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The Legend of the Shamrock: Capturing the Luck of the Irish

Despite the legendary luck of the four-leaf clover, the three-leaf clover known as the shamrock is just as lucky.

Photography by: Aaron Dyer
Make the Four-Leaf Clover Greeting Card

Every holiday has its own symbolic token -- jack-o'-lanterns conjure up the spookiness of Halloween and evergreen trees evoke the coziness of Christmas.


So what comes to mind at the mention of St. Patrick’s Day? It's probably that teeny-tiny green plant known as the shamrock, right? For that we can thank Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.


The legend goes like this: When he was 16 years old, St. Patrick was kidnapped from Britain by Irish raiders and forced to spend the next six years in captivity. During this time, he converted to Christianity and after returning to Britain, he studied to become a priest. It was a few years later that a vision would beckon him back to Ireland. Upon his return to the Emerald Isle, he worked as a missionary to spread his newfound spirituality. According to lore, one day, St. Patrick plucked a sprig of clover from the ground and pointed out the three leaves to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity (of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). The rest is history. March 17, the anniversary of his death in the fifth century, would become celebrated worldwide as St. Patrick's Day.


Flash forward to the Middle Ages when the shamrock made its first appearance in written literature. The term "shamrock" is derived from Irish "seamair óg," meaning "little clover," and we can trace a first reference back to Edmund Campion's 1571 scholarly work, "Two Bokes of the Histories of Ireland." Campion included detailed descriptions of the plant life native to Ireland, including shamrocks. The problem is, there were various ideas of what a shamrock actually was. They were, for example, often confused for "seamsog" or wood sorrel, another edible plant. Apparently, this was never fully figured it out: A survey conducted by the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, showed that people believe the shamrock to be one of four plants: lesser trefoil, white clover, black medic, or red clover.


Over the centuries (despite the argument to be made on what makes a true shamrock), the Irish people established the three-leaf clover as a national symbol of Ireland. And while the equally famous four-leaf clover is touted as the lucky omen, we could argue that three is, in fact, the true lucky number.


Long before Christianity landed on the shores of Ireland, the number three -- and its multiples -- had been considered sacred among Druids. Just consider the triple spiral, or triskele; the triad of natural realms: land, sea, and sky; and the ancient rituals that revolve around a threefold repetition. Everywhere you look in Celtic tradition, the power of three is prevalent. So if you happen to stumble upon a three-leaf clover -- perhaps in the hunt for a four-leaf clover -- you might consider yourself just as lucky.