Everything's Coming Up Shamrocks

An Enduring Symbol of Ireland's Tourism Industry


Legend goes that St Patrick, a Christian missionary to Ireland in the fifth century, used the leaves of the shamrock to explain the concept of the holy trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Ireland's tourism identity has long used the symbol of a green shamrock - summoning ideas, surely, of green grass, mythology and an ancient Celtic past. Irish Ferries has used the logo since it was founded in 1992. The Irish tourism board, Bord Fáilte (later Fáilte Ireland) has used a shamrock since its establishment in 1952. The taoiseach (Ireland's prime minister) visits the American president each year with the gift of a bowl of shamrock; a tradition that's been in place since a 1952 gift from Irish Ambassador John Hearne to President Harry Truman.

It had long been tradition to send shamrock abroad to friends and family outside Ireland for St Patrick's Day. As a 1930s account found in the Schools’ Collection recounted by Mrs Walsh, age 70, relates, "on [St. Patrick’s] day the Irish People wear shamrock in their coats and caps. The Shamrock does not grow in England and people who have relations and friends belonging to them in England send them Shamrock for Saint Patrick's Day". The Irish Sea had long been witness to boxes of clover joining mail, goods and people in their travels to Wales and beyond, "for no matter where Irishmen and Irishwomen are, they love to get the Shamrock to wear it on that day", as another account puts it.

The shamrock was therefore a symbol of 'Irishness', which was a theme of advertising in Ireland throughout the twentieth century. The roots of this focus can be traced to the Irish Revival, a cultural movement that saw in an increased focus on Ireland's Gaelic heritage (nicknamed the 'Celtic Twilight'). Douglas Hyde kick-started the revival in 1892 with his speech on 'The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland'.

Celtic themes and symbolism became the defining feature of Ireland's tourism 'brand'. This comes through strongly in travel posters from the period. The National Museum of Ireland's collection, Irish Travel Posters of the 20th Century, features rolling hills, traditional dress, Medieval-style city scenes and scenic rural panoramas. Shamrock motifs feature heavily. Shamrocks formed part of an impression of Ireland as ancient, rural and untouched, insulated against the challenges of modern twentieth-century life.

This branding and accompanying perceptions of Ireland endured well into the 1990s. In 1996 Bord Fáilte developed a new logo in partnership with the Northen Ireland Tourist Board: it was criticised in the Dáil for featuring a shamrock "one would need a binoculars to see". In 1997 Tourism Minister Jim McDaid made the controversial decision to replace the logo with one featuring a more prominent shamrock, thus impacting partnership with Northern Ireland.

The late 1990s also saw increased criticism of Ireland's branding as a mythical and premodern idyll, which jarred with Ireland's growing economy and modern identity. Nonetheless, the 'Old Ireland' perception proved hard to shrug off, and stayed firm well into the 2000s and to some extent right up to the present - despite innovative new approaches from Fáilte Ireland and other groups. In any case, the shamrock motifs aren't going anywhere.