The whole world appears to be turning green for the annual craziness of St Patrick’s Day.
I thought I knew a lot about Ireland, St Patrick’s Day, and history in general, but the other day someone stumped me with this question: "Why is green considered so Irish, and why is it such an important color on St Patrick’s Day?"
The Republic of Ireland, sometimes known by its Gaelic name "Eire," or by its nickname "the Emerald Isle," is the country most closely associated with St Patrick’s Day. Wearing green on March 17 is viewed by the Irish as traditional and respectful, and is believed to bring good luck, especially when worn on the big day itself.
However, if we look back into history, blue was originally the national color of Ireland. This was depicted in the early Irish flag, and was also adapted by "The Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick" in the 1780s, an organization of chivalry, complete with knights charged with protecting Ireland. The blue color used by these knights was called "St. Patrick’s blue." This dark shade of navy is still used by some of Ireland’s sport teams, and also by the government of Ireland as the Irish presidential flag, which has a golden harp on a navy blue background. This is also why the printed edition of the Constitution of Ireland has a blue cover, and why the carpets in their government buildings are blue.
Exactly when green came into fashion isn’t known, but the rejection of blue as a national Irish color probably has roots when the Catholic bishops and noblemen first tried to oust the Protestant (British) powers from Dublin in the 1800s. Whatever the reason, the St. Patrick’s blue that was used in official costumes, ribbons and dress during the latter 19th century began to incorporate more and more green as time went on.
In the early 1900s, there was a huge wave of Irish nationalism that led to green being adopted to differentiate the country from the reds and blues associated with England, Scotland and Wales. The green that appears in the Irish national flag became official in 1921 when Ireland achieved political independence from the U.K.
Incidentally, the green represents the nationalist (Catholic) population, the orange in the flag illustrating the Protestant (Unionist) population, and the white of the center illustrates a desire for peace between the two.
About this time, the green frenzy really began in earnest, says www.historyireland.com
Green is a great choice for Ireland as it is associated lush grass and landscape upon which millions of sheep graze. The west of Ireland typically experiences a whopping 225 rainy days each year, and this preserves the natural green color of vegetation in its countryside. In fact, Ireland’s green landscape is actually the main reason why Ireland is identified as the Emerald Isle, since almost all real emeralds come from Columbia, Brazil and Zambia, none from Ireland.
Another green association leads us full circle back to St. Patrick, who is known to have used the green shamrock or three-leafed clover to explain the Holy Trinity to pagans. The three leaves of the typical clover represent faith, hope, and love. When one of those rare four leaf clovers are found, he explained, the fourth leaf represents luck. This is why it became customary to wear green clothes, accessories and shamrocks in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
To finish off this trip down Ireland’s green road, Irish folklore is full of little mischievous bearded fairies called leprechauns, who are always pictured wearing green clothing and hats and generally up to no good.
I say goodbye this week with a traditional, centuries old Irish poem: "May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go".
God bless America, and happy St Patrick’s Day!
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