Symbols of Ireland
This is, without a doubt, the most familiar emblem of Ireland. For centuries, every March 17, Irishmen have worn shamrock sprigs in their hats to honor their paton saint, Patrick. The three-leaf, clover-like plant has traditionally been associated with the Welsh-born missionary saint.
While trying to convert a group of Irish people, we are told, St. Patrick had trouble explaining the concept of the Trinity. Seeing some shamrocks close by, he plucked one of the familiar plants. Holding it up for all to see, he explained that the three persons of the Trinity were like the three leaves of the shamrock -- held together in one unit by the stem, which he used as a symbol of the godhead.
According to tradition, shamrocks never flower, nor will they grow, anywhere outside Ireland. But just what species of plant are they? According to botanists, there is, in fact, no distinct plant called a shamrock. Nathaniel Colgan, a 19th-century botanist, for example, collected samples from various counties of what "competent local authorities" had certifies as authentic "shamrocks" gathered for St. Patrick's Day. Of 35 specimens he examined on one occasion, all but two proved to be clover of various species, and the remaining two were black medick, a plant almost indistinguishable from clover during March. A shamrock, then, may be any of several plant species -- usually clover, black medick, or wood sorrel -- each of which has three leaves and appear similar without careful examination.
Though not as popular as the shamrock, the harp is the oldest official symbol of Ireland. The instrument in question is, of course, not the concert harp used in today's orchestras, but the smaller, portable harp traditionally played by Celtic bards, or minstrels.
Before it was adopted as a symbol of Ireland as a whole, the hard had been used for centuries in the arms of Leinster, the ancient Irish kingdom that endures as one of the island's four provinces. It seems first to have appeared in the hearldic arms of Ireland during the reign of the Tudor king, henry VIII. Here it was depicted in gold on a field of St. Patrick's blue, the color associated with Ireland until the early 1800s.
When it is used today, as it is quite widely despite not being constitutionally recognized, the harp emblem is modelled on the so-called Harp of Brian Boru housed in Trinity College, Dublin. It appears on Irish coins, the unofficial Irish state arms, the presidental flag, state seals, uniforms and official printed documents and stationery. But the harp is perhaps most often seen in connection with Guinness, the quasi-national brewery that adopted it as a trademark in 1862.
THE IRISH TRICOLOR
If the flag of present-day Ireland reminds you of the French tricolor, it's no coincidence.
Throughout most of the last century, the official flag of British-ruled Ireland retained the gold emblem of Brian Boru's harp. By then, the traditional background of St Patrick's blue had been replaced by a darkish olive green. This was not yet the vivid green of modern Irish banner,however, but a shade said to have been produced by combining the original blue with the orange that symbolized the Protestants of the North.
According to most accounts, the irish tricolor made its debut in 1848, a year of revolution throughout most of Europe. The Young Ireland movement, which was particularly sympathetic to the revolution that established the Second Republic in France, sent a delagation to Paris. There the Irish nationalists were urged to adopt a tricolor of their own.
The model flag brought home by the delegation was based on the French flag, comprising three vertical bands of solid color and of equal width. The color, of course, were appropriately Irish. Farthest from the flagstaff came a band of green, the color that had by now become a popular national symbol among the Catholic majority. On the innermost side, a band of orange symbolized the Protestant minority. Between the two, as Thomas F. Meagher explained in unveiling the flag, a band of white was inserted to symbolize a peaceful union between the two chief elements of the Irish population.
Since this flag was revolutionary and thus illegal, displaying it carried risks. It soon fell into obscurity. During the first two decades of the century, the design was revived by Sinn Fein, the movement that was in the process of adopting armed force as a means of winning independence. The flag was first flown on the General Post Office during the Easter Rising of 1916.
No one yet looked to this as a national flag -- it was flown as the ensign of "E" Company, 4th Dublin Battalion, Irish Volunteers, Patrick Pearse commanding. Still, the flag had now (or certainly by 1920) assumed its current form, with the colors reversed from their positions on the 1848 design: green was now nearest the flagpole and orange on the outer edge. As sympathy for Sinn Fein and its aims grew, more and more Irishmen came to regard this banner as a symbol of their solidarity with the militant nationalist group. The Irish constitution of 1937 recognized the tricolor as the official flag of the the Republic.
The flag of the President of Ireland resembles not the tricolor, but the quartering for Ireland in the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom, and the former Royal Arms of Ireland. It consists of a golden harp on a field of blue. The harp, however, is ot the one used in the British arms or in Northern Ireland, but the model traditionally associated with King Brian Boru.
SYMBOLS OF THE FOUR PROVINCES
centuries before 1002 A.D., when Ireland was first united
under King Brian Boru, the island had been divided into
four rival kingdoms:
In general, a single, powerful family or clan dominated each kingdom. At times, however, this family fought with rival families for domination, occasionally having to share dominion or even losing out entirely. When they weren't fighting local rivals for control of their own lands, the rulers of each province were often trying to expand at one another's expense.
In time, the arms or heraldic symbols of each kingdom's dominant family came to be linked with the kingdom it ruled. Thus, the Red Hand of the O'Neills came to symbolize Ulster, and was combined with the red cross of the DeBurgos (DeBurgh or Burke) family in the provincial arms. The family origins of the other three provinces' arms seem to have been lost. At various times, however, the arms of Leinster (a silver-stringed golden harp), Munster (three antique gold crowns), and Connacht (a black eagle combined with an upright arm bearing a sword) have all served as the national arms of Ireland.
With Ireland's unification under King Brian and its gradual conquest by the Normans and English, the four kingdoms eventually disappeared as meaningful political or administrative units. But these centuries-old divisions had become ingrained. Even today, while they have little practical significance, Ireland's traditional kingdoms live on in the island's four provinces. Leinster, Munster and Connacht lie entirely within the Republic. Ulster's nine counties are divided between the Republic, which includes three, and Northern Ireland, which contains the remaining six.
The traditional arms of the four provinces live on in the official arms of the Republic, where they are quartered together on a shield.
The wolfhound figures in some of Ireland's oldest sages. The hero Fionn, for example, had a favorite hound named Bran, and another called Sceolaing. During the first centuries A.D., the island exported choice specimens to imperial Rome, which prized the dogs for "solemn shows and games." St. Patrick himself is said to have escaped from his boyhood enslavement in Ireland by hiding among a shipment of wolfhounds bound for the Continent.
Given their size, strength and noble bearing, we can easily imagine how these peculiarly Irish beasts came to be valued all across Europe. They were superbly suited for hunting wolves and deer, and probably ranked as status symbols as well. By the 18th century, however, wolves had become extinct in Ireland. No longer needed in their homeland, their numbers thinned by shipments abroad, wolfhounds themselves had nearly died out by the early decades of the last century.
Fortunately, an English dog-lover recued the breed, crossing some of the few ermaining specimens with Scottish deerhounds. By 1885, the newly formed Irish Wolfhound Club had compiled pedigrees for 300 of the dogs. Interest in the dog grew as the Irish rediscovered their past traditions in the so-called Celtic Revival. Artists began depicting the dog as an emblem of Ireland, usually grouped with a figure of Erin or Hibernia or in a trio with a round tower and shamrock. It also appeared on the sixpenny coin and was adopted by Bellek, the prestigious chinaware maker, as part of its company trademark.
Today, though the wolfhound remains a symbol among the Irish, it is mainly a token of a heroic past. Racing of greyhounds and hunting with foxhounds seem to monopolize Irish canine interests. It is in London, ironically, that the wolfhound endures as a living symbol of Ireland. There the Irish Guards, one of Britain's most distinguished regiments, keep one of the dogs as an official mascot and sometimes take it on ceremonial parade.
THE ROUND TOWER
The round towers of Ireland have been a familiar sight for centuries. Seventy of the structures dot the island, some in ruins, others well preserved. Nearly all stand next to churches, often amid the ruins of monasteries. Normally rising to between 90 and 110 feet, the towers are typically some 15 feet in diameter and are topped with conical caps. Particularly puzzling, until fairly recently, was the placement of their doors, which were generally set several feet above the ground, seemingly beyond reach of normal humans.
The questions of who had built the towers, when and for what purpose remained subjects of unending speculation until the 19th century. Today scholars agree that their origins are much more straightforward than the bizarre theories put forth over the years. All the towers have been dated between the 9th and 12th centuries, and their proximity to early Christian monastic sites has given a further clue. They were, we now believe, nothing more than bell towers designed to double as places of refuge in time of danger. Given warning of a Viking raid, a common enough experience for monastic communities during this period, monks and other inhabitants could flee to the local tower, climbing up a ladder that was pulled up behind them.
Like wolfhounds, round towers are a distinctively Irish phenomenon. Outside Ireland, only a handful exist, and these are in the west of Scotland, an area the Irish had much contact with during the period in question. Therefore, the structures were a natural choice to symbolize Ireland.