The shamrock is a tiny, insignificant plant that is recognised all over the world as a symbol for Ireland. Whether you're Irish or not, everyone knows at least a small part of the story that made the shamrock so famous; namely, Saint Patrick using it to explain the ways of Christianity to his followers. There is much more to this humble plant than many realise however...
First of all, the shamrock is not the name of the plant itself. It refers to the sprigs, or leaves and short stem that appear above ground on the clover or trefoil plant. To give it its proper botanic term, shamrock refers to either the species tirfolium dubium (lesser clover) or trifolium repens (white clover). Other similar three-leaved plants such as medicago lupulina, trifolium pratense and oxalis acetosella are sometimes mistaken for shamrocks. The exact botanical species of the shamrock was the cause of much debate in the world of botany, dating right back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
To settle the matter, not one but two botanical surveys of Ireland were carried out, one in 1893 and another almost a century later in 1988. Both surveys asked people from all around the country to provide them with examples of what they believed to be shamrock. The samples were potted and allowed to flower, and then identified once grown. Both surveys got more or less the same result. While trifoilium dubium was the species most identified by people as shamrock, it only accounted for between 46 and 51 per cent of all samples. So there is no definite single species of shamrock, and none of the species are unique to Ireland either. In fact, they are common all across Europe, so the shamrock isn't even 'Irish'!
In early Irish literature, there is little mention of the shamrock; instead, they use the catch-all term of clover. In English literature however, the shamrock is first mentioned as far back as 1571, where one scholar noted that Irish people ate it. This was repeated in several other scholarly sources for several years and for this reason, there was a mistaken belief that shamrocks had health or nutritional benefits. In actual fact it was wood sorrell that was eaten, and only during times of famine when there was literally no other food to hand.
This repeated mention in English literature also served to cement the shamrock as a plant exclusive to and intrinsically linked with Ireland. When Saint Patrick, having used the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, was named as the patron saint of Ireland, the humble shamrock became even more important to Ireland, particularly as it was by this time a staunchly Christian country. The links with Saint Patrick however are rarely mentioned in English literature.
Up until the 19th century the shamrock was largely associated with Saint Patrick first. It was only when republican military groups adopted it during the long struggle for independence that it became instantaneously synonymous with Ireland. Just some of the groups who included shamrocks on their flags, uniforms etc. were the Limerick Volunteers, Braid Volunteers, and the United Irishmen. In 1801 the Act of Union brought Ireland under British rule and in the same way that the rose was England's national symbol, the leek was Wales' and the thistle was Scotland's, the shamrock became Ireland's default symbol. It even appeared on the British flag for a while and if you can get close enough to see, you can see it in a few places on the facade of Buckingham Palace.
Shamrocks in Ireland
From there, the popularity of the shamrock symbol grew and grew, and was featured in songs, art, stories, fashion, architecture, decorative objects, and eventually as State emblems too. Today, the shamrock symbol has been registered as a trademark by the Irish government and even won a German Supreme Court case in 1985 on the matter. Although pretty much every Irish company uses the shamrock somewhere in their design, some more recognisable brands that include the emblem are airline Aer Lingus, the Irish Rugby Football Union, the Irish Football Association and Tourism Ireland. We even designed a Silver Shamrock Pendant. You may be interested to know that by law the symbol can only be used for goods and services of Irish origin and must be government approved.
Shamrocks can be seen as decorative motifs on many of Ireland's most significant buildings and monuments, including St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, the ornate lamp posts of Mountjoy Square in Dublin, and both the Parnell and O'Connell statues on Dublin's O'Connell street. The little plant itself usually only makes an appearance around Saint Patrick's day, when it is sold on the streets and in virtually all shops for people to pin onto their clothes for the day. For some the old tradition of 'drowning the shamrock' at the end of the day lives on. The plant is dunked into the last pint of the night and then thrown over the left shoulder before the drink, now known as 'Patrick's pot' is swallowed whole.
The one story all Irish people and many international visitors learn about the shamrock is in relation to Saint Patrick. Patrick was captured and enslaved by Irish pirates at the age of sixteen and brought to the Irish mainland. During this time he worked as a shepherd and adopted Christianity as his faith. Eventually he escaped his captors and sailed back to Britain (with the help of divine inspiration, if you believe everything in the original story), continuing his studies in Christianity. After another vision, he returned to Ireland as a missionary to teach the pagan Celts about the religion. He is generally believed to have landed in Co. Wicklow.
The Celts placed great emphasis on the number 3. For them, it represented life as a whole through the three branches of past, present and future, and all of earth through the three elements of sky, earth and underground. There were three classes of society, three principal gods, and trio designs were a constant feature of their artwork. With their regard for the number, it was only natural that Patrick would use it to explain the Holy Trinity. Medieval Ireland was somewhat lacking in classrooms or buildings in general, so he preached in the open air using the natural landscape as a teaching aid. What natural object has three parts that make a whole? The shamrock! In the same way that God is a being made up of three parts – the Father, son and Holy Spirit – the shamrock is a whole plant made up of three parts.
Saint Patrick went on to complete a rake of saintly deeds such as baptisms, miracles, ridding Ireland of snakes (allegedly), and is generally credited with converting Ireland to Christianity. Although he definitely didn't do it alone, he certainly did do a great deal.
International organisations that have adopted the shamrock as their own include the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment of the British army. Both wear sprigs of shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day, with the plants exported to wherever in the world the troops happen to be. Queen Victoria once decreed that soldiers from Ireland should wear shamrock sprigs to honour fellow Irishmen who fought in the Boer War, a tradition that was continued for many decades.
Shamrocks feature on both the Royal Arms of Canada (along with roses, thistles, and lillies to represent Canada's English, Scottish and French settlers) and the city of Montreal's flag. It features on the passport stamp of Montserrat in the Caribbean, and some European cities and football teams have even adopted it as their symbol! These include the Greek sports clubs of Panathinaikos AO and AC Omonia, Danish football club and town Viborg, and the German football club SpVgg Greuther Furth, and its corresponding town of Furth.
Growing your own Shamrock
Shamrock can be found growing all over the world. What makes shamrock different to other types of clover is that it is merely younger and not yet grown to the same size as its sibling plants. There is very little you need to do to grow your own shamrock, as it occurs naturally in the vast majority of grassy areas. All you have to do is nothing, to ensure it invades your garden to your satisfaction.
If you insist on growing it as a houseplant, make sure to keep it well watered and well lit at all times except for winter, when the plant has a dormancy period. In this case, keep the soil barely moist. It thrives best close to the surface in well drained soil, in cool air. Shamrocks don't like other house plants – they prefer their own company, and lots of it, so grow a whole bunch of shamrock all in one pot. After the dormant period, repot them.
Although it grows vigorously in soil, shamrock is very fragile and doesn't last very long once picked. If picked in the morning, by the end of the day the plant will be limp and looking sorry for itself. Occasionally a fourth leaf grows, and because this is so difficult to find, a four leaf clover is supposedly extremely lucky.
The name shamrock comes from the Irish word 'seamróg', which means 'little clover'.
The shamrock was a popular motif in Victorian times.
Shamrocks can be spotted on old British shillings and crowns
Every Saint Patrick's Day the Taoiseach presents a bowl of shamrock to the President of the United States to symbolise the relationship between the two countries.
A member of the British royal family also presents shamrock to the Irish Guards on the same day.
The shamrock is not the official national symbol of Ireland; that honour goes to the 12-string harp, which appears on all State literature and currency amongst other things.
Saint Patrick has been immortalised on a copper coin, where he is seen preaching to a group while holding an extremely large shamrock in one hand!
Until the 1950s clovers were included in lawn seed mixes as it was regarded as a prestigious lawn plant that was low maintenance, soft and filled in thin spots in the yard.
Shamrocks in Literature and Music
The shamrock has made its way into many poems, songs and ballads. Two of the more well known are the 'Wearin' O' the Green', which refers to the period when wearing shamrocks was banned because of their links to Irish rebellion movements.
Oh Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that's going round?
The shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground!
No more St. Patrick's Day we'll keep; his color can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law agin' the wearing o' the Green!
The other well known shamrock song is 'Shamrock Shore', which has a total of six verses that tells a story of emigration from Derry to America. The final and most poignant verse reads as follows:
We landed on the other side
In three and thirty days
And drinking over a parting glass
We all went our separate ways
We took each comrade by the hand
In case we might never meet more
And we drank a health
To old Ireland
And Paddy's green shamrock shore.
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