Cat Flag Explains Popular Irish Symbols

It’s time once again to celebrate the ol’ Emerald Isle by wearing green, drinking Guinness, and putting on an embarrassingly bad phony Irish accent. Or, if you’re me, eating corned beef while listening to Enya.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Cat Flag special for St. Patrick’s Day, so this year I’ve decided to look at some popular symbols of Ireland that you tend to see this time of year. I’ve already discussed the origin of the Irish flag and the shamrock, but let’s take a quick look at…

The Irish Harp

The coat of arms of Ireland is a blue shield with a picture of a golden harp on it, and this has been the case since at least the 13th century. Not only is it the coat of arms of the independent Republic of Ireland, but you can also see it on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, representing British-ruled Northern Ireland:

The oldest recorded image of the Irish harp that has been preserved to this day dates from 1280, but the origins of the harp as a symbol for Ireland are a bit unclear. One theory holds that it refers to a fictional King Anguish of Ireland that appears in some of the legends of King Arthur, another that it stems from a medieval Irish poem mourning the loss of a popular harp-playing king, a third that it symbolizes the Biblical King David.

What we do know is that the harp was made the official national symbol of Ireland in 1541, when King Henry VIII of England proclaimed himself “King of Ireland” to get around the pesky problem that Ireland had technically been granted to the English by the Catholic Church and King Henry had just had a bit of a falling out with the pope.

Today, the harp is such a well-known symbol of Ireland that many Irish businesses, such as Guinness, use the harp as part of their logo to show off their Irish heritage.

Leprechauns

 

There is probably no fantasy creature more specifically associated with Ireland than the leprechaun. Technically a type of fairy, leprechauns are infamous for their greed and mischievous nature. They are short, wear green, drink heavily, and store a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Where did such a strange legend come from?

Like many aspects of folklore, tales of the leprechaun have evolved and changed over time. In early medieval times, Irish legends about water spirits called “luchorpán” started to be mixed in with legends about drunk fairies that lived in cellars and depleted the local booze supply. Many versions of the leprechaun tale say that the creatures are shoemakers by occupation, perhaps because the Irish for shoemaker is “leath bhrogan”. It’s a pun, you see.

Whatever their origin, the leprechaun has had staying power, not just in Ireland but around the world, in part because legends surrounding them have a universal message. Our protagonist finds the leprechaun’s treasure, but the little green-clad man manages to trick him or her into somehow losing the pot of gold. These tales are a warning against being too greedy and trusting “get rich quick” schemes, a moral that will always have relevance.

The Blarney Stone

About five miles away from the Irish city of Cork lies a medieval castle known as Blarney Castle. This castle was built in 1446 by a local Irish noble family. It has changed hands many times over the centuries, but one thing has been consistent in all of that time: the legend of the Blarney Stone. This seemingly ordinary, if large, stone built into one of the castle’s defenses, is said to give those who kiss it the “gift of gab”, i.e. the power of eloquent and persuasive speech.

How this stone gained this power varies from legend to legend. In one telling, it is the stone on which Jacob slept as he had his famous dream of a ladder to heaven as described in the Book of Genesis. In another it was the throne on which the ancient High Kings of Ireland were crowned. Still another says that the builder of Blarney Castle, fearing he would lose everything in an upcoming lawsuit, prayed to an Irish goddess who told him to kiss the stone, so when he testified at his trial he swayed the jury to his side.

Regardless of where and how the stone got its powers, it has become a magnet for many visitors every year who wish to try it out for themselves (and conquer their fear of heights in the process). In Irish slang, “blarney” has become a synonym for “empty, meaningless talk” in reference to this tradition.

HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY, EVERYONE!