Shamrock, Celtic Cross, Claddagh Ring, and Harp: Myths, Legends, and Traditions of Irish Emblems
These emblems evolved as Irish iconic images of Eire over many centuries.
Shamrock Was Sacred to Druids
The word shamrock is derived from ‘seamrog’, the old Irish word for little clover. The plant was seen by the druids as sacred because its leaves formed a mystical triad. The shamrock is often included in Irish brides’ bouquets and grooms’ boutonnieres for good luck.
Another legend suggests that when St. Patrick was seeking converts in the 5th century, he taught that the three leaves represented the Holy Trinity. There is no mention of this in old Irish manuscripts. Perhaps because of the significance of three to the ‘pagans’ it was the most likely symbol to be accepted.
When the Irish Volunteers showed rebellion against restrictions placed on traditional practices, they began to wear the shamrock. Laws were passed stating that anyone wearing the emblem would be hung.
The Irish regiments’ victories during the Boer War prompted Queen Victoria to issue an order. Since then, all Irish regimental ranks wear a shamrock sprig in their head dress on St. Patrick’s Day. It is now customary for a British Royal Family member to present a shamrock to the Irish Guards regiment on March 17.
Celtic Cross and St. Patrick
The legend of the Celtic cross (or high cross) also relates to Ireland. Apparently St. Patrick was shown a sacred standing stone. On it was a circular marking made by the druids. To demonstrate the melding of old and new beliefs, he marked a cross through the circle. According to legend, he then blessed the stone.
Irish Claddagh Rings
Claddagh is a fishing village in Galway, Ireland. It is said that the ring represents the fishing Kings whose motto was “in love and friendship let us reign”. In the 17th century the symbol was made into a ring which became a popular gift throughout Galway. Design elements are two hands (friendship) clasping a heart (love), and surmounted by a crown (loyalty).
According to tradition, the outward heart signifies that the wearer is “heart whole and fancy free”. The family heirloom Claddagh rings were passed down from a mother for her eldest daughter to wear on her wedding day. The ring would then be worn with the heart facing inward.
Ancient Celtic Harp
This beloved emblem has been associated with Ireland for centuries. As early as the 1500s it was depicted on Irish coins. Facts related to its origins are sparse, though many myths exist. It was also an important instrument in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
Professional, trained harpists frequently performed for the nobility. Highly regarded, they often accompanied poets during their readings. The superb musicians used their fingernails for playing, not the fingertips as done today.
Irish concentration on music of the harp lead to the under development of other music for many years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a sharp decline in the tradition.
Blind, itinerant composer Turlough Carolan (1670-1738) is considered the last of the great Irish harpists. The 1792 Belfast Harp Festival was a vain attempt to renew interest in the ancient music.
As the official emblem of Ireland, the ancient harp is prominently displayed on the Irish Presidential flag. It is also shown on coins, official documents, uniforms, and the labels of Guinness. Most of the melodies and airs once played on it are lost.