Normally on March 17th, I don my kilt and am out pub crawling with the pipe band playing Irish and Scottish tunes for crowds of Irish-enthusiasts and/or inebriates.
It’s the one day each year when a bagpipe band are real rock stars. However, this year with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, I am home bound drinking a wee dram of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey reflecting on the deeper meaning of St. Patrick’s Day and the shamrock that is the emblem of the day and all things Irish in general.
Although the day has largely become secular in the United States, it originally was a religious feast day in Ireland to honor their patron saint on the day he died March 17th 461 AD. The day falls during Lent and so it has been the tradition that Lenten restrictions were lifted for the day allowing for merriment, feasting and drinking. The shamrock has been part of these festivities for centuries. The word shamrock derives from the Irish Gaelic word seamróg a diminutive of the Irish word seamair óg that simply means “young clover”. Story has it that Saint Patrick in his attempt to convert the pagan Celtic Irish to Christianity in the 5th century used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. The three leaves on one stem symbolized how three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) can combine to create one source (God).
Although the “wearing of the green” – the young fresh green shoots of clover, has become the custom on St. Patrick’s Day to celebrate the saint and Irish heritage, it appears the account of St. Patrick using the shamrock developed long after Patrick’s life. Patrick himself did not mention the shamrock in his writings nor did the early biographies written about him a few centuries later. It’s also unlikely that the Irish needed an explanation of the concept of three persons in one as triads were central to pre-Christian Celtic spirituality.
The first written record of the Irish wearing shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day did not come until 1681 when an Englishman by the name of Thomas Dinely noted during his travels through Ireland that the people wore handmade crosses as well as shamrocks on the day.
The next written reference to the shamrock came in 1726 in the botanical work by the Reverend Dr. Caleb Threkeld who documented that the Irish wore shamrocks in their hats on St. Patrick’s Day in memory of its use by the saint to explain the Holy Trinity’s mystery. Threkeld also noted that the people would end the day with debauchery during which they would dip the shamrock in a drink. This was a reference to the common practice at the time of having an honorary drink referred to as Pota Pádraig or “St. Patrick’s Pot” whereby they would “drown the shamrock” they wore that day usually in usquebaugh– a Gaelic word meaning “water of life” from which we get the English word “whiskey”. After a toast to the saint, the shamrock was then removed from the drink and thrown over the left shoulder for good luck.
But which plant is the true species of shamrock?
Although there are many members of the bean (Fabaceae) and wood sorrel (Oxalidaceae) families that resemble shamrocks such as those in the genera Trifolium (clover), Medicago (black medic), and Oxalis (wood sorrel), it is speculated that the original Irish shamrock was Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) or lessor trefoil (Trifolium dubium). This is based on two studies carried out in 1893 and then again in 1988 by botanists who had local people around the country send in samples of the shamrocks they used for St. Patrick’s Day. Of the five species in which samples were sent in, the majority of them in both studies were one of the two species identified above. In lieu to their association with St. Patrick, these clover species have long been indicators of Ireland’s rich pastures and symbols of prosperity and good fortune in the island’s more ancient legends and mythology.
Although native to Europe, both clover species have been widely introduced throughout the United States finding a home in our lawns.
Today, amongst some gardeners, clover gets a bad rap as a turf grass weed that needs to be routinely eliminated with chemicals. This is a recent and unfortunate change in America as once upon a time most American lawns contained clover. Prior to the advent of herbicides in the 1940s, the quality of lawn mixtures was judged by the percentage of clover seed they contained: the higher the figure the better the mixture. The scientists who actually developed herbicides first came out publicly apologizing because their new products would kill all broadleaf weeds including clover. Back then, gardeners were proud of their clover patches in their lawns due to the plants ability to fix nitrogen. Like other members of the bean family (Fabaceae), clover roots can become infected with soil bacteria that allows them to form nitrogen fixing nodules. These nodules then convert nitrogen gas in the air to a form that is available for the plants growing around them essentially creating a natural fertilizer. How can people know if nitrogen fixation is occurring? Cut into a clover root and look for red coloration.
As I am finishing my wee dram of Tullamore Dew, I can see a fresh clover emerging in the garden bed near the porch. I normally leave the clover alone in my garden for not only its soil fertility benefits but also the much-needed nectar their flowers provide honeybees. However, today, it seems only fitting that I pluck the sprig and give it a good swim in my whiskey while I toast my Irish ancestors, Saint Patrick, and to next year when I am hopefully out playing bagpipes again.