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Shamrocks, Snakes and Shililelaghs: St Patricks' Day Symbols Explained

St Patrick banishes the snakes

St Patrick banishes the snakes

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.

The green fields of Ireland

The green fields of Ireland

More information on Ireland


Ghaelach on March 09, 2011:

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Well written Marie.

I think your picture is typical of the whole island. Small fields surrounded by meter high stone walls. Apart from Scotland and the north of England you wont see a land scape like this anywhere else in the world. For me it's magic. It's nice to see the small white washed homes dotted sparingly about the country side.

Good hub with a lot of info for the none Irish readers. lol


arhaider3 from Lahore on March 05, 2011:

good information

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 05, 2011:

It sounds like you have real Scots-Irish roots there! There are some interesting hubs around on that subject, and I've written one about Irish emigration to America which might interest you too if you're into family history. Great to hear you are keeping up the true meanings of St Patricks Day - in Ireland it is still more a religious holiday than a party, though that's changing fast!

emeraldkell on March 05, 2011:

Thanks for writing this hub. I'm Irish American. My grandmother's family came to the states in the early 1700's. Her last name was McCann. Her mother was McCardle. She married a Scott American with the last name Carr. My husband is Hispanic and I've been teaching him about the true meaning of Saint Patrick's Day. It's such a shame in America the holiday has lost its true meaning. Keep up the good posts.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 02, 2011:

Thanks for raising that Royo. I always appreciate feedback. I checked to see if what we learnt at school was wrong (always possible!). The flag was invented in 1848 but only became regarded as the national flag of Ireland when it was the banner of the Easter Rising - will change words to make it more clear!

Royo1234 from Galway, Ireland. on March 02, 2011:

Very good and interesting hub. Just one thing, I think the Irish tri-colour flag dates from before the 1916 rising, but very good all the same.

BrendyMac on March 01, 2011:

Yet another of your hubs I love,Marie!! I love the photos you put in too...makes me want to paint them.And as a Mc Geown from Armagh and Belfast,I will be following all your hubs avidly as they come online!!?

Diane Inside on March 01, 2011:

Nice hub, it is a quick reminder of the stories I learned as child. I am of irish descent but over the generations many of the stories have been lost. And sadly our family is totally americanized. lol Good luck on your journey with hubpages. It is a great community.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 22, 2011:

Glad you found it interesting David - thanks for the feedback!

David99999 on February 21, 2011:

This is fascinating!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 20, 2011:

Good tip, thanks!

mikeq107 on February 20, 2011:

Marie :0)

your very welcome!!

A good hub to read on adsence is by Hubber Mark knowles

"The Best Easy Way to Make Money Online is to Open a Hubpages Account97"

Mark has only been a member 3 years!!

Mike :0)

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 20, 2011:

Thanks for your welcome! Am working on the adsense thing - I think I have to wait a couple of days for approval or something?

mikeq107 on February 20, 2011:

Marie :0)

great hub by a fellow Irish writer, welcome to hub pages...make sure you sign up for can make good money takes a while, butits worth it

Mike :0)

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