Nobody can say with absolute certainty which specific plant is the “dear little shamrock” and perhaps it was a name given to several plants. The most widely accepted candidates are the species Trifolium dubium (Irish: Seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (White Clover; Irish: Seamair bhán). The yellow-flowering one, a native plant to Ireland and the European mainland, goes by a number of common names in English: Lesser Trefoil, Suckling Clover, Little Hop Clover and Lesser Hop Trefoil.
Right now, the yellow is flowering. Once established, this plant thrives on lawns that are regularly mowed and it has little competition for light or alimentation (though it may not grow as lushly as in damper places) and there it establishes colonies, shamrock patches among the mown grass. Now, in early June, the lawn is dotted with patches of yellow flowers, to be visited by insect pollinators, soon to produce seeds. The plant, like the rest of its family, produces pods but in this 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).
People who like their lawns smooth and well-tended may resent clover patches since they tend not to wear as well as the mixed grasses with which lawns are seeded. Nevertheless, the plant is benefiting the soil and indeed the nearby grasses. It belongs to the clovers, belonging in turn to a very large group of plants in as different in appearance from one another as peas and beans on the one hand and furze (also known as gorse) on the other (but many bearing fruit pods). They are the legume group, plants that concentrate nitrogen in nodules around their roots, making many of them good crops with which to precede plants that require a lot of nitrogen, such as the cabbage family or cereals.
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.
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 yellow 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.
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 enamelled 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 (overall 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 of 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 Féin 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 na 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 Cumann 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 Féin, 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.
The Shamrock, contrary to expectations, cannot be said to be a specific plant. It is of course a kind of clover but which one? People writing about it frequently state that it is generally accepted that the most likely candidates are the species Trifolium dubium (variously called Lesser Trefoil, Suckling Clover, Little Hop Clover and Lesser Hop Trefoil; Irish: Seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (White Clover; Irish: Seamair bhán). But which one? Well, excuse the pun but take your pick.
Generally accepted by whom? One supposes by botanists and Irish folklorists but those sites rarely supply a reference. However, amateur botanist and zoologist Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) askedpeople from around Ireland 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 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 Wikipeida, 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.
The word “shamrock” is an Anglic corruption of the Irish seamróg, itself a contraction of seamair óg, meaning a sprig of young 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).
A trawl through the internet looking for images of shamrock plants throws up a bewildering multiplicity of images of trefoil plants, the only thing they have in common being that they are (mostly) green. It soon becomes apparent that many of the images are taken from a different genus, that of oxalis, usually the one named wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) in English-speaking Europe1.
People today should know better. Edmund Spenser, an anti-Irish colonist and commentator on Irish culture, also poet and ancestor of the late Princess Diana, reported the Irish eating shamrock and so have some other colonial observers but almost certainly what they observed was the Irish eating the wood-sorrel – in Ireland it has some common names associated with eating. Spenser and other colonists can be blamed for many things but not that confusion – they were not botanists and did not have access to the Internet. Also, seamsóg, the Irish name for wood-sorrel, does sound a bit like seamróg, especially if one is not listening carefully. The confusion can be continued in English, where the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a completely different plant and a common enough culinary one.
Many species of the genus oxalis close their leave sand flowers at night – a handy trick which the trifolii do not have; indeed, try as they may, trifolii could not possibly close their flowers since each one is in the form of a cluster, while those of oxalis tend to be trumpet-shaped.
The wood-sorrel grows typically in woods which are shady but not too dark and is characterised, as with many other oxalis, by an acidic taste in the stems. As children in the area in which I grew up in south Co. Dublin we chewed the stems of a cultivated species with large green leaves and pink flowers,commonly grown in window-boxes and gardens and known to us by the name of “Sour Sallies”.
The shamrock (both varieties of trifulium) grows best in meadows receiving a fair amount of sunlight, in among grasses. It belongs to the clovers, a different family completely from oxalis, belongingin turn to a very large group of plants as different in appearance from one another as peas and beans on the one hand and furze (also known as gorse) on the other (but many bearing fruit pods). They are the legume group, plants that concentrate nitrogen in nodules around their roots, making many of them good crops with which to precede plants that require a lot of nitrogen, such as the cabbage family or cereals.
The expression “in the clover” as an idiom for being successful or having a good time alludes to the alleged fondness of grazing animals for the plants but this is much more likely to be the white clover, Trifolium repens (Irish: seamair bhán) than dubium, as the former grows bigger and thicker. Clovers are important plants not only for grazing animals and nitrogen-fixing but also for bee-keepers, being rich in nectar and pollen.
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!
The inhabitants of this land have fought invaders for at least a thousand years, some successfully and some less so. Many of the invaders were assimilated. Throughout this time, other invaders have quietly entered and spread throughout the land, mostly without encountering any organised opposition.
Last month and perhaps occasionally since, your nose might have picked up a scent drifting towards you, particularly as evening drew near but also at other times. The aroma I speak of is one of those scents that is difficult to describe and that actually seems to change from time to time and also according to whether one is right beside it or farther away. Sometimes it seems musky and very pleasant while at other times is not so welcome.
The scent may have been from the blossoms of the Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerus), a dense thicket-forming shrub that grows to small tree size with a strong thick trunk covered in a smooth dark grey bark. It is neither a cherry variant nor a laurel (or bay), which its leaves supposedly resemble, these being thick and dark green but poisonous (containing cyanide). The blossoms, white flowers clustered on upright spikes, produce blackish fruit in the Autumn about the size of cherries which are also poisonous to humans. Originally from South-West Asia, it was introduced into Irish gardens as a shrub or hedge plant (uses to which it is still put) but it has “escaped” and established itself in the wild.
The Cherry Laurel has become very successful and a resultant problem for bio-diversity in Ireland. A quick perusal of the on-line references do not reveal the reason for its success; it tends to be grouped alongside another invasive species, the Rhododendron, which deposits a chemical in the ground surrounding it, thereby preventing other plant species competing with it for light, moisture and nutrients. Like the Cherry Laurel, the Rhododendron is a plant species invasive to Ireland. Of course, since Ireland was almost entirely covered in ice 20,000 years ago, nearly all of the plant life now naturalised on our island had to have been invasive species originally — including trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, ferns …
Invasive species are not always harmful to the existing balance (or to humans) but clearly they have to have some means of competing with the existing flora (plant life) or they would have been unable to establish themselves. They may have better protection against herbivorous animals (undoubtedly the Cherry Laurel has at least that), or against insect or snail attack, or even against fungi (such as the ‘blight’ that attacked the potato a number of times in Ireland in the 1840s). Or they may be able to occupy a niche not well exploited so far, as one of the Buddleja species has done (literally, one might say), growing out of thin gaps in stone or brick walls or on waste ground, its racemes of mauve or purple flowers attracting butterflies and other insects for pollination and later scattering its seeds on the wind.
The Luftwaffe helped the spread of the plant in Britain; so common did this shrub become on waste ground after the Second World War that it earned the popular name of « Bombsite Plant ». The species in question is Buddleja Davidii and according to The Online Atlas of British and Irish Flora, it was introduced into cultivation in the 1890s, quickly becoming very popular in gardens. By 1922 it was known to be naturalised in the wild in Merioneth and in Middlesex by 1927; it is shown as locally well established in S. England in the 1962 Atlas and “In recent decades it has spread rapidly throughout lowland Britain and, to a lesser extent, Ireland.” It is certainly ubiquitous in Dublin city and surrounds.
Buddleja (pronounced “budd-lee-ah) has about 100 species native to all continents except Europe and Australasia but a number of species and cross-breds are cultivated in European gardens, including the escapologist davidii. Although nearly all are shrubs growing to at most 5m (16ft) tall, a few species qualify as trees, the largest reaching 30m (98ft). There are both evergreen and deciduous species, not that unusual among trees and shrubs, as appropriate in tropical and temperate regions respectively. Some of the South American species have evolved long red flowers to attract hummingbirds, rather than insects, as exclusive pollinators.
In Ireland, far from hummingbirds, davidii’s racemes of tiny purple or mauve flowers are a welcome sight as they flower in July, less so as the flowers, having done their work, die and turn brown (though repeated dead-heading can extend flowering until September). The flowers are scented but less so than those of the similar but not closely-related Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) which, incidentally, is an aggressive coloniser in parts of Southern Europe and of the USA. The roots of davidii will do some damage to house walls and chimney stacks if allowed to become established, when pulling them out becomes impossible and the stump would need treating with an appropriate chemical. Checked early, it is easily controllable.
Another successful wall climber in Ireland is the Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber), sometimes known as Jupiter’s Beard. Despite its common name, the flowers are often pink or even white and at times clumps of two or even all three colours may be seen growing alongside one another. This one likes the tops of walls rather than the sides and grows well on dry or stony soil too.
Its seeds are wind-driven too and from anecdotal evidence, it made particular use of the railway cuttings and lines to distribute itself throughout Ireland.
Despite its name, it is not closely related to the true Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and no medicinal properties have been discovered in Centranthus. The leaves and the root may be eaten but there seems to be no great lobby recommending it as food. Its scent is rather rank to the human nose.
Originally from S.W. Europe and the Mediterranean region, the plant was grown in Britain as early as 1597, according to Online Atlas of British & Irish Flora. Like some cases in human history, when the newcomers were first invited and then became invaders, Red Valerian was first imported to be grown in gardens. By 1763 it was recorded in the wild in Cambridgeshire. Now it is to be found all over Ireland and is generally welcomed. Like some of the invading Vikings, Normans and English, Red Valerian and Buddleja have become part of the Ireland we know today and there seems no need to organise a resistance to them; the Cherry Laurel and the Rhododendron, despite the scent of one and the colour of the other, are a different case altogether.