True Meaning Behind Popular Irish Myths

Aaah…the luck of the Irish!! Ireland is a nation rich in superstitions and many of these are still practiced. Urban legends and the cultures and religions of Ireland’s former inhabitants from foreign lands influenced folk traditions and superstitions.

 

Credit: “Leprechaun” by Kevin Middleton (click image to buy)

 

The Celts, an early eastern European civilization that migrated to the British Isles, started many of its traditions, including the festival now recognized as Halloween. The English, who came to establish a colony in the 11th century, following the Celts, the Normans, and the Vikings, were the bridge to another superstition—that of the four-leaf clover or shamrock—which was initiated by their ancestors, the Druids. The legend of the goddess, Macha, known for her red hair, gave rise to a string of beliefs as to why red-haired people (particularly women) can be dangerous. Other superstitions deal with leprechauns, and the blarney stone.

The Shamrock

In ancient Ireland, the shamrock was a sacred symbol. The three leaves on the shamrock made it really special because people at the time believed that three was a magic number. Good things supposedly happened in threes. If one good thing happened, a person could expect two more. Historians discovered that the Celts also used the shamrock to help them grow crops. The shamrock’s three leaves represented three goddesses. By burning the leaves and spreading the ashes over their fields, farmers expected to grow many crops. In addition to the number of leaves on the shamrock, it also served as a sign of the coming spring.

According to legend, St. Patrick, after whom the holiday was named, used shamrocks as a symbol of Christianity. St. Patrick converted many Irish people to the Christian religion around 432 A.D. Depending on what legend you believe, St. Patrick may have used the shamrock’s three leaves to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish. He pointed out that although the shamrock has three leaves, it is still one plant. Similarly, the Christian god is made up of three persons (The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).

The shamrock is still a popular talisman today and a charm for good luck. It is believed that anyone who possesses it will be blessed with luck in anything, even in gambling, and will be saved from the evil effects of witchcraft and sorcery. There are certain conditions, though, for its power to remain effective: the owner of the shamrock must keep it handy and away from the public eye and never give it to someone else. Graves often have carvings of the clover image to serve as protection.

The Irish also developed the custom of “drowning the shamrock.” Families with servants put shamrocks in a bowl and covered them with Irish whiskey. When the family finished drinking, the remainder of the whiskey was given to the servants. Believe it or not, despite the custom of “drowning the shamrock,” St. Patrick’s Day is not dedicated primarily to drinking in Ireland. Instead, people spend the day visiting family and attending church services.

Red-Haired Women

Red hair is gorgeous, and it’s comparatively rare, too – except in the Emerald Isle, which features the world’s second largest population of natural redheads (Scotland is number one). Reminiscent of the beauty of bonfire flames at night, or the turning leaves in autumn, red hair is sometimes accompanied by a dusting of freckles. Often, redheads also have lighter eye colors, such as blue, green, amber, and hazel. Although it is true there is a larger percentage of redheads in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, barring maybe Scotland, it is still only about 4%-10% of the population.

A lot of Irish find the stereotype of Irish red hair offensive, like they find leprechauns, thatched cottages, and an Irish jig offensive. Red hair was often looked down upon by the Irish and English, partly because it was associated with the Danes and Vikings who invaded both countries around the 10th century. The myth of the fiery red temper was also exploited by the British, as they worked to subjugate the Irish and keep them tame. Any propaganda and sentiment that might help with this was used.

Leprechauns

According to legend, the leprechaun has a pot of gold hidden somewhere, and he must give up his treasure to the one who catches him. You’ll have to step lively and think quickly to capture a leprechaun’s gold though, because this sly little fellow will fool you into looking away an instant while he escapes into the forest.

A story is told of the man who compelled a leprechaun to take him to the very bush where the gold was buried. The man tied a red handkerchief to the bush in order to recognize the spot again and ran home for spade. He was gone only three minutes, but when he returned to dig, there was a red handkerchief on every bush in the field. As long as there are Irishmen to believe in the “little folk,” there will be leprechauns to reflect the wonderful Irish sense of fun, and many a new story of leprechaun shenanigans will be added to Irish folklore each year.

The Blarney Stone

“Kiss me, I’m Irish” is closely related to the legend of the Blarney Stone. This world-famous attraction is found at the Blarney Castle, located near the Irish village of Blarney and the city of Cork. According to legend, one who kisses the stone will receive the gift of eloquent speech, or the “gift of gab”. More than a quarter-million people come to kiss the Blarney Stone each year, likely making it the world’s most unhygienic landmark!

 

We hope you have enjoyed learning about the myths and legends of Ireland! Be safe and enjoy St. Patrick’s Day! Need some green to liven up your storefront or home for the holiday? Be sure to think like a leprechaun and visit our Winter Park, Florida store! We have all your signage needs!