Saint Patrick & the Shamrock


Very few symbols are more intertwined with Irish culture & identity than Saint Patrick & the shamrock. Thanks to his internationally celebrated feast day, the saint’s name is recognisable world wide. But why is Ireland’s patron saint always portrayed with the small plant?

Stain glass window featuring an image of Saint Patrick

Who was Saint Patrick?

Irelands most famous saint was not Irish at all, hailing from either Wales or Scotland. Pirates’ kidnapped him as a boy and brought him to Ireland to work as a slave. He herded sheep in Northern Ireland for 6 long years until his escape. His later writings reflect on these formative years and suggest that these lonely years spent shepherding strengthened his belief in God. Eventually, he was able to return home to his family where he suffered a second brief abduction. Patrick had a vision one night which encouraged him to returned to the island to spread Christianity.

He remained in Ireland for the rest of his life, preaching, baptising pagans and founding churches. The missionary founded his first church in 432AD in Saul, County Down.. He died on the 17th March 461 in County Down. His final resting place is under the Memorial Stone within Down Cathedral. We now know him as patron saint of Ireland, a title he shares with St Bridget and St Colmcille.

Saint Patrick left a lasting legacy in Ireland. Numerous churches, sports teams, townlands and people carry his name. One of the most famous Irish pilgrimages, that of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, is held in his honour. Locally, the pilgrimage of Mam Éan follows the path that he apparently travelled. At the top of the pass, one of Ireland’s smallest churches bears his name. Ireland is littered with many ‘Leapacha Padraig‘ (Patrick’s Beds) and Saint Patrick’s Wells. While it would have been impossible for the saint to have actually visited each one, never mind spend a night in each bed, the sheer quantities of landmarks bearing his name are testament to his status in Irish history.

Saint Patrick’s Writings

Saint Patrick stands out amongst famous ancient Irish figures for one important fact – he was a real man. This is in stark contrast to many other important mythical figures, including Cú Chulainn, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and even Brigid. We know this because of the two writings attributed to him. One, the Confessio, is a spiritual autobiography and the other, his Letter to Coroticus, denounces British mistreatment of Irish Christians. In the Confessio, he writes about the multiple visions which guided his early life through slavery into missionary work. These writings help us understand his background and give us insight into his life and events.


The name comes from the Irish word ‘seamair óg’ or young clover. There is still no agreement as to the precise botanical species of clover which is the ‘true shamrock’. The phrase usually refers to either the species, Trifolium dubium or Trifolium repens. Other three- leaved plants, such as medicago lupulina and Trifolium pratense are sometimes called shamrocks. What we colloquially know as the shamrock is actually the sprig and leaves of clover, of which there are 3. It is often confused with the four leaf clover, which, as the name suggests, has an extra leaf.

In Pagan Times

The shamrock was an important plant long before Patrick was born. It’s generally agreed that the shamrock was sacred to the ancient Irish Druids. They believed that it had a special power, that it provided protection from evil spirits. That belief is still held today by those who believe it has mystical powers. Some believe that the shamrock can predict an oncoming storm by turning up its leaves. Three was a special number in other cultures too. The ancient Iranians honoured the shamrock as a symbol of the number 3.

Saint Patrick, the Shamrock and Snakes

No actual solid evidence exists that the saint used the humble plant to spread his beliefs. But the Irish have never let the truth get in the way of a good story! So there are a few, slightly different tales explaining how he possibly used it to explain the Holy Trinity. One story places him in Connaught meeting with King Laoghaire’s daughters. Having failed to convert the king, he turned to the daughters. After explaining that the plan how a single plant with three leaves is analogous to the one Triune God with three separate and distinct Persons.

In another legend, he explains the Trinity directly to King Laoighaire using the shamrock.

According to a third legend, St. Patrick was traveling and happened upon a number of Irish chieftains along a meadow. The tribal leaders were curious about the Trinity and asked St. Patrick for an explanation. He picked a shamrock and showed them how the three leaves are part of the one plant. He continued with how similarly the three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are part of one Supreme Being.

Another myth attached to the saint relates to Irish reptiles, or should I say, the lack of them. Possibly the most famous miracle attributed to him is the banishment of snakes from Ireland. The fact there are no snakes on the island was long taken as proof. However, it’s believed that snakes were never in Ireland. Instead, this legend probably was encouraged using snakes to represent pagan beliefs.

Saint Patricks Coins

The link between the saint and the shamrock can be traced back around 400 years. It was caused by a coin minted in the 17th century. St. Patrick’s Copper Farthing & Halfpennies have a lot to answer for when it comes to the tales and myths behind the popular saint. Both coins depict the saint in a bishop’s garb, in one moving reptiles and in the order, preaching to a crowd while holding a shamrock. These are possibly where the legends and stories around the man originated from.

While it is unknown who actually minted these coins, they have no doubt influenced how we remember the saint today.

The Rebellious Shamrock

The shamrock became a symbol of Irish rebellion when Queen Victoria made it a capital crime to wear one on a military uniform. Many participated in the “Wearing of the Green” to protest this ban. In March 1900, Queen Victoria relented and allowed her Irish regiments to wear shamrocks. This coincided with her popular visit to the island. She gained favorability amongst the Irish people for her action, but some claimed that she was corrupting the Irish symbol for the British cause. Subsequently, Lady Limerick set up the “Shamrock League” to support the wives and widows of disabled or deceased Irish soldiers. Set up to sell sprigs of shamrocks, the organisation ended up sending their boxes of shamrocks within Ireland, to London, and as far as South Africa and Switzerland.

Nowadays, the shamrock has been used in the logos of many Irish organisations, including Aer Lingus, Tourism Ireland and The Irish Farming Association. The symbol is trademarked by the Irish Government, who successfully prevent it’s use by Germany in the 1980’s.

Despite popular belief, it’s not the official Irish emblem. That honour actually goes to the Irish harp.

Saint Patricks Day

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated world wide on the 17th March, on the anniversary of his death. Although he is Ireland’s patron Saint, the first parade was actually held in Boston, USA in the 1700’s. Since then, the celebrations have grown and now take place around the globe. Activities on the day range from small tractor and school bands parades in rural Irish villages to elaborate costumes and floats in larger cities, right up to rivers being dyed green and parliamentary parties being lit up green. Since 1963 the Taoiseach traditionally offers a bowl of shamrock to the US president as a gift from Ireland on the 17th of March. The British Royal Family, have their own Saint Patrick’s Day tradition. Every year, a member of the family presents the 1st Battalion Irish Guards with a sprig of shamrock.

Why is St. Patrick Dressed in Green, not Blue?

Nowadays, Ireland is synonymous with the colour green, but it wasn’t always this way. Previously blue was the official colour of Ireland. The oldest association between Ireland and the colour blue is seen with the mythological figures Flaitheas Éireann & Gormfhlaith. The latter’s name translates to “blue sovereign”. The oldest surviving image of St Patrick from the 13th century depicts him in a blue habit, not green. However, the first official use of blue came in Tudor times. In 1541, Henry VIII claimed power over the island and officially made it part of the English Kingdom. This lead to the creation of the coat of arms, an Irish harp on a blue background. The use of this coat of arms by the royals led to it falling out of favour. The colour green first became associated with the island during the 1600’s. After the 1641 Irish rebellion, the Irish Catholic Confederation used a green background in their flag. With the rise of Irish nationalism in the 1700’s, green began to gradually replace blue as the colour of Ireland. The use of green as the national colour was solidified internationally when The Quiet Man was filmed in the west of Ireland. One of the first colour films, on it’s release audiences in America were blown away with the vivid greens of the Irish countryside.

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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day from all at Connemara Gifts!