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.
See Part Two of All About Shamrocks
Author’s Note: My first novel, “Glass Halo,” centers around a stained glass artist of Irish descent. See below for more information. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day from Colleen Smith.
••• “Cultivate your corner of the world. You grow your garden; your garden grows you.” •••
Colleen Smith’s debut novel Glass Halo, set in Denver, was a finalist for the Santa Fe Literary Prize and was praised in the latest issue of The Bloomsbury Review. The novel is available online and through your favorite bookstore.
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