AN SEAMRÓG — THE THREE-LEAVED PLANT

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

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.

Trifolium dubium, the lesser clover, an seamair bhuí, top of the candidate list for the “shamrock” title.
(Photo: Internet)

 

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) asked people 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.

Wood Sorrel — defintely not the shamrock, despite numerous claims since Edmund Spenser, the Elizabethan poet.
(Photo: Internet)

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, belonging in 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.

End

 

FURTHER READING

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trifolium_repens

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trifolium_dubium

http://slowfoodireland.com/food/foraging/wild-sorrels/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxalis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Colgan

 

FOOTNOTES

1 In North America, Oxalis montana is also called “common wood sorrel”.

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LÁ FHÉILE STIOFÁIN/ ST. STEPHENS’ DAY

Singing Wren 46 (Michael Finn)  ” We made it!  We made it!  Safe for another year!”

Wren on rock

“Shut up, you idiot!  The day’s not over yet!”

Meanwhile, not far away ….

Wren Boys SligoMummers Sligo maybe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WREN-BOY TRADITION IN IRELAND

In England it is called “Boxing Day” but in Ireland the 26th of December is “St. Stephen’s Day”.  Despite the Christian designation it has long been the occasion in Ireland for customs much closer to paganism.

It was common for a group of boys (usually) to gather and hunt down a wren.  The wren can fly but tends to do so in short bursts from bush to bush and so can be hunted down by determined boys.  The bird might be killed or kept alive, tied to a staff or in a miniature bower constructed for the occasion.

The Wren Boys would then parade it from house to house while they themselves appeared dressed in costume and/or with painted faces.  In some areas they might only carry staff or wands decorated with colourful ribbons and metallic paper while they might in other areas dress in elaborate costumes, some of them made of straw (Straw Boys) and these were sometimes also known as Mummers although a distinction should be drawn between these two groups.  The Mummers in particular would have involved acting repertoires with traditional character roles and costumes, music and dance routines while the simpler Wren Boys might each just contribute a short dance, piece of music or song.  In all cases traditional phrases were used upon arrival, the Mummers having the largest repertoire for in fact they were producing a kind of mini-play.

The origins of the customs are the subject of debate but a number of Irish folk tales surround the wren.  The bird is said in one story to have betrayed the Gaels to the Vikings, leading to the defeat of the former.  There is a Traveller tradition that accuses the wren of betraying Jesus Christ to soldiers while another tradition has the bird supplying the nails (its claws) for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Yet another tradition has the wren as King of the Birds, having used its cunning in a competition to determine who would be the avian King, hiding itself under the Eagle’s wind and flying out above the exhausted bird when it seemed to have won, having left all others behind and could fly no higher.

By the 1960s the Wren Boy custom was beginning to die out even in areas where it had held fast but it slowly began to be revived by some enthusiasts.  Nowadays fake wrens are used.  Christmas Day in Ireland was traditionally a day to go to religious service and to spend at home with family or to go visiting neighbours.  It was not a day of presents or of lights or Christmas Trees, customs brought in by the English colonizers in particular from Prince Albert, the British Queen Victoria’s royal consort, who was German.  St. Stephen’s Day may have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the wren being a bird that on occasion sings even in winter) but moved to a Christian feast day; in any case it produced colour and excitement at a time which did not have the religious and commercial Christmas season to which, in decades, we have become accustomed.

The lovely song The Boys of Barr na Sráide from a poem by Sigerson Clifford takes as its binding thread the boys in his childhood with whom Sigurson went “hunting the wren”.  It is sung here by Muhammed Al-Hussaini (currently resident in London and part of the singing circle of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí na hÉireann, meeting in the Camden Irish Centre).  There are recordings of others performing this song well but the unusual origin of this one as well as its quality persuaded me to choose this one.  In addition, I had the pleasure of participating in a singing circle with this lovely and modest singer in London in October this year (see The London Visit on the blog), who greeted me in Irish.  Muhammed also plays the violin on this, accompanied by Mark Patterson on mandolin and Paul Sims on guitar.

 

ends.