The Wearing of the Green (or not)

March is here: St. Patrick’s Day is the 17th, when everyone (here in the States, at least) can pretend to be a little bit Irish… .

In honor of the occasion, here are some fun Ireland folklore facts to share with your friends over that pint of Guinness.

NewImageSt. Patrick and Shamrock. St. Benin’s Church, Kilbennan, County Galway, Ireland
Image: Andreas F. Borchert, Wikipedia

St. Patrick is as Irish as the Potato.

That is to say: by adoption only. Potatoes are a New World vegetable, originating in South America and not introduced into Ireland until the late 1500s or early 1600s (some say by Sir Walter Raleigh). By the 1700s they had become a staple food in the country. Likewise, the man known today as St. Patrick was not born in Ireland, but in Britain. The Catholic Encyclopedia says he was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, Scotland, in 387. says he was born in England to “a Roman family of high social standing” in 385. Either way, according to his own writings, he was kidnapped by slavers and taken to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning home. He eventually entered the priesthood and was sent back to Ireland as a missionary, where he preached and converted much of the country to Christianity. By the seventh century, he was thought of as the patron saint of Ireland.

There’s a theory that some of the legends associated with St. Patrick were originally associated with another cleric, Palladius, who was the first Christian bishop to Ireland, in 431 (a year before Patrick arrived). Palladius wasn’t Irish, either; he was Gaul (French).

Incidentally, there’s a famous folktale that links St. Patrick to the shamrock: supposedly, Patrick was preaching to the locals, and meeting with hostility and incredulity. To make his point, the saint plucked a clover from the earth and said to them

‘Is it not as feasible for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as for these three leaves thus to grow upon a single stalk?’ Then the Irish were immediately convinced of their error, and were solemnly baptized by St. Patrick.

As simple as that. The quote is from Edward Jones, “Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards” 1794, as quoted by Nathaniel Colgan in “The Shamrock in Literature,” 1896. The folktale can’t actually be dated any earlier than the early 18th century; it’s not in Patrick’s writings, nor in any early Lives of the Saints.

Green is a bad luck color.

NewImagePlate from Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora, 1807
I don’t know what they are, but they’re creepy looking.
Public Domain Review

Yes, it’s the color of Irish national pride; but in Britain and Ireland, wearing green was traditionally considered bad luck. “Wear green today, wear black tomorrow” because someone in your family will soon die. It’s specifically unlucky for fishermen to wear green, and it’s inauspicious for weddings — especially for the bride. “Married in green, ashamed to be seen.” This last is probably because green symbolizes the loss of virginity. John Hutchings, in his 1997 paper in the journal Folklore writes

In 1351 Wm. Fox, parson of Lee near Gainsborough was indicted for forcibly taking a nun, Margaret de Everingham. [He] “removed her habit and put on her a worldly green robe (robam viridem secularem)”(Lean 1903, 276). By Elizabethan times the phrase was synonymous with pregnancy.

— “Folklore and Symbolism of Green”, John Hutchings, 1997.

In Britain, green is probably bad luck because fairies wear green, and you don’t want to make them jealous. In Ireland, however, fairies (and leprechauns, too) traditionally wear red. Hutchings does mention that the daoine sidhe (“people of the mounds”) wear green.

Leprechauns are Noah’s grandchildren.

NewImageIllustration for “The Leprechawn”
from Irish Wonders by D. R. McAnally, Jr., 1888.
Project Gutenberg

In an 1872 paper in the Revue Celtique, Whitley Stokes translates a story from the Lebor na huidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) the oldest extant manuscript in Irish:

After the flood, Noah planted a vineyard. Once, upon drinking his own wine, Noah got drunk and passed out, naked. Noah’s son Ham found Noah unconscious and went back to his brothers, Japhet and Shem, telling them what he saw and making fun of their father. Japhet and Shem brought a cloak to cover their father, walking up to him backwards so they wouldn’t see him in his embarrassment. When Noah woke, he found out what had happened, and cursed Ham for mocking him. This makes Ham the first person to be cursed after the deluge, and therefore the spiritual successor of Cain (the first person cursed, ever). Because of the curse, Ham’s children were all born “Luchrupdin and Fomoraig and Goborchinn and every unshapely appearance moreover that is on human beings.”

“Luchrupdin” is leprechaun. I only looked up the Fomoraig and Goborchinn quickly, but I think the Fomoraig are the descendants of a ancient race of giants; or some kind of beast or fairy that steals cattle. The Goborchinn are some kind of water-fairy or ancient sea-faring race (Fomorians?). They were ruled by Eochaid Echchenn, the horse-headed.

The story of Noah getting drunk is in Genesis, Chapter 9 (Gen. 9:21 or thereabouts). In the biblical version, Ham is the father of Canaan, and Noah actually cursed Canaan for Ham’s filial impiety, which is harsh, when you think about it. Canaan is the ancestor of the Canaanites, one of the Israelites’ traditional enemies (or maybe “rivals” is a better word). That probably explains the Bible version; I think I like the leprechaun version better.

The staple food in Ireland before the potato was — the shamrock?

Though no one was sure for a while just what the “shamrock” was, at least in the English-speaking world.

NewImage Drawings of Oxalis acetosella (wood sorrel), from Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885.
It does look like shamrock, doesn’t it?
Image: Wikipedia

The general theory is that “shamrock” comes from the Irish seamróg, which is the diminitive of seamair, or clover. Today the term shamrock is associated with the meadow trefoil (a kind of clover). Back in 1571, the Flemish botanist Mattias Lobel, in the middle of a passage about the meadow trefoil, wrote of how the Irish ground — something — into meal and mixed it with butter to make cakes or bread for food during times of famine. One has to assume he was talking about the meadow trefoil. He didn’t call it the shamrock, though.

Later English writers mention the “seamroch” as a staple Irish food, prepared much as Lobel described. However, many of the English writers seemed to think that the term “seamroch” referred to water-cress (which is actually called biolar in Gaelic). “Shamrock-eating” was even used as an epithet for the Irish, the implication being that the Irish had nothing else to eat except grasses and mushrooms, or perhaps a bit of “butter tempered with oatmeal”.

In 1597 the English botanist John Gerard unambiguously identified the term seamroch with the meadow trefoil. He didn’t mention anything about them being used for food.

In 1599 Fynes Moryson, Secretary to Lord Mountjoy, described the shamrock as having a sharp taste, and told of how the “wild Irish” (that would be the native, non-Anglo-Irish, I assume), as they “run to and fro,” snatch the shamrock out of ditches and eat it “like beasts.” Condescending tone aside, the meadow trefoil isn’t sharp tasting, and it grows in meadows, not ditches. Water-cress is sharp-tasting and grows in environments that could be described as “ditches”; so does wood-sorrel (Gaelic: seamsóg). So wood-sorrel was another candidate for the shamrock.

Nathaniel Colgan, who compiled all these literary shamrock-sightings in 1896, settled on the meadow trefoil as the true shamrock, under the reasoning that Lobel and Gerard were botanists, and Moryson was not. Other writers who mentioned the shamrock (especially as food) could have been plagiarizing Lobel.

The shamrock doesn’t appear as a symbol of Irish national pride (or of St. Patrick) until 1681, when Thomas Dinely wrote of the custom of wearing a shamrock in one’s hat on St. Patrick’s day. He also mentions a custom called “drowning of the shamrock.” Here’s a more contemporary description (from 1893):

Going to town, [my father] invited those he wished to treat into a whiskey store and asked for this beverage, which was brought in a glass, or bowl, called St. Patrick’s Pot. The bit of shamrock pinned to his coat lapel he removed, and dipped it into the pot with a flourish of the hand, and again placed it on his coat, after which each drank of the whiskey that had drowned the shamrock. You may be sure few men get home sober on this night. Men and boys wear the shamrock on the coat or hat; the women and girls wear the shamrock or green ribbon.

“Folk-Lore from Ireland I”, Ellen Powell Thompson, 1893.

From 1681, literary references to shamrocks refer to it as a national symbol; the references to the shamrock as food die off around the same time.

And that should be enough to carry you for a beer or two. Happy March, and if a pub-crawl is part of your personal St. Patrick’s Day tradition, take care, and drink responsibly. Cheers!

If you’re going another round, here are the sources for more fun facts:

Nathaniel Colgan’s 1896 article “The Shamrock in Literature” can be found on JSTOR, in two parts, here and here. You can read them for free online if you register for a MyJSTOR account; if you are affiliated with an institution with a JSTOR subscription (university or library), you can get free download access through that institution, as well.

Whitley Stokes’ 1872 article “Mythological Notes” can be found in Volume 1 of the Revue Celtique, on The article starts on page 256.

John Hutchings 1997 article “Folklore and Symbolism of Green” is available through JSTOR (but not MyJSTOR).

John Winberry’s 1976 article “The Elusive Elf: Some Thoughts on the Nature and Origin of the Irish Leprechaun” is also available through JSTOR.

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