertility. There are triple goddesses in Irish mythology who are usually sisters, namely the Morrigan.

Triskelion – The Irish Symbolism of the Triple Spiral

You may have already realised that there are numerous symbols of Ireland. Each of the Irish symbols represents valuable meanings to different people. Our next symbol is called the Triskelion or the Celtic Triskele.

Triskele is a Greek word that means ‘Three Legs”. Once again, we can see the repeated significance of the number three in Irish symbolism. Some people also refer to the Triskelion as the Triple Spiral, as it seems to be made up of three separated twirls.

Historians claim that the Irish symbols of the Triskelions date back to the Neolithic or the Irish Megalithic era. There are many of these symbols at the entrance of the Newgrange tomb in Ireland. Newgrange, despite its archaic appearance, only gained popularity in 500 B.C. in Ireland.

The Symbols of Ireland & Their Great Significance in Irish Culture Explained
Triskelion – Symbols of Ireland – Irish Celtic Symbol

The Significance of the Triskele – Symbols of Ireland

While the Triskele 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 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 and tattoos.

One of the most popular meanings that the Triskele may represent is motion. Sounds a bit weird, right? 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 the spirals represent the three Celtic worlds. Yes, the Celts used to believe in the existence of more than just our world. As discussed previously, they thought that trees were the doorways to the underworld. The three worlds that Celts believed in were the present world, the spiritual world or afterlife, and the Otherworld.

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, but he is also deemed one of the most fascinating symbols of Ireland. His depiction usually involves his face being covered in leaves and branches.

Some images of the Green Man 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 Irish symbol as just the face of Cerunnos.

Forests – Irish symbols

The green colour of this Irish symbol 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

Just like the symbols of Ireland, the number of Celtic Gods is 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 Celtic 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 only to kill what they needed to survive. Being disrespectful or greedy would invoke his wrath.

St. Brigid’s Cross – Irish symbols

St. Brigid’s Cross is another of the immensely popular symbols of Ireland. The St. Brigid’s Cross is believed to bring good luck to the home, and you often see them over the entry doors of traditional Irish homes.

Symbols of Ireland | St. Brigid’s Cross

Brigid was the name of both a Celtic Deity of the Sun and Fire 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.

Many of the symbols of Ireland stem from a cultural belief, while others emerged from tales of Gods. Here’s one example of a symbol of Ireland that bears a connection to a Goddess: the St. Brigid’s Cross. However, it is not that simple; St. Brigid’s Cross is also a Christian item in modern times.

This Goddess, in particular, has many symbols surrounding her. However, this one remains the most prominent of them all. In some cases, people refer to the Irish symbol as the Imbolc Cross. That is because the Goddess’ holiday falls on the Imbolc festival, during which is when people started making her cross.

This Celtic practice of making St. Brigid’s Crosses continued into Christian worship as people still bless them at mass on St. Brigid’s Day today.

A Brief History of the Honoured Goddess

Before becoming one of the most recognised symbols of Ireland, Brigid or Brigit was a worshipped Celtic Deity. While it may be evident that Saint Brigid belongs to Christianity, the Goddess herself can be found in legends dating 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 bustling red hair that symbolises the heat of the sun. Legends have it that she was born with a fire coming out of her, which explains the redness of her hair.

Goddess Brigit Tuatha de Danann imbolc Celtic Festivals
Goddess Brigit Tuatha de Danann | Imbolc Celtic Festivals and Symbols of Ireland

However, when Christianity expanded 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, some sources proved them to be the same. Another theory is because of her immense popularity –even more so than other Celtic Gods– it was challenging 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 the Sun. It placed emphasis on her significance in having power over our world. Given the Irish’s impulse to embrace those beliefs, it was anticipated that gods would 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 Celtic mythology, there are usually numerous competing versions of the origin of the Irish symbolism behind St. Brigid’s Cross. But this time, we are just concerned with the Christian version of the cross’s story.

Symbols of Ireland st brigitds cross 1 min
Symbols of Ireland | St. Brigid’s Crosses are made of rushes, a plant native to Ireland.

Legends claim that the cross was first made on 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 what 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 lord died, he asked Brigid to baptise him.

Some other versions of the story claim that the dying man was actually Brigid’s father. They claim that she succeeded in baptising her 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 and place the Irish symbols in their homes.

Some people identify with the cross in Christianity, but others believe it’s a bit more archaic. That is because some pagans of today still use this symbol as 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.

Symbols of Ireland | How to make a Saint Brigid’s Cross

Awen of Three Rays of Light – Irish Symbolism

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 Irish symbol has always signified inspiration, for the word “Awen” means inspiration in Welsh mythology. 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 Irish symbol, you may find it a bit confusing. It consists of three dots above three rays that move upwards, usually enclosed in three concentric circles. This actually brings us back to a familiar and reoccurring point: the significance of number three in the Celtic culture and Irish symbolism.

This number is used in symbols of Ireland as the representation of our world’s realms: the land, sky, and sea. It could also mean 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 demonstrate balance in the symbols of Ireland. They think the outer rays represent the energies of a male and a female, and the middle ray represents the balance between them.

A great video about the Awen Celtic Irish Symbol

Awen and its Solar Connections

The sun itself is a significant element in Irish symbolism and folklore. Some people believe that Awen has connections with the sun, hence the three rays that appear on the Irish symbol’s design. This concept professes that the Awen, the division of light rays, happens during the midsummer sunrise.

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 Irish symbol goes way back to pagan times but was Christianised later. Some also claim that priestesses and druidesses commonly used the symbol. 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 most famous 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, rainbows are quite significant in the tales of the Leprechauns, one of the main symbols of Ireland.

Rainbows are used as Irish symbols of 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 skilful and sly. Leprechauns loved money and materialistic goods, so they sold people fake promises in exchange for their belongings.

It was commonly told in tales that leprechauns convinced people to track down the end of the rainbow. They promised them they would find hidden gold pots and other treasures there. In exchange, the humans would give the leprechauns whatever they wanted.

Rainbow - Symbols of Ireland
Rainbow – Symbols of Ireland

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 Ireland and the goals of the Irish people. It signifies the 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: Irish Symbols of Fairies

The Merrow is another one of the exciting symbols of Ireland. They are also popular in Scottish culture. These creatures are the Irish mythology equivalent of other cultures’ mermaids and mermen. Even the world itself comes from two Irish words: Muir, which means the sea, and Oigh, which translates to maid.

While there were male merrows, the legends told of primarily 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 Irish symbols of death and doom.

While their names mean sea-maids, they look nothing like the standard mermaids known throughout the world. They are basically human beings with some distinct features that separate them from us, and they don’t possess the tails as most mermaids do.

Some images feature the Irish merrows quite like humans but with broader 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.

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Legend of the Selkies – Irish symbols in mythology

In other legends, some of them took the shape of a seal until they reached 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 Merrows and Selkies, others believed they were beautiful. There have also been tales where mortals married these 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 land. According to the tales, if a man finds her abandoned cape and hides it, she is forced to become his wife. They are considered symbols of wealth since they own the treasures from shipwrecks.

Later in the stories, 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 fishtails. We are unsure where this portrayal of a mermaid first originated, but such an appearance was not among the symbols of Ireland.

Symbols of Ireland Merrow 1 min
Symbols of Ireland | Selkies, a type of Merrow, could wear a seal skin.

Irish mermaids look and behave significantly differently from those of other cultures. They are nearly inseparable from human beings, and they travel through the ocean with a cape. The appearance of the cape differs from one region to another. Some believe 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. They remain one of the most prominent symbols of Ireland. The little fairy-like creatures first debuted in Gaelic folklore, making them popular in Ireland and Scotland.

Just like we previously mentioned, Leprechauns are famous for having pots of gold. They usually tell their captors to go find these pots by tracking down the end of the rainbows. The legend of the leprechauns led to the rainbows being among the most important symbols of Ireland.

Their depiction is usually that of 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 famous for being the world’s best shoe menders. 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.

Irish Leprechauns, symbols of Ireland

Leprechauns are Irish Fairies and Symbols of Ireland

Have we mentioned that leprechauns are capable of granting wishes? Well, they are actually part of the 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 fairies; they don’t have pixie dust or wings. They are the ones who 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 were granted, the Leprechaun was 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 a Leprechaun was caught, they usually managed to flee using their deceptive skills.

The reason that those little-bodied fairies became associated as symbols of Ireland is because of their popularity in folklore. However, the origin of the Leprechauns is quite confusing as they were found in multiple folklore sources. Despite the many sources Leprechauns showed up in, they became famous around Ireland and Scotland.

Even the world associates the Leprechauns as a symbol of Irish and Celtic culture. The earliest Leprechaun 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 thought to have become associated with the symbols of Ireland.

Symbols of Ireland Leprechaun 1 min
Leprechauns and St. Patrick’s Day are both iconic symbols of Ireland.

The popularity of the Leprechauns has increased with the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day. While there is no obvious connection between them, people associate them together. St. Patrick’s Day falls on the 17th of March, and on this Irish national holiday, people celebrate not only for religious purposes but also for cultural reasons.

They celebrate the heritage of Ireland by wearing clothes and accessories that are green, and that is why the Leprechauns take part in the day. In the 20th century, it was the first time people were suggested to wear green on the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. It was probably because the colour was commonly found in many parts of the Irish folklore.

As a result, we see the three Irish symbols, Leprechauns, Shamrocks, and St. Patrick’s Day, as intertwined.

Facts about Leprechauns – Irish symbols

We have gathered a couple of facts about Leprechauns so you can learn more about the tiny-bodied creatures. They are pretty fascinating and one of the most thought-provoking legends in Irish folklore.

  • Irish Leprechauns are only depicted as males. The reason behind their one-gendered portrayal is unknown, but they are confirmed to be unwanted or lone fairies. This has nothing to do with their gender but instead with their unfriendly nature.
  • Some sources claim that the Irish Leprechauns were originally gods. 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 dwindle. According to legend, it’s said that Lugh downgraded his status to a shoemaker when he was no longer worshipped, linking to the fact that Leprechauns are known to be skilful shoemakers.
  • In real life, there is a disease linked to the Leprechauns called Donohue Syndrome, which is sometimes 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.
pot of gold - Irish symbolismpot of gold - Irish symbolism
pot of gold – Irish symbolism

Grogoch – Another Irish symbol and Fairy

Grogochs are another fairy-like creature deemed to be one of the symbols of Ireland. However, they are not as popular as their counterpart, the Leprechauns. They are friendlier, more social and not as aloof as the Leprechauns.

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. The reason behind the Grogochs’ unpopularity compared to the Leprechauns might be due to the fact that they were invisible.

The Grogochs are half-human, half-fairy creatures. They originally came from Scotland but settled in Ireland later, which led to them becoming one of the symbols of Ireland. The images illustrated of these creatures usually include an elderly man who is small in size with dense red hair.

These 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 or intense heat. Grogochs were also water-resistant, which may explain their unhygienic nature.

The 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.

Symbols of Ireland Grogogh 1 min
Irish Symbolism | Grogoghs are known to live in caves.

Characteristics of the Grogoch – Symbols of Ireland

Again, the Grogochs are known to be very sociable and friendly. They love being around people and are often helpful to humans in need. Geogochs have the power of invisibility, and 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, Grogochs 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 into their house and start socialising or helping. However, if the house is resided by a priest or minister, they will be too afraid to enter.

Changelings – Terrifying Creatures from Irish Myth

Changelings are not often 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 despite not being known worldwide. There are also some illustrations of changelings that were found in Irish folklore.

What do these creatures look like? Their proper form is unknown because they have the ability to shapeshift. They were known to pose as humans but always had some fairy characteristics or traits that were difficult to hide and gave their true identity away. Changelings usually replaced a human child.

Symbols of Ireland changelings 1 min
Irish Symbols | Changelings were believed to prefer male children, so boys were sometimes dressed in girls’ clothing to trick them.

People in ancient times believed that children were supposed to be born healthy. If a newborn had any medical issue, it was thought that it could be a fairy rather than their real baby, which is quite sad. Changelings were sometimes considered to be elderly fairies who were brought to die in the mortal world.

The Fairy World is Prominent Among the Symbols of Ireland

If the belief in Changelings 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. This is because it shaped most of the heritage and cultural beliefs of the Irish people and culture. People used the legends of the Fairy World to explain what they had no control over in their real lives.

For example, the legend of the Changeling was used to describe 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 acted the way they did, so they assumed that their child was a fairy and that their real child was taken.

So, what happened when a child’s condition improved, 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 during pregnancy.

Symbols of Ireland changelings 2 min
Irish Symbols | Irish people believed that Changelings would take the place of their babies.

This was most common in the rural areas of the country, and 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 or 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 exchanged or stole boys more often. So, they thought dressing them as girls would trick the fairies into not taking them.

People placed 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 Haunting Symbol of Ireland

The Banshee is a mythical creature that appears throughout Irish mythology, sometimes known by different names. Despite its popularity, it’s not one of the most pleasurable symbols of Ireland. Instead, it’s an omen of death.

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Banshee at a fairy tree

But this female spirit is not as scary as you think. Her intentions have shifted over the years as people told her story, and it expanded far beyond Ireland. Again, mythology shaped much of Irish culture during ancient times.

The Role of the Banshee in Irish Mythology

The Banshee is popular on a broader range than just Irish culture. This mythical creature has 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 or is heard wailing. People in the past believed wailing at funerals was an essential 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.

Irish mythology gave us different versions of how the Banshee appeared. One version claims that she was much like Mother Gothel from Disney’s ‘Tangled, 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, a beautiful young lady, and even a crow, similar to the Morrigan, the Celtic Goddess of War and Death.

Symbols of Ireland banshee 2 min
Irish Symbolism | Banshees can shapeshift into the form of a crow.

The appearance of the Banshee varies from one region to another. Some parts of Ireland don’t think it was a living woman. Those regions 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 this creature landed on the soon-to-die person’s window and stayed there as the clock ticked until they passed.

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.

To make a long story short, it’s not clear where the Banshee myth comes from. However, this brings us back to a critical point: blaming everything on the fairy world. It was a way of explaining the things 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 or pregnant women to die before their families. Thus, they pictured Banshees as deceased women who came back to watch over their families.

However, the Banshee has another origin, according to Irish mythology. She is a fairy that descended from the supernatural race of the Tuatha de Danann.

Symbols of Ireland: The Banshee is an omen of death

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 look. These 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 but is not labelled as such.

This led people to identify creatures with the same characteristics as her as the Banshee. Aside from the bird-like theory, the Banshee is featured in many tales as 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 long and grey, and she always had a comb sitting nearby.

This leads us to the reason for the comb being among the symbols of Ireland. It’s highly related to the tale of the Banshee.

In other stories, the Banshee was 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 Scottish legends. 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.

Symbols of Ireland banshee 1 min
Symbols of Ireland | Banshees have been seen washing clothes or armour in rivers.

Men who saw the Banshee around the rivers knew they wouldn’t survive the battle. Returning to the bird-like theory, the Banshee has 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 deaths. Instead, she had the gift of foresight and wanted to warn families of their loved ones’ deaths. The cry of the Banshee is often compared to the screech of a 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 Mischievous Irish Symbol

If you think you’ve read enough scary stories in Irish mythology, think again. Pookas are considered the most frightening of all the symbols of Ireland. It is another myth that people of ancient times used to have faith in. You can find plenty of tales in Irish mythology featuring the so-called Pooka.

The main trait of this creature is that they enjoy freaking people out. There wasn’t a single source that claimed they were hostile, yet they were bold and wild. They reside over the mountains and hills. While most of the tales indicate they had disastrous behaviour, others claimed otherwise.

Such differences vary 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 differ, but they are still deemed a sign of bad luck. They have often been associated with Halloween.

Irish Symbols: Have you ever heard of the Pooka?

The Pookas and Halloween

People of ancient Ireland used to believe that November was the month of the Pookas. 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 they heard about Pookas. It was believed that they harmed children.

What makes Irish mythology interesting is its connection to the mystical creatures of the modern world. More recent incarnations of the Pookas include the Boogeyman and the Easter Bunny. Some sources claim that those and other fairy-like creatures derive from the Pookas.

You can find different forms of the name, including Puca, Plica, Puka, Phuca, or Pookha, across different legends and tales. However, they all refer to the same creature. Pooka derives from the old Irish word Puca. It means a goblin or ghost, an ugly dwarf-like creature.

Other sources claim that the word Pooka comes from the Scandinavian word Puke, or Pook. The literal meaning of this word is ‘the nature spirit’, or ‘the spirit of nature’. Irish people feared and respected the Pookas, who were considered to be mischievous creatures that enjoyed causing chaos.

What is a Pooka? Explaining this Irish Symbol

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 kinds of creatures as shapeshifters. They could be a goat, goblin, rabbit, dog, or even a human being, an old man in particular. They only appear at night, which makes their form even more challenging to identify.

Symbols of Ireland pooka 1 min
Irish Symbols | Pookas can appear in the form of many animals, including rabbits.

Despite all of these forms, people are familiar with the Pooka as a dark horse that has golden eyes. Above all else, they possess powers that make them capable of communicating with human beings. These dark horses were able to speak just like humans.

Interestingly, their amusement lies in exaggerating the truth in order to make those whom 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. In fact, some legends say they actually helped with the harvest.

Facts about Pookas

The Pookas are 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 humans and give accurate predictions and prophecies.

Irish mythology states that the Pookas enjoyed certain acts of mischief. The Pooka usually roams around the countryside performing chaotic acts like destroying gates and knocking down fences.

Symbols of Ireland pooka 2 min
Symbols of Ireland | Pookas are known to knock down fences.

There are Many Interesting Symbols of Ireland

There’s an endless list of creatures and objects that are recognised as symbols of 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 it with us below!

Now that you recognise some of the most famous 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:

Things to do in Galway City | County Derry: An Insight into Fascinating Nature | The Beauty of County Limerick | Waterford: Ireland’s Oldest City

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