Wearing the Shamrock and Wearing the Leek

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 27, March 8, 1862

WHAT a pity it is that the brilliant pedantry of the nineteenth century should succeed in making "airy nothings" of many a notable fact and quaint fancy which, from time immemorial, our ancestors learned to regard as part of their persuasion? For example, take our old friend Æsop. It is an indisputable fact that, if not altogether a myth, he is certainly not the author of the instructive fables which have been for so long attributed to him. The name of Babrius is one which, for the last hundred and eighty years, has been gradually becoming more and more significant to students of antiquity. That he was a fabulist of one or other of the Greek classical periods, who wrote in choliambic verse, was already evident from a few fragments preserved by lexicographers and grammarians. But the first to make him more than a name was the renowned Bentley, in a dissertation on the supposed fables of Æsop, appended to the first draught of the immortal work on Phalaris, and the researches of subsequent commentators have entirely reduced the so-called "father of fable" to a mere shadow, and shown that nearly all the substance which has invested him, really belonged to Babrius. We regret to have our confidence in Æsop thus rudely displaced, but what are we to say to the averments of some modern antiquaries, asserting that there is not a vestige of authority for the time-honoured tradition of the use made by St. Patrick of the Shamrock, in explaining the mystery of the Holy Trinity to King Laeghaire and his pagan subjects; and, moreover, that the employment of the trefoil, as a national emblem, is unwarranted by any authority whatever? Admitting the absence of any direct evidence on the subject, it is but fair to inquire why the tradition should be regarded as altogether untenable, seeing the natural intimate allusion of the Shamrock to the fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Nothing in our mind is more probable than that the evangeliser of Ireland proved the existence of the Trinity by referring to the Shamrock. At any rate, the tradition is a genial and a suggestive one, and it would be a pity that it should ever fall into disrepute, since it furnishes Irishmen with an emblem of fraternity, and is an oasis in that desert of polemical and political strife, in which the fortunes of Ireland are entombed.

The word Shamrock is derived from Seamhair, pronounced "shamuir," clover; Seamhair óg, or Seamróg, pronounced "shamrog," little clover. Such was the beauty and chasteness of this emblem, that it formed one of the earliest ornaments in the architecture of the twelfth or thirteenth century, and continued throughout the successive changes and beauties of all that is resplendent in the Gothic style. In the latter part of the last century the trefoil was selected to become a conspicuous ornament in the insignia of the Knights of the Order of St. Patrick, which was founded by George III., in 1783; in 1801 it was introduced as the emblem for Ireland, and with the Rose and Thistle, all springing from one stalk, composes the badge for the United Kingdom. Among the ancients, Hope was sometimes represented as a beautiful child, standing upon tip-toes, and a trefoil, or three-coloured grass, in her hand. In one of the "Melodies" Moore has introduced a very pretty conceit in allusion to the Shamrock, describing a friendly contest between Love and Valour, for its possession,

"But Wit perceives
The triple leaves,
And cries, "Oh! do not sever,
A type that blends
Three godlike friends--
Love, Valour, Wit, for ever!"

The seventeenth of the present month will be the anniversary of Saint Patrick, and long may the "green, immortal Shamrock" on that day be the chosen leaf by which Irishmen, of every creed and every party, will be reminded of the deliverance of their native land from the thraldom of Paganism, and the simple, but eloquent symbol from which they can realize the ennobling tenets of Christianity.

The opening day of this month, which Spenser describes as--

"Sturdy March, with brows full sternly bent,
And armed strongly,"

is a national anniversary with the Welsh, being the day of their patron saint, David, or in Welsh, Dewid, son of Xantus, prince of Cardiganshire, who preached with great fervour and success to the Britons, and died in 544. The origin of the Leek as the badge of Welshmen, on the first of March, is involved in much obscurity; there is no evidence concerning it, if we except that of an old "broadside," which declares that, on a certain first of March, the Welshman, "joyned with their foes," and, in order not to confound friends with them--

"Into a garden they did go,
Where each one pulled a leeke,"

which, wearing in their hats, they were thus enabled to recognise their countrymen, "all who had no Leekes being slaine.'' To this tradition Shakspeare refers, making Fluellen say, in ' Henry V.," "The Welshmen did goot service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing Leeks in their Monmouth caps." The more plausible supposition, however, is that of Dr. Oliver Pughe, that it was derived from "the custom in the Cymmortha, still observed in Wales, in which the farmers assist each other in ploughing their land, on which occasion every one formerly contributed his Leek to the common repast."

Probably the custom once had some religious association to which we have long since lost the clue; for the Egyptians held the Leek as sacred, and it was worshipped by the ancient Syrians. From whatever source it arose, there can be no doubt as to the antiquity of the custom, and the Welsh

"Still remember David's Day,
In wearing of a leek."

It is spoken of by Shakspeare as an "ancient tradition, begun upon an honourable aspect, and worn as a memorable trophy of predeceased valour." In his play of "Henry V." the Leek is frequently mentioned. Fluellen, a gallant Welsh soldier, always wore it in his cap on St. David's Day, and being in consequence ridiculed by the braggart Pistol, on an occasion when he could not resent an insult, takes the first opportunity of doing so, by compelling Pistol to eat a Leek, remarking, "If you can mock a Leek, you can eat a Leek!" May everyone who would tamper with national traditions, and arouse national animosities, whether they wear the Shamrock or wear the Leek, ever want the wherewithal in which to "drown" the former on St. Patrick's Day, and be ignominiously necessitated to cat the latter on the anniversary of St. David.