On December 6, 1922, Ireland began printing its own stamps; prior to this date, Irish stamps were of British origin. To celebrate the new country, these stamps were printed with images of Irish lore and national pride.
The most instantly recognizable is the outline of Ireland (or “Eire”), surrounded by Celtic knot designs, with shamrocks at the top of the stamp. The Emerald Isle floats in a stylized sea, under a decorated arch.
Another stamp in the series depicts the Claíomh Solais (pronounced somewhat like “kleeve-solish”), the Sword of Light. The Sword of Light appears in many Irish and Scottish folktales. Most of these tales involve a hero on a bridal quest who is required to pass three tests; he often succeeds due to help from servants, animals, or supernatural beings. The sword itself is often kept by a supernatural guardian who must be defeated before the hero can possess the weapon. In many cases, it is the object of the hero’s affection who informs him how to defeat the guardian of the sword. Some consider the Sword of Light to be one of the four treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann; this idea is especially popular in Japan. The sword also has many similarities with tales of Arthur’s sword Excaliber, which was said to shine with the light of thirty torches when he drew it.
The arms of Ireland, with the arms of the four traditional Irish provinces quartered on it, is the design on another stamp in the series. The provinces are Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.
Leinster has the traditional Irish harp as the main design, which is based on the Brian Boru harp, a Gaelic harp from the late medieval period, and may be the oldest extant harp in the world. Stone carvings of the classic triangular Irish harp are found from the 10th century forward, and evidence that these harps were in use in the first millennium BCE. It has always been one of the preferred symbols of Ireland. A right-facing version of the harp is also used as the logo for Guinness Beer.
Munster’s arms feature three old-fashioned crowns with five visible rays, likely derived from the Lordship of Ireland (though some link it to Robert de Vere’s dukedom of Ireland in 1386).
Ulster is represented by a combination arms: the cross of the arms of the de Burgh with the O’Neill’s red hand. Since these early stamps were monochromatic, the colors in the coats of arms could not be accurately depicted.
The arms of Connacht are also a combination; on the left side, an eagle, and on the right, a hand holding a sword. It is thought that these arms derive from the Schottenklöster (Gaelic monastery) in Regensburg, Germany. These arms combined the symbol of the Holy Roman Emperor (protector of the abbey) with the symbol of the O’Briens, one of whom was listed as a fundator of the abbey. It is possible that these arms were given to King of Connacht Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, who was the last High King of Ireland prior to the Norman invasion.
The last stamp in the series is a stylized cross with shamrocks and Celtic knotwork. One of the most potent figures in Irish history and folktales is Saint Patrick, who brought Christianity to the island in the fifth century. Patrick was a child in Roman Britain when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. After escaping, he felt called by God to return to Ireland as a missionary. It is said that Ireland has no snakes because Saint Patrick drove them out. He is also said to have escaped the grasp of a murderous king when he and his followers were turned into a herd of deer when assassins passed by. Irish Christianity retained a distinctive flavor for centuries, and even influenced the color of liturgical garments in the modern Western church.
Irish stamps are not only beautiful, but full of stories and a good addition to any collection.