Ireland is an ancient country and has been home to several civilisations over thousands of years.
Some of the important symbols used by these ancient communities have come to be symbols of Ireland itself and mean a great deal to many people who are proud of their Irish heritage. They are also numeous pieces of Celtic jewelry that use the ancient symbols as part of their design. In this section we look at the origins of some of the most famous Celtic symbols.
The Awen (The Three Rays of Light)
This symbol is a neo-Druid symbol whose invention is attributed to an 18th century Welsh poet named Iolo Morganngw.
The word Awen, meaning inspiration or essence in the Celtic language, is much older and was first recorded in the 9th century book ‘Historia Brittonum’ thought to be written by the Welsh monk Nennius, although there is some disagreement surrounding the book’s authorship.
Nennius is famed for his contribution to the development of Arthurian legend. He is also said to have created an alphabet, not dissimilar to the Ogham or Runes, after a Saxon scholar ridiculed the Britons for not having their own method of writing. One of the Nennian letters looks very similar to this Awen symbol and could possibly be the inspiration for it.
The Awen symbol also appears in Charlotte Guest’s Mabinogion, a translation of old Welsh tales and folklore relating to Arthur.
Balance between male and female energy
The three rays are said to represent the harmony of opposites in the universe. For example, the two outer rays representing male and female energy and the central ray the balance between them. It also represents the three domains of earth, sky and sea; mind, body and spirit.
On the whole, Awen is considered a symbol of inspiration and divine illumination for poets, writers, artists and creatives. Many contemporary Druid groups have translated its meaning to “flowing spirit” and it is a popular symbol for tattoos, jewellery and neo-pagan art work.
Brigid’s Cross (Brighid’s Cross, St Brigit’s Cross)
Brigid’s Cross is widely believed to be a Christian symbol but its origins lie in much older traditions and folklore.
The cross is usually woven out of rushes and sometimes straw. It consists of a central square surrounded by four arms at right angles and adorns the doors and rafters of Irish homes, usually in the kitchen, warding off fire and evil.
Brigid was a life giving goddess
Traditionally, these crosses were woven on the feast of Imbolc, the festival of the pagan goddess Brigid, to mark the beginning of Spring.
Brigid of the Tuatha de Danaan, in Irish Celtic mythology, was known as a life-giving goddess which is why the beginning of Spring with the birth of new lambs and the flowers beginning to bloom again, was associated with her.
She was also associated with fire, its productive uses and destructive power.
Brigid became a Christian saint
With the introduction of Christianity to Ireland, the goddess Brigid became St. Brigid, or St. Brigid of Kildare (450-520), one of Ireland’s patron saints.
Many of the attributes of the goddess were transferred to the saint. Imbolc became St Brigid’s Feast on the 1st Febuary. The cross became known as St. Brigit’s Cross. St. Brigit herself became associated with sacred flames and holy wells in keeping with the pagan beliefs.
St Brigid helped a dying man
St Brigid is said to have been an early pioneer of Christianity in Ireland. According to The Christian story, St Brigit’s cross came about when Brigid was called to the house of a dying chieftain. As the man lay dying and delirious, Brigid began to console him.
She picked up some rushes from the floor and began weaving a cross. At this point the dying man gained some lucidity and asked what she was doing. Brigid’s explanation of the cross calmed the man and he converted to Christianity on this deathbed.
St Brigid is still celebrated in Ireland
In modern times the feast of St Brigid is still celebrated in parts of Ireland on 1st February.
People weave crosses and display them on their doors and some of the older traditions are still observed. Neo-paganism has also resurrected Imbolc as a religious holiday on the same day.
Right, is a more complicated St Brigid’s Cross – a diamond-cross made with rushes twisted on to willow twigs.
Here’s a video to show how to make a St. Brigid’s Cross. You could use art straws if you can’t get rushes.
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Video – Inside Brigit’s Garden in Co Galway
Brigit’s Garden in Co Galway tells the story of the four Celtic seasons in ancient Ireland. This stunning video takes you strolling through all four sections of the video, to witness the beautiful scenery and symbols…all set to haunting Celtic music by Arlene Faith.
The wonderfully ornate illustrations and calligraphy in the Book of Kells has inspired artists for centuries and is still highly influential today. It’s now possible to have your name written in the style of the Book of Kells with ornate initial letters and calligraphy that are direct replicas of work created by the monks more than a thousand years ago.
Celtic Cross – symbol of faith and culture
The Celtic cross is a symbol of both culture and faith. The true origins of the Celtic cross are unknown but there are many theories and legends.
Two cultures combined to form the cross
One Christian legend says that the first Celtic cross was formed by St Patrick while bringing Christianity to the Druids. The Druids used to worship a large circular stone. St Patrick, on seeing the significance of this stone, drew a large cross through the middle of it in order to bless it.
From this act, the two cultures combined to form the Celtic cross. The cross represents Christianity and the circle is the Celtic representation of eternity, no beginning and no end.
However, there are many different meanings surrounding the Celtic cross. One suggests that the cross represents the four directions of north, south, east and west or the four elements; earth, fire, air and water.
This would suggest that the symbol of the cross predates Christianity and indeed it does appear in many ancient cultures. Carvings of crosses can even be found in caves dating back to the Stone Age.
From Sun Cross to Celtic Cross
Before Christianity came to Ireland, the Gaelic people worshipped a number of different gods. One of these gods was Taranis, God of Thunder, who was often represented holding a thunderbolt in one hand and a wheel in the other.
During the Bronze Age this wheel was often depicted on Celtic coins or worn as jewellery. It usually had four spokes and was known as the Sun Cross. The two symbols are very similar which suggests the Sun Cross may have evolved into the Celtic cross over time.
Symbol of Celtic heritage
The origins of the Celtic cross may be pagan but it was championed by Christianity in the form of the High Crosses around the countryside and in the illuminated manuscripts.
The majority of the people who use the Celtic cross symbol today are Christian but many people also wear Celtic cross pendants as a symbol of their Irish (or Scottish or Welsh) heritage.
Click here for Celtic cross jewelry
How to make an origami Celtic cross
Claddagh Ring – symbol of union and loyalty
The invention of the Claddagh ring is often attributed to Richard Joyce, a fisherman from the village of Claddagh near Galway.
Richard was engaged to be married when, one fateful day, the fishing boat he was on was attacked by pirates who kidnapped the entire crew and sold them into slavery in Northern Africa.
Richard was bought by a goldsmith in Algeria where he was put to work as a goldsmith’s apprentice. There he stayed, learning the craft and never forgetting the girl he’d left behind.
Joyce awarded his freedom
Richard Joyce was awarded his freedom after many years of service and set off on the long journey home. On his return to Ireland he found that his true love had never lost hope that they would be reunited and had waited for him all the years of his absence.
He used his new found skills as a goldsmith to invent the Claddagh ring for her.
Finally the couple were married and according to the story, lived happily ever after in the village of Claddagh.
More rings from that period
This romantic story is one of a few legends surrounding the origin of the ring. The initials RJ can be found on one of the earliest Claddagh Rings but there are also three other Claddagh rings from the same time period which bear the mark of Thomas Meade.
The Claddagh ring is a variation of the ‘fede rings’ that date back to Roman times. These rings display the image of clasped hands symbolising union and loyalty.
The Claddagh ring can mean a number of different things depending on how and where it is worn.
How the Claddagh ring is traditionally worn
- When the ring is worn on the right hand with the bottom of the heart pointing towards the fingertips, suggests the wearer is free and single, and not in a relationship and may be approached.
- If the ring is on the right hand with the bottom of the heart pointing towards the wrist, the wearer is spoken for to somesone special, though not yet engaged or married.
- When the ring is worn on the left hand with the bottom of heart pointing towards the fingertips, the wearer is engaged.
- If the ring is on the left hand with the bottom of the heart pointing towards the wrist then the wearer is married, and your love and friendship will reign forever never to be parted.
Easter Lily – sign of peace and hope for the future
The Easter Lily is a powerful symbol of peace in Ireland. It is traditionally worn over the Easter period, as an act of remembrance for people who died fighting for their country.
It originated in 1925, created by members of Cumann na mBan, which was an all-female organisation in support of the Irish Republican Army.
The Easter Lily was sold in front of churches on Sundays in the period before Easter, as a way of raising money to help support the families of the men that had died in Ireland’s fight for independence. It would then be worn as a mark of respect for those who had lost their lives, and also as a sign of hope and peace for the future.
The Easter Lily is a fitting symbol for Irish nationalists. It blooms in the springtime, which coincides with the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, in which Irish rebels took control of major buildings in Dublin and declared Ireland an independent republic.
The British government responded with heavy military force and the two armies fought for about five days before rebel leader Padraic Pearse ordered his men to surrender to prevent any more casualties. During the conflict 64 Irish republicans and 254 civilians were killed, and 16 of the rebel leaders were executed in the following weeks. The British army suffered the loss of 132 men.
Hundreds of men lost their lives
Cumann na mBan created the Easter Lily nine years after the Rising. It was sold to raise money to help support the families that had lost their husbands and fathers. At the time, people in Ireland were still suffering the after effects of war. The Irish War of Independence had followed the Easter Rising, with an estimated 550 republicans and 750 civilians being killed.
Michael Collins, leader of the IRA, then signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty allowed Ireland status as a free state, but as a dominion of the British Empire. This was unacceptable to some members of the IRA and the organisation split. The anti-treaty began fighting with their former comrades, the pro-treaty. This led to the Irish Civil War, during which Michael Collins was assassinated.
The Easter Lily is sold to remember the people who have lost their lives fighting for their country, and what they believed to be right. Its colouration of green, white and orange perfectly mirror the tricolour, the Republic of Ireland flag.
The green represents the ancient Celtic people, and the orange represents the Protestant settlers. With the white in between symbolises the peace and respect between the two.
The Easter Lily is also associated with the IRA and Sinn Féin, as a symbol to honour the men who have died fighting for their cause.
‘Pinheads’ and Stickies’
When the IRA split into two bodies of the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA, they both continued to wear the Easter Lily. The Provisional IRA members wore the traditional paper lily and pin, whereas the Official IRA would wear an Easter Lilly with a sticky back, just stuck onto their clothes. This led to brief nicknames of the two groups of ‘pinheads’ and stickies’, but they didn’t last long.
The Green Man – symbol of rebirth
The Green Man is represented in many cultures throughout the world as a head made of foliage. he is also known as the ‘Man in the Tree’, ‘Derg Corra, Viridios’ and ‘Jack o’ the Green’.
He relates to Celtic culture and can still be seen today on architecture around Ireland and Britain, usually on religious buildings.
A symbol of rebirth
The Green Man represents the lushness of flourishing vegetation and the coming of spring and summer and is a symbol of rebirth and possibly the co-dependence between nature and man.
He appears as many characters in different mythologies. Since plants and vegetation are vital to life on earth, it makes sense that nearly every culture would have a deity devoted to it. In Celtic mythology he could be related to both Cernunnos, the horned god and Viridios the male god of verdure.
Some historians believe that the human head was of particular importance to the Celts as it was container of the soul. In fact the Celts were known for taking heads as trophies in battle and heads appear frequently in Celtic art.
Vegetation is significant in Celtic culture
Celtic and Druid culture also revolves around trees and vegetation, so a symbol representing a head of foliage would have been particularly significant to the ancient Celts even if its origins lie elsewhere.
In modern times The Green Man is associated with environmental issues and has been used as a logo for environmentally-conscious, sustainable businesses such as eco-homes, landscaping and renewable energy. There are also several music and nature festivals named after The Green Man, which combine music, art and folklore with the improvement of the environment.
The harp – national emblem of Ireland
The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world and also the national emblem of Ireland.
It is believed the harp was introduced to pre-Christian Europe by the Phoenicians who brought it over from Egypt as one of their international trading goods. The oldest surviving Celtic harps date back to the 15th century but the music of the harp has been an important emblem to Ireland since the 10th century.
Spirit of the country
In the days of the old chieftains harpists were held in high regard. Stories were often told to the music of the harp and it encompassed the spirit of the country. Harpists used to travel the country of Ireland performing their folk songs and stories for the public.
The most famous of these was the blind harpist, Turlough O’Carolan. His compositions are still popular today through the work of groups like The Chieftains and Planxty.
Farewell to Music and Concerto performed by Triona Marshall from the Chieftains
The harp was a seen as a threat to the British
In the 16th century the music of the harp was seen as such a threat that The British Crown attempted to crush the Irish Spirit by ordering all harps to be burnt and all harpists executed. It was almost 200 years before the music of the harp was freely enjoyed in Ireland once again.
In 1792, a festival was set up in an attempt to bring back the almost extinct tradition of the harp. Only 10 harpists attended. A young organist named Edward Bunting was hired to notate the harp music at the festival.
Most of the music was lost forever
Bunting’s transcripts are the oldest records of traditional Celtic harp music in existence as it was the tradition to hand down the music orally through the generations. Sadly, with the harp being banned for so long, most of the music was lost.
Today the image of the harp as a national symbol of Ireland is almost as well recognised as the shamrock. It appears on the Irish Euro coins and is the logo for Guinness, considered by many to be Ireland’s national drink.