Drowning the seamróg

‘When they wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit Excess in Liquor, which is not a right keeping of a Day to the Lord; Error generally leading to debauchery.”. By Matthew Jebb

The language alone tells you that this is not a recent media moan about Paddy's day bacchanalia, but in fact comes from Ireland's very first flora – Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum – published in 1726. The author of this fabulous take on Dublin culture in Swift's day, Caleb Threlkeld, was a physician and a dissenting clergyman from Cumberland, England, who tended to the poor on weekdays and delivered hell-fire sermons on the Sabbath.

Intriguingly, this reference to clover also represents the very first account of the tradition of St Patrick and the shamrock. Although everyone assumes that St Patrick's use of the shamrock leaf as a metaphor for the Mystery of the Trinity has some historical grounding, this has proved far from certain. Whilst the wearing of the shamrock was well attested at this time, Threlkeld is the first to report, “It being a Current Tradition, that by this three-leaved grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.” 

St Patrick was little mentioned by early chroniclers of the Church in Ireland, and indeed no mention is made of the shamrock in this regard. However, he was no doubt a persuasive speaker to dismantle the power of the religious leaders of the day – Celtic god Lugh, amongst other Tuatha Dé Danann, as well as his high priests.

The powerful symbol of the tri-spiral at Newgrange or other megalithic sites in Ireland would no doubt have been heaven-sent opportunities for St Patrick to demonstrate that the Mystery of the Trinity was already known to the Irish. But in order to ensure that the associated memories of the tri-spiral would fade, the analogy was perhaps deliberately moved to the lowly shamróg. The young clover carried no risk of revival of an old religion or belief system. Even now the tri-spiral symbol, the origin of which is purely conjecture, is still a very potent design, and its widespread use as a logo is testament to the power, and danger, that such a simple design can carry. But has it now been drowned in the Seamróg?