What Is The Shamrock And How Did It Become Ireland’s National Symbol?

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Just like the Harp, the Shamrock has been used throughout Irish history. 

So there is no confusion the national symbol of Ireland is the Harp, not the shamrock. 

The Shamrock is the national flower of Ireland!

In fact, Ireland is the only country in the world with a musical instrument as its national symbol. 

By the end of this article, you will know everything you need to know about the Shamrock. 

Just where and how did the Shamrock become a symbol of Ireland?

You might be saying “Ah sure it was because of St Patrick himself that we have it as one of our symbols?!”

In part you would be correct he certainly did put it on the main stage. 

But it was the Celtic druids who started the shamrock on its path into Irish history!

The shamrock was originally associated with the Celtic goddess Ana or Anu with the three leaves representing her status as the maiden, mother and crone of Ireland.

If you have read my article on the top 10 Celtic symbols, you will know that Celts had this massive belief in the number 3. 

It was known as “the perfect number”. Just like with the Awen Celtic Symbol, this meaning of three was represented in so many ways. 

Including:

  • Some believe that they represent three divisions of the soul( mind, body and spirit)
  • Others believe it represents the three realms we inhabit(land, sea and sky)
  • Also underworld, middle world and the upper world
  • Love, Wisdom and Truth
  • Nature, knowledge and truth

It didn’t stop there, Celtic society was organised around the sacred three, with three classes, three colours, and three principal gods. 

Let’s just say they loved the number 3, haha.

So is it true that St Patrick used the three leaf clover to convert Ireland to Christianity? 

It doesn’t matter if he did or did not. This is because at the time it was reported as truth, Irish people had already chosen it as their symbol. 

It is possible that St Patrick knew the importance of the number 3 to the Celts and used the Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. I.e. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Father, Son And Holy Spirit that St Patrick used to demonstrate using the shamrock.

So when did it become an unofficial Irish symbol? 

It has been considered the unofficial national flower of Ireland for centuries. 

The first evidence of a link between St Patrick and the shamrock appears in 1675 on the St Patrick’s Coppers or Halfpennies.

These appear to show a figure of St Patrick preaching to a crowd while holding a shamrock, presumably to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

St. Patrick depicted with shamrock in detail of stained glass window in St. Benin's Church, Wicklow, Ireland
St. Patrick depicted with shamrock in detail of stained glass window in St. Benin’s Church, Wicklow, Ireland

By the 1770s it had undoubtedly been adopted as the emblem of the Irish Volunteers, a militia with republican sympathies.

This is where it came to be associated with rebellious, nationalistic views and led Queen Victoria’s government to forbid all Irish regiments within the British Army to wear shamrock in the 19th century.

These days, a member of the British Royal Family presents shamrock to the Irish Guards regiment, so it seems the dear shamrock plant has been rehabilitated! 

The Shamrock in Ireland in modern day

The shamrock is used in the emblems of many state organisations, both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Some of these are all-Ireland bodies, for example, Tourism Ireland.

As well as organisations specific to the Republic of Ireland (such as IDA Ireland) and Northern Ireland (such as Police Service of Northern Ireland).

The Irish Postal Service An Post regularly features the shamrock on its series of stamps.

Map of Ireland: the first Irish postage stamp featured the shamrock
The first Irish postage stamp featured the shamrock. First issued 6 December 1922

The airline Aer Lingus uses the emblem in its logos, and its air traffic control call sign is “SHAMROCK”.

Aer Lingus aircraft taking off with the Shamrock symbol on its tail

Germany once tried to use the shamrock in the early 1980s. However, it has been trademarked by the Government of Ireland.

In the early 1980s, Ireland defended its right to use the shamrock as its national symbol in a German trademark case, which included high-level representation from Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

Having lost initially, Ireland won on appeal to the German Supreme Court in 1985.

 

 

St Patrick's day souvinir 1912
Postcard St Patricks Day Souvenir 1912

Nowadays the word Shamrock appears in thousands of pubs, restaurants, BnB’s and even in McDonald’s back in the 1970s with the well known “Shamrock Shake.”

Shamrock Shake
A shamrock shake!

The difference between a shamrock and a four-leaf clover

You may have heard of the “Luck Of The Irish“, and one should not mistakenly call a shamrock a four leaf clover. 

Did you know that the chances of finding a four-leaf clover in a field are about one in 10,000?  

The three leaves of a shamrock are also said to stand for faith, hope and love(again with the symbol of threes).

A fourth leaf is where we get the luck from.

The four-leafed clover, or “lucky clover”, is an uncommon variation of the three-leafed clover, and widely considered to be a symbol of good luck.

Shamrock, or “seamrag” in Gaelic, means “little clover” which is so fitting because shamrocks and four-leaf clovers belong to the white clover plant family. 

Shamrock = 3 leaves. Four leaf clover = 4 leaves. 

Below is a lovely St Patrick’s day toast you can use next March: 

St. Patrick’s Day Toasts:

Here’s to a long life and a merry one.

A quick death and an easy one.

A pretty girl and an honest one.

A cold beer and another one.

May your wishes come true, and your truth be wise.

Happy St Patricks Day Leprechauns, castles, good luck and laughter. Lullabies, dreams and love ever after.

A thousand welcomes when anyone comes… That’s the Irish for You!

May your blessings outnumber The shamrocks that grow, And may trouble avoid you Wherever you go.

May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. 

Closing notes on the Shamrock

Shamrock closing notes

The Shamrock is certainly an iconic piece of Irish history, and I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit more on the Shamrock. 

Have you ever found a four leaf clover? Comment below. 

If you find a four-leaf clover, you can take a cutting from its plant and put it in a cup of water until it grows roots.  Plant it in your yard to start your own lucky patch.

What Is The Shamrock And How Did It Become Ireland's National Symbol

It is said that the true plant can be grown only in Ireland or in Irish soil. This myth owes more to marketing wizardry than to any horticultural truth. Although we are not going to argue with it 😉 

Thanks for stopping by and be sure to get your weekly dose of Irish straight to your inbox right here! 

If you would like to learn more about Irish Celtic symbols, read this post.

Thanks,

Stephen

Sources: Wikipedia, Wired 

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2 thoughts on “What Is The Shamrock And How Did It Become Ireland’s National Symbol?”

  1. I’ve been looking for a four leaf clover all my life. I grow a clover as a plant in my lounge and one in bathroom and 2 years ago both gave me a four leaf clover. I’m saving money and planning to go too Ireland in October can’t wait

  2. I know a spot in Grange con Co wicklow.. Where the clover grows.. Always lucky to pick some for St Patrick’s day. 🍀🍀🍀🍀 xx

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