A Conception Announcement

The celebration of birthdays is common enough. But who among us celebrates our conception?  We may presume that the custom never arose because, until recently, the exact day of conception was never quite known.  In our modern era, I’ve had friends argue with their doctors about the date (or argue about their due date, which is based on presumed conception.).  I’ve heard an expression, a common response to someone who proclaims ignorance or forgetfulness for their whereabouts or activities: “Were you with yourself when it happened?” Nonetheless, some doctors think they know more than the women who were there when the act occurred.

I live in Philadelphia, where our home team, the Philadelphia Eagles, overcame great odds to win the SuperBowl this past February.   I fully expect the local news to run a report on or about October 29 about a spike in births they’ll describe as “SuperBowl Babies.” Other than that, only in literature is conception occasionally mentioned.  The character Fenchurch in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was so named by her parents, readers are told, because she was conceived in the Fenchurch Street railway station ticket line.

We mail (or email) birth announcements.  The Annunciation holiday is unique in celebrating a conception announcement.  Delivered by an archangel, no less.

The Annunciation from a 13th Century Illuminated Manuscript; BL Lansdowne 420, f. 7; from the British Library Lansdowne Collection

Hail, Mary! hail, Mary!
Queen of grace, Mother of mercy;
Hail, Mary, in manner surpassing,
Fount of our health, source of our joy.

To thee we, night and day,
Erring children of Adam and Eve,
Lift our voice in supplication,
In groans and grief and tears.

Bestow upon us, thou Root of gladness,
Since thou art the cup of generous graces,
The faith of John, and Peter, and Paul,
With the wings of Ariel on the heights of the clouds.

Vouchsafe to us, thou golden branch,
A mansion in the Realm of peace,
Rest from the perils and stress of waves,
Beneath the shade of the fruit of thy womb, Jesu.

This poem comes to us from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish oral traditions transcribed by Alexander Carmicael in the late 19th Century.  The opening line, from the Gospel of Luke, we’ve heard too many times to count; at first it seems like a lazy plagiarism of the classic prayer.  The poem starts weakly. To desire health and joy is commonplace, if vague.  Similarly, the second and third stanzas are mostly boilerplate folk-theology.  Old Testament and saintly references overflow Carmichael’s collection.  The third stanza grabs our attention with the appeal to Ariel.  (Most of us–myself included–only know of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; I had to research it.) This Ariel reference—a rare allusion for an Angel—suggests an intermingling of the oral tradition with the scholarly.  How odd!

The fourth stanza holds all the charm.  Abstractions are replaced with very real dangers. This is clearly one of Carmichael’s collections from the Scottish Isles. A coastal people would know the perils of waves.   It’s almost as if the poet had finished spouting Sunday School platitudes and could finally get down to his darkest fears—the Atlantic Ocean or the North Sea.

This prayer to be kept safe from the “stress of waves” also calls to mind a Celtic prayer common in the middle ages: “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us.”   Likewise, an anonymous poem from the 9th Century or so more ironically declares

“Bitter is the wind to-night

 It tosses the ocean’s white hair:

To-night I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway

Coursing on the Irish Sea” (Kuno Meyer, “The Viking Terror” in Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry).

This respect and fear for the waves is the anguish voiced by John Millington Synge’s play Riders To The Sea. His 1904 one-act play centers upon an Aran Island mother who has lost six sons to drowning. And even our own Navy Hymn has lyrics echoing the very term “peril.”  The Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father Strong To Save“) implores God to “hear us when we cry to Thee, / For those in peril on the sea.”  Some things haven’t changed. The 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Industries lists Fishing as the second most dangerous job in America. (Only logging is more dangerous.)  It’s something to remember on our next seaside vacation.

The poem ends by returning to borrow from the classic Hail, Mary prayer. Jesus is recognized as the fruit of Mary’s womb.  The poet seizes the metaphor and runs with it. If Jesus is her fruit, he is also the tree—unexpected synecdoche—and Mary is his golden bough.  What the poet wants most is to be in the shade of Jesus, to be cooled and refreshed by His shadow.

The Annunciation is a Marian feast that really celebrates Jesus.

For fun, I’ve back-dated a due-date calendar to estimate the date of my conception. But I think I’ll stick with celebrating my birthday.  We mortals can celebrate birthdays.  Otherwise, let’s remember the conception of God.

The Annunciation from a 15th Century Book of Hours; illuminated manuscript; BL Harley 2952, f.126; from the British Library Harley Collection

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Shamrocks and Four-Leaf Clovers

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.

Trifolium repens; white clover. By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

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.