There are certain symbols, that as soon as I see them, I think “Ireland”. Not just because I am Irish, but because they are synonymous with Ireland and Celtic culture. Discover 11 fascinating Celtic symbols and their meanings with this list of some of the most popular and lesser-known Irish Celtic symbols.
Ancient Celtic symbols have been around for centuries, and while many have pagan origins, they were later incorporated into Christian culture and religion and today can be seen across many places such as graveyards, churches and ancient monuments.
The word “Celt” describes a collection of tribes who shared similar religious beliefs, languages, traditions and cultures. The tribes were spread across Western Europe and included tribes from France, Spain, Britain and, of course, Ireland.
While their existence was first documented in the 7th or 8th centuries BC, it is believed the Celtic culture began evolving as far back as 1200 BC. The Romans referred to Celts as “Galli” meaning Barbarian.
Celtic culture was strong in Ireland and when Christianity was brought to the Emerald Isle during the 4th and 5th centuries AD, many Celtic traditions were incorporated into the “new” religion. It is many of these ancient Celtic symbols that we still see today in all aspects of Irish modern-day culture and symbolism.
Below are 11 examples of ancient Celtic symbols and meanings to share some light on where many of the symbols you can see around Ireland originated from and what they represent.
Irish Celtic symbols and their meanings
Triquetra (Trinity Knot)
The Triquetra or Trinity Knot is composed of three interlaced arcs. The Latin meaning of a triquetra is three-cornered. It is one of the best-known symbols in Celtic culture and has been seen throughout history since the Iron Age from around the 4th century BC. It has been used in ornamental design in architecture and medieval manuscripts and is seen often in the Book of Kells. The Triquetra also bears a resemblance to the Valknut, a pagan symbol in Norse mythology.
One of the triquetra symbol meanings is as a representation of the neopagan goddess as a mother (creation), maiden (innocence) and crone (wisdom). For some Celts, it represented the three forces of nature of Earth, Fire and Water, and for others, the three elements of Earth, Sea and Sky.
The Triquetra was used as an early representation of the Christian Trinity. Other meanings of the Triquetra are
- As a symbol of Ireland’s ancient culture.
- Eternal love (it is also known as an Irish Love Knot).
- To outline the stages of a woman’s life.
- As a gift to convey a wish of longevity, as it represents an uninterrupted life cycle.
Sometimes the Triquetra is encased in a circle as a means to emphasise unity or eternity.
In the 1980’s Jim McCabe planted a sylvan Trinity Knot forest for all to enjoy.
A Celtic spiral symbol that is also widely seen in Celtic culture and design is the Triskele. Derived from the Greek word Triskeles, tri meaning three and skelos meaning leg, its literal meaning is three legs. It is a complex ancient Celtic symbol and is related to Celtic traditions.
It can be found in artefacts from the European Neolithic and Bronze Age, with some continuation into the Iron Age. One of the best places to view it is on the entrance stones to the megalithic tomb of Newgrange (dating from 3200 BC). However, it is older than this, first appearing in Malta between 4400 and 3600 BC.
As one of the oldest Celtic symbols, it reflects many areas of Celtic culture from 500 BC onwards. In Ireland, it is associated with Manannán mac Lir, Celtic God of the Sea. It is thought to signify energies and can have different meanings depending on the era, culture, mythology and history of its use.
Meanings of the Triskele include (some similar to the Triquetra)
- Life, death, rebirth
- Spirit, mind, body
- Earth, water, sky
- Land, sea, sky
- Maiden, mother, wise woman
- Mother, father, child
- Past, present, future
- Power, intellect, love
- Creation, preservation, destruction
- The spiritual world, present world, celestial world
It has also been used to represent the Holy Trinity.
The Triskele is used as an emblem on the flags of both the Isle of Man and Sicily.
Celtic Tree of Life
The Celtic Tree of Life, or Crann Bethadh, features in history and religion including Celtic mythology where it was believed to possess special powers. To Celts, it symbolised strength, long life and wisdom. It symbolises harmony and balance. It also represents rebirth, as the Celts derived the meaning of rebirth from the seasonal changes of trees.
The Tree of Life represents a connection between the lower and upper worlds to the Earth’s plane and symbolises forces of nature coming together in harmony and balance. Druids believed in the connection between heaven and earth, and the Tree of Life is a symbol of this connection.
Typically the Tree of Life takes the form of an oak tree. The Celts believed trees were ancestors of human beings. They planted or kept one large tree in the centre of their fields where they held special meetings and it provided shelter and food for wildlife.
The most sacred tree was the oak and the origin of the word ‘door’ comes from the Celtic name daur and the oak was seen as a ‘doorway’ to the otherworld, the realm of the Fairy. As well as being a doorway to the spirit world, it acted as a guard on the land. The Celts believed that their enemies were rendered powerless if their sacred tree was felled.
The Tree of Life is a popular Celtic symbol used in jewellery.
Celtic knots and their meanings are varied but one of the most beautiful is the Dara Knot. This intricate knot resembles a tree and gets its name from the Irish word doire which means oak tree. It first appeared in the 3rd and 4th centuries and Celtic Knots such as the Dara Knot were used on monuments, in manuscripts and temples from the 8th century. It is one of over eight basic variations of the Celtic Knot.
The Dara Knot is characterised by intertwined lines with no beginning and no end. It is a knot said to show the tree and root system of the sacred oak, a common theme through the varieties of this knot. Oaks, as previously mentioned, were considered sacred in Celtic culture, particularly by the Druids, and the intricate root system is represented in the Dara Knot.
The ancient Celts are believed to have called upon this symbol for strength and wisdom in difficult times and situations. It represented strength, wisdom, power and leadership. Other meanings of the Dara Knot include
It most commonly symbolises a never-ending life cycle.
This 9th-century Christian symbol of the crucifixion of Christ is composed of both mixed Christian and Celtic pre-Christian concepts. It is made from four triquetras or four Celtic unity knots and is a braided variation of the Everlasting Cross. It is often called the Triquetra Cross.
It was named after the Carolingian Dynasty of France and is said to represent the ‘eternity of god’. Other meanings include
The Celtic Cross predates Christianity and is believed to be a symbolic compass. It represents the four cardinal directions of Earth, Fire, Wind and Water. It also represents mind, body, soul and heart.
Typically, the Celtic Cross is comprised of a Latin cross with a nimbus surrounding the intersection of the arms and stem. Legend says that the Celtic Cross was introduced to Ireland by either St Patrick or St Declan and that the circle was used to denote the sun to pagans.
Early examples date to around the 9th century and the oldest High stone crosses still standing in Ireland date from between the 8th and 12th centuries. Notable High crosses with Celtic shapes in Ireland can be viewed at
- Ahenny, Tipperary
- Dysert O’Dea Monastery, Clare
- Glendalough, Wicklow
- Monasterboice, Louth
- Clonmacnoise, Offaly
- Kells, Meath
The Celtic Cross, as a symbol, represents knowledge, strength and compassion, while the central ring represents infinite love (god’s endless love) or as a depiction of the halo of Christ.
A lesser-known Celtic symbol is the Serch Bythol, which is Welsh for everlasting love (between a couple). It is one of a few Celtic symbols for family. The Serch Bythol is made from two other Celtic knots, the Triquetra or the Trinity knots.
Two Trinity knots are placed side-by-side with the arcs combining to create a central circle. Three arcs of the triquetra represent mind, body and spirit and the central circle denoting eternity.
This symbol is one of the most widely associated with Ireland and was first adopted as the emblem of the Irish Free State in 1922 upon separation from the United Kingdom. It was registered as the coat of arms of Ireland in 1945 but was used by the Kings of Ireland as far back as the 13th century.
The Harp is the official symbol or emblem of Ireland, and Ireland is the only country whose official emblem is a musical instrument. The current design is based on the 14th century Brian Boru Harp, which is one of the oldest harps in Ireland and is now housed in the Long Room of Trinity College.
The Harp was an emblem of resistance against the Crown of England and was banned at the end of the medieval period by Elizabeth I, resulting in a decline in the old Celtic Harp traditions. It took over 200 years for it to find its way back into Irish culture.
Today, as well as being the emblem of Ireland, it is also used in the following places
- Guinness symbol (although it is right-facing)
- Irish Passports
- Official Government seals and documents
- The back of coins minted in Ireland
The left-facing version is the official emblem of Ireland and is trademarked.
The Shamrock is the national flower of Ireland and is a well-known symbol of Ireland. It is a young sprig and is not to be confused with a four-leaf clover. The word shamrock comes from the Irish seamróg (seamair óg) meaning young clover or sprig.
It has been associated with the Celtic goddess Ana/Anu with the three leaves representing her status as maiden, mother and crone of Ireland. It is believed to have been used as a metaphor for the Christian Holy Trinity by St Patrick.
In pagan Ireland, the number three was a significant number and the Irish had many triple deities, so it is believed the shamrock aided St Patrick in explaining the Holy Trinity to the pagans. It is chiefly associated with St Patrick’s Day during which there is a tradition of wearing sprigs of shamrocks in hats or lapels.
The shamrock has been a symbol of Ireland since the 18th century and is used in a variety of places and by a variety of companies including
- Tourism Ireland
- IDA Ireland
- An Post (regularly feature shamrocks on postage stamps)
- Irish Rugby Union
- Aer Lingus (whose tails bear the shamrock and whose air traffic control call sign is “Shamrock”)
It is also a registered trademark of Ireland.
The Claddagh Ring is a traditional Irish ring representing love (heart), loyalty (crown) and friendship (hands). It originated in the small Galway fishing village of the same name and was first produced in its current form in the 17th century.
It belongs to a group of European finger rings called fede rings (hands in faith/hands joined in loyalty), which date back to Roman times. Fede rings were used as engagement and wedding rings in medieval and Renaissance Europe. They were also sometimes used as friendship rings.
How the ring is worn conveys the wearer’s relationship status to others.
- Worn on the right hand with the heart pointing to the fingertips denotes the wearer is single and maybe looking for love.
- Worn on the right hand with the heart pointing to the wrist denotes the wearer is in a relationship.
- Worn on the left hand with the heart pointing to the fingertips denotes the wearer is engaged.
- Worn on the left hand with the heart pointing to the wrist denotes the wearer is married.
In Irish tradition, the Claddagh is passed down from mother to daughter and kept in the family for generations. And it is often worn to symbolise Irish identity.
St Brigid’s Cross
St Brigid’s Cross is a Celtic symbol, often seen outside Irish homes on the feast day of St Brigid which is the 1st of February. It consists of four arms tied at ends and a woven square middle. The cross is believed to keep evil, fire and hunger from the house from which it is hung. Once woven, it is blessed with Holy Water and the following recanted
May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost be on this Cross and on the place where it hangs, and on everyone who looks upon it.
It is attributed to St Brigid, a nun born in Dundalk in 450 AD but it is also associated with Brigid of the Tuatha de Danaan. The Tuatha de Danaan were a supernatural race in Irish Mythology and Brigid was the life-giving goddess. The Celtic origins lie with the feast of Imbolc, at the beginning of Spring, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Bealtaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain.
In Christianity, it is believed St Brigid weaved the cross at the death bed of a pagan Lord (or her father) who asked to be baptised upon hearing what it meant. It is St Brigid who is believed to have created the first unique cross at this moment.
These are just a few Irish Celtic symbols and meanings and are among the most popular, both in ancient times and modern-day Ireland. They include Celtic knots, crosses and symbols now synonymous with Ireland. There are also two which are official emblems or symbols of Ireland that are trademarked.
Celtic Symbols FAQ
Cath is an Irish expat now living in Portugal. She regularly returns to Ireland to explore more of the wonderful island with her family.