History of the Shamrock

On this St. Patrick’s Day, I thought we would take a look at one of the popular symbols of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day, the Shamrock.

the shamrock is a sprig of clover

A shamrock is a young sprig of clover.  The word shamrock derives from the word young clover.  In Gaelic the word for shamrock is seamair óg.   Only in the English language, does the word shamrock emerge as a distinct word.

Several early pieces of Irish literature referred to the flowering clover or clover blossom.

The first mention of the word shamrock occurs in the work of Edmund Campion, an English Elizabethan scholar.  The word appears in his 1571 work Boke of the Histories of Irelande.  He mentioned the Irish eating shamrock, but this is not an Irish custom that anyone has found evidence of so far.

Two works published in the very early part of the 17th Century, discuses the Irishman drowning the shamrock in his whiskey and seems to be the best-known references for this custom. This is the custom of placing the shamrock in the last glass of drink for the evening and once finished, throwing over their left shoulder.  This is known as “the drowning of the shamrock”.

The shamrock has been traditionally used for medicinal purposes and was very popular during Victorian times.

St. Patrick
St. Patrick used the Shamrock to describe the Holy Trinity

Saint Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland, is said to have used the shamrock as a symbol to describe the Holy Trinity {father, son and holy ghost}.  Whether truly occurred with Saint Patrick is unknown and highly contested as the first reference to the 5th Century saint using the shamrock first occurred in the 1681 writings by Thomas Dineley.

Whether Saint Patrick actually used the shamrock will never be known for sure.  However, because of the shamrock’s association with Saint Patrick, the shamrock has become the official symbol of Ireland, just as St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.

The shamrock was first used as a symbol during the turbulent politics of the late 18th Century. In July 1779, the shamrock appeared on the Royal Glin Hussars flag and eventually began to appear on the flags of other groups. It became a symbol of rebellion and those that wore the shamrock risked death by hanging.  Hence, the phrase “the wearin’ o’ the green”.

The color green was also adopted by the United Irishmen around this same time. The song, The Wearing of the Green, is about the group’s causes and issues.

With the 1800 Acts of Union between Britain and Ireland the shamrock was incorporated into the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.  This is a symbol often seen with the rose of England, thistle of Scotland, and occasionally the leek of Wales.

The shamrock grew in popularity during the 19th century, becoming more and more popular in art work, book covers, songs and ballads of the day.

The shamrock, along with the harp, is now a registered trademark by the Government of Ireland.

the shamrock is a symbol of Ireland

In the United States, the President of the United States, is presented with a Waterford Crystal bowl filled with shamrocks each St. Patrick’s Day.  This presentation is made by the Irish Taoiseach, or Prime Minister.

While the  clover generally has three leaves, at times a four leaf clover can be found which is believed to mean good luck.

The shamrock is now often seen on stained glass windows, buildings, jewelry, china dishes and glasses, and lace throughout Ireland.  Also, various organizations and companies in Ireland use the shamrock as an emblem on their logos.

The shamrock is displayed to not only share Saint Patrick’s message of the trinity, but as a symbol for all things Irish.

How do you celebrate your Irish heritage?

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