Many of Ireland’s most beloved symbols have been used for centuries; some even go back further than recorded history. While various symbols have waxed and waned in popularity over time as fashions come and go, one moment in Irish history stands out as a time when Celtic symbols were embraced and exalted by our leading artists and personalities. The Celtic Revival movement, spearheaded by no less than W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and their contemporaries, brought the symbols and images of ancient Ireland back into the spotlight, and they have pretty much stayed there ever since.
The Celtic Revival involved all forms of art from literature and drama to the visual arts. Yeats set the scene with his focus on reviving ancient folklore and legends. It was not an overtly political movement, but the Celtic Revival did renew an Irish national identity independent of Great Britain. The movement could be seen as a rejection of the modernism being embraced across Europe, but it coincided with a growing momentum for national independence. It was no coincidence that the leaders of the artistic Celtic Revival often rubbed shoulders with the leaders of the movement for Irish independence.
There is a strong argument to be made that the Celtic Revival was focused on fostering an independent Irish identity by drawing on historical roots that were free of British influence rather than reacting to anything. The artistic styles used are often referred to as ‘insular,’ and indeed it is fair to say the Celtic Revival was looking inward rather than outward at what was happening in other parts of Europe.
The visual arts of the Celtic Revival movement were not primarily paintings but a broad and very accessible range of crafts using interlacing knot work and traditional Irish symbols such as the shamrock, the harp and the Celtic cross. The movement really redefined the Celtic cross, which had originally served mostly as a sort of public monument. High crosses were often located at churches and featured illustrations of Biblical stories. With the renewed interest in Celtic crosses with the revival, people began using the design in new ways. This is when it became a popular style for gravestones as well as jewelry, embroidery and other arts and crafts.
Some of the most famous architectural examples of Celtic Revival design are in the United States, such as the beautiful stained glass windows of Chicago’s Old St. Patrick’s Church, which were designed by Irish American artist Thomas Augustin (Gus) O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy, the son of a traditional Irish musician, was also an excellent step dancer.
Today, a Celtic cross pendant is a popular gift and endless variations on the design appear in Irish jewelry, wall hangings and other accessories and decorations. An enduring influence of the Celtic Revival, Celtic cross pendants now rarely featured Biblical images but generally use the gorgeous knot work that was also beloved by the revivalists. The Celtic cross design may have had periods where it was largely ignored, but it is simply too beautiful and rich in meaning to ever disappear. Thanks to the Celtic Revival, it has enormously popular for the last 100 years or so.