The shamrock is thought by many Irish people globally, to be grown exclusively in Ireland, in Irish soil. Some sources would argue that this is a myth however and was perpetrated by entrepreneurial business people and owes more to their marketing wizardry rather than to horticulture truth. Their wizardry was used to sell the shamrock as an Irish idiom, rather than it being a fact. The shamrock can, in fact, be found growing all over the world; England, Tasmania, South Africa, North America, to name just a few of the places. The traditional Irish shamrock belongs to the white clover family [Trifolium repens], a common lawn weed [spelt seamróg in Gaelic] which means summer plant. Occasionally, a fourth leaf will appear, making it a four-leafed clover, which is said to bring good luck and good fortune to the person who has found it.
Shamrock, the emblem of Ireland, is synonymous with St. Patrick and his teaching of Christianity to the pagan Irish, using the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity [The Father, Son and Holy Spirit]. Back in my day, we called them Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Some would suggest that he used the shamrock to deliver his Christian message.
However, some sources say that the first mention of shamrock in the English language was noted in 1571 by the Elizabethan scholar Edmund Campton. His work “Boke of the Histories of Irelande “ described very vividly the habits of the ‘wilde Irish’ and their tendency to eat shamrock [shamrotes, watercress, roots, and other herbes] to feed themselves. This description of Irish habits castigated the Irish over many centuries, and when famine struck, particularly the Great Famine of 1884/85, the issue of eating shamrock reared its head again. Now as history tells us, the Irish did eat all sorts of grass and berries to keep themselves alive during the Great Hunger tragic times. What happened, however, was that all these herbs did become popular over the centuries - not only the Irish but many other cultures recognised that herbal plants, including shamrock, could be used for medicinal purposes. Today, herbal shops have grown rapidly.
Shamrock has been symbolic of many things in Ireland and dates back to the Celtic Paganism and Druid era’s as the number three was a mystical number and sacred in the Celtic religion, and which had a very long and colourful tradition in even more ancient Celtic cultures.
Up until the 17th century, the Irish wore a special wooden cross made from reeds, specifically for St. Patricks Day [similar to a St. Bridged’s Cross]. Then in the late 18th century, the shamrock was adopted as an emblem of Ireland by the Volunteers of 1777. It did not, however, become widely popular until the 19th century, when the emerging Nationalist movements took the shamrock along with the harp as their National emblems.
Some sources would suggest that this act of displaying an Irish emblem by the Nationalist movements was a causal factor in the shamrock being banned from all Irish Military regiments on St. Patricks Day. The Crown decreed that all Irish regiments were forbidden to display the shamrock on their person. However, this single act by the Crown may have done more to establish the shamrock as Irelands National emblem than anything else! It was also the catalyst for the creation of the famous Irish ballad - The Wearin ‘O’ The Green.
"Oh Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that's going round?
The shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground!
No more St. Patrick's Day we'll keep; his color can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law again' the wearing o' the Green!"
The lyrics may have indeed stirred the hearts and souls of all Irish men wherever they were, there are, however, a couple of contradictions in the lyrics. It is very likely that St. Patrick wore vestments of blue, not green, and since the shamrock grew wild in Ireland and was not cultivated, there was no way that the Crown could have successfully banned the growth of the shamrock on Irish soil. But sure what’s the harm in injecting a little bit of conjecture into an Irish ballad when the heart and soul are being torn apart...
So bearing all the above in mind, Nathaniel Colgan, a 1900s to early 20th-century botanist, set out to discover the true identity of the Irish shamrock. He asked people from all over Ireland to send him in samples with the roots attached, [which he was inundated with]. He planted every single one of the samples, labelling them carefully, so that when they grew and matured, he was able to identify different plants, the small hop clover, and the wood sorrel, or oxalis, and one he called Black Medrick.
All of this is a very long time ago - that was then and this is now. That St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach us the mystery of the Holy Trinity is still up for debate as it was never mentioned in any of his writings. So, that of itself remains a mystery. On the other hand, Triads, or groups of three, were of major significance in ancient Ireland; so it is quite possible that the shamrock may have been used by early Christian teachers because, not only could it instantly illustrate and explain an important belief, it would also have been symbolically acceptable.
A little late in the day, the Irish Government in early 1980 registered the shamrock as its official emblem- however the German Government, none too happy with this, opposed the registration and took the Irish Government to court. When Ireland, with representation from its highest level, the Taoiseach Charles Haughey and other dignitary’s failed to secure the shamrock as its national emblem, they did not take that lying down, so they appealed against the decision and the case went to the German Supreme High Court. On appeal, Ireland won the case in 1985.
Today, the shamrock is firmly established as the most instantly recognisable emblem of Ireland. For good luck, it was usually included in the bouquet of an Irish bride. It's the symbol of quality for many thousands of business - from the everyday B & B's that have earned the right to display it, to part of the Aer Lingus logo, an Póiste, as well as those of many other companies, sports teams and organisations. And importantly, it's also an integral part of an old tradition called "drowning the shamrock". For the most part, this usually takes place on St. Patrick's Day, by ex-pats nostalgic for their homeland, when the shamrock that has been worn in the hat or lapel is then removed and put into the last drink of the evening. When the toast is proposed and has been honoured, the shamrock is taken from the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder.
Since then it has been used in many different forums and has also become a tradition for the Irish Taoiseach to present a Waterford Crystal bowl full of shamrock, the bowl also featuring a shamrock design, to the President of the United States on St. Patricks Day, in the White House.
The shamrock became the badge of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick, founded in 1783. The Order was a British Order of Chivalry associated with Ireland. It technically still exists, however, no Knights of Saint Patrick have been created since 1938.