The Many Meanings Behind the Shamrock

Over the centuries, the humble shamrock plant has come to symbolise Ireland and all things Irish. The shamrock has become a key emblem associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, the custom of wearing shamrock on the day is still observed and the plant is a common sight during the celebrations.
In this blog, we look into the many meanings of this key icon of Irish national identity.

What is a Shamrock?

The shamrock and the clover plants are often confused. Shamrocks are in fact a species of the clover plant. The word shamrock is derived from the Irish shamróg which in turn comes from seamair óg and this translates into English as: “young clover.”

Shamrock Sprig Scarf available on Blarney
Shamrock Sprig Scarf available on Blarney

An Emblem of St. Patrick

An icon of Saint Patrick holding the shamrock
An icon of Saint Patrick holding the shamrock

The shamrock is ingrained in Irish culture due to its association with St. Patrick – the patron saint of Ireland. Legends recount how St. Patrick used the three petals of the shamrock to teach the Trinity to Celtic pagans. This is why pictures of Saint Patrick depict him driving the snakes out of Ireland with a cross in one hand and a sprig of shamrocks in the other.

However, the number three was believed to have magical properties long before the Saint’s arrival and it is a recurring theme throughout Celtic folklore (na seanchaí). Consequently, the three petals of the shamrock were considered to be imbued with bring good luck.

 

ASymbol of Ireland

The shamrock has been used as a national symbol since the 18th century due to its association with Ireland’s patron saint – St. Patrick. It was around this time that the shamrock began to change from a symbol purely associated with St. Patrick to an Irish national symbol when it became an emblem for revolutionary nationalist groups.

In modern times however, the shamrock has taken on a far less militant meaning. It is now used by many state bodies to represent Ireland and Irish culture abroad. In fact, the symbol of the shamrock is protected by law as a trademark and its use is restricted to goods or services of Irish origin.

Ambassador Thomas Kiernan of Ireland presents a bowl of Irish shamrock to President John F Kennedy in 1961.
Ambassador Thomas Kiernan of Ireland presents a bowl of Irish shamrock to President John F Kennedy in 1961.

It has also become tradition for the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) to gift a bowl of shamrocks in a special Waterford Crystal bowl featuring a shamrock design to the President of the United States in the White House every St. Patrick’s Day. This practice began in 1952 when then Irish ambassador to Washington John Hearne sent a box of it to US president Harry S Truman.

Header Image from Pixabay