The History of the Shamrock – From Saint Patrick to Campion’s ‘Wild Irish’ to Rebellion and Nationhood

March 16, 2017

The Shamrock is both a national symbol of Ireland and the emblem of the Irish People. In addition to this, the shamrock is a—slightly elusive—botanical species of clover that serves as an icon of our verdurous landscape. The shamrock’s most direct link to the people comes in the form of the legend of Saint Patrick bringing Christianity to Ireland.

Ireland’s patron saint, Saint Patrick is said to have explained the Christian Holy Trinity to the people of Ireland using the three leaves of the shamrock as a metaphor. This metaphor in itself is a wonderful example of how the Irish worldview is centered on the natural environment. However, in light of this timeline, the use of the shamrock as an emblem of Irish identity is a relatively recent phenomenon. Centuries after the legend of Saint Patrick the Shamrock took on meaning as an emblem in the political struggle of the Irish people.

The wearing of shamrock as a national emblem dates back as far as the 17th century when it began to replace the Saint Patrick’s cross, which was historically worn to celebrate the feast of Ireland’s Patron Saint. The practice did not become widespread until it became associated with the avant-garde of Irish Nationalism. In fact, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the shamrock gained popular acceptance as emerging nationalist movements adopted it and began to wear it as an emblem for Ireland.

The history of the shamrock predates even Irish Catholicism and Saint Patrick. The shamrock has always been perceived to be a characteristic flora of the ‘the Emerald Isle’. The Shamrock and it’s green Irish hue have a deep cultural history.

As the green shamrock increasingly became associated with Irish nationalism, it did so in a symbolic opposition to the ‘orange’ protestant ascendancy and their British unionist identity. Indeed, according to the Department of the Taoiseach the Irish tricolour flag uses the symbolism of these colours to suggest a lasting truce between the older Gaelic tradition and the supporters of William of Orange. The greenness of Ireland is something that captivated literary and scientific minds alike. Poet William Drennan coined the phrase ‘Emerald Isle’ in his 1795 poem, very tellingly entitled: “When Erin First Rose” quoted below.

When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,

God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;

The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,

In the ring of the world the most precious stone.

In her sun, in her soil, in her station thrice blest,

With her back towards Britain, her face to the West,

Erin stands proudly insular, on her steep shore,

And strikes her high harp ‘mid the ocean’s deep roar.

These lines of verse are not only beautiful, but also very illuminating as to the mindset of the burgeoning Irish identity as it emerged, in the eighteenth century. The literary and historical tradition of associating the Irish people with the landscapes and with insular characteristics is something that resonates with ancient Celtic culture.

The ancient Celts were animists, their worldview included influences from non-human entities – such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects-which they believed to possess a spiritual essence. William Drennan’s lines of verse seem to speak to a very deep Irish history and to an Irish worldview that went on to shape Irish Christianity.

Celtic society was predominantly rural quite unlike the foundational European civilizations of Greece and Rome which were urban. The Irish worldview has always been fundamentally rural allowing a greater importance for nature and the land.

Perhaps, this explains why Ireland remains insular in spite of its proximity to global centers of civilization and urban megapoles. Ireland defined itself against the encroaching industrial revolution with factories that took over from tending to the land.  Instead, Ireland looks out into the ‘wild’ west uninterested in British modernity and the hulking British city. Ireland sees its heritage in a green rural landscape. This heritage is best symbolized in the shamrock.

Since 1963 the Taoiseach traditionally offers a bowl of shamrock to the US president as a gift and symbol of Ireland. This year the bowl was created by master craftsman Eamonn Terry, owner of Criostal na Rinne. Commissioned by the Taoiseach Terry took inspiration from the book of Kells using intersecting trinity knots as a design motif, while polished shamrocks are engraved into panels in the bowl.

The name shamrock comes from the Irish word ‘seamair óg’ or young clover. References to shamrock appear in early Irish literature, generally as a description of a flowering clovered plain. The first mention of Shamrock in the English language appeared in Edmund Campion’s 1571 Boke of the Histories of Irelande in which he incorrectly described the ‘wild Irish’ people ate shamrock! This error was widely repeated in later works, and is believed to stem from the similarity of the Irish word ‘seamsóg’ or wood sorrel. There is still no consensus as to the precise botanical species of clover which is the ‘true shamrock’.

Indeed, something about the shamrock seems to captivate the imagination of anyone who attempts to reflect on Ireland. Lá Fhéile Pádraig !

About the Author

David Hayden

David is a contributor to the Green News. He has a Bachelor's Degree in International Business and French from UCD as well as a Master's Degrees in French literature and New Media from the University of California at San Diego and the Johns Hopkins University.

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