Is the shamrock a myth? The truth behind 5 St. Patrick’s Day symbols

From rivers dyed green to steaming plates of corned beef and cabbage, each of the symbols we associate with St. Paddy’s Day has an origin story worth reading.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 17 Mar 2023, 14:17 GMT
A display by Tourism Ireland entitled "Orchestra of Light" featuring a swarm of 500 drones is animated in the night sky above the Samuel Beckett bridge on the river Liffey for St Patrick's Day, as it is cancelled for the second year in a row due to the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dublin, Ireland, March 7, 2021. Picture taken March 7, 2021.
Photograph by Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters, Redux

Shamrocks, green beer, and leprechauns are part and parcel of any self-respecting St. Patrick’s Day celebration. But how did the traditions we associate with the March 17 celebration become associated with the feast day of a fifth-century missionary? Here’s the truth behind five St. Paddy’s Day symbols.

1. Leprechauns

Do you think of a diminutive green sprite with a pot of gold when you think of Ireland? You’re not alone—the leprechaun is one of the most enduring symbols associated with the nation.

But the modern idea of a leprechaun is a far cry from its origins in Irish folklore along with other tales of fictitious fairies and sprites. These supernatural beings were thought to bring good luck to humans and protect them—or tamper with their plans. The oldest written reference to the creature can be found in a medieval story about three sprites who drag the King of Ulster into the ocean.

References to the luchorpán could be found in generations of folk tales, but it took a generation of 19th-century folklorists and poets like William Butler Yeats to popularise the figure outside of Ireland. Even then, the 19th-century leprechaun was a grouchy goblin shoemaker who lived alone, wore red, and jealously guarded treasure—a far cry from the modern leprechaun who wears green, is cheerful, and lives at the end of a rainbow, where he doles out pots of gold and good luck.

This shift is largely thanks to Walt Disney, whose visit to Ireland inspired the 1960s film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which featured a leprechaun trickster dressed in the more familiar outfit of green pants and coat, yellow waistcoat, and buckled shoes. This and other midcentury representations of leprechauns, like breakfast cereal Lucky Charms’ mascot, Lucky, promulgated Americans’ love of the small figures.

Shamrocks—a three-leafed clover long associated with Ireland—are indelibly associated with St. Paddy’s day. There’s just one problem: they don’t exist in real life. “The ‘shamrock’ is a mythical plant, a symbol, something that exists as an idea, shape and colour rather than a scientific species,” Smithsonian’s Bess Lovejoy explains.

Though a plant called a scoth-shemrach can be found in Irish myths, the name wasn’t linked with clover until the 16th century. Modern legend has it that St. Patrick used the three-leafed plant to explain the Holy Trinity while preaching, but despite attempts to link the real-life figure to the practice, historians agree it’s a fable.

In the 18th century, the mythical plant was taken up as a symbol of Ireland’s push for independence from Britain alongside the colour green. Catholic Irish republicans’ uniforms were a green reminiscent of the isle’s grass. Their Protestant enemies adopted orange to express their identification with William of Orange, who overthrew the Catholic king during the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.

Today, Ireland’s flag contains both colours, but the shamrock in particular has come to represent the nation as a whole—and also appears on the United Kingdom’s royal coat of arms, which includes a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, and a shamrock for Northern Ireland.

3. Green beer and rivers

A boat dyes the Chicago River green in celebration of St. Patrick's Day in Chicago. The process for dying the river takes two crews in two boats: One to dump dye into the river and a chaser boat to mix it all together.
Photograph by Reuters, John Gress, Redux

On St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s association with green extends even to beer. Like so many other St. Paddy’s Day traditions, green beer is an American invention. It is thought to have been originated by New York toastmaster and coroner’s physician Thomas H. Curtin, who in March 1914 hosted a St. Patrick’s Day bash that included green decorations and green beer.

Curtin used bluing, a laundry product imbued with blue dye that’s used to brighten up whites, to concoct the drink. These days, people make their own green beer with the help of home food colouring or beer companies who add it to kegs of brew.

Beer isn’t the only thing that turns green on St. Patrick’s Day, though. In 1961, the city of Savannah, Georgia, tried to dye its river green for the holiday. That attempt flopped, but the next year, Chicago succeeded thanks to a plumber’s discovery that a substance used to detect leaks into the Chicago River tinted it a gorgeous Irish green. It’s been turning green for the occasion ever since, thanks to 40-plus pounds of dye that lasts for about five hours.

4. Harps

When Norman chronicler Gerald of Wales travelled to Ireland in the 1180s with members of England’s royal family, he was disgusted by what he called the “barbarous” Irish. But when regaled with music by Irish harpists, he almost changed his mind.

“The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments, in which they are more incomparably skilful than any other nation I have ever seen,” he wrote, marvelling at the “deep and unspeakable mental delight” of the Irish harp.

By then, the harp was deeply embedded in Irish culture. Stone sculptures in Ireland show harps all the way back to the 8th century, though scholars debate how much they resembled modern instruments.

“The harper was extremely well revered in Gaelic society,” said Irish musicologist Mary Louise O’Donnell in a 2015 talk and recital at the Dublin Central Library. Harpists were part of chieftains’ entourages, creating music to accompany poems about their masters’ greatness.

Over time, the harp became a symbol of national pride. Ireland’s coat of arms includes the instrument, which was also adopted by multiple nationalist and rebel movements throughout the nation’s long history. In 1862, Irish brewing juggernaut Guinness adopted it as part of the company’s logo—and when Ireland became self-governing in 1922, it had to flip the orientation of the harp on its official government logo to avoid running afoul of the brewer’s trademark.

5. Corned beef and cabbage

Hungry? You may well eat a big plate of corned beef and cabbage on March 17. But that tradition, too, is American. Beef was actually uncommon in early Ireland, where people preferred pork and beef was only accessible to the richest residents. But over time, Ireland began producing and exporting beef to wealthier England, whose elite preferred cows’ meat.

By the 1600s, beef was Ireland’s biggest export. In 1666, however, English landowners demanded a stop to imports of Irish beef, claiming it competed with their business interests. A series of laws followed, banning Ireland from exporting live cattle to its neighbour. This pushed down the price of Irish beef, so Ireland transformed its beef export industry into a beef preservation industry, using cheaply available salt to create corned beef—so named because of the corn-sized grains of salt used to make it.

Though most of the Irish could not afford their own product, eating potatoes instead of meat, the nation became known for its corned beef. When Irish immigrants flooded into the U.S. in the mid 19th century, they became more prosperous than their predecessors—and they used their newfound money to purchase salted beef brisket from Jewish butchers and deli owners. The “boiled dinner” of corned beef and cheap cabbage has been associated with Irish Americans’ celebration of their heritage ever since.


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