The Shamrock and Other Sacred Plants

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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THE Shamrock is even more typical of Ireland than the Oak is of Britain, and was the greater object of reverence and regard.

"Chosen leaf
Of Bard and Chief,
Old Erin's native Shamrock!
Says Valour, 'See
They spring for me,
Those leafy gems of morning!'
Says Love, 'No, no,
For me they grow,
My fragrant path adorning!'
But Wit perceives
The triple leaves,
And cries,—'O do not sever
A type that blends
Three godlike friends,
Love, Valour, Wit, for ever!'
O! the Shamrock, the green, immortal Shamrock!"

But Moore might have added the claims of Religion. Is it not a sacred emblem of the Trinity? Does not the legend remind us of St. Patrick convincing his doubting hearers of the truth of the Three in One doctrine, by holding up a piece of Shamrock? It is true that the Philosophical Magazine, June 1830, throws some doubt on the story, since the three-leaved white clover, now accepted as the symbol, was hardly expanded so early in the year as St. Patrick's Day; and Irishmen to this day do not agree which is the real Shamrock.

The trefoil that was sour was certainly eaten by the primitive Irish, while the white clover, not being sour, was not eaten. It may, therefore, have been the Wood Sorrel, a trefoil out in early spring. Spenser says—"If they found a plot of watercresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast." Wyther wrote—"And feed on shamrooks as the Irish doe." The word Shamrock, or Shamrog, is applied to various trefoils, however, by Erse and Gaelic writers, though ancient herbalists knew only the sour variety by that appellation. The Gaelic seamarog is the little seamar trefoil. Dr. Moore of Glasnevin declares the black nonsuch (Medicago lupulina) to be the true shamrock, though the white clover is often sold for it.

The pious Angelico introduced the white clover in his sacred pictures, like the Crucifixion, and as Ruskin thinks, "With a view to its chemical property." Its antiquity is vouched for. Dr. Madden sings—

"'Tis the sunshine of Erin that glimmer'd of old
On the banners of Green we have loved to behold,
On the Shamrock of Erin and the Emerald Isle."

Ancient bards declare that it was an object of worship with the remote race of Tuath-de-Danaans. It was the emblem of the Vernal Equinox with the Druids. Greek emblems of the Equinox were triform. As the Seamrag, it was long used as an anodyne, being seen gathered for that purpose by Scotch wives as late as 1794; it must, however, be gathered by the left hand in silence, to preserve its virtues. The four-leaved shamrock is called Mary's Shamrock. According to an engraving in Ledwich's Antiquities of Ireland, the shamrock appears on the oldest Irish coin. It is the badge of the Order of St. Patrick, founded in 1783, but the national badge since 1801. Pale or Cambridge blue, not green, is the true national colour of Ireland. But Ireland cannot claim sole possession of it as a sacred symbol. It was the three-leaved wand of Hermes, the triple oracle of the ancients. It was the three-leaved sceptre of Triphyllian Jove. It was seen on the head of Isis, of Osiris, and of a god of Mexico. It was recognized both on Persian and Irish crowns. We perceive upon a monument from Nineveh a couple of sacred hares engaged in devouring it. The Berlin Museum has a representation of some rude satyrs jestingly offering it to a woman. Artists, in the Middle Ages, have shamelessly made it the plant presented by the Angel to the Virgin Mary. The Bismarcks use the shamrock with the motto "In trinitate robur." The sacred Palasa of India has triple leaves. The French, like the Irish, retained it as a national symbol. To this hour the three-leaved, or Fleur-de-lis plant is preserved as a sacred symbol in architecture, on altar-cloths, &c., the emblem being now seen in Nonconformist churches as well as in the Episcopalian.

It was the three-in-one mystery. "Adorning the head of Osiris, it fell off at the moment of his death. As the trefoil symbolized generative force in man, the loss of the garland was the deprivation of vigour in the god; or, as some think, the suspension of animal strength—in winter."

In the Dublin Museum is a beautiful copper vessel, or plate, with the trefoil, from Japan. In the Mellor church of Derbyshire is a very ancient font, with rude figures of horses, and men with Norman helmets. The tails of the horses, after passing round the body, end in a rude form of trefoil, which another horse, with open mouth, is prepared to eat, while its own long tail is similarly presented to the open mouth of its equine neighbour. The shamrock was mysteriously engraved on the neck of the oriental crucified figure in the relic collection at Glendalough.

The OAK was also venerated by the early Irish. We read of Kil-dair, the Druids' cell or church of the oak; Maig-adhair or Dearmhagh, the field of oaks; the Daire-calgaich, now Londonderry, the wood of Calgac; Dairbhre (now Valentine, Isle of Kerry), the place producing oaks. Derrynane was Doire-Fhionain, the oak grove of the Finian; Doire-maelain, now Derryvullan, the grove of Maelain; Derrada-Doire-fhada, the long oak grove; Derrybeg, little oak; Derry Duff, black-oak wood. Derry is from Doire or Dair, oak. Kildare was Cill-dara, the church of the oak. St. Bridgid of Kildare built her cell, it is said, under a very high oak. Hanmer wrote—"Bridget builded a cell for her abode under a goodly faire oke, which afterwards grew to be a monasterie of virgins called Cylldara, in Latin Cella quercus."

Druids were so named from Dair, Doire, or Duir—the oak. The Druids were Dairaoi, or dwellers in oaks. There was the Gaulish Drus or Drys, the Gaelic Daru, the Saxon Dre or Dry, the Breton Derw, the Persian Duracht, the Sanscrit Druh.

The oak was thought sacred from its acorns being food for man in his savage state. It was dedicated to Mars and Jupiter. Etrurian inscriptions appear about the oak. The temple of the oracular Dodona was in an oak forest We read that 456 B.C., a Roman Consul took an oak solemnly to witness as a god. That tree was the symbol of the Gaulish deity Hesus, as it was of the German Thor. The Dryades were priests of the oak. It was associated with the tau or cross. "So far as I know," says Forlong, "the cutting of a live oak into a tau, or deity, is unique on the part of the Druids." The stones in Sichem were placed under an oak. The oak or terebinth of Mamre was worshipped as late as the fourth century. The oak was sacred, as the acorn and its cup represented the male and female principles.

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