Dublin in a nutshell: craic, gaelic and the shamrock

The best part of traveling must be learning about different cultures. Let Marco Polo teach you a little about the important aspects of the Irish culture:  craic, gaelic, the harp and the shamrock. It really doesn’t get more Irish than this!



In Ireland the pub is the focus of life. It is much more than a just a place where you go to drink beer, rather it is a place that nurtures two very important elements of Irish culture: music and conversation. The importance of traditional music to the Irish (which still sounds the best when played in a pub) is well documented but even more important than the music is the conversation, as the Irish are garrulous and humorous folk. Their eloquence has not only earned them the Nobel Prize for Literature but it is also something that comes in handy every evening at the bar counter.

And where there is Irish talk there is Irish laughter and so you will often hear the word craic, which is roughly translated as ‘fun’. ‘What’s the craic?’ can mean, ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘What’s up?’ and as a question it can also be a challenge to tell an entertaining and humorous story. After a successful evening at the pub you say, ‘It was great craic!’– ‘We had a lot of fun!’


Tourists in Dublin often wonder how many buses drive to An Lár as there is no mention of the place in conversation and it is not even recorded on the city map. An Lár is the Gaelic (Gaelic is the generic name for both Irish and Scottish but is the word used in Ireland for Irish) word for the city centre. In Ireland Irish is, according to the 1937 Constitution, the country’s first language – English is only the second official language – however, the reality stands in stark contrast to this constitutional wish.

Irish is a Celtic language that was allowed to flourish freely up until the 16th century when Henry VIII and his followers tried to suppress their rebellious Irish subjects by forcing English laws and language on to them. After the great famine in the mid 1900s it was forbidden to speak Irish at school. The children who did were forced to carry a wooden stick around their necks and for every Irish word they spoken, a mark was notched into the stick. Once a certain number of marks had been reached, the parents were forced to pay a fine.

Only once the independence movement, towards the end of the 19th century, was underway was there a revival of the language and after independence in 1922 the new government began actively promoting the language. Gaelic was taught in schools and Gaeltachts – communities with Irish as a home language – were founded. Tax reductions and housing subsidies were used as incentives to encourage people to settle in these areas. Even in Dublin housing complexes were created specifically for Irish-speaking residents.

Despite these efforts Irish Gaelic is a dying language. But there are still toilet signs that may create a little problem for harried tourists so do not make the assumption that fir means ‘woman’ and mná means ‘man’ or you may end up walking through the wrong door!

Dublin Marco Polo Pocket Guide

Photo credit: Carina Watson

The Harp and Shamrock

Two national symbols are ubiquitous in Dublin. The first is the twelve-stringed harp, which is a symbol for the bards and therefore music and literature. When the flag – with a yellow harp on a blue background – is raised in Phoenix Park it indicates that the head of state is at home, the state residence is right in the middle of the park. The harp is also seen as part of the stone coat of arms on the façades of some of the more prestigious buildings but it is most often seen as the Guinness logo. However, but the Guinness harp is inverted because in Ireland it would be presumptuous to depict a state harp on a glass of beer.

Another Irish symbol is the clover leaf, for botanists trifolium dubium, for the general population shamrock. On their National Day, St Patrick’s Day (17th March), the nurseries do a booming trade as every patriotic Dubliner wears a green shamrock sprig in their buttonhole. Legend has it that St Patrick used the three-leafed clover during his missionary work in the 5th century to explain the teaching of the Holy Trinity. The shamrock symbol appears when Ireland hosts a special event, on the shirts of the Irish football and rugby teams or part of the logo for the tourism board.

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Dublin Marco Polo Guide

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