ST PATRICK AND THE SHAMROCK
By Mary Maguire
St Patrick’s Day is a very special day around the world, but nowhere in the world is it more special than in Ireland. St Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, brought Christianity to the pagan Celts almost 1500 years ago.
The only facts about St Patrick’s life of which we can be fairly certain came from Patrick’s own hand. Written in the only two authentic documents left behind, the documents “Confessio” and “The letter to Croticus” outline some information about his personal life.
In these documents, he tells us that he was born into a wealthy family during the Roman occupation in Britain in a place called Bannavem, Taburniae, which is believed to have been in Cumbria, located on the west coast of Britain. The date of his birth is usually argued to be around 389AD. His given name (Magonus Succatus or Maewyn Succat) was changed to Patricius (Patrick) either after his baptism or after he became a priest.
When he was 16 yrs. old, St. Patrick was captured in a raid by an Irish King and taken to Ireland as a slave. It must have been a great shock to Patrick to be taken from his aristocratic family and forced to be a slave on an Irish settlement. He says in his writings that many thousands of others were taken with him, and that they traveled in small boats across the sea, in a journey that lasted 3 days. Upon his arrival, he was given to a local chief named Milchu to be his slave, and his job was to look after sheep on a lonely hillside. He spent many hours praying in his loneliness. After 6 years of work on the hillside, he says that he heard God’s voice telling him that a boat was waiting for him to take him back to Britain.
After some time back in Britain, he dreamt that he heard the voice of the Irish calling him to come back to Ireland to teach them about God. It is believed that he then went to France to study on how to become a Christian and a missionary. He was first ordained a priest, and later became Bishop Patricius. He returned to Ireland around 432AD and from then on, succeeded in converting the Irish to Christianity. By the end of 5th century, Ireland was a Christian nation. He died on March 17th 461AD and was buried in the grounds of Down Cathedral in Downpatrick Co. Down. It is claimed that the bodies of St Brigid and St Columcille are also buried in the same grave.
Tradition linking the shamrock with St Patrick has made the green-leafed trefoil the national emblem of Ireland.
The name shamrock is derived from the Irish ‘seamrog’, a tiny form of ‘seamor’ or ‘clover’. It is now known which of the various trifollia plant species is entitled to rank as the genuine Irish Shamrock. Species of the trefoil can be found in other lands.
The first mention of the shamrock dates back to the year 1570, when the famous Dutch botanist Matthias de l’Obel mentioned the shamrock as an important Irish ingredient; the Irish used to grind trefoils and knead it with butter to make trefoil cakes and shamrock bread. The Irish habit of shamrock eating was widely mentioned in the late 16th century. An English traveler in the reign of Charles II wrote – “The Irish eat a three-leaved grass, which they say cause a sweet breath”.
The shamrock is associated with many superstitions and legends.
In olden times it was regarded as a defence against the powers of witchcraft, especially around the month of May.
A lover would conceal a sprig in the shoe of a departing lover to ensure a safe return of a loved one. This was a regular feature – a good luck charm for the many emigrants leaving home in Ireland’s sad days.
As for some of the legends, well there are definitely no snakes in Ireland, (except in the Zoo).
And the most famous one is that of Patrick using the 3 leaves in his Christian teachings to explain the 3 in 1 principle of the Holy Trinity.