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St. Patrick’s Day Symbols and What They Mean

Many cities host revels on St. Patrick’s Day. This year, the 17th falls on a Tuesday, so the weekend before may see more celebrants decked out in green T-shirts and shamrock-shaped glasses. However, that shamrock may have more meaning to it than you may realize—learn about some St. Patrick’s Day symbols and what they mean.


Legend has it that St. Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the idea of the Holy Trinity to prospective converts. The first instance of this legend actually didn’t appear in writing until 1726; shamrocks were part of Irish folklore and Druid religion long before St. Patrick showed up. By the time St. Patrick arrived in the fifth century, Irish folk already believed the number three had mystical powers.


Ireland is justly famous for its poets and bards. For centuries, these revered artists presented their songs and histories accompanied by music of the harp. The harp was said to dispel evil spirits and lull children to sleep. You’ll see the harp on coins, flags, and official documents in Ireland—and on Guinness products.


Made of blackthorn or oak, this Irish fighting stick was a tool of an early Irish martial art. Makers coated the sticks with grease and stowed them in chimneys to cure and harden them; this process gave them a distinctive black color. Soldiers trained with shillelaghs, and gentlemen used them as a way to settle disputes. Shillelaghs may have started out as lances or spears, but they evolved over time to come in different lengths. People use them now more often as walking sticks, even though they’re still a formidable means of self-defense.


Cranky, solitary, and devious little people, legendary leprechauns appear as symbols of St. Patrick’s Day in the hats, costume beards, and belted green suits on partygoers. Legends say that you can bully a leprechaun into revealing where he keeps a pot of gold as long as you never look away. Leprechauns are skilled at distraction, and they’ll disappear if you take your eyes off them.


The original color for St. Patrick was actually blue, but nostalgia for the Emerald Isle probably spurred the switch to green for a day that celebrates all things Irish. The “wearin’ o’ the green” echoes the intense green of the Irish landscape.

Whether you’re of Irish descent or just one of the many who become a little Irish only on March 17th, now you know more about what these familiar symbols of St. Patrick’s Day signify.

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