The story of Saint Patrick and the Shamrock

Shamrock, the emblem synonymous with Saint Patrick, has a very long and colourful tradition. It means many things to different people and can evoke messages relating to national pride, religion, history, celebration etc. In horticultural terms what is Shamrock and why do we wear it on St. Patrick’s Day?

Shamrock, Seamóg or Seamair Óg, the Irish for a young clover can be found growing wild throughout Ireland. It is worn on the feast day of St. Patrick, 17th March, to represent a link with Saint Patrick, the Bishop who spread the Christian message in Ireland.

It is said Saint Patrick used the three leaved Shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), to the pagan Irish during the 5th Century. The tradition of wearing Shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day can be traced back to the early 1700’s.

Irish research in the late 1980’s highlighted a number of plants that were traditionally considered to be Shamrock. The plant most widely considered to represent Shamrock was Trifolium Dubium (the lesser clover, Seamair Bhuí). Other plants that were used as Shamrock included, Trifolium Repens (White Clover, Seamair Bhán), Trifolium Pratense (Red Clover, Seamair Dhearg) and Oxalis Acetosella (Wood Sorrel, Seamóg).

Saint Patrick understood the Celtic people. Being a romanised Briton his real name was Magonus Saccatus Patricius. St. Patrick’s father had been a deacon and a decurion and his grandfather was a priest. The Romans had not yet fully pulled out of Britain, so Patrick grew up in a world whose mores and Christianity were provincial Roman, in an area which never lost its Celtic identity and customs.

St. Patrick had already become familiar with the Celtic festivals of the pre-Christian calendar before he was taken into Irish slavery. Even though Patrick’s family had been ordained they did not seem to have a passion for their work. St. Patrick himself was described as being rather indifferent to it as a youth. At the age of sixteen St. Patrick’s life changed. He was abducted and taken into Irish slavery. During his six years of enslavement he developed a life of prayer. Patrick even credits God for his escape from slavery.

Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary, whose main religious background was Roman. The story follows: Around the year 400, Patrick was born in Scotland. When Patrick was sixteen years old he was captured as a slave by the high king of Ireland. He was sold in Ireland and was taken to the North east of the country to herd sheep. During his six years of solitude he found a life of prayer and pledged his life to God. One night Patrick had a vision and he escaped from slavery and found his way home to his family.

Patrick studied religion for many years to become a priest and a missionary and at night he would hear in his dreams the call from the Irish. They called him to come and free them from paganism, “crying to thee, come hither and walk with us once more”. Finally Pope Celestine fulfilled Saint Patrick’s wish and ordained him as bishop to preach the word of God to the Celtic People. Saint Patrick then came back to Ireland to help teach the word of God. He helped to build churches and he baptised the pagans into Christianity, he also ordained bishops and priests but this did not come without difficulty.

As legend tells us of Saint Patrick lighting the Easter bonfire at Slane hill, it portraits some of the difficulty which Patrick had to face. On Easter night long ago it was forbidden to light any other fire in Ireland until after the lighting of the High King’s own bonfire. When the High King saw that Saint Patrick was lighting the fire he sent a warband to kill the Saint and quench the fire. But the fire could not be quenched and Saint Patrick and his followers passed the warriors in disguise of a herd of deer and they went onto defeat the royal druids at Tara in a contest of miracle working.

Many of the King’s court bowed down to Saint Patrick and were converted, even though the High King was not one of these he did grant the Saint free speech and the right to preach freely to the people of Ireland. Another one of the stories told to us about Saint Patrick is the one where he went to the royal center at sunrise and here he found the King’s two daughters, Eithne and Fedelm. The two girls questioned Patrick about God and they listened attentively to what he had to say, Patrick recited the Holy Creed to them then they wished to be baptised and Patrick did so. Upon receiving the sacrament the two girls died and were buried there.

Another tale about Saint Patrick tells us of him coming to a Neolithic tomb thought to be a “giant’s grave”. To satisfy his followers’ curiosity, Saint Patrick raised the giant from the dead and baptised him, and then returned him to his grave. As time past Saint Patrick and his followers spread the word of God around the country. They fasted and prayed at the top of what is now Croagh Patrick. Patrick made a promise to God on that day that the people of Ireland would keep their faith until the end of time and the day they did not keep their faith would be the day of doom. When Saint Patrick died, several communities joined together for his burial.

It is said that Saint Patrick’s body was wrapped in a shroud and placed on a cart, which was drawn by two unreined white Oxen, it is said that the beasts wandered to Downpatrick where, today people believe he is buried. A granite boulder marked with a cross marked his grave and it is simply inscribed: PATRIC.

It is also said that on the day Saint Patrick died that the sun did not set, but shone for twelve days and nights.