Clover or Shamrock

The Shamrock (Lesser Trefoil)

Standing outside the chapel in Ballinacree after mass on St Patrick’s Day was always a bit of a risk if you had not selected your bunch of shamrock carefully, you might be told “That’s a fine bunch of White Clover that you have on your lapel” forcing you to defend it as ” The finest specimen of shamrock growing in the parish”.

Much of what we know of the history of the shamrock plant is due to the work of an amateur botanist Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) and documented by Robert Llyod Praeger (1865-1953) in his book The Way That I Went.

Colgan spent his career working as a clerk in the Dublin Metropolitan Police court, but at the weekends he went “wild” heading into the foothills of the Dublin mountains with his botanical note books to record all the flora that he observed, which he then published in his book –The Flora of the County Dublin, published in 1904.

Around St Patrick’s Day 1892 he decided that it was time to establish the true identity of the plant that was worn by the people on St Patrick’s Day.

He contacted friends in different counties around the country and asked them to send to him a rooted sample of shamrock which he re planted and let grow to maturity.

The results were interesting.

  • Six counties selected the yellow flowered Lesser Trefoil (Trifolium dubium)
  • Three counties selected White Clover (Trifolium repens) and
  • Two other counties selected both

Not content with this result the following year he contacted people in every county and got back thirty five plants which he re-planted, nineteen were White Clover twelve were Lesser Trefoil and two were Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) and two Spotted Medick.(Medicago Arabica).

A previous study by James Britten had selected Lesser Trefoil by a small margin over White Clover.

It is interesting to note that the definition of the “true shamrock is a “clover with small neat leaves” that can be found on the morning of St Patrick’s Day. This definition will always be met by Lesser Trefoil or an underdeveloped White Clover, as early in the growing season it can be difficult to discern between both plants.

Colgan also researched its history and by reviewing earlier documented records of the use of this plant in Ireland.

  • In 1571 the shamrock appears for the first time in English literature in Edmond Campions- History of Ireland,  it was said to be used as a food of the Irish.
  • In 1595 Edmund Spenser wrote “The Irish feed on Sham-rokes when reduced to starvation.
  • In 1680 an Oxford physician attributes the strength and agility of the Irish to their shamrock diet.
  • In 1689 the Shamrock is firmly established as an emblem of Ireland and the Irish (James Farewell The Irish Hudibras)
  • In 1727 The Holy Trinity legend of the shamrock makes its first appearance in literature.
  • In 1772 the shamrock food is replaced by the potato (John Rutty – Natural History of the County Dublin)

Colgan sums up his research by saying “For almost a century after its first appearing in literature the Shamrock presents itself solely as a bread-stuff or a food herb of the Irish, probably so used only in times of famine or scarcity of corn.”

“The shamrock thus used as food was one or other or both of the Meadow clovers, White clover and Purple (Red) Clover”.

“There is no reason to believe that the shamrock was used as a food after 1682.

“The shamrock badge or emblem makes its first appearance in literature in 1681”

So next St Patrick’s Day get out early and select a “real shamrock” and proudly put it on your lapel.

So what about the strength and agility benefits? Do I hear you ask?

Eh!  … Noo, stick with the cabbage and lettuce and leave the clover for the cows.