Derived from the Irish word seamróg, meaning ‘little clover,’ shamrock refers to a plant with 3 leaves rather than the clover’s four. It was coined by Edmund Campion, an English scholar in 1571 when he wrote of the ‘wild Irish’ people eating the plant. In fact, the Irish at that time included wood-sorrel as a herb in their diet, which looked quite similar to clover.
It is popularly believed that St. Patrick once used the clover in his preaching to symbolize the Christian Holy Trinity, although the first written account of this does not appear until Caleb Threlkeld wrote about it in 1726.
The clover was a sacred plant of the Irish Druids, due to the cluster of its three heart-shaped leaves. Three was a sacred number in Irish mythology, perhaps inspiring St. Patrick to ‘Christianize’ it in his teachings.
The Metrical Dindshenchas, a collection of ancient poems dating back to the 11th century, known as ‘the lore of places’, indicates that the shamrock was important long before the arrival of St. Patrick.
Teltown (in Irish Tailten, named for Tailltiu who was Lugh Lámhfhada’s foster mother) was described as a plane covered in blossoming clover. Brigid founded her religious order in Co. Kildare (in Irish Cill Darra, meaning ‘church of the oak’) in a blossom-covered clover field. These beautiful meadows were called St. Brigid’s Pastures, ‘in which no plow is ever suffered to turn a furrow.’ It was said that, although cattle were allowed to graze there from morning till night, the next day the clover remained as luxuriant as ever.
In later times it became traditional for Irish men to wear the shamrock in their hats on St. Patrick’s Day.
After mass, they would visit the local drinking establishment to ‘drown the shamrock’ in ‘St. Patrick’s Pot.’ This involved placing their shamrock in the last beverage of the day, draining the glass, then picking out the shamrock and tossing it over their left shoulder.
During the 18th century, the shamrock became popular as a national emblem worn by members of the Irish Volunteers, local warbands raised to defend Ireland against the threat of Spanish and French invasion.
Now, every year on St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish Taoiseach presents a Waterford crystal bowl featuring a shamrock design containing shamrocks to the US President in the White House.