What is Ireland's national flower?

Written by john e. roper
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What is Ireland's national flower?
A bed of shamrocks (Getty Thinkstock)

Ireland does not have a national flower. However, the shamrock is a registered trademark of the Republic of Ireland and is also the unofficial national flower of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Despite its unofficial status, and the fact that many people do not consider the clover a flower, the floral industry usually designates it as the Republic of Ireland's national flower while the British government also calls it the national flower for their Northern Ireland territory on British prime minister's website.

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Taxonomy of the Shamrock

In Gaelic, the word "seamrog" (or "shamrock" as the British spelt it to reflect its approximate pronunciation) means clover. While the word normally refers to white clover (Trifolium repens) or lesser clover (Trifolium dubium), shamrock is sometimes used for other three-leaf plants in Ireland such as wood-sorrel, black medic and red clover. The four-leafed clover, an uncommon variety of clover used as a good luck charm, is also often called a shamrock.

The Shamrock in Legend

The shamrock has been a symbol of Irish identity for centuries and has played significant roles in both the legends and history of the Emerald Isle. According to some Irish legends, the Druids of the country's Celtic past believed the shamrock was sacred because of its three leaves, three being an important number in the Druidic religion. Another legend, this time about St. Patrick, states that Ireland's patron saint used the leaves of the shamrock on his travels to explain the Holy Trinity.

The Shamrock in History

The Irish Volunteers, a militia group formed in Belfast in 1778, was the first military organisation to wear the shamrock. During the government-endorsed religious persecution of the 1800s, many Irish Catholics adopted the shamrock in remembrance of St. Patrick and as a symbol of their faith. This was a risky practice, as death by hanging was the punishment imposed on anyone caught wearing one. The shamrock became so associated with nationalist movements in the 19th century that the British government banned their use by Irish regiments. However, now it is an official insignia of the Royal Irish Regiment.

The Shamrock and Culture

The shamrock is often part of the bridal bouquet and the groom's boutonnière in Irish weddings, an inclusion that symbolises a wish for good luck during the marriage. On St. Patrick's Day, it is part of a toasting ritual called "drowning the shamrock," according to the Irish Culture and Customs website. It has also been the subject of poetry such as in Thomas Moore's ballad "Oh the Shamrock" of 1812 and in politically-charged songs like "The Wearin' O' The Green" of 1798.

Other Uses of the Shamrock

The flag of Montreal, Canada, has a shamrock in its lower right corner in recognition of the large ethnic population of Irish immigrants it had when the city's coat of arms was created. Irish airline Aer Lingus uses the shamrock as a symbol on its planes. The logo for the Boston Celtics, a professional basketball team, features a leprechaun adorned with several shamrocks. Numerous companies, clubs and organisations in the United States also use the shamrock in their logos.

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