Monday, March 16, 2009

What is the shamrock?

The shamrock is the quintessential Irish icon. The Celtic harp might be the official symbol, but the three-leafed shamrock is recognised the world over as the true symbol of Ireland. So what better subject for a blog on St Patrick’s Day than the shamrock.

But there’s a problem.

There’s something delightfully Irish about having a plant as a national emblem – and yet ask an Irishman to show you a shamrock and he’s likely to come up with any one of four or more different plants. So what plant is the true shamrock?

Let’s take a look at the evidence and the main contenders.

A survey done in 1988 found the following were identified as shamrock by the percentages of Irish people shown:

Trifolium dubium (lesser trefoil) 46%
Trifolium repens (white clover) 35% (photo second from top)
Medicago lupulina (black medick) 7%
Oxalis acetosella (wood sorrel) 5% (photo third from top)
Trifolium pratense (red clover) 4%

If we go back a hundred years to a similar survey in 1893 the results were:

Trifolium repens (white clover) 55%
Trifolium minus (now recognised as a small form of white clover) 33%
Trifolium pratense (red clover) 6%
Medicago lepulina (black medick) 6%

So overall, white clover seems to win the popularity vote and that’s backed by the origins of the word shamrock derived from the Gaelic word 'seamrog' meaning ‘little clover’, but there’s still some doubt. Earlier illustrations of the shamrock don’t help resolve the problem. They show a rather stylised three-leafed plant, very much like the shamrock symbol that’s seen everywhere on St Patrick’s Day.

It could be any three-leafed plant and perhaps that’s the root of the problem. In the absence of a plant specifically called the shamrock, people have chosen the three-leafed plant happens to be around ..... or the one they are familiar with.

So, if we can’t tie down exactly which plant is the true shamrock, we must surely be able to establish why the shamrock has become such a potent icon for the Irish .... and particularly associated with St Patrick.

Well …. perhaps not.

The earliest written mention of shamrocks is not until 1571 and it’s not until 1727 that there’s a record of Saint Patrick using the shamrock to illustrate the Christian trinity of a united Father, Son and Holy Spirit when trying to convert the Druids in Ireland to Christianity. As this is written some 1000 years after St Patrick died, many suspect this to be a myth that was created in the 18th century and then been backdated.

What is known is that the shamrock was an important plant to the Druids prior to Saint Patrick. It was believed to have medicinal properties and its association with the number three had significant meaning in ancient numerology, in which three was a sacred number with mystical powers.

But whatever the truth of its ancient associations, more recent history marks the shamrock as a truly potent icon for the Irish. It was regarded as a symbol of rebellion and independence from the British crown during Queen Victoria’s reign and wearing it on a military uniform was a crime punishable by death. So ‘the wearing of the green’ became an enormous point of Irish pride and its spiritual roots – and indeed its botanical roots - have become lost as the shamrock has been transformed into a political symbol of national pride.