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The Shamrock: Ireland's Unofficial Symbol

On the Emerald Isle, the three-leafed clover grows wild anywhere there are open fields and grassland, but please tread lightly, lest you trample the unofficial symbol of Ireland, the shamrock, under your feet.

Shamrock Trefoil
The shamrock (left) is an example of a trefoil or three-lobed design, a common motif used in Celtic art and Celtic knotwork (right).

The Irish language word is seamróg, meaning young clover. Due to the mystical significance of the number three, a three-leafed or trefoil shape became commonplace in Celtic art and knotwork. (See box.) In Ireland, it can be found literally everywhere you look: You'll see shamrocks on the jerseys of Irish national sports teams, used in public relations by industrial and tourism boards, even pictured on the tails of jets flown by Aer Lingus, the country's official airlines. If you were judging solely from the imagery commonly associated with St. Patrick's Day, it would be more logical to conclude that the national symbol of Ireland is the leprechaun or the shamrock than the harp, which has been the official emblem of the country for many centuries.

Wearing of the Green

The Irish have long been a rebellious lot; by reputation, they are known to be highly unlikely to stand for any shenanigans on the part of authority figures. In the times of Queen Victoria, a soldier wearing a shamrock could get his neck stretched. Naturally, the exhilarating danger of a death sentence made the "Wearing of the Green" wildly popular, and the shamrock became an emblem against British oppression. Not long after, the shamrock made its way onto all types of consumer goods, from apparel to furniture, becoming a symbol of national pride as well.

Trifolium repens White Clover flower-head and leaves - Seamrog

Because three is the most powerful, mystical number in Celtic religion and mythology, the Druids are said to have revered the shamrock from Stone Age times, and the image adorns everything from medieval tombs to early Irish coinage. But how did the shamrock make the transition from garden clover to national symbol?

The Irish believe that good things come in threes. For example, there's love, valor, and wit; faith, hope, and charity. It would be up to St. Patrick to equate the shamrock with—of all things—the Holy Trinity, in the process elevating the lowly clover into something of deep significance to the Irish people.

How Shamrocks First Got Famous

Since the early Celtic tribes already considered the shamrock a sacred plant, St. Patrick cleverly devised a way to use the clover to introduce a new religion to the Irish—Christianity. He had already observed that the shape of the clover—the stem and three lobes—resembled a cross, the symbol of his faith.

One day, St. Patrick was describing some key Christian concepts to a crowd of skeptical Irish pagans. The audience was confused by the idea of the Trinity, one God manifesting in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As a visual aid, St. Patrick reached down and plucked a cloverleaf. Displaying it to the crowd, St. Patrick said, "Do you see how this clover has three leaves united on one stalk? How can you not then comprehend that there can be three holy entities, and yet one God?"

Will the "Real" Shamrock Please Stand Up?
The controversy over which species of shamrock is the real McCoy may have been settled by a 1988 poll, which showed the clear winner to be Trifolium dubium, or lesser trefoil. According to this survey of the Irish people themselves, these are the top five shamrock species:
  1. Trifolium dubium (lesser trefoil) 46%
  2. Trifolium repens (white clover) 35%
  3. Medicap lupulina (black medick) 7%
  4. Oxalis acetosella (wood sorrel) 5%
  5. Trifolium pratense (red clover) 4%

Which Species of Clover is the True Shamrock?

As is seemingly the case with all things Celtic, there is no lack of controversy even on a topic as innocuous as clover species. The top five clover species all look so similar, it's hard to tell them apart.

The Irish people themselves have problems identifying which species of clover (or non-clover) is the true shamrock (see box), although the national preference is clearly behind the lesser trefoil, or Trifolium dubium.

For Further Information

To read more about the use of the trefoil design in Celtic art and knotwork, visit