The rose is not widely known as a symbol of Ireland, the shamrock being more famously associated with the Emerald Isle. However, in centuries past The Black Rose was sometimes used as a code word for Ireland, when English law prohibited direct references to Ireland as a nation.
I was browsing through my albums, and came up with the idea of sharing some rose photos while examining the symbolism of the rose in Irish culture, literature, and song.
Many readers may think I’m getting very mixed up, and am talking about the wrong country or the wrong flower altogether. The rose is closely associated with England, but in today’s post I’ll explore why roses may also represent Ireland.
And so, here are my top ten reasons why roses make me think of Ireland……
1. The Rose of Tralee:
I suppose the most famous of all Irish roses is The Rose of Tralee. This international festival is a global celebration of Irish culture, with the heart of the festival being the selection of a Rose from amongst young women of Irish descent from all over the world.
The festival was inspired by an old Irish song bearing the same name.
“She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me;
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.”
I’m not a supporter of beauty pageants in general, but this festival is great. Emphasis is on having a bit of fun, with personality rather than beauty being the most important factor for winning the prize. A nice smile and a warm heart goes a long way with the judges.
2. Joseph Mary Plunkett:
As a school girl in Ireland in the 1970’s I learned the words of Joseph Mary Plunkett’s poem I See His Blood Upon The Rose. To this very day the lines of the first verse reverberate through my mind, every time I see a red rose in bloom.
I See His Blood Upon The Rose
By Joseph Mary Plunkett
“I see His blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of His eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.”
3. Róisín Dubh or My Dark Rosaleen:
Use of the rose as a partiotic symbol for Ireland dates back to the 16th century. Róisín Dubh (pronounced Ro-sheen Dove in the south of Ireland and Ro-sheen Doo in Ulster) literally means Little Black Rose, and is one of Ireland’s most widely known political ballads.
This Gaelic language song supposedly originated in the Irish soldier camps of Red Hugh O’Donnell in the late 16th century, with a Black Rose being used as a metaphor for Ireland. Here’s James Clarence Mangan’s translation from the early 19th centruy.
by James Clarence Mangan
“Oh my Dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the deep.
There’s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green;
And Spanish ale shall give you hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
Shall glad your heart, shall give you hope,
Shall give you health and help, and hope,
My Dark Rosaleen.”
4. The Druids:
In ancient Ireland the Druids held sway, ruling the country from a place called Ériu, near Brú na Bóinne. Supposedly these Druids wore long black and red robes, embellished with a black rose.
Whether this is fact or fiction is beyond my knowledge. Perhaps we learned of rose wearing druids from ancient manuscripts or perhaps it is a romantic poetic creation of 19th century Gaelic scholars.
5. Aubrey de Vere:
Aubrey de Vere, a Limerick born poet, once again used a black rose to represent Ireland in his 1861 work The Little Black Rose. Despite his aristocratic, English heritage de Vere was highly influenced by Irish nationalistic sentiments. In this poem, what de Vere’s little black rose, a representation of Ireland, needs to turn red is blood sacrifice.
from The Little Black Rose
by Aubrey de Vere
“The Little Black Rose shall be red at last,
What made it black but the March wind dry,
And the tear of the widow that fell on it fast,
It shall redden the hills when June is nigh.”
6. William Butler Yeats:
Yeats, Ireland’s most famous poet, used rose symbols in his early poetry. The Rose, a collection of twenty-two poems, was first published in 1893.
For Yeats, the rose represented unwavering beauty, since they never go out of fashion, yet he acknowledged individual roses live for a very short time. Yeats used the rose to symbolize women and Ireland, in the same nationalistic vein as his predecessors.
from The Rose Tree
by William Butler Yeats
“‘Maybe a breath of politic words
Has withered our Rose Tree;
Or maybe but a wind that blows
Across the bitter sea.’…….
…… ‘But where can we draw water,’
Said Pearse to Connolly,
“When all the wells are parched away?
O plain as plain can be
There’s nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree.'”
Yeats’ poetry is a celebration of Ireland, with the rose representing untamed Irish beauty. These rose poems are Yeats’ homage to his homeland.
from The Sweet Far Thing
by W.B. Yeats
“Rose of all Roses, Rose of all the World!
You, too, have come where the dim tides are hurled
Upon the wharves of sorrow, and heard ring
The bell that calls us on; the sweet far thing.”
from To The Rose Upon The Rood Of Time
by William Butler Yeats
“Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:……
…….But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.”
7. The Rose As A Symbol Of Irish Beauty:
The traditional song Red Is The Rose was popularized by the Irish folk singer, Tommy Makem. Some believe he wrote the song, but it was previously recorded by Josephine Beirne and George Sweetman in 1934, so it is a traditional Irish song. However, it is sung to the same melody as the Scottish traditional air, Loch Lomand, but with different words, albeit similarly themed lyrics.
Red Is The Rose
“Red is the rose that in yonder garden grows,
Fair is the lily of the valley,
Clear is the water that flows from the Boyne,
But my love is fairer than any.”
Black Is The Colour
by Christy Moore
“Black is the colour of my true love’s hair,
Her lips are like some roses fair,
She’s the sweetest smile, And the gentlest hands,
I love the ground, Whereon she stands.”
9. Sean O’Casey:
Red Roses for Me, one of Sean O’Casey’s lesser known plays, was first published in 1943. The play focuses on the 1913 labor disputes and turmoil in Dublin. The poem/song Red Roses for Me is part of the play:
Red Roses For Me
by Sean O’Casey
“A sober black shawl hides her body entirely
Touched by the sun and the salt spray of the sea
But down in the darkness a slim hand so lovely
Carries a rich bunch of red roses for me.”
9. My Wild Irish Rose:
In Ireland, roses don’t always grow in neatly pruned rows, with wild rose bushes climbing around hedgerows, over fences in rural gardens, and adorning the doorways of thatched cottages.
Being very familiar with the term Wild Irish Rose, I realized I had no idea why the term is so widely accepted. There are bars in Ireland with the same name, and a brand of whiskey touting the title.
After checking on the internet, I learned how an old black and white movie popularized the term. The title of the 1947 film My Wild Irish Rose is where the term originated. The film was actually nominated for an Oscar in 1948, with the original song of the same name being nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
My Wild Irish Rose
by Chauncey Olcott
“They may sing of their roses, which by other names,
Would smell just as sweetly, they say.
But I know that my Rose would never consent
To have that sweet name taken away.
Her glances are shy when e’er I pass by
The bower where my true love grows,
And my one wish has been that some day I may win
The heart of my wild Irish Rose.”
10. Thomas Moore:
And finally, I think of Thomas Moore’s beautiful poem The Last Rose of Summer where a single, surviving rose is a metaphor for the sadness of being left to carry on alone when loved ones pass on.
Simple yet haungingly beautiful words evoke the sadness felt by many towards the end of life. First written in 1805, this poem as a song has remained popular for over two centuries. Major artisits including Celtic Woman, Clannad and The Fureys have recorded it.
‘Tis The Last Rose Of Summer
by Thomas Moore
“‘Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone.
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
To give sigh for sigh.”
And so now, I hope you understand why roses make me think of Ireland.
I hope you all enjoy the beauty of roses blooming this summer.
Slán agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom