The Shamrock, the Shillelagh and the Leprechaun: Symbols of Irishness for #StPatricks Day
Updated: Mar 19
When you think of Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, what’s the first emblem of Irishness which springs to mind? I’m betting it’s not the Harp, Ireland’s official national symbol, but more likely the Shamrock, the Shillelagh or the Leprachaun; a bunch of sad, tired old stereotypes, if ever I saw one!
It is popularly believed that St Patrick once used the clover in his preaching to symbolise the Christian Holy Trinity, although the first written account of this does not appear until Caleb Threlkeld wrote of it in 1726.
The clover was supposedly a sacred plant of the Irish Druids, due to the triad formation of its leaves. Three was a sacred number in Irish mythology, perhaps inspiring St Patrick to ‘Christianise’ it in his teachings.
The Metrical Dindshenchas, a collection of ancient poems dating back to 11th century, known as ‘the lore of places’, indicates that the shamrock was of some significance before the arrival of St Patrick.
Teltown (in Irish Tailtiu, named for Lugh’s foster mother) was described as a plain covered in blossoming clover, and Brigid remained in Co Kildare (in Irish Cill Darra, ‘church of the oak’) after being seduced by the delights of another such blossom covered clover field.
In later times, it became traditional for Irish menfolk to wear the shamrock in their hats on St Patricks 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 militias 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.
Although often thought of as a walking stick, the shillelagh was actually a weapon used in the art of Bataireacht (Bat-er-akt), an ancient Irish martial art, and means ‘stick fighting’.
It evolved over the centuries from spear, staff, axe and sword combat, and prior to the 19th century, was used to train Irish soldiers in sword fighting techniques. There were three types; short, medium and long, and it was used to strike, parry and disarm an opponent. It was considered a gentlemanly way of settling a dispute.
In modern times, of course, it has come to be recognised as a symbol of Irishness.
As a fairy being, he is said to be associated with the Tuatha de Danann. I have read a lot of Irish mythology, and have found no reference to such a character amongst stories of the Danann or the Sidhe. It is more likely that he has arisen out of local folklore and superstition. Despite his enormous popularity, there has been much debate about his origins.
Suffice it to say ‘May the luck o’ the Irish be with you on this St Patrick’s Day!
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