We’re half way to St. Patrick’s Day. Why not take the occasion to look at Ireland’s most recognizable symbol, the Shamrock.
When asked to name some Irish symbols, the shamrock is often the first that comes to mind. Not many, however, know much about the tiny plant’s varied and complicated history. The word comes from the Irish seamróg, which translates to “little clover” (the Irish word for clover is seamair, and óg means “young” or “little”). It is often confused with the four-leaf clover, a mistake further muddied by phrases like “the luck of the Irish” and the superstition that the four-leaf clover is the lucky shamrock to anyone who finds it. And yet it’s the three-leaf version that is the truest Irish form. This is why you’ll never see a bar decorated for St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland with images of four-leaf—instead of three-leaf—clovers (it’s a sin almost as unforgivable as abbreviating “Saint Patrick” to “St. Patty”). Of the many St. Patrick’s Day symbols, the three-leaf Irish clover should be the most recognizable.
Speaking of the man himself, Saint Patrick is often credited with not only bringing Christianity to Ireland, but also with using the symbol of the shamrock to do so. Legend has it that he used the three-leaf clover as a symbol to represent the Holy Trinity when explaining it to the pagan Irish.
The exact dates of Saint Patrick’s life are nearly impossible to fix, but most accounts agree that he lived and preached in the fifth century A.D. He was born in what is now England, and although he was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest, he did not consider himself a believer in the Christian faith until he was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16. The pirates brought him to Ireland as a slave, and there he stayed, captive, for nearly six years. In that time, he forged a relationship with God through reflection and prayer, eventually accepting Christianity as his faith and calling.
In the sixth year of his captivity, after working as a shepherd and becoming a Christian, he heard a voice that told him he would soon go home, and that his boat was ready. He fled his masters and traveled an estimated two hundred miles to a port, where he found a ship to take him back to Britain, where he continued to study Christianity. Not long after, he had another vision—one that would inspire him to travel back over the Irish Sea and begin his work of bringing the Roman religion to the Irish pagans. He dreamed that a man from Ireland came to him and gave him a letter entitled “The Voice of the Irish,” and that as he read the letter, he heard the collective cry of the Irish people beseeching him to return and walk among them.
After he returned to Ireland, he traveled the country, converting the masses, baptizing thousands of people and ordaining priests as he went. He refused to take payment for any of these services, and as his writings mention being put on trial by other Christians, scholars speculate that Saint Patrick may have been accused of some type of impropriety regarding money. It seems, though, that he continued to refuse both payment as well as gifts throughout his lifetime, which excluded him from normal traditions of fosterage or friendship with Irish nobles. Consequently, this left him outside of the protection of the law, and he was sometimes beaten, robbed, or held captive by various groups he encountered in his journeys.
He is now accepted as the bringer of Christianity to Ireland and the founder of the Irish church, but in early Christianity, many canonizations were done either on the local or the disocesianal level, and Saint Patrick was never officially canonized by a pope. His date of death is generally accepted as March 17th, which became his feast day, and has now morphed from a national to an international day of celebration. Many believe that he is buried at Down Cathedral in Down Patrick, County Down, alongside Ireland’s other patron saints, Saint Brigid and Saint Columba, but there is no hard evidence to prove this.
In depictions as early as 1675, coins etched with images of the saint showed him preaching and holding aloft a shamrock. Six years later, Thomas Dineley, an English traveler, visited Ireland and wrote that many especially superstitious Irish people sported shamrocks on March 17th, the feast of Saint Patrick. This was the first written account linking the clovers with the saint, and it was not until 1726 that any writing told of Saint Patrick using the plant as a vehicle to explain the Trinity.
Nowhere in his writings does Saint Patrick mention using the shamrock to explain the concept of the three aspects of God, especially as the number three held great significance for the Celts, who themselves had many tripartite deities. It is quite possible that the concept of the Trinity was easily accepted without the clover metaphor, as it was one of the many syncretic elements between early Christianity and pagan religions. It is also likely that this hagiographic myth is as apocryphal as the accounts that claim Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland, a country that could never have been home to the cold-blooded reptiles. However, the icon of Saint Patrick holding the shamrock in one hand and his staff in the other has become as emblematic to his legacy as the facts, if not more so.
Even before written accounts linking Saint Patrick and the three-leaf clover began to proliferate, other associations between the Irish people and the shamrock existed. Many of the associations were less than positive, however. Many English writers named the shamrock as food for the “wild” Irishmen in their treatises on Ireland, which were a growing trend in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first mention of the shamrock appeared in English priest Edmund Campion’s 1571 A Historie of Ireland, wherein he mentioned shamrocks among the wild herbs the Irish used for food. However, there is some question as to whether Campion conflated the Irish word seamsóg (wood sorrel, which the Irish certainly did eat), with seamróg, as no Irish source ever mentioned the shamrock as a source of food. However, the stereotype stuck, and numerous English writings continued to list clover among the Irish population’s foodstuffs.
English poet Edmund Spenser (best known for his epic poem, The Faerie Queene, which contains several sections of praise of Queen Elizabeth I) was possibly the most famous—and certainly the most notorious—of the English chroniclers of Elizabethan Ireland. His 1596 work, A View on the Present State of Ireland, painted the Irish as a savage, base people, backward in their laws, religions, and customs. In his lengthy text, he advocated for the eradication of Irish crops, language, and traditions, making claims of linguistic determinism: “Soe that the speach being Irish, the hart must needes be Irishe.” He recounted the Irish eating shamrocks out of necessity during a post-war famine: “Out of everye corner of the woode and glenns they came creepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spake like ghostes, crying out of theire graves […] and if they found a plott of water-cresses or shamrockes, theyr they flocked as to a feast.” He mentioned this episode not to garner pity for the Irish, but to highlight their barbarity and the need for their subjugation.
Other English writers of the time continued to write about Irish people eating shamrocks in an attempt to convey their transient nature, hoping to drive home the idea that the majority of the Emerald Isle’s people lived hand-to-mouth as thieves and highwaymen.
The shamrock began to take on a new, more nationalistic meaning as it became an emblem for various militias during the political upheaval in the later part of the 18th century. Much as the thistle is the symbol of Scotland and the rose that of England, the shamrock shifted from being only an emblem of Saint Patrick into a floral representation of the country overall. Most famously, the plant became associated with the United Irishmen, founded in 1791 and led by none other than Theobald Wolfe Tone. The United Irishmen adopted a vibrant, kelly green as their uniform and flag color, and the musical lament for their failed rebellion of 1798, “The Wearing of the Green,” became one of the most popular political airs in Irish music. Different versions of the lyrics exist, many of which mention the shamrock. One of the most famous renditions of the tune is written by playwright Dion Boucicault, whose lyrics begin:
O Paddy dear, and did you hear the news that’s going round
The shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground
St. Patrick’s Day no more we’ll keep, his colors can’t be seen
For there’s a bloody law against the wearing of the green.
After the Acts of Union in 1800, when Ireland officially became a part of the United Kingdom, the shamrock was incorporated into the United Kingdom’s official royal coat of arms, alongside the English rose and Scottish thistle. At the same time, however, it grew in popularity as a nationalist symbol, featuring illustrations on books and greeting cards in addition to being the subject of many sentimental ballads. “The Shamrock Shore” became well-known at the time, and even Thomas Moore, whose Irish Melodies rose to wild popularity after his death, wrote a poem called “Oh the Shamrock,” which depicted the clover as the symbol of Ireland.
Also in the 19th century, as the Irish community began to spread globally, so too did the image of the shamrock. In 1836, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which currently boasts roughly 80,000 members in the United States, Canada, and Ireland, was founded in New York. The AOH’s logo incorporates the shamrock, plus the Irish harp, the Irish flag, and the American flag. The flag of the city of Montreal, Quebec, incorporates a shamrock to highlight Irish immigrants as one of the four main ethnic groups that made up the city in the 1800s (the other three being French, English, and Scottish). Even today, the Boston Celtics basketball team’s mascot, “Lucky the Leprechaun,” wears a vest emblazoned with shamrocks.
In more recent years, the shamrock has become far less politicized, but it has remained an enduring sign of Ireland, and from 1985 on, it has been an official one, when it was registered as a trademark of the Irish government. Every Saint Patrick’s Day, the taoiseach of Ireland (that’s “prime minister” to you English-speakers!) presents the president of the United States with Irish shamrocks in a Waterford Crystal bowl to symbolize the friendship and cooperation between the two western nations. The bowl often features a shamrock design. The tradition began back in 1952 when the Irish ambassador to Washington sent a parcel of the three-leaved clovers to President Harry Truman.
As the shamrock moved from a more political to aesthetic expression of Irishness, makers of fine glass and china began to incorporate it into their designs. County Fermanagh-based Belleek Pottery offers a famous basket weave pattern that features delicate green shamrocks on a white background. The weave design, which dates back to the 1880s, is reminiscent of wicker baskets and with the bright the shamrocks against it, the collection elegantly combines Ireland’s rustic, rural tradition with the storied past of its most famous emblem.
Now, the clover appears on jewelry, mugs, shot glasses, and clothing and has become a ubiquitous symbol of Irishness, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. Though America is most famous for its enthusiasm for the holiday—the first St. Paddy’s Day parade took place in New York in the late 18th century, and nowhere in Ireland do they dye their rivers green for the occasion—celebrating all things Irish has become an international pastime on March 17th. This writer spent the most recent feast of Saint Patrick in an Irish pub on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, watching the crowds down pints of Guinness, wearing rugby jerseys and green and white-striped hats, their faces painted with the Irish tricolor, and naturally, the shamrock.