By Jan White
On March 17, Irish and non-Irish folks across the county will don green clothing, drink green beer or Jameson, and eat soda bread, colcannon, and champ and black pudding. And it wouldn’t be a St. Patrick’s Day celebration without four-leaf-clovers or folks wearing red beards and green top hats.
But did you ever wonder how shamrocks and Leprechauns became two of the most iconic symbols during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations?
‘Wearin’ of the green’
“First of all, it’s a national emblem,” says Mike Cronin, academic director of Boston College’s program in Dublin, about the unassuming three-leaf clover that has been the unofficial national symbol of Ireland for centuries. It began with a legend that the patron Saint of Ireland used the shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity when trying to convert the Irish Catholics to Protestantism. In the 1680s, an English traveler to Ireland reported that in honor of the anniversary of St. Patrick’s death on March 17, “many would wear crosses in their hats, while the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, three-leav’d grass.”
Some, though, see the shamrock as a reminder of a dark time in Irish history when an infestation destroyed the country’s potato crops. At the time, nearly half of Ireland’s population relied almost exclusively on potatoes as their food source. While many Irish fled to other countries to survive, over a million Irish perished during the famine, and according to Irish folk history, many died with their mouths green from eating grass and clover.
For most Irish Americans, however, shamrocks are simply a reminder of their heritage. Immigrants who had settled in Boston and New York, where there were no shamrocks, had to find alternatives to use on St. Patrick’s Day. They substituted wearing green clothing or green paper cutouts of shamrocks to display their Irish pride.
But it was greeting card icon, Hallmark, that forged the shamrock’s overwhelming popularity. In the 1920s, when designing a card for St. Patrick’s Day, the company’s creative minds agreed that the three-leafed clover would perfectly represent their holiday cards. The shamrock caught on worldwide. Here are five fun facts you might find interesting about shamrocks:
• The four-leaf clover is a rare version of the typical shamrock. For every ‘lucky’ four-leaf clover, there are over ten thousand of the three-leaf varieties.
• Shamrocks are sometimes included in the bouquet of an Irish bride or boutonniere of the groom for good luck.
• According to Irish legend, the ancient Druids believed that carrying a three-leaf clover helped them see evil spirits so they could escape them. They also used clovers to heal the sick.
• In the middle ages, children believed that finding a four-leaf clover allowed them to see fairies. It was a popular pastime for youngsters to go out into the fields looking for rare clovers, hoping they might find one and, in turn, discover where the fairies lived.
• In the early 18th century, the shamrock symbolized Ireland and, by association, Irish nationalism. British authorities wanted to squash the rebellion, so they banned people from wearing green or shamrocks to represent their Irish identity, threatening death to those who disobeyed.
Legend of the ‘little people’
According to Irish folklore, the leprechaun is a part of the faerie family. He’s often described as a tiny old man around two feet tall, wearing a leather apron and a green top hat worn jauntily on his head. His name, “leath bhrogan,” means shoemaker in Irish, and apparently, this occupation is how he earns his gold pot.
In Irish culture, leprechauns and other faerie folk were (and maybe still are) widely accepted as real beings. 18th-century poet William Allingham wrote about the ‘Fairy Shoemaker’ – “Lay your ear close to the hill. Do you not catch the tiny clamour, busy click of an elfin hammer, voice of the Lepracaun singing shrill as he merrily plies his trade?” And according to the lore, one might even hear the faint sound of Irish music accompanying the leprechauns as they dance a little jig.
Leprechauns had a reputation for being tricksters, although legend said that if you catch him, he must hand over his pot of gold. Other lore claims that if you are fortunate enough to catch a leprechaun, he will barter for his freedom by granting you three wishes. Some historians believe that explains the phrase ‘luck of the Irish.’
As with many tales of lore, however, this one presents a morality narrative that warns against the folly of trying to get rich quick or take what’s not rightfully yours. Most stories about those lucky enough to catch one of the tiny men usually end with the captors being duped into losing the pot of gold or making wishes that go awry.
So this St. Patrick’s Day, proudly display your green shamrock, wear your leprechaun hat, and always remember that on March 17, “everyone gets to be Irish.”