It’s nearly St. Patrick’s day! A true rite of Spring which includes raising of glass, singing of song, enduring of bagpipes, and wearing of green. On March 17th everyone is Irish for a day. In the weeks and days before windows are festooned with a variety of Irish symbols – leprechauns, shillelaghs, harps and … shamrocks & four-leafed clovers.
To the casual observer a shamrock and four-leafed clover aren’t much different. Each have pretty green leaves, each are symbols associated with St. Patrick’s day. But, they really are two separate symbols. Here I will talk a little about each.
The four-leafed clover is a variation of the more common three-leaf clover. Clover is a small ground cover which grows wild in many places. It will blossom in the spring with a small, white flower. The four-leaf variation is rare. Some say the chances of a clover having four leaves is 1 in 10,000. Since few of have the time to grub about on the ground searching through 10,000 plants to find 1, finding a four-leafed is quite a lucky happening. Because of this rarity, it was believed in ancient times that the four-leafed clover held magical powers to ward off evil spells, or bad luck. Over the years, the four-leafed clover has become a symbol of good luck. Since the Irish are so lucky (what with the British occupation, the Titanic being built there, the potato famine and all), the four-leafed clover has been associated with the Emerald Isle.
Shamrocks are, at their core, clover. A shamrock plant is actually a member of the clover family. Shamrocks grow abundantly in Ireland, and many other temperate climates. In the 19th century the shamrock and the harp became central symbols to the Irish resistance from British rule. Under Queen Victoria a ruling was made to forbid Irish regiments from displaying the shamrock. Like any other forbidden fruit, that act only increased the attraction to the symbol.
Legend has it that the Patron Saint of Ireland – St. Patrick – used the shamrock as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The three leaves representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Early Christians frequently used common symbols to discuss complex concepts, so the notion carries some weight. There is nothing in the writings of St. Patrick to indicate that he actually used the shamrock as a symbol, but there isn’t anything to say he did not.
There are many companies and organizations associated with Ireland, or Irish Heritage that use the shamrock as a symbol, including the Boston Celtics NBA team, the University of Notre Dame, and Aer Lingus – the Irish National airline. It is frequently traced in the foam of a perfectly poured Guiness.
So, while the four-leafed clover is a sign of good luck, the shamrock is more a sign of Irish National Pride, and is associated with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity and the teachings of St. Patrick.
For my money, the person showing the harp, leprechaun, shillelagh, and shamrock are showing the truly Irish symbols. Everyone else is just Irish wannabes…..