The facts about shamrock

FOR all the ballyhoo surrounding St Patrick’s Day, the tradition of sporting a sprig of shamrock has faded in recent years, despite the fact that it can be bought packaged in many shops. Even the use of a little lapel sachet that keeps the plant fresh throughout the day is making little difference to the wearing of it.

Dare we say it, exiles lining the Fifth Avenue parade route, in New York, and other cities around the world today, are probably more avid wearers of the shamrock that has become accepted, in most places, as the emblem of Ireland. But it is not our official emblem — that falls to the harp — just one of the many myths surrounding the shamrock.

As children, we were sent out to pick fresh shamrock off the ditches on the morning of St Patrick’s Day for our elders to wear with pride. But one thing about wild shamrock was that it withered quickly: it would be dangling limp from a lapel by lunch-time and would be an even more pitiful sight by evening — definitely only fit for drowning.

All of which contrasts markedly with the bowl of shamrock handed over in the White House. That, of course, is commercially grown and it is supposed to remain fresh for up to 30 days! By the way, the St Patrick’s Day White House tradition started in 1952 when President Harry Truman was in the oval office. Nowadays, it’s seen as a diplomatic exercise that gives our taoiseach a rare opportunity to have a word in the ear of the top man in America.

The three-leaved plant is called shamrock on just one day of the year; it is clover every other day. The Irish name for shamrock, seamair óg, means young clover; shamrock is clover in its winter coat.

If you believe some songs and poems, the shamrock only grows in Ireland. Not true. It is found in many countries. Another myth is that the plant never flowers.

According to legend, St Patrick is also said to have spread the faith by using a sprig of the trefoil to outline the mystery of the Trinity. Scholars, however, believe it is almost certain that Patrick never used shamrock and there is no mention of the plant in his writings.

As for ‘’drowning the shamrock’’, it doesn’t mean getting plastered drunk on the national feast day. There’s a more literal meaning to the common term. Long ago, after the wearing the shamrock on St Patrick’s Day, it was removed and put into a glass of alcohol. After the toast, the shamrock was removed from the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder.

Happy St Patrick’s Day.


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