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Shamrocks, Snakes and Shililelaghs: St Patricks' Day Symbols Explained
St Patrick's Day has come to be celebrated all over the world. Wherever there is an Irish bar (and that's most places!) on the 17th March you will see people wearing shamrocks, embracing all things green and telling stories about how the snakes were driven out of Ireland. But why? Here follows a guide to some of the most common Irish symbols you might see on St Patrick's Day, and what they actually mean....
The shamrock is a universally recognised symbol of Ireland, and it is closely associated with St Patrick's mission to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. Here's the story we were told at school: when St Patrick was preaching Christianity to the Irish the religious concept he found hardest to explain to his followers was that of the Trinity. That is, the belief that God is three parts equal and indivisible - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One day as he cast about himself, frustrated at the inability of the Irish to understand the Trinity he glanced down and saw a shamrock growing. Shamrocks are three-leaves-in-one, a perfect illustration of the Holy Trinity, and using the shamrock St Patrick was finally able to help the Irish understand.
The Colour Green
Green represents Ireland because it really is the Emerald Isle. Our wet climate isn't much fun for us humans, but it is great for grass, trees and all growing things. On all my travels, I've never seen fields as green as in Ireland after a shower of summer rain. Green has also come to represent Ireland in a political sense - there is a folk song called 'The Wearing of the Green' which refers to the habit in 18th and 19th century Ireland of declaring your desire for Irish independence from Britain by wearing a piece of green cloth on your jacket.
Green, white and orange: the Irish Flag
If you see three bands of colour, green white and orange, on St Patrick's Day that is representing the national flag of the Republic of Ireland, a well-known symbol of Irishness. The flag was designed in 1848 but only became adopted as Ireland's national flag after it was flown as part of the Easter Rising. The flag was flown to symbolise an Ireland free from British political control, with unity between the two main traditions of Ireland - Catholic and Protestant. The Catholics of Ireland are mainly descended from the native inhabitants of the island, represented by green. Irish Protestants came to the island later, from 1600 onwards, and they believe their survival on the island was protected by William Prince of Orange as the famous Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Orange as a colour has thus come to be closely associated with the Protestant tradition in Ireland. The white is in the middle of the flag to symbolise peace and unity between the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland.
The shillelagh (pronounced shil-ay-lee) is a traditional Irish walking stick. They were traditionally carved from blackthorn or oak. And although they were nominally walking sticks, they could be used as a weapon when required. One folk-song (Arthur McBride) celebrates a man bringing down his shillelagh on the head of a soldier recruiting for the British Army! So if you happen to see a Leprechaun on St Patrick's Day with a walking stick in his hand you can impress your friends with your knowledge of Irish culture by pointing out the 'shillelagh'.
What's all this about snakes?
One of the most popular (though least historically accurate) stories about St Patrick is that he banished the snakes from Ireland. This story probably grew up as an attempt to explain the remarkable fact that there are no snakes native to Ireland. Legend has it that St Patrick threw a silver bell down the slopes of the sacred mountain called Crogh Patrick, and all the snakes in Ireland duly slithered away. In reality there have almost certainly never been snakes in Ireland, and what the story really symolises is how St Patrick's Christianty signalled the end of the pagan Druidic religion in Ireland. Irish druids carried staffs carved with snakes, so St Patrick banishing the snakes is a powerful metaphor for the falling away of old druidic practices and beliefs as the Irish embraced Christianity.