Nicola here! Today is St Patrick’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, and if you’ve read Wench Susan’s post earlier in the week you will already be in the mood to celebrate with a pint of Guinness and some delicious soda bread!
Whilst the harp is the official symbol of Ireland, found everywhere from Guinness glasses to official coinage, the shamrock is another symbol that is as widely recognised and popular. It is said that this little sprig of green was important to the druids and that St Patrick used it to explain the concept of the trinity in his teaching, as it has three leaves.
The original shamrock has been identified as being either the lesser or the white clover, although down the centuries there has been a lot of discussion amongst botanists as to what genus of plant it actually was. Normally it has just the three leaves; if you find one with four then that is especially lucky! References to it in medieval literature refer to beautiful fields of it in flower – there is a story that St Brigid decided to stay in County Kildare when she saw a meadow clothed in glorious shamrock/clover flowers.
In the Tudor era English writer Edmund Campion sowed the seed of confusion (sorry – pun!) by writing that the “wild Irish” fed upon “Shamrotes, watercresses, rootes, and other herbes.” This idea took root (sorry!) even more later in the 16th century when the poet Edmund Spenser, writing after the Munster Rebellion, claimed that the Irish were starving and were therefore driven to eat shamrock to save them from death. In fact what they were eating was Wood Sorrel, which looks similar to clover, has a very pleasant lemony flavour and contains vitamin C!
In the 17th century we find the first written reference linking the shamrock to Saint Patrick when Thomas Dineley, an English traveller in Ireland wrote: “The 17th day of March yeerly is St Patricks, an immoveable feast, when ye Irish of all stations and condicions were crosses in their hatts, some of pinns, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3 leav'd grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath.” The following century, another writer also noted that there was a tradition to dip the shamrock in whiskey: “They wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit excess in liquor, which is not a right keeping of a day to the Lord; error generally leading to debauchery,” Clearly the author disapproved deeply!
During the 18th century the shamrock evolved into a symbol of Ireland and not just of St Patrick. It became particularly popular in the 19th century, when it started to feature in painting and ballads, poems and architecture. Here it is in the picture on a street light in Mountjoy Square in Dublin! It has become a tradition for the Irish Taoiseach to present a bowl of shamrocks in a special Waterford crystal bowl featuring a shamrock design to the President of the United States in the White House every St. Patrick's Day.
I was intrigued to discover that there's also a whole selection of vintage St Patrick's Day cards from the 19th and early 20th century that you could send to people to wish them a happy day and "the luck of the Irish." I particularly liked this card from 1908!
Going back to the shamrock plant itself, some folk traditions assign a different attribute to each of the three leaves. The first leaf represents hope, the second stands for faith, the third is for love and if there is a fourth leaf then you are obviously very lucky indeed! Some people seem to get a bit carried away and claim that six leafed clover/shamrock grants the finder fame and a seven leafed one longevity! Others say that four-leaf clovers granted the power to see fairies.
Whichever way you look at it, it feels as though the shamrock is a symbol of hope and good fortune, which is a lovely thing to wish people in the coming year. Meanwhile, I will wear my lucky Celtic ring in honour of St Patrick's Day and wish everyone a very happy day! Do you have a special lucky charm or mascot, or something you wear to celebrate special occasions?