How the Shamrock Became Part of St. Patrick's Day
On St. Patrick's Day, there will be many Irish and non-Irish that will be celebrating by drinking gallons of green beer and wearing a shamrock. It's one of the most popular symbols of Ireland. But how did it come to be part of St. Patrick's Day?
Originally, people called the Celts inhabited what is now modern day Ireland. In Celtic mythology, the number 3 was a mystical number. The number 3 symbolized the three gifts that the powerful goddess, Brigit, bestowed: art, healing, metal-smithing. The number can also be related to earlier Celtic mythology of the Great Mother, a lunar goddess and her three phases of the moon: new, half, and full. The number 3 also represented the three planes that make up the Celtic world; the Otherworld which gods and goddesses inhabit, the Mortal World which consists of humans, animals, plants and their material surroundings, the Celestial World where unseen energies operate, such as the natural forces of sun, moon, wind, and water.
The shamrock is a clover that normally has three leaves and grows abundantly in Ireland. So abundantly that it is an important food source for the livestock. The connection of this plant to the survival of the Celts cannot be underestimated and their appreciation of the role of shamrocks was incorporated into their mythology.
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The Celtic society developed a class of men called the Druids who acted not only as priests but as judges, counselors, teachers, writers, philosophers, and scientists. The Druids held the shamrock as a sacred plant for its medicinal qualities and its 3-leaf construction fit right in with its symbolic reference to the number three.
There were attempts to Christianize the Celts and it was only the man, who became known as St. Patrick, who was successful in converting whole tribes and kingdoms of Celts to Christianity. It is said that he was able to accomplish his mission by using the shamrock, already a sacred symbol in Celtic society, as a teaching tool to convey the concept of The Trinity in Christianity.
Given the importance of the shamrock in Ireland's history, one would think that it was the official emblem of Ireland, but it is not. The 12-string Celtic Harp is the official symbol of Ireland. The shamrock was used by the Irish Tourism Board as a way to popularize St. Patrick's Day and encourage more visitors to come to Ireland. Another little known fact is there is no such thing as a shamrock plant. The name shamrock comes from two Celtic words “seam-air” which means clover and “og” which means little. So literally, shamrock means little clover. And there are many varieties of clover and the Irish wear at least 4 different types with the one type, the white clover, being the most recognizable.
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The wearing of the shamrock on St. Patrick's Day, which is a religious holiday in Ireland, not a social occasion like it is America, didn't start until 1681. To honor the patron saint of Ireland with the shamrock on the lapel on his feast day was a no brainer. That custom of wearing the shamrock crossed the Atlantic with the Irish soldiers that were serving with the British during the Revolutionary War. It became even more established with the huge wave of Irish immigrants, driven by starvation because of the potato famine, coming to America.
Nowadays, on March 17th a lot of people in America wear the shamrock to convey their pride in their family's Irish heritage and for those who aren't in the least bit Irish to get invited to the parties! So as you watch or participate in a St. Patrick's Day parade or party, take a moment to marvel at how this little 3-leaf clover has a whole nation's history behind it.
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