Shamrock, the emblem synonymous with Saint Patrick, has a very long and colourful tradition. It means many things to different people and can evoke messages relating to national pride, religion, history, celebration etc. In horticultural terms what is Shamrock and why do we wear it on St. Patrick’s Day?
Shamrock, Seamóg or Seamair Óg, the Irish for a young clover can be found growing wild throughout Ireland. It is worn on the feast day of St. Patrick, 17th March, to represent a link with Saint Patrick, the Bishop who spread the Christian message in Ireland. It is said Saint Patrick used the three leaved Shamrock as a symbol to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), to the pagan Irish during the 5th Century. In this way he explained that God is three Persons, but it’s not the same as three gods. The simple analogy is thought to have helped non-Christians understand a fundamental element of the Christian religion. The tradition of wearing Shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day can be traced back to the early 1700’s.
Irish research in the late 1980’s highlighted a number of clover plants that were traditionally considered to be Shamrock. The plant most widely considered to represent Shamrock was Trifolium Dubium (the lesser clover, Seamair Bhuí). Other plants that were used as Shamrock included, Trifolium Repens (White Clover, Seamair Bhán), Trifolium Pratense (Red Clover, Seamair Dhearg) and Oxalis Acetosella (Wood Sorrel, Seamóg).
But did St. Patrick really use a three-leaved Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity?
Given the complete lack of reference until the eighteenth century, it seems more likely that the explanation was associated with him long after St. Patrick actually lived, than that it was somehow preserved in tradition for the whole time, without appearing in any of the many written sources about this popular saint.
There is a fifth-century poem or hymn attributed to him, called the Lorica of St. Patrick (Luireach Phadraig) or Deer’s Cry (Faeth Fiada), which invokes the Trinity but does not use an analogy. The ninth century hagiography known as the Tripartite Life (Bethu Phátraic) recounts an episode where Patrick converts the two daughters of Lóegaire mac Néill, saying in response to their question about what kind of God he worships:
St. Patrick, full of the Holy Spirit, responded, “Our God is the God of all, the God of heaven and earth, the God of the seas and rivers, the God of the sun and moon, and all the other planets; the God of the high hills and low valleys; God over heaven, in heaven, and under heaven; and He has a mansion, that is, heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them. He inspireth all things. He quickeneth all things. He enkindleth all things. He giveth light to the sun, and to the moon. He created fountains in the dry land, and placed dry islands in the sea, and stars to minister to the greater lights. He hath a Son, coeternal and coequal with Himself; and the Son is not younger than the Father, nor is the Father older than the Son. And the Holy Ghost breatheth in them. And the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are not divided. I desire, moreover, to unite you to the Son of the heavenly king, for ye are daughters of an earthly king.”
This would be the perfect time to mention the shamrock, but it does not appear.
Tertullian’s work Against Praxeas (Adversus Praxeam) uses a plant metaphor for the Trinity (chapter 8). Here, he says that the three persons of the Trinity are like the root, trunk, and fruit of the tree. This has something of a similar character to the shamrock metaphor, though the three parts for Tertullian have distinct roles2, and the clover leaves are all the same. It is possible that Patrick had some exposure to this idea, or independently reinvented it.
Whether the story is true or not, the phenomenal success of Patrick’s mission in converting the whole of Ireland to Christianity cannot be disputed. Since his writings have come to be better understood, it is increasingly recognised that, despite their occasional incoherence, they mirror a truth and a simplicity of the rarest quality. Not since St. Augustine of Hippo had any religious diarist bared his inmost soul as Patrick did in his writings. As D.A. Binchy, the most austerely critical of Patrician (i.e., of Patrick) scholars, put it, “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence of his ‘rustic’ Latin.”