The Irish Sweater:
The ubiquitous Irish sweater. On St. Patrick’s Day, it seems as though everyone dons one, whether traditional ivory-colored, hunter-green, or high-necked and fuchsia. The cabled patterns of the Irish fisherman’s sweater are reportedly symbolic. The foundation, the cable, represents the lifeline for the fisherman’s survival. A honeycomb pattern symbolizes the industry of the bee. Various patterns hearken back to the Book of Kells, and ancient Celtic drawings found on megalithic stones and burial sites.
A romantic idea exists that each Irish fishing family had its own pattern knitted into the jumper, or sweater, so should Fate turn against the fisherman, his body could be identified when it washed up upon the shore. Historians believe this notion to be purely fabricated for storytelling purposes. In John M. Synge’s “Riders to the Sea,” there is a reference to the knit on the jumper of the drowned fisherman, but a specific family design is not mentioned.
Regardless, the traditional cabled fisherman sweater has been worn by sailors in Ireland and the United Kingdom for generations. Crafted with natural, untreated wool, báinín the lanolin from the sheep was retained and provided a waterproof barrier between the wearer and the harsh elements of nature.
As early as the beginning of the twentieth-century, a group of economically industrious women realized the market for the Aran knit among the tourists and artists who began to visit their Aran Islands. Profit could be had for their skillful knitting. Thus, the Irish fisherman’s sweater became known as an Aran knit. The cabled pattern soon became quite popular and was even featured in Vogue fashion magazine in a 1950s spread.
The Claddagh is a ring traditionally given to a lover for an engagement or wedding, or as a symbol of affection. Originating in the fishing village of Claddagh, near the city of Galway, it was first produced during the reign of William and Mary in the late 1600s. The heart, hands, and crown of its distinctive design stand for love, friendship, and loyalty respectively, and the ring can be worn in different ways to indicate the relationship status of the wearer. A Claddagh worn on the right hand with the point of the heart facing down, toward the end of the finger indicates a single wearer, while turned around, it signifies romantic attachment. Worn on the ring finger of the left hand, the ring indicates engagement or marriage.
Popular legend holds that the Celtic Cross was introduced to Ireland by St. Patrick or St. Declan, in order to explain the importance of the cross to Irish pagans. In the early days of Christianity in Ireland, Celtic crosses were used as freestanding monuments. A number of huge high crosses were erected in the eighth century and probably followed earlier versions constructed from wood. These crosses were often decorated with ornate Celtic art and occasionally displayed inscriptions carved in runes. This tradition later evolved into a custom of using Celtic crosses as grave markers, a practice which became particularly fashionable in the 19th century. From this point onward, it also became a symbol of Celtic heritage and pride and is today a popular design
St. Brigid’s Cross
Made from rushes or occasionally from straw, St. Brigid’s Cross first appeared in the 17th century, but the legend of its origin is set in pagan times. Legend says that St. Brigid was called to the deathbed of a dying Celtic lord by some of his Christian servants in order to try converting him to Christianity before his death. When Brigid arrived, the man was too delirious to understand her, so she began weaving together rushes from the floor of his sickroom. When asked what she was doing, she explained that she was weaving a cross, and the lord’s delirium slowly gave way to questioning. Converted, he was baptized just before he died.
Later, it became tradition to weave St. Brigid’s Crosses on February 1st, the Feast Day of St. Brigid. These crosses were hung in Irish homes to ward off evil, particularly fires, and were therefore most common in kitchens.
Played by Brian Boru, the last true and now legendary High King, who ruled all Ireland in the 8th & 9th centuries, the harp has been a symbol of Ireland ever since. In 1542, it was adopted as an official symbol. In 1922, the Republic of Ireland adopted a left-facing harp, based on the Trinity College Harp located in the library of Trinity College in Dublin as its official symbol. It appears on state documents and seals, along with the cover of every Irish passport. The medieval tradition of printing harps on Irish coins also continues into the present with the left-facing Trinity College Harp featuring on Irish printed Euro.
Shamrocks and Four-Leafed Clovers
While the two plants are commonly confused, the shamrock and the four-leafed clover have very different meanings. The first has three leaves and is a symbol of Ireland and the Christian Holy Trinity; the second is one of the best known good luck charms. While the three leaves of a shamrock are sometimes said to represent Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the leaves of a four-leafed clover are said to represent faith, hope, love, and luck. Additionally, the shamrock is a specific kind of clover, the three-leafed old white clover, while four-leafed clovers can be found in any clover species. In fact, the shamrock’s name indicates its uniqueness among clover. It comes from the Gaelic seamróg, a diminutive of seamair, the name used to refer to all clover. However, in spite of shamrock referring to a specific species, four-leafed clovers, produced by mutation, are rarer. They only occur in 1 out of every 10,000 clovers, which must be why it’s considered so lucky to happen upon one.