Irish Eyes Ain't Always Smiling: The Contradictory Meanings of Green

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, my color-leprechauns. Let’s tip-toe into the lush thicket of meanings around green, the color that pervades the holiday from the hills and dales of Ireland itself to the food dyes staining your holiday beers, the Chicago River and the lawn fountains at the White House.

Ireland looks different on a sunny day on Flickr

as photographed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Ireland Postage Stamp, designed by Heinrich Gerl

It’s no mystery why Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day alike are so intertwined with the color green – practically every vista in the country presents a miraculous riot of chlorophyll to its beholder, a living stamp of a native’s similarly vigorous love of country. Witness St. Patrick himself, writing in his Confessio (circa 450 AD) about his sojourn as a slave of the Irish chieftain Milchu. Pressed into service as a sheepherder, Patrick’s meditation on green sustains him:

“But after I reached Hibernia I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the Love of God, and my fear of Him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time”.

Dublin Trip 2006 on Flickr

Not that the choke of greenery can’t grow into a straitjacket of sorts. A quick survey of major sites within the Irish design community – from professional associations like Design Business Ireland and Institute of Designers in Ireland to the National College of Arts and Design in Dublin, even a private business boasting the name Eire Studios – shows nary a one bowing down to the inevitable green-equals-Ireland palette.

Design Business Ireland’s About Us Page

Intriguingly – and appropriately for Ireland’s economy still flattened after its recent giddy flourish as the “Celtic Tiger” – green connotes both luck and its opposite across many cultures. The old-fashioned saying “to cuckold” in Chinese sounds nearly identical to the phrase “to wear a green hat” – so much so that green hats of all shapes and varietals are shunned throughout China. The Scottish shudder at the particular unluckiness of wearing green at weddings, evoking as it does their saying: “Wear green – ashamed to be seen”. Back in good old commercially minded America, magazines routinely believe that a green cover spells newsstand poison. And on and on the imprecations against green grow, curling around themselves like a deadly kudzu.

You want the hands-down best example of green symbolizing bad luck and the pathetic fallacy embodying the cruelest of ironies? Here it is: Franz Schubert’s 1824 song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill). Green addles this entire song cycle about a green young man, in every sense of the word, who falls hard for an equally green maid. Predictably, Things Go Badly and she drops him – for a hunter clad in green. Towards the end of the cycle, he lolls about on the green, green grass, heartlessly lush despite his misery. (Sample lyrics: “I’d like to pluck all the green leaves / From every branch / I’d like to weep on all the green grass / Until it is deathly pale.” Full, green-addled lyrics here.)

Maybe it’s only places featuring a plethora of green that renders the color unlucky – or, to a less dramatic extent, simply jading to the eye. Islam’s fascination with green runs deep: not only does lore suggest Muhammad favored wearing a green turban, in an oft-cited hadith Muhammad singles out the color among the few pure earthly delights: “Three things of this world are acceptable: water, greenery, and a beautiful face.” Seizing the green might suggest a money-grab to Americans, but to the Islamic countries now in revolt across the globe, a green banner indicates God, water, verdancy, and freedom – a vision of heaven, in fact.

Sixth Day – Green Victory by Hamed Saber

Color & Design, Imprint: Print Magazine's Design Blog, Jude Stewart

About Jude Stewart

Jude Stewart is a PRINT contributing editor. She has written on design and culture for Slate, Fast Company, The Believer, I.D., Metropolis, and Design Observer, among many others. She has authored two books, both published by Bloomsbury: ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color (2013) and Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage and Other Graphic Patterns (2015). Follow her tweets on color at

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