Eating and drinking the shamrock
An Irishman’s Diary on Ireland’s emblem
The first reference to the shamrock in English was by an Elizabethan writer, Edmund Campion, who considered it a foodstuff. In 1571, he wrote that “the Irish feed on shamrotes, water cress, other herbes, oatmele and butter”. Photograph: David Sleator
Wherever green is worn! With a phrase, in his poem Easter 1916, William Butler Yeats evoked the bond, forged by a humble meadow plant, that unites our people at home and abroad and our more distant cousins, the Irish who have never seen Ireland.
Its origin, the story that St Patrick used the trefoil clover as a theological aid, sounds like a medieval fable and perhaps it is. But it first appeared in writing in a treatise on Irish plants by an English botanist.
In 1727, Caleb Threlkeld wrote that “by this three leaved grass, St Patrick set forth emblematically, the mystery of the Holy Trinity”.
Seventy years later, an embroidered version turned up in, of all places, a book titled Music and Relicks of the Welsh Bards, when Edward Jones wrote that the Hibernians of Wicklow found the saint’s teaching incredible and were about to stone him.
However, when he picked up a trefoil and asked if it wasn’t feasible for the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as for the three leaves on the plant, to grow upon a single stem, they were convinced and agreed to be baptised.
Shamrock comes from the Irish, seamair-óg, ie young clover, and surveys conducted by Nathaniel Colgan in 1893 and Charles Nelson, the distinguished taxonomist at the National Botanical Gardens, in 1988, both found that the yellow or lesser clover, trifolium dubium, and the white clover, trifolium repens, which would be green in spring, were the favoured contenders for the title.
The first reference to the shamrock in English was by an Elizabethan writer, Edmund Campion, who considered it a foodstuff.
In 1571, in his Historie of Ireland, he wrote that “the Irish feed on shamrotes, water cress, other herbes, oatmele and butter”.
In that year, also, a Flemish botanist, Matthias L’Obel, wrote, in Latin, that “the Irish, when maddened with hunger, ground the purple or white meadow trefoil for their cakes”.
In 1586, Richard Stanihurst wrote in his Plaine and Perfect Description of Ireland that “the Irish feed on water cresses which they term shamrocks, roots and other herbs”.
The identification of water cress (biolar, in Irish) with shamrocks is puzzling and may simply be a mistake.
In his View of the Present State of Ireland, written in 1595, the poet, Edmund Spenser, describes the Irish rebels in Munster after the Desmond wars as reduced to such wretchedness that “if they founde a plotte of water cresses or sham-rokes, there they flocked, as to a feast”.
In 1599, Fynes Morison, the secretary to the Lord Deputy, Lord Mountjoy, during the war between the crown and the Ulster Chieftains, recorded that the Irish “willingly eat the herbe, shamrock, (it) being of sharp taste which, as they run and are chased to and fro, they snatch like beasts out of the ditches”. As clover doesn’t usually grow in ditches, this is improbable. He may have meant the wood sorrel, which is seamsóg in Irish.
A generation later, in 1630, a poet, John Taylor, wrote about Hibernian mercenaries “feasting on shamerages stew’d in usquebach”.
Fifty year further on, an English traveller, Thomas Dineley, reported another use for the plant when he wrote in his journal that the “vulgar Irish eat shamroges, three leaved grass, to cause (as they say) a sweet breath”.
And in 1735, a Cork botanist, Johannes Keogh, claimed that the white-flowered trefoil was “beneficial for phlegmons and inflammations”.
Threlkeld was the first person to mention “drowning the shamrock” when he recorded that “the Irish when they wet the shamrock, they often commit excess in liquor, which is not a right keeping of a day to the Lord, error leading to debauchery”.
The ambivalent attitude to the custom is neatly set out in the diaries of the Kerry teacher Humphrey O’Sullivan, who taught in Callan, Co Kilkenny, in the 1820s and 1830s.
In 1829, he was one of a jolly crowd that drank St Patrick’s Pot in the house of the parish priest with a choice of sherry, port wine, whiskey and punch. But, in 1830, he noted that the feast was a blessed day because he hadn’t seen a single man, woman or boy drunk, thanks to God and a sermon by another priest. The expression is no longer in fashion but the practice continues and still often, alas, to excess.
Whatever about that, the shamrock, whether it is worn on hats, dresses or lapels or printed as a design on merchandise, remains the unchallenged emblem of Ireland and the Irish.