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 ( 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.



Halloween or Year-Round Monster Trucks [Book Review]

Brilliant concept! (Why didn’t I think of this?) After Halloween, for the rest of the year, monsters drive trucks and utility vehicles. The werewolf drives a back hoe to dig deep holes for bones and squeaky toys; the yeti drives a snow plow; the minotaur cleverly drives a BULL-dozer. The witch appropriately trades her broom in for a street-sweeper. And the mummy drives (can you guess?) the ambulance, of course! Kudos for including an ogre, yeti, and minotaur among the diverse monsters. Humorous illustrations by Misa Saburi. This is a gem of a book. I only wish there had been some literal oversized big-wheel monster trucks. A year-round book for toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary; not only for October.

Keller, Joy and Misa Saburi (illus).  Monster Trucks. New York, NY : Goodwin Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2017

Hornets and Mines: When Folktales Meet History

There’s an old Russian legend about St. Nicholas’ Day collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev:

13th Century, from the collection of the Russian State Hermitage Museum; United States Public Domain. from Wikimedia Commons

13th Century, from the collection of the Russian State Hermitage Museum; United States Public Domain. from Wikimedia Commons

Some peasants worked for a foreign steward, and the foreigner did not follow the Orthodox faith or observe the Russian holidays. He made the peasants work all the time.

One day the village elder came to the Estate house and spoke to the steward. “Tomorrow is St. Nicholas’ Day and we are forbidden to work.”

“Who is St. Nicholas?” the steward scoffed. “Show him to me.”

The village elder brought him an icon of the saint.

“This is just a wooden board” the steward persisted. “It can’t do anything to me. I shall work, and so shall you all.”

So the peasants worked the Estate, keeping St. Nicholas in their hearts and minds that day. But they soon decided to play a trick on the foreign steward.

A few months later, the elder walked up to the Estate house again.  “Tomorrow we have a holiday,” he informed the steward.

“Who is it this time?”

“St. Hornet’s Day.”

“Who is he? Show him to me.”

The elder brought the steward to a hollow tree in which hornets had built a nest. “There he is,” he told the steward.

The steward peeped through the cracks in the bark. He heard humming and buzzing but could see nothing. “How he sings!”  he exclaimed. “He must have drunk too much vodka. Nonetheless, I am not afraid of him, and you all must work.”

As he spoke, the hornets flew out of the hollows and stung him in a great swarm.  The steward screamed at the top of his lungs. “I swear I won’t order you to work. I too shall rest. Take the whole week off.”

And that is how the peasants outwitted the harsh steward.

(Adapted by Cynthia June Long)

I couldn't find hornets, so here are some bees. "Apes (apis = bee) coming from a bee-hive, attack a man." 1450. From the National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana Creative Commons. Public Domain

          I couldn’t find hornets, so here are some bees.                       “Apes (apis = bee) coming from a bee-hive, attack a man.” 1450. From the National Library of the Netherlands via Europeana Creative Commons. Public Domain


~         ~         ~

            An amusing tale, good for a few chuckles, and like much oral tradition, no doubt with its origins in a reality Russian peasants would have faced working for a foreigner. I’m partial to stories about the underdog or trickster. My favorite heroes are those who overcome an adversary through wit.

However, history bears an unexpected somber resemblance to this folktale: in 1907 real-life tragedy struck down 239 lives while those who kept a holy feast day were spared. In December 1907, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day saved more than 200 Carpatho-Russian miners in Jacob’s Creek, Pennsylvania.

They worked long, hard, unsafe days in the Darr Mine on the west side of the Youghioheny River, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh.  They lost a day’s wages to attend church and keep the feast.  On December 19, 1907, in the middle of the liturgy, around 11:30 a.m., a loud rumble preceded an explosion which spewed thick smoke and shook the ground for miles. Immediately everyone knew what had happened.  The mine had exploded. The next day the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “Scores Dodged Death by Going to Church Instead of to Work.” The survivors considered it a Miracle of St. Nicholas. A few years after the disaster, ~1911, St. Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church at Jacobs Creek was founded to honor the saint’s intervention that fateful day. A commemorative icon was created later.


At least 239 men lost their lives in the Darr mine; the period newspaper accounts are gruesome, describing unidentifiable remains and worse. Very Rev. Dr. Edward Pehanich, pastor of the Jacob’s Creek St. Nicholas Church, was quoted by the Pittsburgh area Tribune-Review on the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the event: “We certainly don’t believe that those who were saved were better than those who died, but for whatever reason, St. Nicholas prayed to save those miners. . . If it wasn’t for the service that day, another 200 men would have lost their lives.”

December 1907 was one of the bloodiest months in U.S. mining history, and over 700 miners died that month throughout the United States. The national total for 1907 was 3200 lives lost in mining accidents.  Workplace safety rules followed on the heels of these mining disasters. Even so, forty-fivc years later in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, my own grandfather would die from the coal miner’s ‘black lung’; my father was only 13 years old at the time. It was—and is—a brutal profession.

The Philadelphia Inquirer also reports great drunkenness in the Jacobs Creek area that December 1907 night: “Some of the men . . .got a good start on account of the holiday, continuing their carousal after the explosion in celebration of their escape.”  Constables were called in, and the only tavern within two miles was asked to close down throughout the several days duration of the recovery operation.

The folktale steward reconsidered his viewpoint after a painful encounter with hornets. It took 700+ deaths to begin to reform the mining industry. In my younger years, I would postpone filling up the car gas tank and then find myself a week later praying like mad that I’d be able to make it back to a gas station in time. A few times—I hate admitting it—I cut it too closely and unexpectedly rolled to a stop on the side of the road.  Then I’d repeat the cycle a few weeks or months later. (It’s a Jersey Girl thing; after over twenty years living in Philadelphia, I still can barely accept the fact that I have to pump my own gas here.)

How many car accidents have I ‘miraculously’ escaped?  One day I might be stung by a hornet and another day, spared from death or injury. Feast day or work day, December 6 or December 19 or any day at all, I pledge to celebrate each day as a gift.


Sources and Resources

Afanas’ev, Aleksandr. “The Foolish German.” Russian Fairy Tales. N.Y.:  Pantheon Books, 1945, 1973. Print.

“Blames Coroner Juries.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 75. September 13, 1908. p. 5A.

“Buried in Wrecked Mine 250 Men Are Probably Dead.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 157 n. 173. December 20, 1907. p. 1-2.

Centennial of the Miracle of St. Nicholas, Jacobs Creek.” Holland, MI: St. Nicholas Center. Web.

Darr Mine Disaster Historical Marker.” n.d. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Web.

“Experts To Probe Mine Disasters.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Vol. 159 n. 27. July 27, 1908. p. 8.

Reeger, Jennifer. “New Exhibit Remembers 1907 Darr Mine Disaster.”  Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. 2007. Web.

Storey, Jerry. “Orthodox Faithful Endure In the Face of Mine Disaster, Church Fire.” Pittsburgh, PA: Tribune-Review. n.d. Web.

The Blessing of the New Year

Here’s a Highlands New Year’s Blessing from the Carmina Gadelica. It’s traditional to say this poem “the first thing on the first day of the year.” (I’m a little late.)

"Camhanaich" by John McSporran.Creative Commons License.

“Camhanaich” by John McSporran via Flickr. Creative Commons License.


GOD, bless to me the new day,

Never vouchsafed to me before;

It is to bless Thine own presence

Thou hast given me this time, O God.


Bless Thou to me mine eye,

May mine eye bless all it sees;

I will bless my neighbor,

May my neighbor bless me.


God, give me a clean heart,

Let me not from sight of Thine eye;

Bless to me my children and my wife,

And bless to me my means and my cattle.


Happy New Year and many blessings for a brand new day: a new beginning every day.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale [Book Review]

“It was Christmas Day of that year and Dell Martin hovered at the double-glazed PVC window of his tidy home, conducting a survey of the bruised clouds and concluding that it might just snow; and if it did snow then someone would have to pay out.”

Not the first line, but it should be, of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Art by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website

Photo by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website

Twenty years ago, a daughter/sister/girlfriend went missing. No traces. Presumed dead or some other tragic end. If she was all right, she would have called. Even if she’d run away, she would have written. For twenty years her loved ones have been stifled by the inpenetrable grief of not-knowing.

Then Tara Martin reappears on Christmas, young and slight, looking not a day older, unable to account for her whereabouts. She makes up a story about traveling but eventually discloses her truth: she had spent time—in her mind only six months—with the fairies.

Doctors are brought in; dental records are checked. She meets with the local psychiatrist who explores amnesia, traumatic memory loss, and confabulation. Tara’s tales of the fairies’ sexual exploits are presumed to be projections of her own repressed self. But questions remain: Is the girl who she claims to be? Why hasn’t she aged?

This novel presents a deft handling of the faerie mythos. Set in “the deepest heart of England,” it is a welcome addition to modern Fairy Tale lore. Author Graham Joyce has a familiar knowledge of faerie story tropes and carries his premise to its logical conclusion: what would happen if someone today were taken to and returned from Faerie?

The clash of modernity with traditional folklore is accentuated by Graham’s frequent epigraphic references to the Bridget Cleary case. In 1895 near Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six year old Bridget Cleary was burned and murdered by her husband and family who believed she was a changeling, a fairy imposter, a fairy in disguise. Ten of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for murder. To Graham, the Bridget Cleary case illustrates the ascendance of law and rationality over superstition.

Now, in his novel written and set over one hundred years later, he explores a parallel question: how would modern society respond if the folklore proved true?

A true gem for the faerie and fairy tale enthusiast.

Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. London: Orion Publishing, 2012.

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)


Merry Christmas to all my readers.

Hermits and Saints

I went to morning prayers yesterday and my priest commemorated, among others, St. Colman of Ireland. A Celtic saint I didn’t know! I was pleased and flummoxed. Flummoxed because I would now have to go and research him . . .

A perusal of Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a Google consultation soon followed (not necessarily in that order). Butler concisely informs that St. Colman was a bishop and hermit in Western Ireland who escaped to the barren Burren “because he had been made a bishop against his will.” (There’s been a few of those, no? Perhaps a topic for another day.) Apparently burren (boireann) means “great rock” in Irish—not a very habitable place. During my 2003 trip to Ireland, we traveled through the Burren. It’s an inhospitable mound of rocks about which one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers famously stated had “not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.”

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

Tradition says St. Colman retreated to the Burren ‘forests’—had the forest had been cut down by the time of Cromwell a thousand years later? The St. Colman Mac Duagh Burren Forest page has pictures of the dense brush today; I’m not sure I would call those scrawny trees a ‘forest’ but landforms change over the course of a millennium. At any rate, it is a place far more austere than St. Kevin’s lush Glendalough. Not a place I would want to live.

St. Colman later founded a monastery at Kilmacduagh, near Galway. I can piece together the Irish meaning: Kil-mac-duagh, church (kil) of the son (mac) of Duagh. Butler eludes to the legends of St. Colman’s friendships with a mouse, fly, and cock without recounting them, and you’ll have to visit the Russian Orthodox Christianity page on St. Colman to read them yourself.

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (

Once, I may have wanted to be a hermit . . .

In therapy, I talk quite a bit about my introversion and social anxiety—(although it’s not social anxiety as we normally think of it, it’s still a helpful if imprecise term). My therapist’s advice ranges from the self acceptance of embracing my introversion to cognitive-behavioral promises not to be the first person to leave a party. I attended a family event last weekend—a pleasant, wonderful visit which nonetheless left me utterly exhausted.

In my therapist’s office on the eve of St. Colman’s feast, I lamented adult-ing. I wanted to go back to my high school self and sit in a corner reading a science fiction paperback for the entire duration of a party. I entertained what I call my “Unabomber” fantasy [sans bombs] in which I daydream about living off-the-grid in a cabin in Wyoming and walking into town once a week to buy my groceries and check my email through the public library computers.

I am more functional than I was twenty years ago; I make the effort; I force myself to attend dreadful odious baby showers because it’s the right thing to do. I’m probably less lonely. I’m not sure if I’m significantly happier. People exhaust me.

Knowing of my faith, my therapist spontaneously asked me if there were any hermetic examples or outlets I could explore or learn from. Doubtful, I told him glumly. A good number of hermits are only temporary hermits; eventually, after many years of solitude, they end up getting dragged (against their will!) back into the community and end up abbot of a monastery or something. The solitude teaches them the fortitude they will need for their future endeavors. It happened to St. Colman, and many others. We had a good laugh.

The next morning I learned it was St. Colman’s feast day. Later in the afternoon I discovered it was also National Hermit Day—a day dedicated to stepping away from the frenzy of our lives and the tyranny of our electronic devices. We are encouraged to “retreat to someplace quiet.” The National Day Calendar tips their hats to St. Colman, their inspiration for this nouveau holiday.

Three hermit references within twenty-four-hours. Once upon a time, I would have considered it a message from the Universe.

A Spring Flower Garland

The Annunciation, f.45v from Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary; vellum, 15th C; courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

The Annunciation, f.45v from Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary; vellum, 15th C; courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

Five days after the announcement proclaiming the arrival of Spring we have it: The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “For behold, you shall conceive and bring forth a Son . . .”

Winter has been long and brutal. I am cold; I am weary; my heart is frozen. I long for life. In the Northeast this Winter has been especially harsh, and I am just now starting to see the sprouts of daffodils and tulips poking through cold soil. The new life of Easter is just around the corner.

How many times a day do I become flustered and discombobulated—and downright cranky—by disruptions to my “plan,” my routine? Mary’s acceptance of the news brought by her unexpected visitor gives me a hint of how to experience blessing in my own life. May I learn to say, like Mary, “May it be unto me as you have said. . .”

Spring will come; it always does. I long for a fresh springtime in my permafrost heart.


In honor of Mary and Springtime, here’s a poem collected and recorded by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica:


Praise of Mary


Flower-garland of the Ocean,

          Flower-garland of the land,

Flower-garland of the heavens,

          Mary, Mother of God.


Flower-garland of the earth

          Flower-garland of the skies,

Flower-garland of the angels

          Mary, Mother of God.


Flower-garden of the mansion

          Flower-garland of the stars

Flower-garland of paradise,

          Mary Mother of God.