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Three Irish Symbols You Didn't Know Had Spiritual Origins

Jibi44/Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee's Irish Fest starts tonight, and after 30 years it's more than just one of the city's most popular ethnic festivals.

It's recognized as the largest celebration of Irish culture, music and heritage in North America.

It makes sense the event's held here. After all, Irish immigrants once dominated the city's Third Ward and it was one of the largest immigrant groups to Wisconsin in the mid-19th century.

Thousands of people go for the music, but there's also a large educational component that's already underway at the Irish Fest Summer School.

Julianne Donlon is teaching two courses on Irish spirituality - she's a native of Ireland who now works for the Diocese of Green Bay. She says amid the festival’s food and feasting, it’s also important to talk about faith.

"It’s challenging when people sometimes associate all that happens with Ireland is St. Patrick, green beer and heavily drinking, dancing and fighting," she says, "but there’s such a rich history intellectually, culturally and spiritually to the Irish."

Given the Irish propensity for story-telling, Donlon shares with us three stories of Irish faith that most people don't know.

What does the Triple Spiral (triskelion) mean?

The Triple Spiral is most often associated today with the Christian concept of the Trinity - the idea that God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are one. But Donlon says the triskelion has pre-Christian roots that are thousands of years old. The three spirals refer to the Earth as represented by Celtic Goddesses. During her life, a woman passes through three stages: pre-fertility (the Maiden), fertility (Mother) and post-fertility (Crone). According to the belief, the Earth goes through these same stages.

Did St. Patrick invent the Celtic cross?

Not exactly, says Donlon. The Celtic cross as we know it was introduced to Ireland in the 400s to the 1200s, what Donlon calls the "golden age" of Ireland. However, pre-Christian Celts used the symbol (a cross with a ring around the intersection) in their sun-worship.

Donlon says the legend goes that St. Patrick saw the symbol as part of the Celt's polytheistic belief system, and he hoped to Christianize it, like the people. Patrick taught that the ring, rather than representing the sun, actually represented Christ, the "true sun who will never die." This was important to the Celts, who worshipped yet feared the sun as the land perished when the sun declined in winter.

"So you have this fear of the sun and St. Patrick introduced the sun as the love of Christ, which was a symbol that, of course, has become synonymous with Ireland, the Celtic cross," she says.

Why do we leave candles in the window at Christmastime?

Donlon says there are three reasons why the candle is put in the window, according to tradition. The first is  to welcome the Holy Family, who, according to the traditional Christmas tale, found no room at the inn. It's a way, she says, of saying, "We have room in our heart, in our home here, for the Holy Family if you were to pass by tonight."

The second reason dates back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when the English government had imposed penal laws on the Irish. The laws oppressed the Christian faith and the Irish language, seeking to "eradicate the person of the Irish," Donlon says. The laws put priests and those speaking Gaelic to death and convicted those wearing a cross or carrying a rosary.

"A candle was put in the window during the penal times to let the priests or nuns or any Christian on the run from the British government know that they could find a safe house," she says.

Thirdly, the candles serve as a reminder that one out of every two Irish has left the country, and offer a symbol of welcome for immigrants.

"We are all children of immigrants living here, (s0 this) is a cultural custom you can do that has a strong faith-based component as a way to link you to your past," Donlon says.

Donlon also talks about feeling called to share her faith and its stories - you can here more below.

Donlon describes feeling called to lead adult faith formation.

Irish native Julianne Donlon is the Director of Adult Faith Formation for the Diocese of Green Bay. She'll be teaching two classes at the Milwaukee Irish Fest Summer School on "Sacred Spaces and Holy Places of Ireland" and "Introduction to Celtic Spirituality."