The Luck of the Irish

I mentioned some time ago that one of the things I have started doing since my dad died is to make my way through his substantial back catalogue of books. As many of them were written when I was very young, I only ever read a few.

In June last year, I was about a third of the way through his tenth novel, Carnaby and the Saboteurs, when, turning the page, I found a pressed four-leaf clover. I must admit, I was rather overcome at the sight of it, as it felt like my dad was sending me a message of good luck from beyond the grave.

The book was published in 1970, and so it made me wonder whether that little clover had been hiding between the pages for almost 40 years. I have no way of knowing, but that tiny, dried and flattened weed suddenly became very special to me.

Some people, myself included, are confused over the difference between a clover and a shamrock, and on Sunday 17th March, there will be many a trefoil displayed both in Ireland and further afield as the Celtic nation commemorates the death of their patron, St Patrick.

As my dad writes in his column from 17th March 1979, St Patrick, who is believed to have been born in around AD385, is credited with bringing Christianity to the country and is said to have worn the three-leaved plant as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The story goes that while preaching to pagans, he used the leaf to explain the concept of one almighty God, but with three entities within him – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. In the same way, the shamrock had three separate small leaves that joined together to make the whole.

He chose the perfect symbol, as the shamrock was already sacred to the pagans, and some cite it as the reason why he was so successful at converting them to Christianity.

But going back to my four-leaf clover, I decided to find out what the difference between a shamrock and a clover is, if there is one. Its name comes from the Gaelic ‘saemrog’ which means ‘little clover’ and having done some digging, I now know that a shamrock is definitely a member of the clover family. But as there are many species of clover, the burning question is which family does a true shamrock actually come from?

It seems that even experienced botanists differ over that question and they cannot agree which family of clovers the true shamrock derives. We do know that all shamrocks are clovers but not all clovers are shamrocks, and the general consensus is that a four-leaf version can never be a shamrock.

That might come as a surprise to some of our Irish-American friends, who have been known to show their pride in their Celtic ancestry by displaying a four-leaf clover on St Patrick’s Day, believing it to be a shamrock.

And there is even some confusion among the Irish in their homeland as, according to a 1988 survey by the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, there were four different species that people displayed as shamrocks, only three of which were actually clovers with the potential to be true shamrocks (white clover, red clover and hop clover). The fourth wasn’t a member of the clover family at all, but a lookalike called the black medick. This one can be more easily grown as a house plant, and therefore florists and shops stocked up on it so that eager consumers would buy them as a convenient decoration for St Patrick’s Day. I wonder if the purchasers realised that the verdant main feature of their patriotic display was actually an imposter?

I would be interested to hear from any Irish friends whether they have strong views, or a definitive answer, on what species of clover constitutes the ‘true’ shamrock.

In the meantime, I have made sure that my special four-leaf treasure has its own protective box so that it doesn’t come to any harm. It’s such a delicate thing that I’m terrified it might disintegrate if I handle it too much. And hopefully, with my dad’s blessing from above, it will bring me some good fortune in the future. I’m not asking for much, but something along the lines of a huge lottery win will do (Are you listening, Dad?).

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 15th March and the Gazette & Herald on 13th March  2019

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