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Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Irish Shamrock

 

The Irish Shamrock


With St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner it’s time to go out and pick some shamrock. Did you know that “shamrock” is a word borrowed into English from Irish. It is a transliteration of "seamair óg" meaning young clover. Historical English writers unable to understand the Irish language make the distinction between Shamrock and Clover but it is in error. In botanical terms the Irish Shamrock is usually considered to refer to either the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover, Irish: seamair bhuí) or Trifolium repens (white clover, Irish: seamair bhán). However, other three-leaved plants—such as Medicago lupulina, Trifolium pratense, and Oxalis acetosella—are sometimes called shamrocks or clovers.
Semair or clover appear in early Irish literature, generally as a description of a flowering clovered plain. For example, in the series of medieval metrical poems about various Irish places called the Metrical Dindshenchus, a poem about Tailtiu or Teltown in Co. Meath describes it as a plain blossoming with flowering clover (mag scothach scothshemrach). Similarly, another story tells of how St. Brigid decided to stay in Co. Kildare when she saw the delightful plain covered in clover blossom (scoth-shemrach).
The shamrock is most popularly associated with Saint Patrick who is said to have used it to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (there persons in one god) when Christianising Ireland in the 5th century. In pagan Ireland, three was a significant number and the Irish had many triple deities, including the triumvirate of goddesses Ériú (who the island is named after) her sisters Banba and Fódla. However there is no evidence that the shamrock was ever considered sacred by the pagans.
In recent times many people have come to believe the silly myths regarding the plant and its symbology. In Ireland they even let people with no qualifications in history higher than secondary school make history programmes, whom are not surprisingly unable to distinguish between barstool myths and historical fact.
Clueless historians are nothing new in Ireland and elsewhere but RTÉ (the national broadcaster), must be a contender for the title of “worst history documentary ever made”. The presenter who was not a historian but an “economist” claimed that the Shamrock, as a symbol of Ireland, was the invention of a 19th century priest. However, had the unknowledgeable presenter been possessed of something approaching a scientific mind would have troubled himself to look up Wikipedia. There he might have discovered information which shows that the shamrock first began to change from a symbol purely associated with St. Patrick, to an Irish national symbol when it was taken up as an emblem by rival militias, during the turbulent politics of the late eighteenth century.
However it could be argued that it was a national symbol at least a century previous when in 1675 it appeared on coins known as the St. Patrick's Coppers or Halfpennies. They show a figure of St. Patrick preaching to a crowd while holding a shamrock, presumably to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. A few years later in 1681, an English traveller to Ireland named Thomas Dineley wrote that the “This plant is worn by the people in their hats upon the 17th day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick's Day.) It being a current tradition, that by this Three Leafed Grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.”
St. Patrick ’s Day always falls in Christian season of Lent and in ancient times the observation of it was severe. It was a time for penance and abstinence which included certain foods, sex and alcohol. The populace in Ireland claimed a “dispensation” from the austerity of Lent to celebrate their national saint’s feast day. Accordingly as you can imagine St. Patrick’s Day was one of the biggest and wildest day of partying in the year. Thomas Dineley went on “when they wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit excess in liquor, which is not a right keeping of a day to the Lord… generally leading to debauchery.” Now that’s my kind of party.
Did St. Patrick Ireland's patron saint really banish all the snakes?
We all know our man St. Patrick, among many other things, as the man who banished snakes from the green fields of Ireland.
Yes, once upon a time, snakes were slithering and sliding around the Irish countryside, but their disappearance had absolutely nothing to do with any divine intervention.
Legend has it that St. Paddy stood on a hilltop, dressed in his formal green attire, and waved his staff to herd all the slithering creatures into the sea, expelling them from the Emerald Isle forever. And low and behold, there hasn’t been a snake seen in Ireland since 461 AD (expect for the odd household pet and zoo creature).
Snakes, according to the Smithsonian website, are just lizards with no feet. When snakes first evolved – about 100 million years ago – Ireland was still submerged under water, so migrating to Ireland wasn’t an option for the serpents.
However, when the ocean finally did drop and Ireland surfaced, it was attached to mainland Europe, therefore allowing the slithery creatures, to make their way onto the land.
Just three million years ago the ice age arrived, turning all snakes into popsicles. And since then, the climate has changed more than 20 times, often blanketing Ireland with ice. Because snakes are cold-blooded animals, they can’t survive in areas where the ground is frozen, so they all had an icy ending.
According to scientists, the last time Ireland was covered in ice was 15,000 years ago. After this time a snake would have comfortably survived in Ireland. However, Ireland had by then separated itself from mainland Europe, causing a 12-mile water gap – the North Channel – between Ireland and neighboring Scotland. The channel became a barrier that no terrestrial snake could cross. So the upshot of the story is, there are no slimy slithering serpents roaming the Irish countryside today because they have simply no way of getting there.
So why has St. Patrick been so heavily hailed as the hero that banished snakes from Ireland? Well, some believe that the snake was a symbol of paganism and it is St. Paddy that can be accredited for ridding Ireland of paganism and bringing Christianity to the green isle….