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How it took years of painstaking research to get a bowl of the 'true shamrock' to White House

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Enda Kenny presents a bowl of shamrock to Barack Obama in 2013. Photo: Leslie E. Kossoff/LK Photos

Enda Kenny presents a bowl of shamrock to Barack Obama in 2013. Photo: Leslie E. Kossoff/LK Photos

Enda Kenny presents a bowl of shamrock to Barack Obama in 2013. Photo: Leslie E. Kossoff/LK Photos

Wearers of real shamrock, with some specks of soil for provenance, are as scarce on the street as were foreheads smudged in Lenten ash a fortnight ago.

Who remembers when Bertie Ahern was a highly visible exception on the holy day, in dusty camouflage when the weeks of prayer and fasting began? Lent continues for another while but this week and last, little pots of shamrock were on counters in Tesco and other outlets so there is no excuse for not showing a touch of the real green today.

I remember my youth when, wrapped in a damp envelope within a 'Drogheda Independent', a bunch of fresh greenery from home would drop through my London letterbox to be worn boldly on the Underground. Some people stared at the buttonhole. Others smiled. It was St Patrick's Day after all.

London usually remembered St Pat in special ways, not necessarily with the hooley at the Irish Club. In 1825, for example, there was a "notable dinner in aid of Irish poor children" with some top 'names' such as Daniel O'Connell and Lord Londonderry in attendance. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was presented with a bottle of poitin.

"He forgot the good of the Revenue in memory of St Patrick," said one report, adding: "He put a portion of the naughty liquer in his glass and drank it with becoming devotion." Of course. Nothing beats a drop of The Pure!

The guests were sporting shamrock in their lapels, some perhaps boasting that his was the 'real thing' shipped in from Erin to Covent Garden that morning.

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Illustrated by Ken Lee

Illustrated by Ken Lee

One hundred years later, The 'Manchester Guardian' as it then was, could be pernickety as it cast doubts on this symbol of Ireland.

"Sham shamrocks," it chortled, suggesting that "one way to irritate the Irish is to imply that the plant they are wearing in their buttonholes is not the real plant at all. Several dwarf clovers may go by the name but many English books on botany declare the true shamrock to be the vivid green, three-leafed wood-sorrel (oxalis acetosella). The common Dutch clover and its variations were introduced into Ireland 200 years ago from England and are not Irish at all."

A brief look-back in time reveals that the first trace of the word "shamrock" to appear in English was in Edmund Campion's 'A Historie of Ireland' in 1571.

Some other chroniclers noted that "Wilde Irishe" freebooters kept up their spear-throwing capabilities eating cakes of meadow trefoil bread while Spenser wrote that the people "feed on shamrocks when they are reduced to starvation." (This 'shamrock' was probably duckweed which is very nutritious).

There are references to "scothemrach" in the Leabhair Breach (14th century) but nothing linking Patrick with the plant in many lives of the saint.

Shamrock as a badge or symbol first appeared in Thomas Dineley's Journal in 1681 but 50 years went by until the Trinity legend got into print in a book, 'Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum', by a Dublin botanist, Caleb Threlkeld in 1727.

Images of the good saint in his green vestments holding up the three-leaved symbol proliferated in the 19th century and onwards.

But differences of opinion as to the proper genus of the shamrock carried on into the 20th century until a keen amateur botanist, Nathaniel Colgan, a clerk in the Dublin police courts, decided to examine various clovers to decide upon the "true shamrock" and asked the parish priests of the land, wise man, to help him.

Colgan had written an excellent book, 'Flora of the County Dublin' in 1904 so he had a reputation for botanical know-how.

He weeded out his countrywide collection of green sprigs to some samples of yellow-flowered Lesser Trefoil (t.dubium) and White Clover (t.ripens).

The following year, with help from an English colleague named James Britten, 40 carefully chosen specimens showed the trefoil winning by a leaf in the wind: actually the breakdown was 20 to 16. And not a wood-sorrel was in sight!

Colgan had Robert Lloyd Praeger, author and top man of the Dublin Naturalists' Field Club, on his side so the decision went to the trefoil, Praeger noting that although the findings were not entirely foolproof "the diagnosis leads to a clover with small, neat leaves, a condition fulfilled by the lesser trefoil."

Fresh springing trefoils went to Washington this week with the Taoiseach's cut-glass crystal for Donald Trump, the bowl having been made by master glass craftsman Eamonn Terry. Queries for information as to the source of the contents came to naught apart from a reference to a private supplier who is probably aware by now that his carefully nurtured plant has had its life cut short by the FBI, due to strict regulations pertaining to such imported products.

Irish Independent