Emblems of Ireland pay homage to nature, nationalism, Christianity and craic
Select symbols have become ambassadors for Irish culture around the world
Popular associations help to showcase Irish heritage with humility and humor
Iconic Symbols Have Become Celtic Calling Cards for the Irish
What are the symbols that have come to best define Ireland and the Irish? It’s a debate worthy of fueling a heated parley given the huge diversity of stellar contenders. The true heavyweights are instantly recognizable, transcending time and place to become signature symbols of Irish culture and people around the world.
IrishEmpire.org has pored over the pick of the litter and narrowed the field down to just seven mighty contenders. We’d love to get your take on the question, so be sure to make your opinion count by casting your vote for the #1 symbol of Irish pride below.
1. Saint Patrick
Amidst the chaos of an unforgiving world, Saint Patrick brought a revolutionary message to Ireland.
Let’s set a few things straight about Ireland’s patron saint right off the bat — Patrick wasn’t the first Christian missionary to set foot on Irish shores and his staff was probably more of a fashion accessory than a last line of defense against ravenous serpents. In all likelihood, the metaphorical snakes symbolized the powerful Irish druids and their incompatible pagan beliefs.
However, Patrick did achieve plenty of extraordinary milestones during his time in Ireland. Apart from winning over a skeptical Irish public to a new and revolutionary religion, he is also credited with composing one of the earliest written works in the history of Ireland. In his seminal fifth-century manuscript, The Confession, Patrick outlines his unswerving devotion to God and his commitment to spreading the faith throughout Ireland. He also used shamrocks to explain the complexity of the Holy Trinity giving Ireland another of its most revered symbols.
2. The Claddagh Ring
The Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish gift given as a token of love, loyalty, and friendship.
The Claddagh ring hails from the small fishing village of Claddagh situated just beyond the old city walls of Galway, and now part of Galway City proper. The current incarnation of the ring dates back to the 17th century. Its design features clasped hands representing friendship, a heart to express love and a crown symbolizing loyalty. The Claddagh ring gained global acclaim toward the end of the 20th century as both an icon of Irish heritage and a traditional gift to celebrate friendships, engagements and weddings.
In the modern era, the Claddagh ring has become a ubiquitous emblem of Ireland popping up everywhere from bars, to cemeteries and jewelry stores. The exponential rise in the ring’s popularity has also seen it commonly coupled with other Celtic motifs to meet global demand for traditional Irish crafts.
3. The Irish National Anthem (The Soldiers' Song)
Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldiers’ Song) was originally penned in English by Peadar Kearney & Patrick Heeney.
The Irish national hymn has its own unique place and story in our hearts and minds giving a patriotic voice to our collective national consciousness. The original version was a collaboration penned in English by Peadar Kearney (an Irish Republican Brotherhood member and uncle of Brendan Behan) and Patrick Heeney. Kearney took most of the credit for the lyrics while Heeney was the driving force behind the melody and music. The text was first published in Irish Freedom by Bulmer Hobson in 1912. It was popularized as a marching song by the Irish Volunteers and was the hymn of choice for the rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916.
Today, the Irish language version (Amhrán na bhFiann) translated by Liam Ó Rinn is the official anthem of the Republic of Ireland and can be heard at sporting events, commemorations and civic engagements. Its lyrics have been criticized in some quarters for being flagrantly militaristic and promoting anti-British sentiment but fanning the flames of nationalism and celebrating independence and liberty are par for the course for many of the world’s best-known national anthems.
4. The Shamrock
The shamrock was used by Saint Patrick as a metaphor to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.
Along with Saint Patrick, the shamrock has become one of the most instantly recognizable symbols of Irish culture. The plant itself is a young three-leaved clover and according to legend, Saint Patrick utilized it to illustrate the concept of Christianity’s Holy Trinity to the Irish. Apart from its reputed use as a teaching aid by Ireland’s patron saint, the shamrock is traditionally sported by the Irish around the world on March 17th to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Its close association with Ireland and St. Patrick helped the shamrock surge in popularity through books, ballads and poetry.
Today, the shamrock is a registered trademark of the Irish government and it adorns a large number of Irish business logos, military battalion crests and sporting coats of arms. It has also become an annual tradition for the Irish Taoiseach to gift a bowl of shamrocks to the President of the United States in the White House every St. Patrick's Day.
5. The Irish Harp
The ‘cláirseach’ or Irish harp has been an integral part of Celtic folk music for centuries.
The Irish harp emblem that most people are familiar with is based on the Trinity College Harp — one of Ireland’s national treasures. During medieval times, Ireland was a leading exponent of the Celtic harp. Irish harpists were in-demand entertainers traveling the length and breadth of the country to play at important events and write music for wealthy patrons. Turlough O'Carolan is considered by many as Ireland’s last true traveling bard.
Along with the suppression of Irish culture and customs under English rule, harpists and musicians were singled out for brutal persecution. This culminated in a 16th-century proclamation by Queen Elizabeth I issued to order the hanging of Irish harpists. In the 1650s under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, 500 harps were seized and burned in Dublin alone. This spelled disaster, decline and almost complete extinction for Ireland’s illustrious harpist tradition. It is only in recent generations that this medieval instrument has enjoyed a renaissance and steady revival of interest.
6. The Tricolor
Ireland’s tricolor reveals a complex history of struggle, democracy, peace and reconciliation.
Thomas Francis Meagher unveiled the very first Irish tricolor in March of 1848. Banished from Irish shores for sedition, Meagher would go on to play a pivotal part in the American Civil War campaigning for, organizing and commanding the Union’s Fighting 69th Irish Brigade. His vision for the tricolor to become a unifying symbol in the struggle for independence played out in his absence with the tricolor proudly flown above the GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising.
As a national flag and symbol, the tricolor drew its inspiration from the revolutionary zeal sweeping France and Europe at the time with colors specifically selected to inspire peace and collaboration between Ireland’s warring Christian sects. Discover more about the incredible history of the Irish tricolor here.
Guinness is Ireland’s national drink and is now brewed in more than 150 countries worldwide.
Guinness might seem like the wild card of the bunch but the numbers behind the black stuff are earth-shattering and continue to skyrocket. With over 10 million glasses consumed every day (Africa now accounts for 40%), Guinness has elevated itself to the heady heights of Ireland’s biggest brand. In addition to global swilling and market domination, The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin regularly attracts more than one million visitors per year clamoring to uncover the secrets behind the drink that’s bigger than Prince.
With the benefits of modern medicine and science, Guinness is no longer recommended for heart conditions or expectant mothers but the ritual pouring ceremony and foamy upper lip are still very much part and parcel of the fabric of Irish society.
Now vote for your #1 symbol of Irish pride by stamping your seal of approval in our poll below!