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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

The Shamrock Purist

(Post originally published March 17, 2012)

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

According to Tradition, when asked by the Irish people to explain how the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost could exist as three Divine Persons yet remain one God, St. Patrick plucked a shamrock growing at his feet and showed that the humble little green sprig had three leaves on a single stem.

The Irish have always said that the shamrock will only grow in Ireland, but we have dicovered otherwise here in Fatima. When we first arrived in Portugal, my mother and I were surprised to find shamrocks growing in abundance here, enormous sprays are spreading beside our house. It is wonderful that we don't have to go without St. Patrick's special plant on his feast day. We have also heard that Irish pilgrims to France have discovered shamrock growing on the ground where St. Joan of Arc mustered the troops before heading into battle. The shamrock is considered a blessed sign of faith.

Although Wikipedia says shamrock is from the “clover family” because the word “shamrock” is derived from the diminutive of the Irish word for clover, the Irish members of my family, and everyone I have ever met in Ireland who are “Shamrock Purists”, have emphatically told me the true shamrock is not considered a “clover” at all by the people, despite the Irish word and the scientific classification. If you even dared to say it is related to clover, you would be considered daft!

Today we see shamrocks being used by the media in all shapes and sizes, but not all are what the purists would call a “true” shamrock. In fact, it is astounding that these shapes are also being used by many Irish in Ireland! It is no wonder a considerable number of people have no idea what it should look like. So on this auspicious day, I am taking the opportunity to give you a few tips on recognizing what is and isn't a St. Patrick shamrock according to the purist.

What should an authentic St. Patrick's shamrock look like?


It has three round-topped leaves that have no white ring at all showing in the middle. Anything that has even the slightest hint of a white ring in the centre of the three-leaf part is “clover”. The plant also grows from a single stalk, not in separate tufts or individual stalks like the common clover you see in lawns that have the white or white-pinkish flowers. Shamrock spreads flat on the ground as a spray, and never grows upward like a clover. No doubt the shamrock was the inspiration for the trefoil or “three leaf” window that also represented the Trinity in Gothic architecture.


Therefore, the real St. Patrick's shamrock to the purists is distinct from other “three leaf” or “trefoil / trefolium” plants, but according to Wikipedia, the "trifolium repens" is “sometimes” used as shamrocks. What! Are ye daft?! The "Trifolium repens” should not be considered a St. Patrick shamrock at all because it has a white ring in it. The Irish also refer to this “T-repens” interloper separately as “white clover” ~ “ seamair bhán” and not “seamróg” or shamrock. This image below is a “repens”, notice the white ring:


Also, anything that is a hybrid with flat-topped leaves, black or purple colours in the centre is not a true St. Patrick's shamrock. The most common shape for the shamrock symbol used today is the heart shaped variety, even the Irish national airline Aer Lingus uses it ~ ah, the shame! This is the common wood sorrel! Just because it has three leaves, do not assume it is an honest-to-goodness St. Patrick shamrock:


Perhaps the most “blasphemous” form of the plant is the four-leafed heart-shaped variety ~ definitely a deviation from St. Patrick's holy three-leaf. To think they use four-leaf clovers and “shamrocks” for St. Patrick's Day decorations, alack!

In case you are wondering where the “lucky” four-leaf clover tradition came from, it was not a luck charm at all. According to an old superstition held among the Irish peasantry, a four-leafed clover was a charm against witchcraft and spells. In the book Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend & Folklore edited by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, Yeats called this old charm a four-leaf shamrock hence the possible cause for the confusion between the old clover and a “lucky shamrock”.

A word to the wise, the Irish were never “lucky”, but always blessed when they remain true to the faith St. Patrick taught them.

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