An Irish culture site I follow posted an infographic with a PSA to avoid confusing the Shamrock with a Four-Leaf Clover.
The same day I was reacquainting myself with faerie folklore and was reminded that the four-leaf clover offers protection against the fey.
I agree that theologically, we would do well to avoid confusing them. But culturally? As a symbol of Ireland? What could be more Irish than the fey? I’ll take all the protections against Themselves that I can get.
The Druids and ancient Irish were already a fan of triads and the number three before St. Patrick started preaching. According to legend, he explained the Trinity by holding up a small trefoil plant. St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a Lorica [protection] prayer attributed to him, begins by invoking the Trinity: “. . . believing in threeness, confessing the oneness of Creation’s Creator . . .” In many pictures and icons of St. Patrick, he is holding a shamrock.
Technically, a shamrock is merely a small or young clover plant. The term comes from the Irish, seamróg, and even readers with as little Irish as I have may recognize óg as meaning young as in the expression Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth, more commonly known as Faerie. Fans of the movie The Quiet Man may also remember the character Michaeleen’Og, or little, young Michael; Michael Jr. (The character is an older man in the movie, but we may presume his father was also named Michael.) Seamair is Irish for clover. Seam + og = seamróg, shamrock.
Botanical descriptions may or may not shed light. The librarian in me wants to stick to the generally authoritative Encylopedia Britannica, although I wonder if it is reputable when speaking on matters pertaining to Éire. Clover (trifolium) apparently has round leaves. Wood sorrel (oxalis) has the distinctive heart-shape leaves we associate with the Irish shamrock. Britannica calls them both—and others—shamrocks.
Common wood sorrel; CCO; public domain via Pixabay
Wood sorrel, by the way, is edible. In the 16th century, English writers Edmund Spencer and Edmund Campion reported that the Irish were eating “shamrocks.” Wood sorrel tastes sour and is rich in Vitamin C., and can be used as a salad, tea, or herbal medicine to treat fever and other ailments.
Whatever its species, the three-leafed shamrock representing the Trinity is the one best associated with St. Patrick.
But let’s not rule out four-leaf clovers.
I’ll stubbornly argue that four-leaf clovers may also be considered somewhat Irish because the Irish are considered lucky, and four-leaf clovers are rare; to find one is to be lucky. (And if “everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” as the expression goes, then we can consider the four-leafed clover Irish on March 17 too.) Or perhaps, more to the point, one is lucky to escape an enchantment by faeries. Robert Hunt recorded in his 1865 Popular Romances of the West of England the story of a dairy cow befriended by faeries, and the milkmaid who came to see them one day by draping herself in a pile of grass in which a four-leaf clover was intermixed. A similar tale is told by Michael Aislabie Denham in his 1859 Denham Tracts, a Yorkshire folklore pamphlet. According to folklorist Katharine Briggs, four-leaf clovers dispel faerie glamour and break enchantments, which is why the above-mentioned milkmaid could see Themselves that day. An ointment made of four-leaf clovers will enable mortals to see the Good Neighbors – and keep one from being beguiled by them. While there are a few fey folk like the leprechaun who may grant boons to mortals, all the same, I’d just as soon stay clear of them. I call that very lucky indeed.
CCO via Pixabay
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
|| Resources, References, and Further Reading
Briggs, Katharine. An Encylopedia of Faeries, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, And Other Supernatural Creatures. N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1976. Print.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Shamrock.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. July 20, 1998. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.
MacConnell, Cormac. “Everything You Know About the St. Patrick’s Day Shamrock Is a Lie.” Irish Central. March 16, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.
“Shamrock.” No author. Wikipedia. March 16, 2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.
“Wood Sorrel.” No author. Wild Edible. 2010-2018. Accessed March 16, 2018. Web.