The shamrock is a treasured symbol of Ireland. In the days leading up to Saint Patrick's Day each year, shamrocks are decorated, baked, worn, painted, displayed and cherished by Irish and non-Irish alike.
Today, in preparation for St. Patrick's Day, I thought we might explore the meaning and significance of Irish shamrock.
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The National Flower of Ireland
The national flower of Ireland is not exactly a flower. In fact it is a plant - the shamrock.
This small clover has always been revered in the Emerald Isle. The ancient Irish druids used the shamrock as an important symbol.
The Celts believed that important things in the world could be grouped into threes. The Triads of Ireland are life lessons teaching us through associations of three. The druids believed in three dominions of earth, sky and sea.
There were three phases of the moon and the three ages of man. Thinking in threes was the way of the Celtic Druids, so the shamrock's triad suited them perfectly.
Over the centuries this little plant has been officially accepted as the national flower of Ireland, while the harp is the official national symbol of Ireland. It may not be our official symbol, but I would go as far as to say it is our favorite national symbol.
Wearing Shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day
On St. Patrick's Day Irish people wear fresh shamrock on their coat lapels, as a sign of honor and respect for our most beloved saint.
Children wear a badge on their coats, while adults wear a cluster of shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day in Ireland.
This tradition dates back to the 17th century. Celebrating the national saint of Ireland through religious ceremonies started in the 1600's. The Irish were very poor, but they wished to do something significant to mark this occasion.
Lucky for them there was a tiny little plant just outside their doors. Picking a cluster of shamrock was no problem, so the tradition of wearing shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day was started by the rural Irish poor. The tradition went from strenght to strength and by the 20th century it was the norm.
In the 20th century Irish people often sent shamrock to their relatives and friends overseas, especially for Saint Patrick's Day.
What is a Shamrock?
A shamrock a form of lesser clover. There is no clearly recognized plant that bears the name shamrock.
Exactly which form of clover is a shamrock can be a controversial topic. It can be any white clover that bears a triad of heart shaped leaves.
Botanists consider shamrock to either be the white clover (trifolium repens) or the suckling clover (trifolium dubium).
However red clover or wood sorrel are often used as shamrocks.
In Ireland, the plant considered to be a shamrock, bears much smaller leaves than the wild clover that grows all over America.
In Irish folklore it is believed that shamrock only truly grows in Irish soil, but clover is found worldwide.
However, in defense of our mythology I will add that the plant considered to be a shamrock in Ireland, bears much smaller leaves than the wild clover that grows all over America.
Plus always remember, that a traditional Irish shamrock symbol does not include a fourth leaf.
The word shamrock comes from the Irish language. In Gaelic the word is seamróg (pronounced sham-rogue). When the British took this little Irish word and wrote it down in English form, they created the word shamrock.
Shamrocks As Icons and Symbols
Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, proudly displays a shamrock on the tail of all its airplanes. Over the next few days the airline will deliver fresh homegrown shamrock to Irish embassies in many countries worldwide.
The shamrock is also used as a badge for sports teams, such as the Celtic Football Club in Glasgow. The Boston Celtics also have a logo that features a leprechaun wearing a shamrock vest or waistcoat.
Irish troops use a shamrock as a logo.
In the 18th century when the British transferred Irish troops to the colonies, they used the shamrock as the emblem for these Irish regiments.
However, an Irish militia group known as the Irish Volunteers was formed in 1778 and the choose the shamrock as their symbol. In the early 1800's Irish Catholics sought Catholic emancipation and they chose the shamrock as a symbol of their faith in remembrance of Saint Patrick.
This little plant became so associated with Nationalist movements in Ireland that the British government decided to ban their use by Irish regiments in the colonies.
Anyone caught wearing shamrock risked death by hanging as a punishment. But the Irish persisted, and continued to wear their shamrocks.
“Oh Paddy dear, and did you hear
the news that’s going round?
The shamrock is forbid by law
to grow on Irish ground.”
~ Exerpt from the song "The Wearing of the Green.
It is now the official symbol of the Royal Irish Regiment in the British army.
The British government continue to use the shamrock as the national flower for Northern Ireland.
Irish Shamrock Superstitions
The literal meaning of the Irish word "seamrog" is "summer plant".
Shamrocks thrive in Irish fields throughout spring and summer and are attributed with mystical power.
When a storm is approaching shamrocks supposedly point skywards, standing tall as a warning sign.
Only a shamrock can undo the magical spell of a leprechaun.
The clover pictured above is far bigger than a typical Irish shamrock.
Saint Patrick and the Shamrock
St. Patrick' Ireland's patron saint, used a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to pagan Irish men and women.
Saint Patrick and the Shamrock is probably the most famous legend of all shamrock tales.
He used the tri-part leaf as a symbol of Father, Son and Holy Spirit existing both separately and as one.
Saint Patrick was a wise man to choose a plant beloved by the Druids to promote his conversion of the Celts to Christianity.
Three leafed shamrocks are the symbol of choice when celebrating Saint Patrick.
Four Leafed Clovers
Four-leafed clovers are considered to be very lucky due to their rarity. A genetic mutation occurs in about 1 in 5000 plants to create a plant bearing extra leaflets.
Lucky clovers are very distinct from the shamrock associated with Ireland. However, both have become confused over the years.
Over time the term the luck of the Irish has become intertwined with the legend of the four-leafed lucky clover, resulting in the misuse of a four-leafed clover as a symbol of Ireland.
This artistic interpretation has grown acceptable in America, but to a true Irish man only the three-leafed shamrock should ever be used.
President Obama's reelection committee once produced St. Patrick's Day merchandise, but with one big gaffe. A four-leafed clover was emblazoned on T-Shirts instead of a shamrock.
This oversight was quickly corrected, probably after many irate phone calls from Irish people all over the world. Obama's team quickly responded and did not press their luck.
"Never iron a four-leaf clover,
because you don't want to press your luck."
Although the harp is the official symbol of Ireland, the shamrock is probably the most widely used emblem.
Shamrock cookies will be baked by the dozen in America this week. Luckily it is a perfect cookie cutter shape.
Children will have fun decorating using forty shades of my homeland green.
Shamrock shapes are perfect for those with an artistic flair to express their inner Celtic creativity.
I encourage everyone to find their inner shamrock and express their love of all things Irish.
Wear shamrocks with pride, a smile on your face and love and laughter in your heart.
“O, the shamrock,
the green, immortal shamrock!
Chosen leaf of bard and chief,
old Erin’s native shamrock."
"May your blessings outnumber
The shamrocks that grow,
And may trouble avoid you
Wherever you go."
And remember every shamrock does not always have to be green.
Red, white and blue shamrocks look ever so beautiful too, as we celebrate our Irish American heritage.
For each petal on the shamrock
This brings a wish your way -
Good health, good luck, and happiness
For today and every day.
Thanks for checking out my ramblings all about shamrocks.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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