FIRSTLY, we have the Irish question. No, not that one, this one: what is shamrock and what is clover? The sentimental claim of the Emerald Isle to the exclusivity of shamrock was never better expressed than in the 1914 song A Little Bit of Heaven by American songwriter J. Keirn Brennan, which features the lines:
So they sprinkled it with stardust,
Just to make the shamrocks grow,
’Tis the only place you’ll find them,
No matter where you go.
Pure blarney. Shamrock and clover are botanically the same and there are 245 recognised species worldwide. To my mind, if there’s a collective noun for clover, it’s a complexity.
Shamrock derives from seamair, from the old Irish semar—meaning clover—and og, meaning small or young. The first published reference to it in English can be found in John Gerard’s Herball of 1597, which noted that ‘meadow trefoils are called Shamrockes’. Irish botanist Charles Nelson has bluntly summed up the situation thus: ‘Shamrock exists only on St Patrick’s Day. Every other day of the year, it’s known simply as young clover.’
Yet who would wish to deny the Irish their national plant? For legend has it that St Patrick—the 5th-century Romano-British missionary, who weaned the land away from Celtic polytheism—used clover’s three-leaf configuration to illustrate the Christian trinity, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Usefully, the number three was already significant in the pagan orthodoxy and in the triumvirate of senior Greek and Roman goddesses. Equally as potent, if not more so, was the number four—the seasons, the ancient elements and the points of the compass— with a rare four-leaf clover proclaiming good fortune, as well as playing a part in druid rituals. For early Christians, it represented the holy cross and allowed the perception of evil. They believed Eve carried a four-leafed clover with her when she was thrown out of Eden to remind her of paradise lost.
In medieval times, a single woman who put one in her shoe would marry the first wealthy and eligible man she met. The same charm pinned over her door would ensnare the first unmarried man to pass through. Strewn in the path of a rural bride, clover gave her protection and the promise of a successful marriage. It provided fodder and silage, enriched poor soil and banished snakes.
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