Irish Shamrock

The shamrock is one of the national symbols of Ireland, along with Guinness, horse racers, the Celtic Cross and good food. The term is actually a catch-all name which can refer to any of a number of three leaved clovers that are common across the nation. However, its symbolic value goes much further than this and has been a powerful icon for many different groups and purposes across the years. Here are just a few of them.

Religious classroom

One of the alleged uses of the Shamrock has it that St Patrick used the plant when explaining the concept of the Trinity to the druid pagans in Ireland. Trying to explain how it was that in Christianity, God is both three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and at the same time one, he is said to have plucked a shamrock from the ground and pointed to its leaves. There are three leaves, distinct from each other, he is alleged to have said, and yet the Shamrock itself is one unified plant.

In reality, it is unlikely that this ever happened: the first recorded mention of the story takes place over 1000 years after the death of St Patrick, and there is no mention of this or anything similar in his writings.

Rebellious symbol

In the 19th Century, the Shamrock took on another, quite distinct meaning – it came to stand for a covert nationalist objection against English rule. Such was the depth of feeling and the politically charged atmosphere that for a time you could be hanged as a terrorist simply for daring to wear a Shamrock.

It also appeared on the insignia of the First Division of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac because of the large numbers of Irish soldiers in the division. In this instance, however, the Shamrock was painted red. It still survives in some small form on division insignia in the modern American army.

Current usage

Today, the symbol is used by many sports teams and by national Irish bodies such as the National Tourist Board and the Irish flag carrier, Aer Lingus. The Shamrock is also worn on the lapel in Ireland on St Patrick’s Day as a symbol of national identity and pride in the long history of this nation.