Full of Symbolism: The Shamrock Has Mystical Roots

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

The shamrock is ingrained in Irish culture due to its association with St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Legends recount how St. Patrick used the three petals of the shamrock to teach the Trinity to Celtic pagans. This is why pictures of Saint Patrick depict him driving the snakes out of Ireland with a cross in one hand and a sprig of shamrocks in the other.

But it wasn’t until the 17th century that it became the custom to wear the shamrock on the feast of St. Patrick. Until then, the Irish wore a special St. Patrick’s cross, made just for the occasion. Then, in the late 18th century, the shamrock was adopted as an emblem by the Volunteers of 1777. But it didn’t really become widely popular until the 19th century, when the emerging Nationalist movements took the shamrock, along with the harp, as one of their emblems.

Viewed as an act of rebellion in Victorian England, Irish regiments were forbidden to display the shamrock.  This one single act may have done more to establish the shamrock as Ireland’s national emblem than anything else. The shamrock became symbolic in other ways as time went on. In the 19th century it became a symbol of rebellion, and anyone wearing it risked death by hanging. It was also the catalyst for the creation of the famous 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 agin’ the wearing o’ the Green!”

While the lyrics may have stirred the souls and hearts of rebellious Irishmen, there are a couple of strange contradictions in this verse.  Historians believe it’s very likely that St. Patrick wore vestments of blue, not green; and since the plant wasn’t cultivated but grew wild, there was no way the Crown could have successfully banned its growth.

The original Irish shamrock (traditionally spelled seamróg, which means “summer plant”) is said by many authorities to be none other than white clover, a common lawn weed originally native to Ireland. It is a vigorous stem-rooting perennial with three leaves. Occasionally, a fourth leaflet will appear, making a “four-leaf clover,” said to bring good luck to the person who discovers it.

As for St. Patrick using the shamrock to teach the mystery of the Holy Trinity, it was never mentioned in any of his writings. So, that of itself, remains a mystery.

Fast forward. Today, the shamrock is firmly established as the most instantly recognizable emblem of Ireland. For good luck, it’s usually included in the bouquet of an Irish bride, and also in the boutonniere of the groom. It’s part of the Aer Lingus logo, as well as those of many other companies, sports teams and organizations. And, it’s also an integral part of an old tradition called “drowning the shamrock.”

This tradition takes place on St. Patrick’s Day, when the shamrock that has been worn in the hat or lapel is removed and put into the last drink of the evening. A toast is proposed and then, when the toast has been honored, the shamrock is taken from the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder. “Sláinte!”