Slainte columnist Edythe Preet explores the story behind Ireland’s national symbol.
Telling anyone with even just one drop of Irish blood there’s no such thing as a shamrock would be akin to announcing at Mass that the Pope isn’t Catholic. But it’s true.
Before you cry “Blasphemy!” let me explain. The word “shamrock” is an anglicized form of the Irish term seamir og, which means “little clover.” While there is no plant botanically classified “shamrock,” there are dozens of types of clovers. Ireland is covered with gazillions of them, and a shamrock is really just a young clover.
Like the Irish themselves, clovers are found all over the world, but only in Ireland has a cloverleaf become a primary national symbol. Saint Patrick gets most of the credit.
Born in Roman Britain to a Christian family, at age 16, Patrick was kidnapped and sold as a slave in Ireland where he learned to speak Irish and served as a shepherd until escaping six years later. Not long after reaching home, Patrick experienced a vision in which the Irish pleaded with him to come back to Erin and tell them about Christ. After studying for the priesthood in France, he went to Ireland as a Christian missionary in the early part of the 5th century.
According to a Latin work referred to as St. Patrick’s Confessio and believed to have been written by Patrick himself, he didn’t receive a warm Irish welcome on arrival but was robbed and beaten more than once. It does, however, note the thousands of baptisms he performed and the many monasteries he founded. While the work contains no account of Patrick using a shamrock in his zealous missionary work, several legends tell the tale.
In each story, Patrick explains the Christian Trinity – one Supreme Being with three distinct personae, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – by comparing the faith’s mystery to a shamrock on which three separate leaves grow from one stem. In one tale, Patrick used the shamrock/Trinity analogy to convert King Laoghaire. In another, unable to convince the King, Patrick converted the two royal daughters, Ethne and Fedelm. In a third legend, Patrick chanced upon a group of chieftains beside a clover-filled meadow and plucked one to illustrate his message.
It might seem that nearly two thousand years ago the concept of one god with three different personalties might have been a big leap for an Irish pagan to accept, but such was not the case. Celtic beliefs included many gods and goddesses, each manifesting different aspects of human life, and some even embodied triplicity. Perhaps the most revered Celtic divinity was the triple goddess Brid, who represented the three aspects of womanhood – maid, mother, and crone. Brid’s female triplicity provided a yin balance to Christianity’s yang Trinity.
As for the shamrock, Patrick had assistance there too. The plant’s three leaves was sacred to Druids for whom three was a magical number. A seamir og symbolized past, present, and future as well as the three elements of earth, water, and sky. Because the seamir og’s leaves turn over and upward before a rain, it was thought to have prophetic powers. Shamrocks were used for medicinal purposes, and as a protection against evil. During famines, many people ate the lemony “wood sorrel” variety to avoid starvation.
Having been enslaved in Ireland for six years, Patrick must have known about Celtic beliefs. His Irish fluency surely enabled him to explain the Christian God’s triplicity in a language the locals understood. And when he used the Irish term seamir og to name the plant, it entered the vernacular as “shamrock” and has been called that ever since.
Despite all the folklore about Saint Patrick and the shamrock, no written record linking the two appeared until more than a thousand years after Patrick’s death. In 1671, English traveler Thomas Dineley wrote that Irish people wore shamrocks on Saint Patrick’s Feast Day. Another fifty years passed before Patrick’s shamrock explanation of the Trinity was noted by botanist Caleb Threlkeld. He also mentioned the custom of “drowning the shamrock” in the final Patrick’s Pot of whiskey drunk on March17th and then throwing the wilted wet leaf over one’s left shoulder for luck.
The shamrock began to change from a Christian symbol to a national symbol, when it was adopted in the late 1700s as a motif by several revolutionary groups fomenting Irish independence from the British Crown. The resulting brief but bloody Irish Rebellion of 1798 (May 24 to September 24) was so brutally put down by British forces that it inspired folk ballad “The Wearing of the Green,” which lamented, “they’re hanging men and women for the wearing of the green [shamrock].” With the 1800 Acts of Union, Ireland’s shamrock was added to the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom alongside England’s rose and Scotland’s thistle.
The shamrock’s popularity as a national symbol swelled throughout the 19th century, appearing not only on St. Patrick’s Day greetings but also public buildings, monuments, streetlights, churches, and even postage stamps. When the Royal Regiment of the British Army adopted the shamrock as its emblem, Queen Victoria ruled that Irish soldiers should wear shamrock sprigs to honor their fallen fellows. During World War I, the famous Connaught Rangers (who called themselves “The Devil’s Own”) marched to battle wearing shamrock emblazoned badges and singing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary,” which became a unifying anthem of the conflict.
These days, the shamrock is as internationally recognized a symbol of Ireland as the Statue of Liberty is for the United States. It is the emblem of Ireland’s Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, the Irish Football Association, the Olympic Council of Ireland, and Tourism Ireland. A shamrock not only appears on the tail of every Aer Lingus jet, the airline’s air traffic control sign is the shamrock as well. From touristy t-shirts to hand-cut crystal whiskey tumblers, the humble “little clover” appears on a host of Irish products. One of the most famous is the Shamrock line of decorative vases and dinnerware produced by Belleek Pottery in Co. Fermanagh, which appeals to collectors of fine china all over the world.
Every year on Saint Patrick’s Day, the Irish taoiseach presents the president of the United States with a bowl of shamrocks in a special Waterford Crystal bowl featuring a shamrock design. If you decide to create a similar centerpiece for your own Saint Patrick’s Day celebration and there’s clover growing in your lawn, just pick a handful of the leaves and place them in a pretty vase. And if there happens to be a rare four-leaf clover in the mix, the luck of the Irish will surely be with you! Slainte!
Puréed Sorrel Soup
Note: Commercially grown sorrel is an acceptable substitute for wild wood sorrel. It isn’t easily found in the market. I grew it in a large flower pot and you can too.
1⁄4 cup unsalted
3 leeks, both green & white, sliced thinly
5 large garlic cloves, crushed
12 cups fresh sorrel leaves (stems trimmed, chopped, & tightly packed)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 medium potato (peeled & cut into small cubes)
1 cup Italian parsley (minced & loosely packed)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
In a large soup pot, melt butter. Add leeks and garlic and sauté until soft. Handful by handful, add sorrel, allowing to wilt. Continue adding sorrel, stirring well to combine with leeks & garlic. Add remaining ingredients and cook over low to medium heat for 1 hour. Purée with an immersion blender until smooth – add more stock if too thick. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. Makes 4-6 servings.
World War I Cake
(personal culinary history recipe)
Note: This cake uses no butter, eggs, or milk, which were all rationed during war time. It kept well and so was a good treat to send to soldiers on the front.
2 cups raisins
1⁄2 teaspoon cloves
1 cup brown sugar
1⁄3 cup shortening
1⁄4 teaspoon nutmeg
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder
Place water, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, brown sugar, shortening, nutmeg, and salt in a saucepan and mix. Place on heat and bring to a boil. Cook 3 minutes. Allow to cool, then sift together the flour, baking soda and baking powder. Stir into cooked mixture. Spoon into a greased loaf pan lined with waxed paper and bake at 350 F. for one hour or until a toothpick can be removed clean. Cool on a wire rack, then peel away waxed paper. Makes one loaf cake.
The Tipperary Cocktail
(courtesy Jameson Whiskey)
Note: This pale green cocktail first became fashionable in pre-prohibition New York where there was a large population of both Irish and Italian immigrants. The original recipe appeared during WWI in a 1916 book titled “Recipes for Mixed Drinks” by Hugo R. Ensslin, a bartender at New York’s Wallick Hotel, and was popularized by the Great War’s rallying song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
1 oz Jameson Irish Whiskey
1 oz French Chartreuse
1 oz Italian Vermouth
Combine all three liquors with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake
vigorously. Strain into rocks glasses filled with ice cubes. Serves two. ♦