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.

Shamrocks (Photo Attribution: Creative Commons)
Shamrocks (Photo Attribution: Creative Commons)

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.

A Good Irish Song

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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Comments 13 comments

Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

I love this Hub! Thanks for reminding us of the true origin and meaning of this lovely little clover.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States

Good hub.

Flightkeeper profile image

Flightkeeper 6 years ago from The East Coast Author

Hi Green, I knew there was a connection between the shamrock and St. Patrick but had no idea of the shamrock's importance during the Celtic period.

Hi Pam, Thank you for your comment and your visit.

cosette 6 years ago

hmm, i thought i knew all about shamrocks. fun hub! :)

Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Cool Flightkeeper, I just read this one to my daughter. Lots of fun, I didn't realize St. Patricks's Day was more of a somber event in Ireland, well, I'll have to drink their fair share of beer here!!!

rls8994 profile image

rls8994 6 years ago from Mississippi

This was very interesting! Great hub!

Flightkeeper profile image

Flightkeeper 6 years ago from The East Coast Author

Hi cosette, Ben, and rls8994. I'm glad you liked the hub. It was a lot more work than I thought but it was fun too. Thank you.

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 6 years ago

A great hub for those wanting to expand their general knowledge! I enjoyed reading it!

Flightkeeper profile image

Flightkeeper 6 years ago from The East Coast Author

Hi vox, shamrocks were so entwined in Irish history, I don't think I'll look at those cute little clovers the same way again. Thanks for your kind attention.

denise mohan profile image

denise mohan 6 years ago from California

ur hubbing is interesting and informative

Flightkeeper profile image

Flightkeeper 6 years ago from The East Coast Author

Thanks for the kinds words denise!

luckycharm4me profile image

luckycharm4me 6 years ago from San Francisco

Good stuff! thanks for sharing...

Flightkeeper profile image

Flightkeeper 6 years ago from The East Coast Author

Glad you liked luckcharm

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