Irish tattoos come in a great variety of styles, stemming from the rich and varied artistic traditions that are part of the Irish culture. The Irish have a soulful, spiritual and very colorful culture - and Irish tattoo art reflects the full spectrum of it.
From Celtic tattoos to the classic Claddagh heart, to religious tattoos such as the Irish cross, these tattoos are a great way to celebrate your appreciation for Irish and Celtic heritage.
The Celtic Influence
The Irish culture as we know it today, is the result of several distinct influences. The earliest and strongest influence is the Celtic culture. The Celts were an ancient people who once lived throughout Europe, settling in the British Isles around the time of the early Roman Empire.
Celtic art consists of beautiful and complex knotwork and stylized images taken from nature. The convoluted knotwork designs that turned and twisted back on themselves appeared in jewelry, weapons, pottery, textiles, ...
This Celtic knotwork can also be found on Irish stonework that may date as far back as 400 BC. Celtic druids used these complex carved stones to mark boundaries between territories. Today's tattoo symbols draw on this ancient tradition and are a favorite motif for Irish tattoo designs.
The Irish are very well aware of their Celtic heritage, but many Irish are also very religious.
Irish Catholics are usually well versed in the lives of the saints. The story of St. Patrick credits him with introducing and spreading Christianity to Ireland. He was a wise man and used familiar objects to illustrate Christian principles to the Irish people.
The best known of these symbols is the shamrock. Shamrock tattoos are a memento of St. Patrick's teaching methods. It is said he reached down, plucked a shamrock, and held it up to illustrate the Holy Trinity to the followers of pagan Celtic gods and goddesses.
The shamrock has been a sacred plant in Ireland since time immemorial. In pre-Christian times, the ancient Druids planted and cultivated shamrocks because of its mystical powers:
- The shamrock was believed to ward off evil.
- They also warned the druids of an approaching storm when its petals stood upright.
- The shamrock also represented the three phases of the moon.
Today, shamrock tattoos have a double meaning:
- They promise the wearer good luck in all of his or her pursuits.
- They are a subtle yet easily recognizable nod to one’s Irish heritage.
The word "shamrock" is derived from the Irish word seamrog, which means "little clover." It refers to a three-leafed white clover (which is really green but has white flowers), not the rare four-leaf clover often associated with good luck.
Despite not being the "lucky" four-leaf clover, the shamrock and any clover represents good fortune in the Irish tradition. In fact, the Irish commonly place a clover in the bride’s bouquet as well as in the groom’s boutonniere to ensure a happy union!
Because they can be quite small, shamrock tattoos are versatile and easy to wear. They can go almost anywhere – on an ankle, shoulder, lower back or even on the hand or foot.
Four Leaf Clover Tattoos
A four-leaf clover is extremely rare, that's why it became a symbol of luck: you must be extremely lucky to find one (you have 1 chance in 10,000).
The 4 leaves symbolize:
In tattoo designs, four-leaf clovers are often combined with other luck symbols, like a horseshoe.
Irish Cross Tattoos
The popularity of the cross in Irish tattoos harkens back to another St. Patrick story. He was told the local Druids worshipped a circular stone carved with intricate symbols.
To demonstrate the triumph of Christianity over the old Celtic gods, St. Patrick drew a simple Latin cross through the symbol of the stone circle, a motive readily adopted by his new converts.
Tattoo designs draw from more modern stories as well. That Irish Claddagh tattoo on the pretty Colleen sitting next to you has its roots in a story from the early 16h century.
An Irish fisherman was doing his thing when his curraugh, a small watercraft, capsized. The fisherman was rescued by pirates unfortunately and was sold into slavery in western Africa. Escaping a few years later, he returned to Ireland, expecting his betrothed to have married someone else. He discovered she'd never married in all those years.
As a tribute to her faithfulness and love, he designed what we now know as the Claddagh, a crowned heart held by two hands. A Claddagh tattoo may symbolize a romantic connection between two people or it may represent a strong bond of friendship that lasts through the years, that's why it's often used as a marriage tattoo.
- The hands stand for friendship
- The heart for love
- The crown for loyalty.
Women in Ireland would wear the Claddagh ring in their right hand with the heart facing outward when they were ‘available’, then turn it inward when they were betrothed. A Claddagh ring on the left hand means that the woman is happily married.
Other Celtic Symbolism
The third type of Irish tattoo is one that reflects the Irish folklore, which is related to both the Celtic and Christian traditions, yet distinct from both. Irish folklore consist of images that we customarily identify as 'typically' Irish.
St. Patrick's Day wouldn't be complete without a leprechaun or two. Today's leprechaun is the result of a good public relations campaign in the past. Originally, leprechauns weren't cute chubby guys wearing retro knee breeches. They were rather nasty customers with no qualms about doing in nosy people trying to heist their Lucky Charms.
Music is and has always been very important to the Irish. Ireland is the only country with a musical instrument in its coat of arms. A golden harp with silver strings has been an Irish symbol from as early as the 13th century.
No wonder the harp shows up in Irish tattoo designs as well. Usually it's combined with an Irish flag or Celtic knotwork.
The Irish are very patriotic and tend to be rather sentimental about their love for their culture - which would explain the growing popularity of Irish tattoos. While Irish tattoos are common as body art in today's society, they embody the elements of an ancient and playful Celtic spirit.
Make sure you check out our Old School Tattoos as well...