The shamrock is a young sprig of clover, the international symbol of Ireland.
Shamrock comes from the Irish word seamróg, which is the diminutive of the Irish word for clover “seamair” and means simply “little clover” or “young clover”.
There is still no positive consensus over the precise botanical species of clover that is the “true” shamrock.
John Gerard in his herbal of 1597 defined the shamrock as Trifolium pratense or Trifolium pratense flore albo, meaning Red or White Clover. He described the plant in English as : ‘Three leaved grasse’ or ‘Medow Trefoile’, ‘which are called in Irish ‘Shamrockes’.
The first mention of shamrock in the English language occurs in 1571 in the work of the English Elizabethan scholar Edmund Campion. In his work ‘Boke of the Histories of Irelande’ .
Campion describes the habits of the ‘wild Irish’ and states that the Irish ate shamrock:
“Shamrotes, watercresses, rootes, and other herbes they do feed upon”.
The statement that the Irish ate shamrock was widely repeated in later works and seems to be a confusion with the Irish word seamsóg or wood sorrel (Oxalis).
Traditionally, shamrock is said to have been used by Saint Patrick to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity when Christianising Ireland in the 5th century. The first evidence of a link between St Patrick and the shamrock appears in 1675 on the St Patrick’s Coppers or Half-pennies.
These appear to show a figure of St Patrick preaching to a crowd while holding a shamrock.
The first written mention of the link does not appear until 1681, in the account of Thomas Dineley, an English traveller to Ireland who writes:
‘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.’
There is nothing in Dineley’s account of the legend of St. Patrick using the shamrock to teach cchristianity and this story does not appear in writing anywhere until a 1726 work by the botanist Caleb Threlkeld:
‘This plant is worn by the people in their hats upon the 17th 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. However that be, when 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’
The Reverend Threlkeld’s remarks on liquor undoubtedly refer to the custom of toasting St. Patrick’s memory with ‘St. Patrick’s Pot’, or ‘drowning the shamrock’ as it is otherwise known. After mass on St. Patrick’s Day the traditional custom of the menfolk was to lift the usual fasting restrictions of Lent and repair to the nearest tavern to mark the occasion with as many St. Patrick’s Pots as they deemed necessary. The drowning of the shamrock was accompanied by a certain amount of ritual as one account explains:
“The drowning of the Shamrock” by no means implies it was necessary to get drunk in doing so. At the end of the day the shamrock which has been worn in the coat or the hat is removed and put into the final glass of grog or tumbler of punch; and when the health has been drunk or the toast honoured, the shamrock should be picked out from the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder.”
As St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint, the shamrock has been used as a symbol of Ireland since the 18th century, as the rose is used for England, the thistle for Scotland and the leek for Wales. Indeed, the shamrock is included in the coat of arms of the United Kingdom, as seen here in a frieze on the façade of Buckingham Palace.
It was also mentioned in many songs and ballads of the time. One such ballad appears in the works of Thomas Moore whose ‘Oh the Shamrock’ embodies the Victorian spirit of sentimentality.
It was immensely popular and contributed to raising the profile of the shamrock as an image of Ireland:
Oh The Shamrock
Through Erin’s Isle,
To sport awhile,
As Love and Valor wander’d
With Wit, the sprite,
Whose quiver bright
A thousand arrows squander’d.
Where’er they pass,
A triple grass
Shoots up, with dew-drops streaming,
As softly green
As emeralds seen
Through purest crystal gleaming.
Oh the Shamrock, the green immortal Shamrock!
Of Bard and Chief,
Old Erin’s native Shamrock!
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the shamrock continued to appear in a variety of settings such as the facade of the Kildare Street Club in Dublin, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, and the Harp and Lion Bar in Listowel, Co. Kerry. It also appears on street furniture and monuments like the Parnell Monument, and the O’Connell Monument, both in O’Connell Street, Dublin.