Not to be confused with ancient Celtic symbols, Irish symbols and meanings stir up a lot of chatter online.
Mainly because certain books and websites list symbols of Irish heritage as Guinness and pubs…
The reality is that there are many iconic Gaelic symbols that tend to get overlooked, both on-and-offline.
Below, we’ll take a look at everything from Irish mythology symbols and religious designs to some of the more unique Irish symbols and meanings.
Traditional Irish symbols and meanings
Some guides online to Irish symbols and meanings list everything from Guinness to U2 as Irish symbols – we’ve gone for a more traditional approach in this guide.
In this guide, you’ll discover everything from St. Brigid’s Cross and the Harp to the Celtic Cross and some often missed Gaelic symbols.
1. The Irish Harp
The most notable of the many Irish symbols and meanings is the Irish Harp. Yes, if you order a pint of Guinness the glass it comes in will be adorned with a stylized harp logo…
But look beyond this and you’ll find it everywhere from on Euro coins and in government logos. Why? Well, the harp is the national emblem of Ireland, the only country in the world to feature a musical instrument.
The use of the Harp as one of the key symbols of Ireland goes back to the mediaeval times. The Irish were considered the best harpists in the world, with Kings and Queens across the land seeking them out.
The harp came to symbolise the spirit and essence of the Irish people. Indeed, it was such a strong identifier that in the 16th century, Elizabeth I had many of the instruments destroyed and harpists locked away in order to suppress Irish culture.
That plan failed, with the harp remaining one of the most iconic symbols of Ireland to this day. In fact, for many, the harp is seen to represent the immortality of the soul.
2. The Shamrock
The shamrock, or three-leaf clover, is one of the more recognisable symbols of Irish heritage. It’s been the unofficial national flower of Ireland for centuries, with several legends associated with it.
Shamrocks grow all over Ireland, so you’re bound to see the real thing too, particularly in boggy areas. Celtic druids, who revered the number three, are thought to have considered the shamrock a sacred plant.
However, the most popular legend relates to Saint Patrick. Asked by the King of all Ireland to explain the holy trinity, Saint Patrick is said to have plucked a shamrock from the ground to use as a visual aid, showing how the three parts make up one whole.
And the lucky 4-leaf clover? Druids believed that these rarer plants represented the four elements; earth, fire, water, and air. This is one of the most popular symbols of Ireland for good reason.
3. The Celtic Cross
Celtic Irish symbols are another iconic symbol of Ireland, and you’ll find spectacular ancient examples dotted around the country, as well as several more modern variants.
One of the most visually impressive Celtic Irish symbols is the iconic Celtic Cross. Some of the oldest date back to the 9th century, though it’s believed that wooden and metal versions existed long before that.
Linked with Celtic Christianity, it’s believed that the Celtic Cross represents a meeting of pagan and Christian belief systems.
The four arms, or quadrants, of the Celtic Cross can be interpreted to represent the four elements, the four seasons, the four points of a compass, or even the four parts of the day.
Meanwhile, the cross itself represents the crucifixion, with many examples adorned with carvings of Christ in the centre.
4. The Claddagh Ring
The Claddagh Ring is another beautiful and iconic Irish emblem, often associated with love and friendship. The design is unmistakable, two open hands encircle a heart, topped with a crown.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a Celtic symbol of love. In fact, its origins are far more recent, dating back to around the 17th century. The invention of the Claddagh Ring has a rollercoaster ride of a story, involving pirates and heartbreak.
Nowadays, it’s a popular piece of jewellery worn by Irish and non-Irish people around the world. It may symbolise love, but anyone can wear a Claddagh Ring.
In fact, there are four different ways to wear one depending on your love life! It’s frequently given as a gift between friends, family, and lovers, who may use it as an engagement or wedding ring.
Few symbols of Ireland have spread as far and wide as the Claddagh, thanks to its popularity in Irish themed weddings.
5. The Irish Flag
The Irish flag is another of the more popular symbols of Irish heritage, with its broad, vertical bands of green, white, and orange is one of the most recognisable symbols of Ireland.
You’ll see it flying in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, although it’s not technically the latter’s national flag. While you’ll see it everywhere, few people really know what the flag symbolises.
The three colours are very important. Emerald green represents the Roman Catholics and orange represents the Protestants.
Meanwhile, the middle white stripe symbolises the hope for peace and unity between the two groups. The flag isn’t that old and was flown for the first time in 1848.
But at the time, the country was deeply divided and peace between the Catholics and Protestants seemed a distant hope.
6. St. Brigid’s Cross
Bizarrely, many guides to Irish symbols and meanings miss the mighty St. Brigid’s Cross. St. Brigid’s Cross is an old symbol that goes back many hundreds of years.
It was first crafted by Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s three patron saints. The story goes that she was tending to the deathbed of a pagan chieftain, who lay in a restless and delirious fever.
St. Brigid consoled and calmed the chieftain, before picking up rushes from the floor and weaving the now iconic cross that bears her name.
As she weaved, she explained what the cross meant in Christianity. Her pitch must’ve been good, as the chieftain requested a Christian baptism before he died.
Since then, and over the many centuries that have followed, it has been a custom to weave the cross out of reeds or straw on the eve of St. Brigid’s feast day (February 1st).
It’s hung above the door to keep evil, fire, and hunger from any home that bears it. Few Irish emblems are steeped in legend like this one.
7. The Connemara Pony
The Connemara Pony is one of the more natural Gaelic symbols. Unique to Ireland, a hard-working, friendly, and versatile horse breed that has become something of a national symbol over the years.
Coming from the Connemara region of western Ireland, they’re raised in a harsh yet beautiful landscape strewn with bogs and craggy hills.
Small in stature, big of heart, and known for their kind eyes, they’re fantastic for kids and adults alike. Athletic, intelligent, and strong, they’re often considered show horses, but they’re also happy to get to work as well.
Traditionally, they were used by farming families in the region. Nowadays, the Connemara Pony is seen as a symbol of trust, strength, bravery, and kindness for the Irish people.
8. Celtic Knot Designs
Celtic Irish symbols come in all shapes in sizes but few are as steeped in meaning as the Celtic Knot. There are numerous Celtic Knots, each with its own unique design and meaning.
However, while each individual Celtic Knot may differ, they all share an underlying characteristic. Celtic Knots have no beginning or end, weaving in and out continuously.
For many people, this symbolises the unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In this view, Celtic Knots perhaps offer hope and redemption.
Other people consider the endless nature of Celtic Knots to represent everlasting love or faith. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s completely open to interpretation.
Many articles about Irish symbols and meanings feature leprechauns. And, while it’s one of the unofficial symbols of Ireland that those of us living here wouldn’t be overly keen on, it is seen as a Irish symbol from those from across the pond.
After all, people around the world—with the exception of the Irish—associate them with Ireland. In Ireland, they’re more of a touristy gimmick than anything else, and they only really started appearing in folklore relatively recently.
Even then, they bore little resemblance to the ginger-bearded, green-suited rogues we know today. Many people associate leprechauns with the luck of the Irish, but if you listen to the old tales, coming across one of these pesky sprites was anything but lucky.
Mischievous and conniving, they’re fond of pranks, with you typically being the butt of the joke. Capture one, however, then the tables are turned and you’ll be granted three wishes, and maybe even a pot of gold.
What symbols of Irish heritage have we missed?
I’ve no doubt that we’ve unintentionally left out some symbols of Irish heritage from the guide above.
If you have any Irish emblems that you’d like to recommend, let me know in the comments below and I’ll check it out!
FAQs about Irish symbols and meanings
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What’s the Irish symbol for strength?’ to ‘What ancient Irish symbols make good tattoos?’.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
What is the traditional symbol of Ireland?
The two main Irish symbols are the shamrock and the Irish Harp, both of which are used widely in everything from Tourism campaigns to government logos.
What is the most Irish symbol?
You could argue that the most notable of the various Irish symbols is the Harp, as this is the national emblem of the Republic of Ireland.