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The Shamrock and St. Patrick’s Day

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 harp is the official symbol of Ireland, the shamrock has long been a emblem of Irish identify, heritage and St. Patrick’s Day. I took this photo on a gravestone at the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland, October 2017.

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). 

Stone wall in Ireland with heather at holy mountain
Heather in bloom along a tranquil stream and sheep pasture during my hike of Croagh Patrick-one of Ireland’s holiest mountains, in September 2019. Every year on the last Sunday in July pilgrims climb the mountain to honor Ireland’s patron saint who is believed to have fasted on the summit for 40 days in 441 AD during his conversion of the Irish from paganism to Christianity. For me, it was humbling to walk in the same footsteps of Saint Patrick, the Druids and pre-Celtic peoples before them.

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. 

The tradition of “wearing of the green” – the young fresh shoots of clover, on St. Patrick’s Day has been documented as far back as the 17th century. (Photo by April O’Meara)

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.  

Stone walls and agriculture in Ireland
The emerald fields of Inisheer consisting of grasses and clover have provided food and economic livelihood for generations of Aran islanders. The fields have also been the source of songs, stories, and spiritual inspiration.

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.

stone walls in Ireland
Farmers have been “land making” on the Ireland’s Aran Islands for countless generations building soil for crops and pastures by layering seaweed, sand and manure on the bare limestone rock. Clover’s ability to fix nitrogen has significantly added to this fertility.

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.

Here’s to the shamrock, wearing the green and tending clover in our gardens! Sláinte!    

If you enjoyed this post about Irish plants see these earlier posts on a Medieval garden in Kilkenny and Irish walls and fields.

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