Celtic Info & Trivia
The Claddagh symbolizes Love, Loyalty, and Friendship. The heart is for Love, the crown for Loyalty, and the hands for Friendships. The Claddagh originates from the fishing village of Claddagh near Galway, and was used traditionally as a wedding ring. Because of its historic origins and romantic appeal, the popularity of the Claddagh has increased in recent times.
The Claddagh Ring belongs to a widespread group of finger rings called Fede or “Faith rings” which date from Roman times. They are distinguished by having the bezel cut or cast in the form of two clasped hands, symbolizing faith, trust or “plighted troth”. Fede rings were popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, and there are examples from this time in the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin. The “Claddagh” ring is a particularly distinctive ring; two hands clasp a heart surmounted by a crown.
The generally accepted story of the ring is that one Richard Joyce, a native of Galway, was being shipped by sea to be sold as a slave to the West Indies plantation owners. However, the seas weren’t safe, and he was captured by a band of Mediterranean pirates and sold to a Moorish goldsmith who taught him the craft of goldsmithing. In 1689 he was released from slavery as a result of a demand from King William III. The Moor offered him his only daughter in marriage and half his wealth, if he would remain in Algiers, but Joyce declined and returned home bringing with him the idea of the Claddagh ring. The earliest Claddagh rings to be traced bear his mark and the initial letters of his name, RI (Richard Joyce). The years pass. The great Famine of 1847-1849 causes a mass exodus from the West, and with that exodus spreads the fame of the Claddagh ring. These rings were kept as heirlooms, passed on from mother to daughter. It was not till the high scale production techniques of today that everyone could be the proud owner of one of these magnificent rings.
By tradition the ring is taken to signify the wish that Love and friendship should reign supreme. Today, the ring is worn extensively across Ireland, either on the right hand with the heart turned outwards showing that the wearer is “fancy free” or with the heart turned inwards to denote that he or she is “spoken for”. The pride of place is on the left hand, with the heart turned in, indicating that the wearer is happily married and the love and friendship will last forever, the two never separated.
Return to Top
Erin go Bragh
Erin go Bragh (sometimes Erin go Braugh) is generally believed to be the Anglicization of a Gaelic phrase “Eire go Brach” used to express allegiance to Ireland. It is most often translated as “Ireland Forever”, although a literal translation would be “Ireland until the end of time”, which is a cheeky way of saying what almost every culture says now and then: “We’re number one”.
It may seem surprising that a phrase which has come to so strongly represent Ireland actually came from Scotland. A Scottish song from the 19th century entitled “Erin-go-Bragh” tells the story of a Highland Scot who is mistaken for an Irishman, because he went by the name “Erin-go-Bragh”. Dick Gaughan recorded a cover of this song on his “Handful of Earth” album.
Today, the standardized spelling is “Éire go Brách”; however, “Éirinn” is the form historically used by Irish speakers and is the source of the Anglicized "Erin."
However the phrase became Anglicized, it was already in use as "Erin Go Bragh" by 1847. In that year, a group of Irishmen serving in the United States Army during the U.S. – Mexican War deserted and joined the Mexican side. These soldiers, known as Los San Patricios, or Saint Patrick’s Battalion, flew as their standard a green flag with a harp on it, with the motto "Erin Go Bragh" underneath. Variations on this flag design have been used at different times to express Irish nationalism.
By 1862 there was an emigrant ship operated by the Black Ball Line called the Erin go Bragh, which had the dubious honor of making the longest trip from Britain to Moreton Bay, Australia. She suffered many dead on the voyage, according to an unpublished contemporary account and, ironically, arrived in the same week that Black Ball’s Young Australia completed the fastest crossing.
In the late 19th century, the Edinburgh Football club, Hibernian F.C. also had “Erin Go Bragh” adorning their shirts. Founded in 1875 by Edinburgh Irishmen and the local Catholic Church, St Patricks, the club’s shirts included a gold harp set on a green background.
Return to Top
“Faith and Begorrah” means “Faith and by God”. This is a kind of amalgam of two phrases originating in this transition period. The first one was used to precede some strong assertion and would have translated as something like ‘By my Faith...’ (meaning, by my Christian religion). The second part (‘Begorrah’) probably originated as follows: being reluctant to say ‘By God…’, the common people said something like ‘by Gor’, pronouncing it ‘Be Gor’, which in time became “Begorrah”.
In former times, people not only were reluctant to say “by God”, they were thoroughly afraid because one of the Ten Commandments postulates: “Thou shalt not use My name in vain!” This led to quite a few veiled references to God, such as “Geeze” (for Jesus), or to other heavenly characters.
“Fáilte” means “Welcome”. This word appears in the Irish phrase céad míle fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes) as well as the similar Scottish and Manx phrases "ceud mìle fàilte" and "keead meel failt". The accent above the a is a diacritic known in Irish orthography as the síneadh fada (literally, stretching accent, as it lengthens the vowel;
“Sláinte” means literally “Good Health”. Sláinte or Sláinte Mhath is commonly used as a drinking toast in Scotland and Ireland. Sometimes it is corrupted into “Slanj” which is quite close to the original pronunciation. This is a toast among friends as you imbibe; it simply means a sincere good wish of health to them. Moreover, it’s also an excellent example of the beauty of Irish Gaelic: a simple word with great depth that rolls off the tongue.
“Craic” pronounced “crack” means “Fun”. If someone says “There was great craic last night.”, they mean “I had a lot of fun last night.”
“Eejit” means “Fool”, so does “tool”. A “langer” is a highly obnoxious person (the word is from Cork), a “blackguard” is a messer, and a “jackeen” is a word people from the country use to describe people from the city of Dublin.
“Kissing the Blarney Stone” By kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, it is claimed that one can receive the “Gift of the Gab” (eloquence, or skill at flattery or persuasion). It is claimed that the synonymy of “Blarney” with “empty flattery” derives from a circumstance in which Queen Elizabeth I, while requesting an oath of loyalty to retain occupancy of land, received responses from Cormac Teige McCarthy, the Lord of Blarney, which amounted to subtle diplomacy, and promised loyalty to the Queen without “giving in”. Elizabeth proclaimed that McCarthy was giving her “(a lot of) Blarney”, thus apparently giving rise to the legend.
Saint Brigid’s Cross
Brigid’s cross, Brighid’s cross, or Brigit’s cross, or (in the Irish language) Cros Bríde, Crosóg Bríde or Bogha Bríde, though not recorded before the seventeenth century, is an Irish symbol that possibly derives from the pagan sunwheel. It is usually made from rushes or, less often, straw. It contains a woven square in the centre and four radials tied at the ends.
Many rituals are associated with the making of the crosses, although today they are rarely used. Occasionally Roman Catholic homes feature Brigid’s crosses, especially in rural areas. It was traditionally believed that a Brigid’s Cross protects the house from fire and evil.
Brigid’s crosses are associated with Brigid of Kildare, who is venerated as one of the patron saints of Ireland. The crosses are traditionally made on February 1st, which in the Irish language is called Lá Fhéile Bhríde (Brigid’s feast day), the day of her liturgical celebration. This feast coincides with the more ancient one of her pagan namesake, Ireland’s most important Goddess, Brigid, who is associated with fire; it signifies the beginning of Spring, and is called Imbolc.
Story of the Christian St. Brigid and her cross
In Christian mythology, St. Brigid and her cross are linked together by the story that she wove this form of cross at the death bed of either her father or a pagan lord, who upon hearing what the cross meant, asked to be baptized. One version goes as follows:
A pagan chieftain from the neighborhood of Kildare was dying. Christians in his household sent for Brigid to talk to him about Christ. When she arrived, the chieftain was raving. As it was impossible to instruct this delirious man, hopes for his conversion seemed doubtful. Brigid sat down at his bedside and began consoling him. As was customary, the dirt floor was strewn with rushes both for warmth and cleanliness. Brigid stooped down and started to weave them into a cross, fastening the points together. The sick man asked what she was doing. She began to explain the cross, and as she talked, his delirium quieted and he questioned her with growing interest. Through her weaving, he converted and was baptized at the point of death. Since then, the cross of rushes has been venerated in Ireland.
Return to Top
The Irish Harp
Based on the ancient lyre, the Irish harp is one of the world’s oldest instruments. The ancient Irish kings employed harpists to entertain them. At one sad point in Irish history conquering invaders made it illegal to possess an Irish harp, and set out to burn every Irish harp in a failed attempt to kill the “Irish spirit”. Greatly honored, the harp is the national emblem of Ireland. It appeared prominently on all Irish coinage until the official currency of Ireland changed to the Euro. However, you will still find the harp stamped on Ireland’s portion of the new Euro coin.
The Irish Harp has many distinguishing features such as a sounding box carved from a single block of willow wood, T-shaped fore-pillar, a heavy neck and thick brass strings. These combine to give the Harp a unique sound for which it has been famous since medieval times. Harps from this historical past including the world famous Brian Boru harp are now housed in Trinity College and the National Museum in Dublin.
The harp that once through Tara’s halls the soul of music shed,
now hangs as mute on Tara’s walls, as if that soul were fled.
So sleeps the pride of former days, so glory’s thrill is o’er,
and hearts that once beat high for praise, now feel that pulse no more.
Griffith of Wales employed harpists in his court at the end of the 11th century and the monk-historian Geraldus Cambrensis admired the great skill of the Irish harpers and remarked that some even considered the Scots to be better players. For Irish and Scottish harpers commonly visited each other’s countries to study, to learn and exchange tunes and their music was admired throughout Europe. Another twelfth century archivist, John of Salisbury, wrote that “ ... had it not been for the Irish harp, there would have been no music at all on the Crusades.”
These harps were quite different from the large pedal harps we see in modern symphony orchestras. They were much smaller, originally held on the harper’s lap, leaning against the left shoulder, had no pedals, and usually were carved in one piece from bog wood. The Trinity College Harp and Queen Mary’s Harp are the oldest surviving Celtic harps and both date from the 15th or 16th centuries and illustrate the similarity between the Irish and Scottish harps. A distinguishing characteristic of these Gaelic harps was that they were wire-strung, rather than gut strung. The word “harp” has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Old Norse words which mean “to pluck.” In Gaelic they were known first as cruit and later as clarsach or cláirseach.
Return to Top
The Spirals of Newgrange
The spirals are often used in Celtic art denoting “Harmony”.
Marking the entrance rock to the ancient tomb of Newgrange in Ireland, located close to the village of Donore, County Meath, you will find three distinctive spirals, The Spirals of Newgrange. This archeological treasure has become world famous as one of the greatest remaining signs of primeval civilization. Some of the objects taken from the tomb have been carbon dated to about 2675 to 2485 BCE, which makes the site older than even the Egyptian Pyramids.
Images from inside the chamber at Newgrange include the tri-spiral design, which is probably the most famous Irish Megalithic symbol. It is often referred to as a Celtic design, but it was carved at least 2500 years before the Celts reached Ireland. At 12 inches in diameter, the tri-spiral design is quite small in size, less than one-third the size of the tri-spiral design on the entrance stone.
This structure is called the spiral of life and is drawn in one single line without beginning or end. The triple spiral denotes the Threefold Goddess. The circle, spiral and wheel are all powerful symbols representing the cycle of life, death and rebirth, including the seasons of the year.
The Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange was built about 3200 BCE. The kidney shaped mound covers an area of over one acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly decorated with megalithic art. The 19 metre long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. It is estimated that the construction of the Passage Tomb at Newgrange would have taken a work force of 300 at least 20 years.
Megalithic mounds such as Newgrange entered Irish mythology as sídhe or fairy mounds. Newgrange was said to be the home of Oenghus, the god of love. The Passage Tomb at Newgrange was re-discovered in 1699 by the removal of material for road building. A major excavation of Newgrange began in 1962; the original facade of sparkling white quartz was rebuilt using stone found at the site.
Giza – in Gaelic “Newgrange” means “the cave of the sun” – once was used on a daily basis to calculate time. Carvings through the chambers record lunar months as well as movements of the sun and planets. The chamber itself contains stone basins that were used during the burial ceremony.
The Triquetra, or Trinity Knot
The Celtic Trinity Knot or the Triquetra, is one of the most common of the knot ilk. The term Triquetra comes from Latin, and it means "three-cornered." There are many schools of thought when discussing the Celtic trinity knot meaning. The Close-up above is of a triquetra on one of the Funbo Runestones.
The Triquetra is a Celtic symbol of ancient origin and one of the earliest symbols of Christianity predating the crucifix by hundreds of years. The triquetra is most simply represented by three interlocking circles. Often the triquetra is found illustrated with three fish in a similar shape. This symbol is theorized to represent a three in one concept similar in concept to the triple spiral. The triquetra could have symbolized earth, air, and water. Still another understanding can be found in a more metaphysical arena where the three corners represent mind, body and spirit. Whereas, a more pagan school of thought sees the trinity knot as the drawing of the three inherent feminine powers: Mother, Crone, and Maiden. For many, this Celtic symbol represents eternity...the eternity of life, the eternity of nature, and the eternity of love. When Christianity was introduced to Ireland, the Triquetra became known as the Trinity Knot which symbolized the persons in one God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Although all of the various interpretations agree on a culmination of three parts – this wide array of interpretations reminds us that the meanings of these engaging knots are not set in stone. The lack of written records by the Celts on the original meaning of this knot causes us to use our own powers of deduction – and this isn’t all a bad thing. The very fact that the Celtic knot history is so elusive makes more room for magic and allows for personal expansion. In short, let your imagination soar when contemplating the art of knot work – your interpretation will ultimately be your best guide, and the only answer you need.
Return to Top