Bitter truth about shamrock... and all that Paddywhackery

Fiann Ó Nualláin looks at the role of shamrock as part of a spring cleansing ritual in our healing tradition

Bitter truth about shamrock... and all that Paddywhackery

Fiann Ó Nualláin looks at the role of shamrock as part of a spring cleansing ritual in our healing tradition

I am no fan of St Patrick and less a fan of St Patrick’s Day. While I respect the teachings of Christ, I struggle to find those lessons applied within the corporate christianity of some institutions on this island. More especially when you look at the destruction of our Irish cultural heritage over many centuries; the obliteration of our herbal and healing traditions, as well as souperism and the loss of our true surnames and yes — all the truth that Mary McAleese has spoken this week. No intention to offend, but today, I have to speak my truth.

And don’t get me started on people identifying as ‘Paddys’ and playing to the worst stereotype of drink-swilling idiots in collusion with multi-national breweries that have subverted a nation of brilliance to paddywhackery.

It’s like the reverse of the evolution of man — from athletic Cúchulainn and fierce Maeve down through cap-doffing peasants, power-hungry parish priests, well-heeled landlords to lamentable and loutish leprechauns, who, when sober are only interested in genuflecting to celebrity and commerce. If there’s a reason the Banshee cries it’s because she has seen it coming. Yes ‘Happy St Patrick’s Day everyone.

Meanwhile over in the gardening column…..Okay, so today is traditionally the first potato-planting day of the year and in honour of the patron saint, lots of agricultural and gardening tasks got moved to this date or were ‘not to happen’ until this day passed — with the blessing of the man required, etc.

In truth, however, most of the planting out and dividing, the cutting and heeling-in; the making of the buttermilk and taking of spring tonics etc, might best be kept until after the vernal/spring equinox which is usually either March 20 or 21, the time when the seasonal tilt ratio of the earth to the sun means temperatures more appropriate to growth occur. Well, some years at least...

Bitter herb

The taking of bitters is an interesting one, as long before we wore the shamrock as a sign of religious affiliation, it was better known as a spring bitter herb to be chewed for a bit of a kick up the backside and a mover of the winter stodginess into the action that the spring workload demanded.

Some regions took it in February, when the lambing season began in earnest, others in March with crop planting on the go, and some as late as April – lazy sod-turners. Whenever the chew happened, the shamrock’s bitter taste triggered a lymphatic and liver tone up.

It sounds like magical thinking but there is science to it; the simple act of tasting ‘bitterness’ upon your tongue triggers activity in the liver and gallbladder to create bile and digestive enzymes. The reaction is because most poisonous plants are bitter and because the brain thinks it has ingested a poison and flicks the switch on a self-detox.

The bile stimulates the digestion of fats, and the enzymes work on other waste accumulations, so apart from eradicating a potential threat, it actually tones the engine up too.

Some people drank a tonic of birch sap and bitter herbs, others those just handiest to them — be that a wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

or a shamrock (from seamróg meaning ‘young plant’ or “little clover”) — or a pinch of white clover (Trifolium repens), red clover (Trifolium pratense) or even suckling clover (Trifolium dubium).

The tonics later developed under the monks into tinctures containing a range of herbs that when absorbed into the bloodstream activated more enzymes and faster circulation, perspiration or metabolism to speed the clearing process. And then later, the tinctures turned into coin-earning alcoholic aperitifs that got you tipsy enough to forget about the gout etc.

That bitter need is equally relevant today after our long winter and after the Beast from the East/Storm Emma unceremoniously lurched us back into winter, just as we yearned for spring.

The fact is that over the course of winter, we tend to accumulate excess waste and toxins in our bodies — through a combination of decreased activities and increased comfort food.

And the impact of that can be most often felt in the early weeks of spring when the incentive of brighter days and active brain chemistry is crashed by a sluggish metabolism and low physical energy. Basically our metabolism has been in hibernation mode — and while the leaves are unfurling outside, we may need to get going too.

So while traditionally this was done with seasonal bitter tonics, increasingly today it is tackled with detox diets and juicing regimes. All contributing to stimulating the liver, the lymph system, our circulatory system and its connected ‘sweat potential’ and ‘urination frequency’ — the main ways we most efficiently remove waste and toxins and begin to fire on all cylinders again.

Beyond the shamrock, there is always the option of a dandelion salad or burdock root coffee to get you going, or a nip down to the local health shop for some milk thistle tincture for your morning orange juice.

Many people opt for a detox tea at this time of the year and they are an easy way to ingest herbal

“alteratives” or blood purifiers that boost the whole system, while also encouraging a more efficient digestive system and better release of energy.

There are many on the market, from artichoke to a combination blend of seven or more herbs.

But my favourite are the following:

Yarrow Tea:

Yarrow is nice to drink, a bit astringent, but that’s just the bitter principles that make it a bitter tonic. It is an excellent diaphoretic and so promotes sweating and toxin clearance via the sweat glands.

It stimulates blood flow to the skin and traditionally has been used to resolve eruptive skin infections. Often a detox brings out pimples as the toxins leave via the pores. Yarrow will speed that, on-and-gone, effect.

Cornsilk Tea

This is a diuretic — it promotes an efficient urinary tract and more urination and in doing so assists in the flushing out of toxins from the body.

Used in Aztec culture to rejuvenate ailing kidneys and liver, it also has traditional uses in relieving inflammation. One for the gout and arthritis sufferers.

Rose Hip Tea:

Rosehip tea contains tiliroside — a phytochemical that accelerates fat metabolism and also improves glucose clearance — it often appears in proprietary slimming teas because it also inhibits fat accumulation.

It has a slight laxative and diuretic action, and so, helps waste elimination. So maybe best after work. Certainly until after the parade has passed by.

Now where did I leave that rugger jersey and me fake beard, sure I’m only dying for a Guinness and an olé olé olé.

Slán agus beannacht… And until next time, garden like you mean it, and live like you deserve it.


Exhibition on the Hartland Family Bishopstown Library, Wilton Shopping Centre, Cork, until March 29. The Hartlands were a multi-generational family of Nurserymen, gardeners and florists in Mallow and Cork City. They ran this family business from the late 1700s to the 1930s. This exhibition is of interest to anybody interested in flowers or gardening.

The second Irish Specialist Nursery Association Plant Fair will take place at Farmleigh, Phoenix Park on Easter Sunday and Easter Monda. It will be held in conjunction with the Farmers Market and runs from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free.

Conna and District Flower and Garden Club will hold a teaching demonstration with

Sandra Jackson AOIFA in the hall, Conna, on Wednesday, March 21 at 8pm.

Coachford Flower and Garden Club is hosting an evening of floral arranging with

Catherine of ‘Enchanted Flowers’ Macroom in Coachford National School on Wednesday, March 21 at 8 pm. New members are very welcome.

Blarney & District Garden & Flower Club presents an introduction to growing cut flowers by Sarah Evans of The Secret Garden, Newmarket, on Thursday, March 22 at 8pm in the Community Hall, Whitechurch. All welcome, refreshments served.

Sunday’s Well Flower & Garden Club will hold A Garden Talk with DJ Murphy on Wednesday, March 21, in Blarney St Community Centre, Strawberry Hill. All welcome. Visitors €5.

The Owenabue Gardening and Flower Club, Carrigaline will hold its annual Spring Show on Monday, March 26 at 8pm in the C of I School Hall. Easter flower arrangements will be demonstrated by Chriss Bailey. Visitors are always welcome. Enquiries to 086 3222615

Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society present Paul Cumbleton next Thursday, March 22. The former head of the Alpine Department at RHS Wisley and a writer for AGS Journal; The RHS Garden and The Plantsman, will lecture on “A Growing Addiction: Bulbs from the Winter Rainfall area of South Africa”, at 8pm at Lavanagh House, Ballintemple. All welcome.

Mallow Flower & Garden Club will hold a Gardening Talk presented by Sheila Crean of Atkins Gardening World on “Summer Bulbs” at the Mercy Centre Mallow on Tuesday, March 20 at 8pm. Non Members Welcome.

Cork flower club will hold a garden talk by Alan Whitbourne on Tuesday, March 20 in Canon Packham Hall Douglas at 8pm. Visitors welcome

Muintir na Tire, Cork County Council Environment and Heritage Sections and Griffin’s Garden Centre have come together to organise this year’s Muintir na Tire Cork School Garden Competition for primary schools across the Cork county.The overall theme is Climate Change, and the categories include Edible Gardens, Biodiversity/Wildlife Garden, Up-Cycling, Art and Colour Garden, Mixed Garden, Small Garden, Best New Garden, Creative Ireland Innovation and Creativity, Use of Irish in Gardening and the overall best, Pride of County Cork Garden. Log on now to to register.

The RHSI has announced that the ‘Open Garden Fest’, is being relaunched again this year. All those garden owners who opened their gardens and the visitors who supported them, will recall very enjoyable and interesting garden visits. The RHSI is inviting as many members as possible to open their gardens during 2018 for members, friends and the public, in return for a small donation. Opening your garden can be a rewarding and sociable experience and it does not have to be perfect. You might be surprised and delighted at the number of visitors who want to share your love of gardening, gain valuable inspiration for their own gardens and benefit by sharing gardening knowledge and ideas. You might like to link up with another member in your area whose garden could open the same day, thus helping each other. Gardens that contain unusual plants or even those you have propagated yourself will make your Open Garden a very worthwhile place to show off your skills while benefitting a very worthwhile cause. We suggest a donation of €5 per person. A Plant Sale and/or the serving of refreshments is optional. For information, please call Susan Loughnane 087 688 0440/email or Margaret Quinn 087 286 5453 / email

Pruning Workshop at Russborough: Pruning of Top Fruit by David Howell, Saturday March 24 (10am-12-30pm): A practical course looking at Pruning tools; Cleaning and sharpening tools; Going around the walled garden demonstrating winter pruning; formal early pruning of young trees; restorative pruning of old trees; winter pruning of espalier trees other techniques used in orchards, like notching. Cost €25 and places are limited to 15 maximum so please book by calling the RHSI office. Tel: 01 4937 154

Garden Design Workshop at Russborough: by Philip Hollwey, Saturday, April 14, (10.30am – 3.30pm) An introduction to designing your outdoor space featuring advice and practical demonstration of how to: Measure your garden; sketch up ideas; choose materials and plants. We will work on a ‘mock up’ garden space within the walled garden at Russborough, but feel free to bring along photos and dimensions of your own garden.

Cost €35 and places are limited to 15 maximum, so please book by calling the RHSI office on 01 4937 154

Fiann’s tips for the weekend

Watch out for dem snakes....and while you are at it — slugs and snails. They are emerging — a beer trap or two will be timely.

Make a note to get next week’s article, it will explain how to really tackle slugs and snails

Apply mulches, especially to fruiting bushes and trees.

Apply top dressing to containerised fruit.

Bare root fruit trees (around since autumn) are not available (or in good condition,) after this month, so buy and plant now.

March is traditionally associated with planting potatoes and it is the month for crowns and tubers — so you could also start a corner of Jerusalem artichokes and establish an asparagus bed from crowns.

Early pea and bean seed can be popped-in direct at the bottom of canes or wigwams, but they can also be started in a section of gutter in the greenhouse/poly tunnel, windowsill or porch and later slipped into a prepared shallow trench in their final garden location.

There is still time to get your March questions into

Fiann’s tips for the weekend

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up