Symbols of Ireland

Nicola Gordon Bowe

The crucial part symbols can play in the visualization of a nation has attracted interest and debate in recent years. Whether symbols are associated with political aspiration and conflict, with romantic national pride in past achievements, with perceived identity, or with the personification of race, their history and continuing use can tell us a great deal about the history of the country in question.

As Ewan Morris has written,

“Symbols are distinguished from other signs by three important characteristics: the emotional charge which they carry, the complex web of associations attached to them, and the fact that they represent ideas or emotions which are difficult, if not impossible to express in words alone”.

Furthermore, the ambiguity of symbols means that , “in the case of national symbols, there will be a variety of interpretations of the values and ideals of the nation for which they stand”, and this “rich mixture of meanings and associations which they evoke” gives them much of their power, leading to “a continuous and stable sense of identity”. They synthesise past experience, express the present by reflecting the solidarity of the state, and signal the future.

Most of the symbols traditionally associated with Ireland and her representation were either invented or revived to evoke the spirit of the 1798 Rebellion, popularised by the Young Irelanders in the 1840s and consolidated during the Celtic Revival.

Along with the revival of interest in the Irish language, music, literature, architecture, sculpture and the applied arts, images of Ireland played a crucial role in defining this extended period of fervent political and cultural nationalism which gathered momentum during the second half of the 19th century and culminated in the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.

In the interim, the first ever national trade mark, a stylised interlaced letter ‘E’ motif inscribed ‘Déanta in Eireann’ introduced in 1906, declared support for native endeavour, while versions of the much- reproduced 8th century Tara brooch, discovered in 1850 and the popular Galway ‘Claddagh’ ring, proclaimed the wearer’s nationalist affiliations, as might the colour and other accessories of the dress worn.

Depictions of Ireland as a green-clad Hibernia, or as the maid of Erin, the pale, resilient, deceptively vulnerable, raven-haired, the harp, strung, unstrung or reinvented in its ancient form, the shamrock, the rising sun of the Fianna (the legendary warriors associated with the otherworldly hero Fionn mac Cumhaill) and later the Fenians, the round tower (whose mysterious early Christian bell-tower form was first analyzed by the antiquarian George Petrie in 1833), the Celtic cross, the ruined chapel, the wolfhound (re-bred in the 19th century, emulating the legendary hounds of Fionn and Oisin) and the Red Hand of Ulster (first used in the 14th century by Hugh Reamhar O’Neill of Tyrone) are legion. They preceded those of the shanahie (storyteller), the Wexford pikeman, Daniel O’Connell the Liberator, the wonder-working saints St. Patrick (Ireland’s patron saint by the 1780s), St. Colmcille and St. Brigid, similarly enduring icons associated with Ireland.

Such symbolic images could be found, increasingly set in bounding formalised interlaced patterns ending in dragons’ heads, incorporated into 19th century public buildings and sculpture, both secular and ecclesiastical. Examples include J. O’Meara’s Irish House on the Dublin Quays, the Father Mathew Memorial Hall proscenium in Dublin’s Church Street, and the stuccoed building facades of the North Kerry artisan Pat McAuliffe; carved bog oak jewellery, souvenirs and inlaid furniture; Belleek porcelain; commemorative glassware and silver bearing the crowned harp hallmark; embroidered banners, book covers and illustrations and a rich variety of printed ephemera. They had become recognizably symbolic of Ireland in popular visual imagery, music and literature by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

For example, the well-known epithet describing Ireland as “The Emerald Isle” was first used by the Belfast United Irishman and poet, William Drennan, in his poem, ‘When Erin First Rose’ in 1795. Even the tricolour, the popular name of the Republic of Ireland’s green, white and orange flag adopted by the Irish Free State in 1922, first appeared at the Irish Confederation gatherings of 1848.

The inspiringly romantic imagery of Thomas Davis’s Young Ireland newspaper, The Nation (1842 - ) was deliberately used to boost a demoralised, land-torn people and build up a dynamic reservoir where tradition could be transformed into material advancement and intellectual/spiritual growth. Symbols such as the Sword of Light (An Claidheamh Soluis) appeared as a 1903 colophon device handprinted by the Yeats’ Dun Emer Press, as the title of the Gaelic League’s newspaper, on one of the first four Irish Free State stamps, and as a commemorative silver hallmark in 1926.

In 1941, Gabriel Hayes sculpted the wing-helmeted figure of Lugh, the ancient God of Light, to symbolise Aviation releasing a flight of aeroplanes on the façade of the new Department of Industry and Commerce building in Dublin. The traditionally fabled black pig and the salmon of wisdom (recently revived by John Kindness in outsize ceramic form beside the River Lagan in Belfast) were among those images proposed in 1926 by W.B. Yeats’ advisory committee for Ireland’s controversial new coinage designs. Determined to avoid hackneyed, obviously popular Revivalist symbols, they settled on a horse, a salmon, a bull, a wolfhound, a hare, a hen, a pig and a woodcock, each backed by a harp and minted between 1928-1971.

The Irish wire-strung harp, depicted as early as the 11th century, was testament to the exalted role the harper played for centuries in Gaelic society, so that the harp became recognised as a national symbol of Ireland from at least the 13th century, although it had declined by the late 18th century. The harp emblem survived, not in its native Irish form, but crowned and adorned with a winged maiden, as a symbol of Ireland under British rule from the late 17th century until it was allegorically revived by the Cork-born painter Daniel Maclise in the 1840’s, in illustration to ‘The Harp that Once through Tara’s Halls’ and ‘The Origin of the Harp’, from Thomas Moore’s stirring collection of Irish Melodies.

In 1854, Maclise’s depiction of a magnificently carved but broken-stringed harp, silently held by a bardic harper-poet, despondently witnessing the marriage of the deposed King of Leinster’s daughter Aoife to the Norman Strongbow, was painted in antiquarian reference to the so-called ‘Brian Boru’ 14th century harp in Trinity College, Dublin. This iconic instrument, the oldest surviving Irish harp and the model for Ireland’s state emblem, appears on the coinage, the Great Seal, on Government documents and as the symbol for the historic province of Leinster. Held by a small, elusive female figure representing Ireland’s ancient music, it features in Oliver Sheppard’s 1909 carved homage to the national romantic poet, J.C. Mangan, beside the white marble head of Roisin Dubh (‘Dark Rosaleen’), described by the Gaelic scholar George Sigerson as “the beautiful symbol of our ideal Erin”. The patriot Patrick Pearse would describe this same head as the “finest embodiment of the wonderful sweetness of Caithlin Ni Uallachain that has yet been carved in marble, or painted on canvas”.

Sheppard’s bronze portrayal of the Death of Cuchulainn (1912) from the Ulster mythological echoed Pearse’s redemptive vision of heroic sacrifice, and symbolised “the unconquered spirit of Ireland” at the New York World Fair of 1939. At the same Fair, Evie Hone’s large stained glass window, My Four Green Fields (1938/9), commissioned for the Irish Government’s pavilion, represented the arms of the four ancient provinces of Ireland in a free, purely abstract design, “symbols and abstractions sweeping into a rich harmonious unity”. Such was its impact that onlookers conceded “Kathleen Ni Houlihan could be symbolised more dynamically than by a colleen in a shawl”.

Hone retained a single emerald shamrock at the foot of her golden harp symbolizing Leinster. Sheehy designates the shamrock as “the most obvious”, recognizable and commonly used Irish symbol. Nelson’s witty account of the evolution of the universal cult of ‘the wearing of the green’ (rather than the original heraldic blue), traces the evolution of the perception of the shamrock plant, or seamróg, seamair óg, meaning a little or a young clover, from food of the poor to sentimental national emblem. He records the first published record of the “shamarogue” being worn on St. Patrick’s Day as 1689, even though its connection with the saint and the Trinity is fictitious, and its increasing popularity after its patriotic adoption by both Volunteers and United Irishmen alike by the end of the 18th century. Thomas Moore’s ballad ‘Oh the Shamrock’ (1812) heralded the ubiquitous “apotheosis of the shamrock” in the second half of the 19th century and “its acceptance in all quarters as the badge of Ireland and the Irish”, adopted by Church, State and popular usage, crossing political divides.

As 19th century archaeological excavations revealed the wondrously sculpted High Crosses at Monasterboice and Clonmacnois, the Hiberno-Romanesque Clonfert Cathedral, the stone churches, round towers, and great monastic settlements, e.g. at Glendalough, national pride in Ireland’s hitherto forgotten great past achievements was boosted, and a wealth of imitative possibilities provided for the growing souvenir industry. Further discoveries included finely wrought reliquaries, shrines, a wealth of magnificent pre-Christian Bronze Age gold metalwork, and dazzlingly intricate treasures such as the Tara brooch, the Cross of Cong and the Ardagh chalice. The great surviving early mediaeval illuminated Books of Kells and Durrow, the Cathach of Colum Cille and the Annals of the Four Masters offered models for the revival of a distinctively Irish half-uncial script, still used today.

When these unimagined wonders were systematically studied in the Royal Irish Academy by the great antiquarian scholars of the day, displayed, drawn and reproduced, they provided a welcome vocabulary of recognizably Irish motifs, such as spirals, triskels, chevrons, whorls, zoomorphic interlacing and lettering, which could be applied to a broad range of contemporary artefacts. They inspired poets and writers, such as Standish O’Grady, whose fictionalised retelling of the heroic supernatural exploits of Cuculain and His Contemporaries (1880) and Finn and his Companions (1892) brought to life the disappearing mythology of Ireland.

In 1904, the largest ever display of over 500 original Irish treasures was transported to St. Louis, Missouri, to represent “the art, history and social life of Ireland” over a period of 4000 years at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Set amongst symbolic replicas of Blarney Castle, Cormac’s Chapel, the Houses of Parliament, a rustic cottage, a Celtic high cross, a Norman gateway and a Hiberno-Romanesque revival Industrial Hall, its unprecedented success was seen as heralding the new, independent Ireland, ripe for industrial development, keenly looking to the future, secure in its past. In retrospect, it may be seen as anticipating the advent of Ireland’s latest symbol, the Celtic tiger, a hundred years hence.

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