What Was the Original Color Associated With St. Patrick’s Day and Why Did It Change?

Colorful St. Patrick's Day illustration with hand sketched typography and green leprechaun hat and clovers

Hearing the phrase Saint Patrick’s Day brings the color green to mind as surely as Saint Valentine’s Day conjures shades of red. Saint Paddy’s Day is a huge event. Its appeal appears in the fact that those in the United States and the United Kingdom spend nearly six billion dollars annually to celebrate.

However, many feel a bit of surprise (perhaps with a twinge of doubt) upon learning that blue was the original color linked to Saint Patrick. To some, the notion may be close to sacrilegious. A trip back in time explains the association of the patron Saint of the Emerald Isle and the color blue.

The Color Blue in Irish History and Tradition

Photograph of Cliffs of Moher at sunset in County Clare, Ireland

Flaitheas Éireann

Years before the use of the coat of arms or other symbolic edifices, Ireland expressed its national sovereignty with the Flaitheas Éireann. Traditionally, the image of the Flaitheas Éireann is a woman in a blue gown. Irish scholars believe the woman is Ireland’s 10th-century queen known as Gormfhlaith. Roughly translated the queen’s name means blue and sovereign. Gorm meaning blue and flaith meaning sovereign.

It is worth noting that some historians disavow this as a mythological legend. These scholars claim that the tale holds no basis in fact and offers no explanation of how the color blue had a significant meaning in Irish lore.

England’s Intervention

It was during the reign of England’s King Henry VIII; the color blue was officially a part of Irish symbolism. As with many royal decisions, there is a self-motivated back story.

King Henry VIII used frivolous bestowing of titles to strengthen his support in Ireland. Offering Irish landowners, the title of Lord and allowing the passing of property to heirs.

Because his desire to wed was outside the accepted tenants of the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII split from Catholicism and made himself the Head of the Church of England. After breaking away from the Church in Rome, King Henry VIII named Ireland a new and separate kingdom.

Coat of arms of Ireland. Golden harp with silver strings on blue background

The new kingdom needed a coat of arms. The oldest official use of the color blue in connection with Ireland came in 1542. At that time, there was a decision that the image of a golden harp with silver strings on the front of a blue background would be Ireland’s coat of arms. Centuries later, the gold harp with its silver strings emblazoned on a field of blue still serves as their coat of arms.

More Influence From England

The color blue was further engrained in Ireland when King George III created a new Order of the Garter. He chose a shade of light blue to represent the order. Formally called The Order of Saint Patrick, the symbolic color became known as “Saint Patrick’s Blue.” To this day, several sports teams in Ireland wear Saint Patrick’s Blue on their uniforms.

Additionally, there are several pieces of artwork depicting Saint Patrick dressed in light blue robes.

How Did the Color Associated With Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day Change From Blue to Green?

Watercolor flag of Ireland for Saint Patricks Day in green, white and orange colors

There are a few explanations for the color change in Ireland.

  • Legends tell us that Saint Patrick used shamrocks in his lessons when he was explaining the Holy Trinity. While many attribute the idea to local lore, the image of the Good Saint holding a shamrock while preaching to local Celts in hopes of converting them to Christianity is now fairly standard.
  • Ireland carries the nickname The Emerald Isle. The naming is appropriate in that the landscape in Ireland is exceptionally green and lush. Few, if any, other locations can come close to the beauty and richness of the green that runs throughout Ireland. Based on this fact, the idea of celebrating Irishness with a hue that is uniquely Irish seems like a natural progression.
  • Irish Nationalism is the most verifiable explanation as to why light blue is no longer associated with Ireland or the Irish people. In 1791, a group of Irishmen found inspiration in the American Revolution as well as the French Revolution. Banding together to create their own national destiny, the group adopted the name Society of United Irishmen. The society chose the color green to differentiate itself from the Scots who used a darker blue shade.

The Society of United Irishmen’s goals included throwing off their ties to the British government, overthrowing the Kingdom of Ireland, and creating an independent and unified Ireland.

By 1798, the uprising ended without the unification of the nation and led to a substantial loss of life. The color green remained the symbolic color of a united Ireland.

Regardless of the hue of Saint Patrick’s robes, the nation of Ireland (along with many other countries around the world) will continue to celebrate the life and legacy of the good Saint each March 17th for a great number of years to come.