As we move into March, our thoughts turn to spring and gardens and gardening. For those of us living in the north, we can break out the green in mid-March by celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, whether or not we’re Irish. The ubiquitous symbol of the holiday — the shamrock — appears on clothing, signs, flags, and has been the inspiration for the color and name of the milkshakes that appear at McDonald’s this time of year. It made me wonder, though: what is a shamrock?
Turns out that a shamrock is really just clover. Shamrock usually refers to either the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover, Irish: seamair bhuí) or Trifolium repens (white clover, Irish: seamair bhán). However, other three-leaved plants—such as Medicago lupulina, Trifolium pratense, and Oxalis acetosella—are sometimes called shamrocks or clovers. There is no consensus as to the species of clover that is considered the “true” shamrock. The humble little plant has quite the history in Ireland and is mentioned in literature as far back as 1571 as a plant eaten by the Irish. By the end of the sixteenth century the shamrock had become known to English writers as a plant particularly associated with the Irish, but only with a confused notion that the shamrock was a plant eaten by them.
The shamrock was chosen Ireland’s national emblem because of the legend that St. Patrick had used it to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is the idea that God is really three-in-one: The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. According to the legend, Patrick demonstrated the meaning of the Three-in-One by picking a shamrock from the grass growing at his feet and showing it to his listeners. He told them that just as the shamrock is one leaf with three parts, God is one entity with three Persons.
Another St. Patrick myth is the claim that he banished snakes from Ireland.
It’s true no snakes exist on the island today, but they never did. Ireland, after all, is surrounded by icy ocean waters—much too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Britain or anywhere else. But since snakes often represent evil in literature, “when Patrick drives the snakes out of Ireland, it is symbolically saying he drove the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age,” says classics professor Philip Freeman of Luther College in Iowa. The snakes myth and others—such as Patrick using three-leafed shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)—were likely spread by well-meaning monks centuries after St. Patrick’s death, Freeman said.
Until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a minor religious holiday. A priest would acknowledge the feast day, and families would celebrate with a big meal, but that was about it. “St. Patrick’s Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans,” Freeman said. Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots. Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, primarily for flourishing Irish immigrant communities.
Wearing Green, Dyeing River Green on St. Patrick’s Day
Timothy Meagher is an expert on Irish-American history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. In the 19th century, as St. Patrick’s Day parades were flourishing, wearing the color green became a show of commitment to Ireland, Meagher said. In 1962 the show of solidarity took a spectacular turn in Chicago when the city decided to dye a portion of the Chicago River green. The tradition started when parade organizer Steve Bailey, head of a plumbers’ union, noticed how a dye used to detect river pollution had stained a colleague’s overalls a brilliant green, according to greenchicagoriver.com. Why not, Bailey thought, turn the river green on St. Patrick’s Day? So began the tradition.
The environmental impact of the dye is minimal compared with sources of pollution such as bacteria from sewage-treatment plants, said Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River. Her group focuses instead on turning the Chicago River into a welcoming habitat full of fish, herons, turtles, and beavers. If the river becomes a wildlife haven, the thinking goes, Chicagoans won’t want to dye their river green.”Our hope is that, as the river continues to improve, ultimately people can get excited about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day different ways,” she said.
Today, the U.S. tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades, packed pubs, and green silliness has invaded Ireland with full force, noted Freeman, the classics professor. The country, he noted, figured out the popularity of St. Patrick’s Day was a good way to boost spring tourism.”Like anybody else,” he said, “they can take advantage of a good opportunity.”
“Like anybody else,” he said, “they can take advantage of a good opportunity.”