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“Of Shamrocks, Four-leaf Clovers, and Mama”

March 1, 2007

I have never known anyone who enjoyed throwing a party quite like my mother did. Mama loved decorating her home for every holiday – Christmas and Easter, Valentine’s Day and Halloween. Her eight children and our spouses, her forty-five grandchildren and their friends, all looked forward to the succession of holidays at Mama’s house. Saint Patrick’s Day attracted leprechauns, young and old, and elves of every size to Mama’s house. In March, her home was decorated with shamrocks.

In the Upstate of South Carolina, many lawns include a patch of white clover. The white clover plant is the shamrock of Ireland. The Gaelic word seamrog means little clover. At least five plant species have been identified as shamrocks – white clover, lesser clover, red clover, black medic, and common wood sorrel or oxalis. These different plants have each represented the shamrock in Celtic artwork through the centuries. Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock.

According to Irish legend, the Celtics regarded the shamrock as a sacred plant because its leaves formed a triad. The shamrock was traditionally used for its medicinal properties and was a popular decorative motif in Victorian times. The Irish peasants actually ate shamrocks in times of famine.

In the 19th century, the shamrock became a symbol of rebellion against the English. It became strongly associated with Irish identity. The shamrock has subsequently become the emblem of Ireland,

The shamrock has become a symbol associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17.  According to tradition, Saint Patrick used the plant in the 5th century to illustrate a Christian doctrine. He taught that each of the three leaves illustrated the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of the Holy Trinity. In Irish tradition, when a shamrock is found with the fourth leaf, it represents God’s grace.

My mother was the champion when it came to finding four-leaf clovers. Walking across a yard while pregnant, holding one child by the hand, and carrying a baby on her hip, Mama could still spot the rare four-leaf clover. I have seen her gather a half dozen four-leaf specimens while others who were searching in the same clover patch came up empty.

One afternoon, while traveling to North Carolina for her older sister’s birthday, Mama searched a clover patch at a rest area. It was the day she established her own personal record. In less than an hour she found seventy-five four-leaf clovers. She gave them to her sister as a gift for her seventy-fifth birthday. Mama just had a knack for discovering the lucky charms.

The four-leaf clover is a long-standing symbol of good fortune. White clover was held in high esteem by the early Celts as a charm against evil spirits. Druids considered the four-leaf clover a sign of luck. The mystique of the four-leaf clover continues today. Finding a four-leaf clover is still a rare occurrence. It has been estimated that there are approximately 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every single four-leaf clover.

Apart from the significance of the leaves of a shamrock identified by Saint Patrick, others say the leaves of a four-leaf clover represent faith, hope, love, and luck. In 1948, Art Mooney recorded a song about the four-leaf clover. I remember hearing my mother sing the song while she looked for four-leaf clovers. The words of the song ascribe an alternate meaning to the four leaves of the rare clover.

 I’m looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.
One leaf is sunshine, the second is rain,
Third is the roses that grow in the lane.
No need explaining, the one remaining
Is somebody I adore.
I’m looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.

Mama died in April 2001, three days after Easter. Though she had lived with congestive heart failure for several years, she actually died unexpectedly from a stroke. At the time of her death, her home was still decorated with an Easter motif. After her funeral, I discovered in her garage two wilted shamrocks in pots, leftovers from Saint Patrick’s Day. They were the black medic variety. These shamrocks feature dark leaves in the familiar three-leaf configuration and delicate white flowers.

With Dad’s permission, I transplanted the spent shamrocks in my garden. They lived, and each spring they reappear, larger than the year before, as a memorial to Saint Patrick and my mother.

The summer after my mother died, I spent an hour or so one afternoon searching a clover patch for four-leaf treasures. Alas, my search was to no avail. The four-leaf clover queen had gone to greener fields of shamrocks. With the exception of one of my sisters, Mama’s talent for finding the rare lucky charm was not passed down to her children.

Several months after Mama died, I was looking through old photographs she had collected. Stashed among the many family pictures was a small waxed paper packet. When I held it up to the light, I could see through the translucent package. Pressed and preserved by Mama were five four leaf-clovers.

Finding a four-leaf clover is simply a matter of knowing where to look.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, March 2007

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