Long before "going green" became a marketing mantra, we Irish folk have been participating in the "wearin’ of the green” every March 17th. But like a lot of things which once held a deeper meaning, the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has lately gotten rather silly. I’d like to think it’s the wannabe Irish who’ve messed this up. Surely no true son or daughter of Erin—even those several generations removed—would disgrace the Emerald Isle by eating green spaghetti or swilling beer the color of bile.
However, for me the final insult occurred the other day when I saw a merchandise display of St. Paddy's Day buttons, banners, and green plastic derby hats—all sporting four-leafed shamrocks!
Enough is enough! No wonder banshees wail!
The shamrock is the national emblem of Ireland. It is a trifoliate plant, which means it has three leaves—not four, as some botanically illiterate hack artists apparently envision. As a symbol the shamrock is revered because of a British bishop named Patrick, who came to Ireland early in the Fourth Century. When it comes to action-packed slam-bang exploits, St. Patrick would give today’s superheroes a run for their money.
The adventurous St. Patrick is credited with, among other things, converting the Irish to Christianity—in the process overcoming the influence of the Druids and driving all snakes into the sea. Because it had three leaves, St. Patrick used the shamrock during his teachings to illustrate the Doctrine of the Trinity.
The shamrock gets its name from the Irish word “seamrog” or trefoil, which again translates into “three-leaved plant.” Though there is some question as to the original true shamrock, most candidates mentioned are either clovers or cloverlike plants. The vote is about equally divided among woodsorrel, common white clover, black medic, and a trailing hopclover. All these plants, as well as the occasionally considered red clover, are similar in appearance.
When I was a kid, I remember stores in my neighborhood often sold little packets of imported shamrocks just prior to St. Patricks’s Day. No offspring of an Irishman would dare go to school or work on the blessed day lacking this traditional adornment. I could have easily picked a sprig of sorrel from my mother’s flower bed. Her plantings grew along the south side of the house, against the warm, protected lee of the foundation. There was almost always a clump of sorrel available—and I’d have been reasonably authentic in my selection. Instead, I took a few coins—earned by collecting pop bottles from roadside ditches and cashing them in at two cents apiece—down to the local variety store and shelled out for the genuine article, whatever it was. This shamrock was proudly affixed to my coat or sweater, and I could feel my kinship stretching back through misty time to a land I’d never seen but loved dearly nonetheless.
Alas, I haven’t seen imported shamrocks offered for sale in years. Today, if I can't find a handy patch of sorrel, I may indeed have to resort to some lifeless imitation shamrock. In this techno-homogenized era, the genuine symbolic gesture is becoming harder to accomplish with each passing decade.
So, just for today, we Irish will allow the rest of you to pretend your veins contain a wee drop of Celtic blood. You can don your funny green hats, drink your green beer, even surprise your mate with a pair of dancing-leprechaun undershorts. But I beg you to draw the line somewhere this side of botanical authenticity…please don’t go wearing any four-leaf shamrocks.