Tuesday 19 March 2019

Joe Kennedy: 'Time to turn over a new leaf in story of dear little shamrock'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar presents US President Donald Trump with a bowl of Shamrock during a St Patrick's Day Celebration reception and Shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar presents US President Donald Trump with a bowl of Shamrock during a St Patrick's Day Celebration reception and Shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA

Joe Kennedy

There seems to be no escaping the cleaver-like tentacles of a noxious growth called Brexit as it creeps on its inexorable passage into our Irish way of life.

Each passing day seems to bring a newer dimension. But was there ever a time when perfidious Albion was not plotting to shatter revered icons of the Gael and send unicorns flapping their puny winglets to puncture sacred symbols such as the Dear Little Shamrock of Erin?

There is some history here.

About 100 years back, the 'Manchester Guardian', usually considered a friend of Ireland, questioned the provenance of what it described as the "sham shamrock" of the Irish, describing it as a common Dutch clover introduced from England 200 years previously.

The paper said that one sure way to annoy us was to imply that the plant in our buttonholes was not Irish at all and that although "dwarf clovers may go by the name, many English books on botany declare that the true shamrock to be the vivid green, three-leafed wood-sorrel, oxalis acetosella".

This was totally at variance with the findings of a botanist and courts civil servant named Nathaniel Colgan who, in 1892, began to collect clover specimens with the aid of a national network of parish priests.

He planted about a dozen samples to blossom while he was writing his seminal book, 'Flora of the County Dublin' (published in 1904), half of them the yellow-flowered Lesser Trefoil (t.dubium) and the remainder White Clover (t.ripens).

He was not entirely happy with the result and the following year, with the aid of an English botanist James Britten, 40 specimens were planted which resulted in a decision for t.dubium, a trembling leaf as it were, over the clover by 20 to 16.

The missing four plants remain a mystery.

Colgan was fortunate to have his survey supported by the prestigious naturalist and head of the National Library Robert Lloyd Praeger, who said of him that the Irish people "ought to be grateful to him for clearing up the many muddles concerning the shamrock".

Praeger's endorsement swayed public opinion, but he added a caveat that although the findings were not entirely foolproof "the actual diagnosis leads to a clover with small, neat leaves, a condition always fulfilled by the lesser trefoil".

So that was it, then.

The word shamrock turns up for the first time in English in Edmond Campion's 'Historie of Ireland' in 1571.

Spenser wrote in 1599 that we ate the plant "when reduced to starvation" (this was probably duckweed, a highly nutritious growth) and as a badge or symbol it first appeared in Thomas Dineley's journal in 1681.

It was not until the 18th century that the Trinity legend appeared in a book by a Dublin botanist named Caleb Threlkeld, 'Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum' (1727).

I confess I was once impressed by a yellow flowering sorrel with clusters of three-leafed heart shapes growing profusely in Portugal.

This was what St Patrick picked up, I thought.

At least it was big enough to see, not like our petty little trefoil!

The Botanic Gardens explained this oxalis pes-caprae is actually a Bermuda Buttercup, a world traveller touching the Scilly Isles.

I wondered if the climate in Patrick's time could have brought it here like other Lusitanians such as the arbutus?

Must I also doubt Colgan and Praeger?

Irish Independent

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