St. Patrick’s Day symbols explained

Every March 17th people around the world squeeze themselves into overflowing pubs, imbibe in green-colored beers and gleefully don top hats covered in shamrocks. But have you ever wondered what the significance of some of those St. Patrick’s Day symbols are?

Here we’ll break down five traditions that define some of our favorite parts of this holiday!

1. Shamrocks

St. Patrick's Day symbols: Shamrocks
Vintage shamrock-themed St. Patrick’s Day postcards (via The Graphics Fairy)

One of the most prominent St. Patrick’s Day symbols is the shamrock, which ties back to the holiday’s religious roots.

As the legend goes, when St. Patrick arrived in Ireland he used the shamrock to visually explain Christianity’s Holy Trinity. The metaphor worked well for pagan Ireland, where the number three already held special significance (they worshipped many triple deities).

Over time, the shamrock came to become Ireland’s National Symbol and is today often incorporated into Irish branding and design.

2. The color green

While St. Patrick was originally represented by shades of blue, with the rising popularity of the shamrock symbol came an abundance of green.

St. Patrick's Day symbol: The color green
St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, where they dye the river green every year (via Flickr)

The color green has been associated with Ireland since at least the mid-1600s, but came to fruition as a symbol of Irish nationalism during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

During that time, the Irish folk song “The Wearing of Green” recognized the wearing of green and shamrocks as a rebellious act against the British. Here’s an excerpt:

“Oh, Paddy dear, did you hear the news that’s going ’round?
The shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground
Saint Patrick’s Day no more to keep, his color can’t be seen
For there’s a bloody law again’ the Wearing of the Green.”

Today, cities on St. Patricks Day are filled with a sea of green – be it green beers, green rivers or green outfits from head to toe. Forget to wear your green and you’ll risk being pinched!

3. Leprechauns

St. Patrick's Day symbols: Leprechaun
The University of Notre Dame, a Catholic university, uses a leprechaun as their mascot

Leprechauns have long been a beloved part of Irish folklore – mischievous fairies who, when captured by a human, must grant three wishes to be freed.

Before the 20th century, Leprechauns were typically depicted in red clothing – rather than green – and their outfits varied by region. Far different than the green top hat, rainbows and pots of gold we know today.

 

4. Irish music & the harp

St. Patrick's Day symbols: The harp
The harp is a prominent part of the Guinness logo (via Flickr)

Step into any Irish Pub on Sat. Patrick’s Day and you’re sure to hear the lilting sounds of fiddles, pipes and other traditional instruments whose use spans far back into history.

Since the ancient days of the Celts, the Irish have used music to pass along wisdom and their history from one generation to another. Today, the tradition continues with modern day musicians – sometimes in a formal band, other times in a Seisiún.

The Harp has long held special significance for the Irish as both a respected instrument and, uniquely, a national emblem. Similar to the color green and shamrocks, it was used as a rebellious symbol of Irish pride. Today, you’ll regularly see it incorporated into modern design and in countrywide .

5. The Celtic knot

St. Patrick's Day symbols: Celtic knots
8th century manuscripts were filled with artfully complex Celtic knots (via Wikimedia)

One of the most graphic Irish symbols is the Celtic knot, which was regularly used as ornamentation in early Christian manuscripts like the 8th century’s Book of Kells, as well as traditional artwork dating back for many centuries.

Throughout history, you’ll find the Celtic knot incorporated into everything from gravestones and Celtic crosses to metalwork and tattoos. The many variations of the traditional knot are considered part of Ireland’s national identity and are still seen in design, landmarks and architecture today.

More St. Patrick’s Day inspiration

Now that you’ve learned some of the popular St. Patrick’s Day symbols, let’s see how our 99designs community has used them.

pjsweenys
By Hardworx Design
Tavern Rogues
By Uncle Drew
irish
By HARDERS
Knotty Woodcraft
By diqa
McIrelands
By Widakk
Flynn's Pub
By :: scott ::
fechins
By Project 4

Have more St. Patrick’s Day symbols and traditions to share? Add them in the comments!

The author

Kelsey Bryant
Kelsey Bryant

Kelsey is 99designs' Designer Marketing Manager. Born and raised in a small town in Connecticut, she moved to San Francisco in 2009 with a degree in Strategic Communications from Elon University. When she’s not working with the designer community, you can find her exploring the city, taking weekend road trips, and soaking up that California sunshine.

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