The true story behind shamrocks and other Irish symbols

What can appear to be simple lucky charms and trinkets can hold much deeper meanings, even as they evolve over time.

Elements of Irish culture have become synonymous with luck, particularly with symbols such as four-leaf clovers, rainbows and horseshoes.

But much like luck, there’s more to the story of Irish "lucky charms," including a very popular phrase.

"The phrase ‘the luck of the Irish’ was actually not saying that we had good luck, originally — it was saying that we had bad luck," said Elizabeth Stack, executive director of the Irish American Heritage Museum in Albany, New York. According to Stack, during the gold rush, many Irish laborers experienced high fatality rates while on the job.

Despite the irony of "the luck of the Irish," the phrase morphed over time and gained a literal meaning of good fortune, with many symbols from Irish culture being considered lucky, as well. In fact, other Irish symbols began to proliferate in the U.S., with meanings that rang true to Irish traditions, while others underwent some creative liberties.

Either way, what can appear to be simple charms and trinkets can hold deeper meanings, even as they evolve over time.

Not all lucky charms

According to Stack, the prevalence of Irish culture in the U.S. comes from Irish immigrants in the 19th century. They were driven by a number of factors, such as the Great Famine and other waves of famine in Ireland, to immigrate to the U.S.

And with them, they brought their culture, which was a blend of superstitions and Catholic beliefs.

"A lot of it too, of course, is just comfort when you were an immigrant bringing the symbols of your own culture with you," Stack said.

As those Irish symbols arrived in the U.S., they experienced a few changes to their meanings.

For example, a very green and tiny plant that’s supposed to be packed with luck.

"One of the symbols I think got confused actually is the shamrock," Stack said. "An unofficial official symbol, if you like, of Ireland is the shamrock, but I think sometimes it gets confused with the four-leaf clover in terms of that luck element."

"St. Patrick used the shamrock, which has three leaves to describe the three forms of God in one, but the four-leaf clover kind of took over — which the difference, obviously, is four leaves — and that was a good luck charm or good luck symbol."

LEARN: How St. Patrick's Day became a popular holiday in America

Another symbol that’s said to have lucky Irish origins is the leprechaun.

According to Stack, the leprechaun may be connected to the ancient Irish belief in fairies, otherwordly creatures that live alongside humans. The leprechaun would have been one of many classes of fairies.

"I think the leprechaun was kind of seen as maybe a more marketable one," Stack said, using the Notre Dame mascot as an example.

"The symbol got picked up quite quickly, and part of the allure of the leprechaun is, of course, if you can catch him, that he has a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. So these are, I think, more invented symbols that came a little bit later."

The rainbow itself doesn’t bear any auspicious meanings in Irish culture, either.

"I don't know that Irish people in Ireland have any particular affinity with the rainbow," Stack said. "I mean, we love it when they come."

"Part of me thinks it’s more of this coming from Lucky Charms and that kind of marketing sort of strategy than actually something that was organic to the community themselves."

However, one Irish symbol of luck remains true: a horseshoe, with its U-shape serving as a vessel for holding luck.

"That seems to be an ancient tradition. A lot of Irish families have a horseshoe over the door, and you would turn it up so that the luck stays inside, not upside down," Stack said.

Irish symbols in America

Despite the adoption and morphing of some Irish cultural elements of "luck," other elements of Irish culture have gained popularity in the U.S. while remaining true to their original Irish origins.

Harps -- found anywhere from concert halls to labels of a certain Irish beer enjoyed on St. Patrick’s Day -- are quite central to ancient and modern Irish traditions.

According to Stack, in medieval times, harps were played by musical poets called bards.

"The musicians were very, very key to Irish culture," she said. "They were often associated with certain chieftains or clans. It was absolutely imperative that your court had a bard who could play the harp and so they would recite these great long poems in honor of their patron."

According to Stack, Ireland is the only country with a musical instrument as its national symbol.

Another popular Irish symbol in the U.S. is the Claddagh ring, which was designed by Irish artist Richard Joyce in the 17th century.

"It's very popular as a wedding ring," Stack said. "It's basically a heart that has a crown over it and then two hands hold it together. So it's supposed to represent love and loyalty."

"The two hands are Celtic gods and goddesses. It's supposed to be Dagda, who is the father of Celtic gods on one hand. And then Anu, kind of a mother goddess which a goddess of love, on the other hand."

Another symbol with ancient roots remains strong in Irish American culture.

"One of the most famous symbols, of course, is the Irish or Celtic knot," Stack said. "Sometimes these are called the Trinity Knot, but it was basically to symbolize the Celtic belief in eternal life infinity."

"There's, you know, an intermingling between the relationship with the divine and nature, and also the trinity between heart soul and mind or physical, you know, the body, mind and spirit," she added. "So, those ancient symbols have kind of aggressed through new age thinking, now in spirituality."

"I think that's why they're so popular today -- that interlinking of the three endures."

A sign of acceptance

Enduring the passage of time and the seemingly inevitable changes that come with it can be a challenge for any culture — who knows what kind of future the early Irish immigrants saw for their culture in the U.S.?

"These symbols were something that was easy to bring with you," Stack said.

"It was to the ancient symbols that they looked so that they could try to keep them going and generate a love in this country for Irish language, but also Irish culture and music. And those symbols just helped to kind of propagate that."

Today, many of those symbols seem ubiquitous, having spread throughout many aspects of American life in addition to specifically Irish American culture.

"I suppose in a way that's the ultimate sign of acceptance," Stack said. "I think it must be very heartwarming for Irish Americans to see other people want to use them or to see how popular they have become because it means that you have transcended the difficulty."

"So, something that maybe you wore furtively or you wore with pride, which you were afraid of showing it, now you can absolutely wear it with pride and be happy to share with the world and encourage."