This article appeared in The Denver Post in 1998 in slightly different format.
By Colleen Smith
Each spring, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, millions of merry-makers--Irish and otherwise--will don shamrocks. Celebrants will be decked in shamrocks knit into sweaters and embroidered on hats. They’ll sport shamrock lapel pins and T-shirts with shamrocks. They’ll paint shamrocks on their faces they’ll stuff with shamrock-shaped cookies and cakes all under a shower of green foil shamrock confetti.
Shamrocks are etched on Waterford crystal and delicately painted as the signature of Belleek, the fine Parian China of Ireland. Shamrocks adorn Celtic crosses and Rosary beads.
But the most charming of all shamrocks are the real ones.
Providing, that is, that one can call a shamrock real. Look for the true, live shamrock, and begorra, you will find telling evidence of the Irish imagination. Sure the problem lies in identifying what, exactly, a shamrock is.
A SHAMROCK BY ANY OTHER NAME
The word shamrock is the Anglicized derivation from the Irish “seamrog,” translated as “little, young clover” or “summer plant” and used to classify both red and white clover. Unique to the Emerald Isle, a tiny green trefoil grows wild, and many insist this is the shamrock.
Here in the United States, different plants stand in as shamrocks. Most florists stock two quasi shamrocks, including oxalis. A member of the wood sorrel family, oxalis has three leaves, albeit more angular the traditional shamrock. The green-leafed oxalis has white blossoms; a purple-leafed variety has lavender flowers; and a new cultivar has green leaves and lavender flowers.
Trifolium repens minus is dwarf form of white clover with small, round leafed shamrocks. But don’t confuse the four-leafed-clover with the shamrock, though this faux pas frequently occurs.
The shamrock is clover-like, but always with leaflets in threes. The luck of the Irish bears ties to numerology, and in Celtic belief, three’s the charm. A simple Irish blessing--“May the strength of three be in your journey”-- reflects this belief.
Even the rhythm of Irish storytelling hinges on threefold repetition that builds, intensifies and embellishes that quintessential quality of the Irish tale: exaggeration.
SHAMROCKS’ EARLIEST ROLE
As in contemporary Ireland, divisive politics played a heavy role in day to day life. The earliest known role of the shamrock as a St. Patrick’s Day badge was referred to in 1681.
In the 1770’s, the Irish Volunteers wore the shamrock as their emblem. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the wearing of the shamrock was considered a rebellious act, and the Irish regiments were forbidden to display the plant. Irish civilians then took up the custom of wearing small, red and green paper crosses, instead.
Lo these many years later, on St. Patrick’s Day, tradition holds that a member of the British Royal Family presents shamrock to the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army.
THE SHAM BEHIND SHAMROCKS
In many an Irish mind, the number three conjures the Holy Trinity. The Irish are a people with a love of lore and legend, the one about St. Patrick and the shamrock being one example.
Irish historians have unearthed no reference to shamrock in the writings of St. Patrick. The first written correlation between the plant with the teaching of the Trinity dates to 1726, and is attributed to an Englishman, a Protestant dissenter, no less. A cleric and physician, Reverend Doctor Caleb Threlkeld published a small book about the wild plants of Ireland in which he wrote of shamrock: “This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17 Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.) It being a Current Tradition that by this Three Leafed Grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.”
Even Irish scholars, when pressed, will admit the sham behind shamrocks and St. Patrick. In his foreword to “Shamrock”--an entertaining Irish book by Dr. Charles Nelson--Bernard Loughlin writes, “...thank Christ for St. Patrick who invented the whole shamrock industry in the first place. Or did he?
“We will never know, but then who needs to know anyway. The excuse for drink and revelry is enough.”
ST. PATRICK’S MONEY
Fanciful legends notwithstanding, the shamrock took root as the unofficial symbol of Erin. The trefoils adorned medieval Irish tombs and ancient copper coins known as St. Patrick’s money.
The first reference to the shamrock in written English dates from 1571, from the Boke [sic]of the Histories of Ireland, by Edmond Campion. Like many an Irish story, the tale of the Elizabethan Jesuit is convoluted. Campion seems to have journeyed to Ireland, where he chronicled the habits of the Irish. He noted that the Irish ate shamrock. Probably erroneously, he linked the plant with watercress, creating an enduring red herring in shamrock lore.
In the 1600s, seamrog began cropping up in Irish dictionaries.
For a people linked hand, heart and soul to the very soil of Ireland, the symbol of the shamrock serves as a natural national emblem. Eventually, shamrock grew as Orange as Green, and the plant served as likely an emblem for Protestants and Catholics.
IRISH TOURIST BOARD
However, in 1996, the Irish Tourist Board met with controversy when their new marketing strategy suggested scrapping the shamrock as Ireland’s worldwide symbol. The suggestion didn’t go over well. Politicians and citizens alike perished the very thought, and the plan fell by the wayside.
The shamrock sustained its status as the unofficial symbol of Ireland. The nation’s official emblem is the harp, yet many commercial concerns prefer the shamrock. Aer Lingus, for example, brandishes its fleet with shamrocks on every plane’s tail. And each St. Patrick’s Day, the airline flies fresh shamrocks to Irish Embassies around the world to ensure that the global wearin’ of the green includes the national treasure.
SHENANIGANS & MALARKEY
Irish superstition reputed shamrocks to possess supernatural powers. At the very least, shamrocks sprout as a heartwarming harbinger of this transitional season, the melting of winter into spring, the greening of the earth.
And yet we’re left to wonder, is shamrock red clover or white or purple? It it wood sorrel or water cress? And what of St. Patrick? Are shamrocks essentially nothing but blarney? The shenanigans of leprechauns spreading malarkey?
These questions are impossible to answer without a wry wink to Ireland, the land of little people and tall tales about little green plants.