In Part I, we remarked that “Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and …. with a superior record.” We followed their emergence from the waters and their colonising of land, along with various strategies they developed for their new environment. Now we watch them constructing their very own environments and adapting to some of the most challenging climes of the earth.
Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and although it is within them that photosynthesis takes place, strangely they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons, even in perennial plants, all but the conifers let them fall.
The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..
The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!
But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate or cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.
Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.
Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.
LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES
Creating one’s climate isn’t always possible and, when it’s not, adaptation is the other option. Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and also sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) alsopermit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.
In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lillies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, reeds with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.
The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.
Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.
Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.
Some young take to the water, others to the air …..
The last weeks of May and first half of June saw the young of many species take to air or water. On my walks in the Drumcondra area of Dublin where I live, although Glasnevin Cemetery and the Botanic Gardens were unreasonably closed (the Botanic is now open but on restricted hours, again unreasonably), the banks of the Tolka river in Griffith Park and the banks of the Royal Canal were open to the public.
A pair of mute swans (ealaí) nested on the stretch of Royal Canal east of Cross Guns Bridge but quite near to it. Well, the female, the pen, at least did, while the cob (male) was usually swimming nearby. So how did the pen feed during the long hatching period? Unlike some bird species, this male does not feed the broody female. Well, the male may take a turn, spelling her to go off and feed herself and difficult to know when that happens, as both genders look so much alike. Fumbling with my phone once I failed to catch a photo of the large grey eggs beneath the shifting body of the sitting bird – three, an East Asian woman told me, using her fingers. Later, I saw both parents with just one cygnet – whether some of the eggs were infertile or two of its siblings died I don’t know.
Predators can take cygnets but the parents are very good at protecting them and eggs in the nest will not be left untended until the cygnets are hatched – and then it’s straight into the water. When not swimming itself, the cygnet climbs on to a swimming parent’s back and sits there surrounded by a natural feather duvet. From then on, the nest is not needed except perhaps in stormy weather.
A few days later I was fortunate to see another pair of mute swans on the Tolka in Griffith Park, these with no less than seven cygnets! Their parents took them upstream, the cygnets swimming easily, even under the branches of a fallen tree-trunk. Until they came to a mini-weir which the parents simply walked over but their offspring were too small to do that. However, they maintained position for quite a while swimming against the mini-waterfall, their parents seemingly unable to understand why their young could not follow them and, eventually, having to turn back to them. Many mammals, confronted with a similar problem, would simply pick its young in its mouth and carry them over the obstacle and then go back for the rest. A small crowd of Homo Sapiens mammals gathered to watch the proceedings with interest and delight.
Also out with their young were mallards (Lachain), the ducks and drakes (bardaill). Some had hatched their young as far back as April but most seemed to be doing so at this time period and then it’s straight into the water. I remember witnessing the unpleasant scene of a duck with a clutch of tiny ducklings on the Tolka being harassed by a couple of drakes, one in particular trying to mate with her, she quacking that she wanted no part of it. Contrary to comment by some writers, rape is not unknown in the animal world and though in most species it is rare, mallard drakes are known for it.
Delightful it was however on another day to see a newly-hatched clutch of ducklings zooming around on the water, in their fluffy chocolate brown-and-yellow down looking like aquatic bumblebees, both parents close by.
Walking past the high waterside vegetation of the canal one day I heard a kind of cheeping which I guessed to be the chicks of a moorhen (Cearc Uisce). These waterfowl are very shy and careful too not to reveal their nest locations which are constructed in waterside vegetation only inches above the water level and sometimes actually afloat on a kind of raft. Though egg-laying is in March-April and they will not fledge until about 50 days later, we should be seeing the chicks with their parents already. So where are they?
Grey herons (Corr Ghlas) fish the Tolka and the Royal but their nests are nowhere there. They prefer to nest in trees, somewhat incongrously for birds with such long legs. I have never seen their nests in Ireland myself, though I read that a colony is to be found in St. Anne’s Park, in County Dublin. Grey herons take turns on the nest and also in feeding their young – which require a lot of fish and frogs. They would take a duckling or cygnet too, given the chance …. Which is why herons often get mobbed by other birds. In Drumcondra I watched one on house rooftop being dived at by seagulls, no angels themselves but they have nests of their own in higher rooftops nearby.
And one day, a Little Egret (Éigrit Beag) spent a little while looking for fish in the Tolka before departing. It’s a relatively new settler in Ireland but no longer rare along the east coast.
Not so much “taking to the water” as already in it are the tiny young of the three-spined stickleback (Garmachán), hatched out in underwater nests cared for only by the male. I have seen shoals of the fry of larger fish in the Tolka too, once heading downriver through the Botanic Gardens; what species they were I don’t know but a large stock of brown trout (Breac Donn/ Rua) lives in the river. Many sprats are at this moment concentrated in different parts of the Tolka.
However, on a number of occasions large numbers of fish have been killed by pollutants in the water. A few years ago it was reported that salmon (Bradán) had been seen making their way upriver and this year I saw some myself in the Tolka. These spawn in freshwater and after a few years their young make their way to the sea, the survivors returning years later to spawn in the river again. If the young are killed before making it into the sea obviously they won’t coming back to spawn in a few years’ time so a fishkill incident in one week can wipe out a species in the river for a number of years. I photographed the sprats of some species of fish a few weeks ago in the Tolka and again this week while walking through Griffith Park (I, not the fish).
Among the young taking to the air now are those of the magpie (Snag Breac) and the distinctive and irritating high-pitched calls of the juveniles can be heard just about everywhere, usually from above in the trees. The call is “feed me” and is designed to be difficult to ignore. However, they need to learn not only to fly but to find their own food, so the parents will feed them only on occasion. This corvid is apparently an invader recorded arriving in Wexford in 1676, over two decades after that other invader, Oliver Cromwell. It has settled in well but is recognised as a predator by songbirds and sometimes attacked by them; on the other hand the magpies themselves will gang up on seagulls, hooded crows and cats, when they will give a frequent rattling kind of call.
The juveniles who are calling to be fed were in the egg for 20 days and fledging for nearly a month, which means the eggs were laid in April. The nests are large, a mass of twigs and can be seen in trees all over Dublin.
The young of plants have taken to air too and along the banks of both the Royal Canal and the Tolka the flowers have died and are turning to see-capsules or to pods, while other species are bursting into flower.
Some days the ground was covered in drifts of a kind of cotton and I assumed this was seed-carrying material. But from what? Along the Royal I might suspect the bullrush or reed-mace, with tattered tufts of cotton around the mace “head” …. or perhaps the pussy willow … but surely not in these quantities? However, in Griffith Park clumps of it were drifting across my path and I remembered reading about “cottonwood trees” in stories set in the “Wild West”. Yes, three species of cottonwood are part of the larger poplar family and have been around for 55 million years in North America, Eurasia and Asia and although not native they do grow in Ireland. And poplar-type trees have been planted along stretches of the Royal but in particular in Griffith Park, recognisable by their somewhat rounded leaves and the compact upright growth of their branches, so perhaps they are the source of the cotton? Their name in Irish is Poibleog Mheiriceá Thuaidh, translating as “North American Poplar”; that’s a bit of a long one and if they become more popular (forgive the pun) we might have to start calling them ‘Crann Chadáis’ (Cotton Tree).
But it wasn’t them either. The culprit was, after all, the willow (Sail) tree; but not the pussy or weeping willow, but the giant willows.
A number of people have commented on Nature proceeding unaffected by the crisis of humans faced with the current Coronavirus pandemic. Although not entirely unaffected, it certainly seems that is so but it is a reflection of our generally subjective view of the natural world around us that we should be surprised at all.
The grass does not grow for us though we may have sown some of it, the leaves do not open nor flowers bloom to please our eyes, the birds do not sing to bring us pleasure through our ears, nor do blossoms and flowers pump out fragrances to please our nostrils. They are engaged in the deadly serious business of alimentation and procreation.
Here in early April the leaves unfurling and already unfurled from their winter sleep inside their branches of willow, sycamore, birch, rowan, elder, lime, alder, oak and chestnut will not notice much difference this year as they spread their catchers to collect the rays of the sun, the chlorophyll working to feed a new year’s growth. The ash is a little behind, its hard black protective bud-covers about to break open. Flower racemes are already well advanced on the invasive and poisonous cherry laurel and making a good start on the horse chestnut tree. If they are aware of anything, it is probably that suddenly the air has become much cleaner, as the volume of industrial and vehicle air-pollutants has suddenly dropped dramatically.
Not that it’s all peaceful out there – they all have their own struggles, competing for light and moisture, resisting attacks by insects, fungi and even other plants like ivy.
The robin (spideog), blackbird (londubh) and finch (glasán) are not singing for us nor even “merrily”, as the poets would have it – it’s a serious business, attracting a mate, fighting off competitors, then building a nest and raising young in safety from predators. The lowering of the air pollution level might bring a bloom in some invertebrate populations, animals without backbones like insects and snails, which would be welcomed to feed the birds’ young.
Birds (éanlaith) that will probably miss our usual level of activity will be those heavily dependent on human activity and some of its waste products, i.e the city pigeons (colúir) and seagulls (faoileáin), while the latter at sea might well do well from less commercial fishing and pollution. The fish will certainly benefit from a reduction in human activity.
In the streams and rivers the finger-length three-spined stickleback male will soon be establishing and defending his territory, where he will build a nest into which to entice an egg-filled female, there to lay her many eggs for him to fertilise. She’ll be off then, thank you ma’am and dad will raise the young until they are capable of free-swimming and feeding themselves, though still tiny. These are those that in parts of Ireland are called “pinkeens”, an interesting combination of two languages: the English “pink” and the diminutive ending “ín” in Irish (however the Irish name is completely different: “garmachán”). Look at the female and you’ll see no hint of the “pink” but the male in full breeding colour is something to see alright: throat and chest in bright red, an almost luminous green upper body and head with bright blue eyes.
In the city, with less waste on the street, the population of rats (francaigh) and mice (lucha) might be in for some tougher times, as might the foxes (sionnaigh). Developing a life-style as a scavenger on the refuse of other life-forms can be very beneficial but such populations are vulnerable to the fate of their unconscious benefactors.
Much animal and plant life benefits from the activity of humans, it is true – but a lot more suffers from it and would not be harmed at all by our disappearance.
No, that title is not a cryptic clue for a crossword but instead refers to a very common and much-despised plant with a truly remarkable story. A plant that has found amazing ways of propagation and distribution.
The week before last I saw my first dandelion of this year in bloom in Dublin. On a cold, dark and wet day, it had its sunny bloom shining on a bit of waste ground. And not far from it, a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)in bloom too, a relative in the same genus sometimes confused with the dandelion, also in bloom. But this is the story of the ubiquitous dandelion, which we knew as “Piss (or Wet) the Bed”, from a mistaken belief that keeping the blooms in one’s bedroom would make one void one’s bladder while sleeping.
We have two common species of dandelion in Ireland, T. vulgaris and T. officinalis, Caisearbhán and Caisearbhán Caol Dearg (?) respectively in Irish. They belong to the genus or larger family of Asteraceae, one of the two largest genera of the flower family, including so many species, from the diminutive daisy to the giant sunflower.
It is an important early source of pollen and nectar for insects in this latitude, when not many other blooms are about.
The name “dandelion” is a rendition of the pronunciation in French of “dents de lion”, i.e “lion’s teeth”, said to refer to the serration of the leaves reminding people of lion’s teeth. Well, perhaps of a cartoon or heraldic lion, or one as imagined by Europeans who had never seen the animal.
As the season progresses, soon those cheerful yellow blooms will be seen everywhere, on roadside verges and waste ground, in gardens and fields, in woodlands, on hillsides ….. Except in bogs and strangely in some parts of the Burren1, there is hardly a place where it cannot be found, which makes us see it as common and perhaps view it with disdain.
But it is far from being an everyday plant.
PUFF CLOCK AND PARACHUTE BABIES
As children, we thought to tell the time by blowing on the fluffy balls that develop from the bloom in late Summer or Autumn, each puff being an hour and the correct time being the number of puffs to blow the last seed parachute away. It seems unlikely such an impractical idea would have occurred to us and we only did so because we had been told about it by adults.
But there is some wonder in those fluffy balls, full of separate parachutes, each bearing one seed. This is possible because what I have been deliberately calling a “bloom” rather than a “flower” is, properly speaking, a capitulum, a head actually containing many, many little flowers, or florets – and each one of those will bear a seed. It is a wonderful arrangement capable of producing a multiplicity of seeds even if parts of the bloom are damaged.
Each floret grows a silky “parachute”, the plant not only using the wind for seed dispersal (as do grasses with pollen) but developing such a means of delivery to cover great distance.
Upon hitting disturbed ground or even a crevice with soil, the seed takes quickly – the dandelion’s children are great opportunists — and sends down a long taproot, while above ground, leaves grow in a rosette shape upon rosette, later sending out hollow stalks that will bear the bloom of florets. Each bloom “responds to changes in light, in fine weather stretching the florets to the sun and following its course across the sky, or closing the head up as soon as rain threatens, opening also for sunrise and closing at evening.”1 As the florets die, their bracts close and the seeds and parachutes develop inside; then their surrounding bracts drop, allowing the expansion of the full ball of silky parachutes – i.e the maximum possible number of seed-carriers.
When the seeds have gone with the wind, the hollow stem dries up and falls away. The tap-root regularly shrinks and pulls the rosette of leaves tight to the ground: maximum absorption of sun and moisture but also maximum possible cover on ground, making it difficult for other plants to compete close to it.
Unless I dreamed it, somewhere I came across a phrase and image that I considered very democratic but have not been able to find it since. I had thought it spoken by a Shakespearian character but no search has turned it up. As I recall it, a worker or person of “low” social status says that his blood is as good as any royal person’s, for “a king on the march scatters his seed like a dandelion”!
To the average flower or vegetable gardener, the dandelion is an invasive noxious weed, rapidly colonising newly-dug, hoed or even raked soil and competing with what it is desired to grow. And the fact that hoeing the leaves off even a couple of times will not kill the plant, the root sending out new shoots, makes it worse. Using a rotavator chops up the tap root but many of the resulting sections can regenerate and start a new plant.
All this is amazing enough, were it not for the plant’s sex life – or absence of it!
SEEDS WITHOUT SEX
Most flowers, blossoms and blooms exchange pollen, usually with the assistance of pollinators – generally insects and in particular, bees. This fertilises the plants and causes the production of seeds, whether in the form of fruit or nuts or just plain “seeds”. The shape and colour of the bloom attracts the pollinator, knowing that inside there is nectar and pollen to be eaten (or collected, in the case of bees).
Well, dandelion blooms contain nectar and are visited by many insects, including bees – but the plants don’t exchange pollen in order to produce seeds. They produce the seeds alright, as we have seen – but asexually. Without sex. So why produce blooms and nectar at all?
Each new plant is a copy of the parent but no breeding occurs. Another mystery: there are a huge number of different microspecies of dandelion, differing in sometimes minute ways from one another and living and seeding in the same general area (more than 70 in Co. Dublin alone3). ‘In the British Isles alone, 234 microspecies are recognised in nine loosely defined sections, of which 40 are “probably endemic.”4
Let’s imagine an ancestral dandelion plant – how did it come to produce all these micro-species, seeding true but each separate and without cross-breeding? Botanists don’t seem to know: ‘the humble dandelion is, indeed, as the new Webb’s An Irish Flora confirms, “a very difficult genus”, its flowers not always to be told apart, even in the hand. The American ecologist Paul Ehrlich once described the reproductive policy of dandelions as “perhaps the greatest mystery in the world of plant sex”.‘5
FOOD, DRINK, DYE …. AND RUBBER?
All over Europe and Asia the plant has been known for culinary and/ or medicinal qualities but rather than just quote hearsay and unverified publications, I prefer to pass over most of the detail of these alleged qualities as the subject requires more research than I am prepared to undertake at this time.
All of the dandelion plant is edible1, except perhaps the bloom-stem: root, leaves, buds and blooms. Which is probably how this native Eurasian plant came to colonise America (though North America does have its own native species too) – brought there as a culinary plant by European colonists. The green leaves are likely to be too bitter for many tastes unless blanched first – i.e covered to deny them sun for a week or so, when they will turn yellow and lose much of their bitterness but still remain crisp.
Dandelion wine has been made from the flowers (a gallon of flowers for a gallon of wine7, but some other ingredients must be added, as with all European plants with the exception of the grape or the gooseberry). A mildly-fermented drink, dandelion and burdock8, has also been made from a combination of the dandelion flowers and burdock roots.
The flowers have also been dried, then ground into a powder to make a light yellow dye but I lack information on its colourfastness.
The white sticky liquid (latex) in the stems and along the main rib of the larger leaves has been said to remove warts but having tried it myself without success I doubt this claim. Furthermore, I believe the remedy may be confused with a similar-looking white sap from a completely different plant, the petty spurge (also known as “milkweed” and other common names), Euphorbia peplus, which I have found efficacious. However, the white sap in the dandelion has been developed by selective cultivation in one species to replicate the latex of the rubber tree9 and dandelion rubber may one day become a familiar product.
Soon, this seemingly ubiquitous flower of many “cousins” and many uses, an opportunist colonist with thousands of daughters sailing the wind, will be brightening our ways everywhere. Once we know even some of its qualities, can we ever again look at the dandelion with disdain?
1In New Atlas of British Irish Flora, quoted by Michael Viney, “Pissey beds lion’s tooth” etc (see Sources, References)
2Ibid, also Taraxacum – ‘A very difficult genus of a multitude forms, which set seed without pollinating, and never, therefore, interbreed.’ An Irish Flora by D A Webb, Sc.D. 1977, quoted in Wildflowers of Ireland (References, Sources).
This month the shamrock is blooming all around. The cluster flower is not very prominent individually but together can produce a yellow-green carpet effect, yellow for the flowers and green for the leaves.
Who is to say that the shamrock has a yellow flower? Why not the white clover? Well, amateur botanist and zoologist Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) once asked people from around Ireland to send him specimens of what they believed to be an Irish shamrock and identified the five most common plant species, of which the two most common were the yellow (flowering) clover followed by the white.A hundred years later, Dr Charles Nelson repeated the experiment in 1988 and found that yellow clover was still the most commonly chosen. According to Wikipedia, yellow clover is also the species cultivated for sale in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day and is the one nominated by the Department of Agriculture as the “official” shamrock of Ireland.
But sometimes, the yellow-flowered speciesTrifolium dubium (Irish: Seamair bhuí) can be found growing next to the white-flowered Trifolium repens (White Clover; Irish: Seamair bhán), although they never really intermingle.
The clover family belong to a group of plants that have the ability to fix nitrogen in nodes around their roots and, as a result, provide nutrition for plants that need nitrogen.The plant, like the rest of its family, produces pods but in the shamrock’s case, the pods are tiny and contain only a single seed. Pods protect the development of seeds until they are ready to shed (or in some cases, like the gorse or furze, to explode!).
In cropped or mown lawns, or in poor soil, the shamrock hugs the ground. However, given conditions for growth but having to compete with other plants for sunlight, it will grow long stems reaching upwards.
Once flowering is over, probably in August, one can dig up a small section and transplant to flower box or pot in order to harvest sprigs of it for St. Patrick’s day on March 17th (a tradition that is nothing as old as people might think).
But nobody planted the shamrock in the lawn – it got there by its own natural methods, possibly by wind or in animal excreta. Unlike the lawn on which it has set up its colonies, which was seeded on raked earth or, more likely, laid in grass turf rolls, it is in fact a part of wildlife in the city.
The carpet is a lush deep kind of green – not too deep a green though. We didn’t order it but I’m not complaining – I like it. Much better than that yellow one we had for a while a few months back.
Next to it is another kind of carpet – very different. The same green background but covered in big blobs of yellow, brown, orange and mixtures of all three. Even some reds. The blobs are large and small, some shaped like the spades suit in a deck of cards, others like a cat’s iris, some with many points, like a star … Didn’t order that carpet either but I like it too. It might not sound that great but you’d have to see it.
There was the wallpaper too, great stretches already unrolled, ready to look at. A blue-white background with puffs of white and, in the foreground, thin black shapes, some of them decorated with those blobs of colours, like those on that carpet. Great contrast with the thin black shapes.
The carpets and wallpaper were just delivered – no order was placed by phone or email. And no request for payment by cash or credit card. Not even an invoice. Totally free! Hard to believe, I know.
Then there was the perfume. No, not in bottles, in the air. I swear! (Yes, I know that rhymes but I didn’t plan it). It was heady but not in the way that rose is, or honeysuckle, or privet flower. Those aromas make you kind of want to sit down and drowse …. or even lie down and go to sleep. Then you remember the story of the artist who died inhaling in his sleep the aroma of flowers he had in a vase to paint – and you don’t linger too long. Did that really happen? Not sure – best not take the chance. Didn’t take a chance on the dandelion flowers when you were a kid either. Waking up in a wet bed is not a pleasant experience at any age but definitely gets worse, even if rarer, as one grows older.
No, this perfume does not make you want to sit or lie down; it makes you want to jump, run (or at least stride purposefully). It is invigorating. That too was delivered free.
All of this – well, most of it – was donated by the trees. Not the green, surely? Not directly, no … but indirectly, yes. The grass grows in the earth which is fed by dead leaves and other material, broken down by insects and fungi and especially recycled through the digestive tracts of worms. May those gardeners who poison worms on their lawns be forever damned!
Before Ireland was denuded of her mixed forests, what a site she must have been!
All this visual, olfactory and mood-enhancing stuff was delivered free to us but there is, you are right to suspect it, a hidden cost. The weather is getting colder and sitting nearly naked on a beach is definitely out, to say nothing of plunging into the freezing water (well, with some lunatic exceptions). Outdoor cafe-sitting is becoming more of an endurance test than a pleasure. There are days coming when lots of good arguments (convincing at the time anyway) will be found against getting up to go about once’s business.
But then there will be glittering jeweled grass, constellation of stars in the pavement, artwork fronds on glass, white star patterns in things floating from the sky, white blankets over everything or at least over the hilltops in the distance, the special joy of a hot soup, a warm fire and blankets (if you have them) ….
And not too long away, sprouting buds pushing through bark and soil, misty green branches, a different perfume, quickening the blood in a different way.
As we have been shown this year, if we did not already know, Spring comes in its own time. Roughly around the calendar yes, but not exactly. It’s not like the clothing merchants, who withdrew the gloves in March and left people like me, who regularly lose them, with frozen hands unable to buy cheap replacements while the models stood in windows in shorts and bikinis.
But spring wild flowers are already out and have been for weeks, though the city is not a great place to see them. However in gardens, parks, canal banks and on empty sites, the dandelion, much disregarded as a decorative flower has been flaunting its bright yellow flower for weeks and will continue to do so for quite a while yet.
In early April I spent a few days in Wicklow by the Dartry river. In a very short walk to Ashford I encountered eight types of wild flowers in bloom, including furze (or gorse), daisies,
groundsel, cat’s ear, speedwell, and of course dandelion. On a longer walk heading away from the river I came upon primrose, lesser celandine and wild or barren strawberry (not knowing how to tell the two apart at this time of year). And a mystery plant also (see photo). Swathes of wild garlic (creamh), grew both sides of the country road; I had long thought this plant a foreign import but it seems I was wrong. It certainly spreads when established however, as witnessed by this Wicklow road and wooded areas of Dalkey Hill where I have also seen large patches of it. My father transplanted some to our garden but rarely used it in cooking – or if he did, not often enough, for it soon took over large areas of the smallish garden.
At a Wicklow hotel garden’s bird feeder, blue tit, chaffinch and some other species flicked in to take a snack and flicked out again, making it very difficult to photograph them but which of course did not bother them at all.
Returning through Ashford (Áth na Fuinseoige) I came across one of our
feathered anglers, the smaller grey heron. Patience personified, this species stands in the water waiting for the appropriate moment to strike, apparently not feeling the cold. But perhaps this one did feel it, for it stood on the bank.
The Gael reckoned the start of Spring with the feast of St. Brigid (and probably the Goddess Brig before her), February 1st, when the ewes come into milk, with their expected birth of lambs. As Brigid/ Brig was associated with butter in some traditions it is possible that some early butter was made from sheep’s milk, though that is not recorded in records, as far as I know. The lambs and many other animals born in Spring had no choice regarding when to appear – that had been decided in the Autumn or Summer of the year before when their mothers mated. Birds, on the other hand, who are more vulnerable, mate in the Spring itself.
In Dublin city until perhaps a week ago, there was very little sign of Spring apart from the lengthening of the day. The blind wandering poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (1779-1835), writing in the month of January, was already anticipating spring in one of his better-known poems:
Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá dúl chun síneadh,
Is tar éis na féil’ Bríde ardóigh mé mo sheol;
Ó chur mé ‘mo cheann é, ní stopfaidh mé choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.
He’s thinking of heading home to County Mayo, he feels Spring coming but will wait until Bridget’s feast day to “hoist his sail” and since it’s in his head now won’t stop till he gets there. We might have been anticipating Spring ourselves in January this year and into February — though cold and wet enough — but if so we were in for a shock towards the end of the month and into March with “snow dumps”.
The birds have to set up their territory even so and in fact the robin (Spideog) was marking its territory in song sporadically through December and January, often enough even at night in the city and particularly near street or train station lighting. The polygamous wren (Dreoilín), if not already at it followed in February. The seagulls at their nesting sites on roofs were calling and mating in mid-March but may have been delayed a little by the snow; however they are hardy birds. Some blackbird males have been singing since March and now are all in full throaty song. In March also we heard the high-pitched “peeps” of those acrobats, the tits as they foraged for invertebrates through the branches of tree and bush and at the end of April, also the bursts of chaffinch song which remind us often of caged canaries — and why not, when the canaries are often taught that very bird’s song to sing.
January was the time to hear adult foxes in the city, the somewhat frightening scream of the vixen and the two or three-times bark in quick succession of the dog fox. This month the cubs, born a month earlier, will venture out of their den and may be heard sometimes by night at play too, though this is more likely in the months to come.
The trees and ground plants apparently respond more to length and angle of sunlight to tell them it is time to grow from seed or to burst open into bud and some of them are doing so now in late April, for example the birch (Beith). Others delay and the ash trees (source of our camáin or hurley sticks and much else) are still in their black hard bud stage in late April and the oak waits along too. Trees that flower tend to do so first and put out leaf later, as the blackthorn (Draighneán donn) did in February with its little white blossoms which will develop into sloes (airne) later in the year. In March hawthorn (Sceach geal), willow (Sail, from which we get “The Sally Gardens”) and elder (Ceireachán), all of which may be seen in gardens or parks (and the elder growing even on empty sites) were already green-misting in tiny leaf and are now well advanced. The “candles” of the horse chestnut (Crann Cnó capaill), to be seen in parks and in some leafy suburb streets, are however forming alongside the tree’s large leaves right now at the end of April (Aibreán) and the rowan (Caorthann) and sycamore (Seiceamar) of the whirling seeds are also in stages of leaf.
Spring is really coming for us but for many plants, mammals and birds, it is already here.
PS: When checking The Tree Council of Ireland for tree species names in Irish, I was shocked to find that they do not supply them. Nor reference the huge number of places across the land whose names in English are corruptions of the original Irish place names derived from the names of trees.
Women’s Day and the approach of Easter again might be appropriate times to remind ourselves of the great role women in Ireland have played in the nation’s struggles. Most Irish people, including sadly some of those who wear it, will be unaware that the idea to create the Easter Lily was that of Republican women and that they were the first to produce and sell them.
The Easter Lily emblem, although in close relationship to the Easter Rising of 1916, represents to some all of those who have died for Irish freedom. Traditionally, some people will wear the emblem at Easter, whether in the paper form or enameled metal, at Easter, while some wear the latter all year around.
THE WOMEN CONCEIVE OF THE EMBLEM IDEA
In 1926, three years after the defeat of the Republican forces by those of the Irish Free State (sic), the Republican women’s organisation Cumann na mBan1 produced the Lily badges and sold them. They used them to raise funds for the Republican prisoners of the Free State and for their dependents but it was also a way for them and others to declare visibly their support for the Republicans at a time when the new State had an iron grip on its opposition, many of its enemies in jails or in concentration camps, in hiding or had left the country. The formal executions of prisoners by the State had ceased in 1923 but the assassinations carried out by CID and Irish Army murder squads had continued afterwards (80 formal executions and up to as many as 153 shooting of captured fighters and assassinations).
It may also have been intended as a visible counterpoint to the British Legion’s “Poppy”, which was worn by thousands in Ireland in those years (tens of thousands Irish had been killed in the British Army and a great many maimed) .
The 12,000 Republican prisoners of the Free State included around 400 women, members of Cumann na mBan, Sinn Féin or of the Irish Citizen Army but towards the end of 1923 most of these were released. However, it was a brave person who publicly declared their support for the defeated Republic — the banned Cumann na mBan, most of whose members had opposed the Treaty, stepped forward to occupy that dangerous public space.
A SPLIT IN THE REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT
The same year that Cumann na mBan developed the Easter Lilly, De Valera and Aiken, formerly of the Republican forces, formed the Fianna Fáil (“Soldiers of Destiny”) political party to campaign within the Dáil (the Irish Parliament) for a Republic, their elected public representatives entering in 1927, having taken the Oath of Allegiance to the Free State and of fidelity to the English monarch in Ireland.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Republican movement, IRA, most of Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin, remained opposed to participation in what they considered to be an endorsement of the partition of Ireland. During the early period thereafter Fianna Fáil continued to grow while Sinn Féin and the IRA declined in numbers and electoral votes but largely supported Fianna Fáil electorally at first, though the IRA prohibited its members from joining the party.
While Fianna Fáil was heading towards Constitutional methods, the IRA in November 1926 captured 11 Garda Síochánabarracks, in the course of which they shot dead two Gardaí. The Free State reacted immediately, interning 110 IRA men without trial the following day. The following year IRA Volunteers assassinated Free State minister Kevin O’Higgins for his responsibility in executions of Republican prisoners during the Civil War.
FROM PAPER FLOWER TO BADGE
Originally the Easter Lily was actually a three-dimensional paper flower rather than a badge. The flower on which it was modeled was the Easter Lily but now is more imagined as the Calla Lily (Zandeteschia aethiopica). Anne Matthews, who wrote a rather hostile history of Cumann na mBan, also wrote in her blog a good account of the origins of the Easter Lily emblem within the organisation.2
“In early 1926 the reformed (fourth) Sinn Fein party3 instigated the first Day of National Commemoration, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rebellion at Glasnevin Cemetery on Easter Sunday. Cumann an mBan planned to take part in this event, and early in February the executive saw an opportunity to use the event to raise some funds and perhaps increase membership and they decided to hold a flag day at the cemetery.
“Over a series of meetings of the executive committee the women discussed the idea of the flag day, and decided instead to make it a ‘Flower Day’. Sighle Humphreys said they had considered flowers that bloomed in spring such as the crocus and the pansy, but eventually decided on a flower known generically as the Easter lily (botanical name is Lilium longiforum).
“Within weeks Fiona Plunkett sent a circular letter to all branches of Cumann na mBan to explain the purpose of the Flower Day.
“ ‘The flower we have decided upon is a lily (enclosed find sample) as we consider this would be the most suitable for Easter and it has also the Republican colours…You ought to call a meeting of all Republican women and young girls… and arrange for the collection at masses and at Commemoration Parades, football matches or fairs during the preceding week.‘
“The first Republican Easter lily was a paper flower. Cumann na mBan ordered 45,000, and asked the IRA for support by issuing a joint proclamation and assisting them in selling the flower. The men refused the invitation. The first Easter lily ‘Flower Day’ made a profit of £34 (£1,453 at today’s rates — DB4) but despite their disappointment with lack of support from the IRA, they gave them half the profits. Undaunted, the women continued with the Flower Day campaign every Easter. In 1929 and Cumann na mBan in its circular proclaimed:
“Funds are needed to create an atmosphere favourable to our army… Funds are needed to educate people to resist the Free State and Northern “governments” …When you buy an Easter lily you are directly helping to overthrow foreign rule in Ireland.”
“By the early 1930s the membership of Cuman na mBan had shrunk to such small numbers they could not do it alone and an Easter lily committee was formed comprising members of Cumann na mBan, the IRA, and Sinn Fein, consequently Cumann an mBan lost control of the venture.
“In 1933, there was difficulty in sourcing Irish-made paper for the artificial flowers, and as Cumann na mBan were spearheading a ‘buy Irish’ campaign, a decision was taken to stop making the flowers and instead create a paper flag/badge, which could be worn on the lapel. However, the Lilium longiforum/ Easter Lily did not transfer well to the flag and the resulting image is more like the Calla Lily. The design they chose is the same design that is sold to this day.
“In 1937 Cumann na mBan made a statement about the money raised by the Easter lily campaign:
‘The men of Easter Week laid down a very definite road for the Irish people to travel towards freedom… All those who support the lily campaign can rest assured that the money raised is devoted to no other purpose than the propagation of these ideals and the securing of the necessary materials for their realisation.‘”
THE LILY EXTINGUISHES THE TORCH
Fianna Fáil continued its policy of participation in the Dáil in opposition until it was able to form the Government in 1932, abolished the Oath of Allegiance and brought in a new Constitution in 1937, and soon became the political party most often in Government of the Irish State. On coming into power in 1932 Fianna Fáil unbanned the IRA, released interned Republican prisoners and during the early years Republicans largely supported the party even if they didn’t join it.
Cumann na mBan continued to sell the Easter Lily and not only they, Sinn Féin and IRA wore and sold it but many supporters of Fianna Fáil also. But in the mid-1930s the differences between Fianna Fáil and Republicans who contested the legitimacy of the Dáil sharpened and during this period too the IRA grew considerably in numbers. Agitation around social conditions within the new state was attracting more people to the IRA as was the struggle against the “Blueshirt” fascist movement and their supporters among the original Free Staters’ political party, Cumann na nGaedheal. In 1935 the Fianna Fáil Government again banned the IRA, along with the Blueshirts.
In February 1935, after the IRA killed Richard More O’Ferrall (due to his eviction of 11 families from his lands in 1934), the Fianna Fáil Government cracked down hard including introducing trial without jury in the Special Criminal Courts and Military Courts, against the sentences of which no appeal was permitted.
The FF party’s leadership instructed its members to stop selling the Lily. However, as many would no doubt at least continue to purchase and wear the emblem, the party attempted to introduce a replacement badge, the “Easter Torch”.
It was abandoned after a number of years having failed to gain popularity and many FF members and supporters continuing to wear the Lily.
In 1967 Sinn Féin produced a version of the Easter Lily paper badge with a gummed surface on the reverse. This seemed an interesting innovation, doing away with the need for a pin but as the day wearing it progressed, the badge had a tendency to become unstuck at one end or another – and sometimes both – and to curl unattractively.
Sinn Féin and the IRA both experienced an acrimonious split over a number of issues in 1969 from which emerged “Official SF” (and OIRA) and Provisional Sinn Féin (and PIRA). For the annual traditional commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1970, the ‘Officials’ continued with the new gummed version while the “Provos”, less for aesthetical than for symbolic reasons perhaps, reverted to the older pin-secured version of the badge.
Whoever baptised the Official SF and OIRA “Stickies” as a result is unknown but the use of the term became so widespread as to gain almost official (forgive the pun) status. The party continued to be known by that nickname through a number of splits and incarnations and today, the Workers’ Party have not quite shaken it off.
An attempt to baptise the other Republicans as “Pinnies” or “Pinheads”never really gained ground.
SELLING THEN – WEARING TODAY
Those who sold the Easter Lily in the Six Counties or who wore it were liable to arrest under the colonial statelet’s Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (1954-1987). It was not formally illegal in the Twenty-Six Counties (the Irish State) but sellers were subject to Garda Special Branch harassment under the excuse that the sellers did not have a license to sell (they declined to ask the partitioned State for permission and perhaps they would not have been be granted one). Flags and donations were seized by Gardaí and sellers at times arrested.
“Whenever they tried grabbing the Lilies and money from me, I slung it all on the ground. Let them go picking it all up if they wanted it!” commented a veteran Republican to me a couple of years ago. One can imagine that in such a situation, onlookers might pick the money and badges up, some to return to the victim or his comrades and some perhaps to keep for themselves. In either case, the Special Branch would be presented with the difficulty of badges blowing in the wind and coins rolling in all directions.
Today, the Easter Lily is visible much less than it was up to perhaps the 1980s. It is viewed by most people who know what it represents (many do not) largely as a Republican emblem (either SF or “dissident”). That is a pity. It should be viewed, I would submit, as a badge of national resistance, of anti-imperialism and as a commemoration honouring generations of men and women who have fought the colonial occupation and exploitation of their land. But let us also remember that it was the women who created the emblem and braved non-cooperation and repression to popularise it.
1 Cumann na mBan (“The Women’s Association”) was an Irish Republican organisation formed in 1914 in Wynne’s Hotel in response to the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. It was organised, as were the Volunteers, along military lines and although set up originally as an auxiliary to the men’s organisation, it had its own uniform, structures and commanders. In that respect and in its insurrectionary intentions, it was the first women’s organisation of its kind in the world. Other revolutionary women at the time joined the Irish Citizen Army, also the first of its kind in the world, where women and men were accorded equal status. Both organisations played prominent roles in the 1916 Rising along with a number of other organisations. Cumann na mBan survived the ICA by a number of decades.
2 See url in References and Further Information at end of article
3 The word “fourth” is a reference by Matthews to the various incarnations of the party which started off as a nationalist one seeking a dual Irish and English monarchy for Ireland, with limited autonomy. The current party to which people normally refer when they say “Sinn Féin” may be seen as the party’s fifth or even sixth version, although the current party claims its origin in the first incarnation.
You sniff the scent of blooms in the air and it pleases you. But that’snot what it’s for – the scent was not manufactured to please you. Scents derived from plants are used by humans to add to their sexual allure and plants also have a sexual function in producing them — but it is not humans the plants are trying to attract.
The scents are there to attract pollinators, insects, mammals or birds that will go to them to collect pollen and/ or nectar, in the course of which they will spread pollen from plant to plant and bring about fertilisation.
There are huge numbers of different chemicals producing scents and combinations of scents and, as the plants have developed them, their pollinators have also developed the ability to distinguish between them and to home in on the appropriate ones. It is likely that inside the pollinators some kind of receptor is created which is keyed into the specific scent, in much the same way as sexual pheromones are keyed into receptors inside so many species, including humans.
These pollinators then, quite unintentionally, dive into another bloom somewhere and like some kind of romantic couriers, deliver the pollen to the eager recipient. But unromantic really, to receive fertilisation from an unknown lover, unseen and barely felt. Yet it works, as around 400,000 flowering plants testify (though not all flowers use scent — colour and form suffice for some). And it will continue to work, as long as there are pollinators around (which is turning out to be a problem with large-scale deaths of bees, by far the most active of pollinators). But the animal kingdom? With some exceptions, its members need the presence of both sexual actors or more and stimuli to engage in sexual activity that will lead to procreation: temperature, light, foods, natural odours, shape, touch, erotic imagining, poetry, music, clothing, colour …. and yes, applied plant and artificial fragrances.
The scent of flowers is composed of a variety of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), most plant scents being composed of many compounds and some of up to several hundred. Collecting, isolating and analysing these compounds present great challenges to scientists but even small insects know what they mean, like an olfactory equivalent of a neon sign: NECTAR AND POLLEN HERE!.
Some plants emit scent throughout daylight and some at specific times of day only. And some not until after the sun has set. At night of course the plants do not have much competition but which pollinators will be active at night? Moths are the big group here but there are others, such as some bats.
There’s a night-scented shrub near my home that made me want to look into this subject and write about it a little. This time of year at night it is producing a strong sweet scent (with, to my nose, just a touch of urine smell in there too). You won’t find moths flying around at this time of year in Ireland and it’s not attracting bats so I guessed that it’s a foreigner and, where it comes from, that this time of year would be perfect. The shrub in question is the “Sweet Box” (Sarcoccoca confusa) and I was not surprised to find that its “native heath” is in eastern and southeastern Asia and the Himalayas.
People like the scent but it’s kind of sad when one thinks more about it, what it’s trying to do, like posting a message of sexual availability and procreation-wish on to a dating page and …. no-one replies.
Blooms and other parts of plants also produce scents which do not appear to have any role in attracting pollinators and scientists believe that these are defensive scents to ward off herbivores. In this case the olfactory sign is saying: “HORRIBLE TASTE! REMEMBER?” Not only that but plants can increase the production of such scents as parts of them are being eaten, to the extent that their attacker feels obliged to desist1. And some scientists also speculate that scents for pollinators developed first as scents to discourage herbivores.
Given that some animal appropriators of plant products have learned to home in on the repellent scents of some plants this seems quite likely. Imagine a plant exuding a smell to ward off a herbivore and imagine an insect learning that where that particular smell is to be found, so is food such as nectar or pollen. The sign now says: HORRIBLE-TASTING TO HERBIVORES AND PARASITES but is accompanied by another sign that declares: FREE DELICIOUS FOOD FOR OTHERS! And the plants that most reach and “please” the accidental pollinators will naturally be more successful, be visited more often and spread their genes wider. Unless yet other animals learn to follow that scent in order to consume the plant, or lay their eggs on it for the larvae to feed on the plant. Cabbages and carrots for example, both of which have an odour we can identify, have eggs laid on them respectively by the cabbage butterfly and the carrot fly, which are then fed upon by the larvae as they hatch. And the butterfly and carrot fly find the plants by smell.
It is a difficult balance, to attract pollinators and yet repel herbivores and parasites and no doubt the balance is constantly being adjusted through the evolutionary processes of plants, herbivores, pollinators and parasites, in a kind of dance of love and death.
Those volatile compounds to be found in the scents of flowers almost certainly also make them difficult to keep fresh. The cut flowers business is a billion-euro one and growers have now produced blooms that last longer after cutting than they used to – sometimes for weeks. But scent?One of the most delightful scents to the human nose is that of the rose, about which songs have been sung and poems composed. Go into a florist, go to a bunch of roses and try and smell them — the chances are you won’t be able to.
Shakespeare’s Juliet, who said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”2 might say today that “A rose without a scent is but half a rose”. When you do find a rose or another flower that is sweetly scented, breathe deep and enjoy the scent … but remember it’s not made for you. It’s for another flower, through the agency of a courier, a messenger.
We are long accustomed to the association of these two symbols with Irish ethnicity and nationalism, the shamrock and the colour green — but historically can they be shown to be authentically Irish?
The shamrock symbol has been used by a number of products and services, including Aer Lingus, formerly the Irish national airline and now a subsidiary of the International Airways Group1. Both as a plant and a living symbol it is now being sold on the streets and in shops in preparation for the celebration of the male patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick on March 17th.
St. Patrick himself was a foreign import, albeit one seized unwillingly by Irish raiders. The son of a Romanised Celt it seems and probably from Wales, Patricius was kept as slave labour herding sheep until his escape but he returned as a Christian missionary and became one of the founders of the Celtic Christian Church in Ireland.
We may view this as an amazing feat in itself – Ireland was one of the few European countries which went from the old multi-gods religion to the monotheism of Judeo-Christianity in a largely peaceful transition. However the Celtic Church at least tolerated and many would say condoned many of the laws and customs of the old culture, including marriage of priests, the right to divorce by men or women and a higher status for women than was common in an increasingly feudal Europe.
The word “shamrock” is an Anglic corruption of the Irish seamróg, itself a contraction of seamair óg, meaning a sprig of young — or more likely small –clover. The Irish shamrock is usually the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover; Irish: seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (white clover; Irish: seamair bhán) with the bias towards the yellow-flowered.
Children at schools influenced by the Catholic clergy in Ireland (which was and still is in control of the vast majority of the schools within the Irish state) were taught that St. Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate the existence of the Christian Holy Trinity of the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, i.e. explaining how there may be three different aspects in one entity, as in the three leaves on the one stem of the shamrock.
A charming story but clearly without any foundation whatsoever – not only is it not mentioned in what is believed by historians to be Patrick’s autobiography but the story only emerged much later. However, the crucial case against the veracity of the story is that neither the Gaels nor the Celts in general2 had any need to be convinced of the existence of trinities of gods: in Ireland we already had the Morrigan, a female trinity of Badhb, Macha and Anand and of course the Celts had the ubiquitous triskele symbol (surviving as the national symbol of Manx) to illustrate a trinity, religious or otherwise.
The first clear association of the shamrock with St. Patrick in Ireland comes in an account by an English traveller to occupied Ireland, Thomas Dineley, who described in 1681 Irish people on St. Patrick’s Day wearing green on their clothes, including the shamrock. But the first account of St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock is not seen until 1726, when it appears in a work by Caleb Threlkeld, a botanist.
But what of the colour green? Surely that at least is authentically Irish? Well, it certainly has a longer pedigree. Dineley’s account in 1681 associates wearing green with the celebration of the feast day of St. Patrick’s, one of the three patron saints of Ireland3 (yet another trinity?). But the Catholic Confederacy of 1642-1652, an alliance of Gaelic chieftains with Norman-Irish aristocracy against the Reformation being imposed upon them, also flew a green flag, with a gold harp upon it.
The symbol of Ulster was the Red Hand from an ancient Irish myth of arrival but what was the background? Both the O’Neills and O’Donnells, dominant clans of Ulster, have designs in red and blue against a white background. Only Leinster province has a design in green and yellow.
The colour of an old design for Meath is blue. There is an old heraldic design for Ireland of three crowns on a blue background and although this was the arms granted by Richard II of England to Robert de Vere as Lord of Ireland in 13864, over two centuries after the Norman invasion, it may have drawn on the colour of an existing Irish flag or design.
The Wikipedia page on the Coat of arms of Ireland, although commenting that heraldry is a feudal practice suggests an older inspiration:
“The colour of the field is sometimes called ‘St. Patrick’s blue’, a name applied to shades of blue associated with Ireland. In current designs, used by the UK and Irish states (sic), the field is invariably a deep blue. The use of blue in the arms has been associated with Gormfhlaith, a Gaelic mythological personification of Ireland. The word Gormfhlaith is a compound of the Irish words gorm (“blue”) and flaith (“sovereign”); it is noted in early Irish texts as the name of several queens closely connected with dynastic politics in the 10th and 11th century Ireland. The National Library of Ireland, in describing the blue background of the arms, notes that in early Irish mythology the sovereignty of Ireland (Irish: Flaitheas Éireann) was represented by a woman often dressed in a blue robe.”
The designers of the Cumann na mBan flag may have been aware of the ancient claim of the colour blue when they made that the background colour of their own flag. Markievicz and Hobson would even more likely have been aware of it as well as the blue with an orange, golden or silver sunburst, alleged flag of the legendary band of warriors na Fianna, when they made that the flag of the Republican youth organisation they founded, Na Fianna Éireann.
THE GREEN FLAG
But what about the United Irishmen’s flag of green, with a golden harp? When talking about the United Irishmen we need to remember from where they received their ideological influences. These were mostly from radical and republican thinkers and agitators in Britain, the USA and France. The United Irishmen organisation was founded by Anglicans and Presbyterians, mostly colonists and settlers or their descendants and most of their leadership in the uprisings of 1798 and 18035 came from from among that section of Irish society. That goes a long way to explaining why most of the revolutionary texts of the time are in the English language, in a country where the majority even then still spoke Irish and with a rich literary and oral tradition in the Irish language.
There is a historical trend among colonists to feel disadvantaged with regard to their compatriots back in “the mother country”, to resent levels of taxation, to complain of inadequate representation and of corrupt or inefficient government. This occurred in English-speaking America and led to the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. It also occurred in the other America, where the Spanish-speaking colones developed conflicts with the Spanish Kingdom and eventually rose in rebellion against it across South and Central America, eventually gaining independence for a number of states.
A similar process was taking place in Ireland, where the disaffected who belonged to the established church, the Anglican or Church of Ireland, understood that to create a strong autonomous nation, even as part of the English-ruled unity of nations, they would need to bring into government the greater majority, the Presbyterians 6 and even the overwhelming majority, the Catholics (i.e the native Irish).
Henry Grattan attempted this by trying to get the excluded denominations admitted to the Irish Parliament but Crown bribery, sectarianism or fear of having to return lands grabbed by their grandparents or others, combined to have a majority vote the proposals down. That ensured that the organisers of the United Irishmen would realise that no progress to their objectives was possible without revolution.
Irish nationalists among the descendants of colonists often adopted Irish symbols and some other Irish identifiers as a sign of difference from the English. There was some interest in the Irish language but it does not appear to have been widely studied by most Irish Republicans of the time as witnessed by the incorrect appellation of “Erin” for Ireland – any Irish-speaker would know that Éire is the nominative form for the country and ‘Éireann’ is employed in the genitive and dative cases. United Irishmen were involved in organising the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, while folk-song collectors and antiquarians dug among the people and archives for survivals of an older Irish culture.
The Harp, an ancient Irish musical instrument employed also to accompany poetry recitation was employed as a symbol by the Unitedmen — often with the motto “ ‘Tis new-strung and shall be heard”. In addition, the English had long recognised the instrument as a symbol for Ireland, albeit under the Crown.
THE COLOUR GREEN
But where did the colour green come from to be associated with Irish nationalism? This question could do with more research than I have the time or other facilities to devote to it but one may comment what green is not: it is neither the Red of Royal England nor the Blue of Royal France. Nor is it the red with a white saltire of the Order of St. Patrick, another colonial creation and clearly of Royal and colonial origin and patronage, created at the time of a bubbling of the nationalist pot in Ireland and only sixteen years before the 1798 Uprising.
Interestingly, the Irish Brigade (1688–1791) of the French Army did include the colour green in its flag design, four quarters alternately green and red, with a crown in each. And the standard of Napoleon’s La Légion Irlandaise in 1841 is described as of “emerald green”.
William Drennan (1754–5 February 1820), United Irishman, is credited with first use of the description “Emerald Isle” in his poem When Erin First Rose and it was much later re-used in the ballad Bold Robert Emmet. John Sheils, a Drogheda Presbyterian and United Irishman, employed the harp, the colour green, St. Patrick, Erin (sic) and the shamrock all in his song The Rights of Man, which he composed some years prior to the 1798 Rising. The “three-leaved plant” which is “three in one” is used in Sheils’ song:
“to prove its unity in that community
that holds with impunity to the Rights of Man”
The trinity there is clearly the political one desired by the Unitedmen of Protestant (Anglican), Catholic and Dissenter (Presbyterian and other sects).
Green was widely worn by people with United Irish sympathies and particularly during repression by Orange militia, people wearing green were targeted. However, if one wanted to wear a suspect nationalist colour, how safer than to do so than on the feast day of the alleged founder of Christianity in Ireland and acknowledged by Protestant, Sects and Catholics alike?
From the United Irishmen onwards, green has been unarguably associated with Irish nationalism and Irish Republicanism, in the flags of the Fenians, the Irish Volunteers and even of the Irish Citizen Army, also part of the tricolour flag awarded by Parisian revolutionary women to the Young Irelanders which is now the national flag of the Irish state. Green was also the colour of the flag of the St. Patrick’s Battalion that fought for Mexico against the invasion by the USA (1846-’48) and of ceremonial uniforms of some Irish formations during the American Civil War along with the main colour of some of their regimental flags, also of the flags of the Fenian veterans of that war invading Canada in 1866.
Does it matter whether green is authentically an ancient Irish colour or not? Would Irish Republicanism or nationalism be de-legitimised if it could be proven the colour they are using was of dubious origin or of comparatively recent political significance for Ireland? I don’t think so. But it is good to be aware of the different origins of symbols and to question and even challenge what is handed to us as unquestionably authentic.
However, enough people have now fought under the green in eight uprisings in Ireland and struggles abroad; enough people have laid down their lives under the colour and indeed, once it became a symbol of Irishness, enough Irish have been persecuted, prosecuted and even executed for wearing it, to ensure that “wherever green is worn” can be Irish. And in that representation, the shamrock too, which of course happens to be green, and could be passed off as a devotional symbol to suspicious authorities and murderously insecure and sectarian minorities of colonial origin, has its place.
The Wearing o’ the Green
(by John Keegan “Leo” Casey (1846 – March 17, 1870). Keegan, known as the Poet of the Fenians, was an Irish poet, orator and republican who was famous for authorship of this song, apparently written when he was 15 and also as the writer of the song “The Rising of the Moon” (to the same air), also as one of the central figures in the Fenian Rising of 1867. He was imprisoned by the English and by a huge irony died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1870 at the age of 24).
O Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that’s goin’ round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more Saint Patrick’s Day we’ll keep, his colour can’t be seen
For there’s a cruel law ag’in the Wearin’ o’ the Green.”
I met with Napper Tandy7, and he took me by the hand
And he said, “How’s poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?”
“She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they’re hanging men and women there for the Wearin’ o’ the Green.”
So if the colour we must wear be England’s cruel red
Let it remind us of the blood that Irishmen have shed
And pull the shamrock from your hat, and throw it on the sod
But never fear, ’twill take root there, though underfoot ’tis trod.
When laws can stop the blades of grass from growin’ as they grow
And when the leaves in summer-time their colour dare not show
Then I will change the colour too I wear in my caubeen
But till that day, please God, I’ll stick to the Wearin’ o’ the Green.
But if, at last, her colours should be torn from Ireland’s heart
Her sons, with shame and sorrow, from the dear old soil will part;
I’ve heard whispers of a Country that lies far beyond the sea,
Where rich and poor stand equal, in the light of Freedom’s day!
O Erin! must we leave you driven by the tyrant’s hand!
Must we ask a Mother’s blessing, in a strange but happy land,
Where the cruel Cross of England’s thralldom’s never to be seen:
But where, thank God! we’ll live and die, still Wearing of the Green!