See Part One of All About Shamrocks
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.
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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