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SHAMROCKS AND FOUR-LEAF CLOVERS

March 15, 2015

One of our grandsons has a knack for finding four-leaf clovers. Recently, when he stooped to pick one, I was reminded of the legend of Saint Patrick.

The story of the life of Saint Patrick is a mixture of fact and fiction. Captured by pirates and taken into slavery in Ireland, Patrick learned the language and culture of the Celtic people. Years later, when he returned to Ireland as a Christian bishop and missionary, Patrick is said to have converted the entire country in less than thirty years. He convinced Druid priests and peasants alike that they would become the people of God by accepting Christianity.

Historically, Ireland had very few Christian martyrs. The willingness of the Irish people to accept Christianity was due in large part to Patrick’s familiarity with their culture and Celtic beliefs. The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of their ancient religion. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility cults of the Celts.

According to legend Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion. The shamrock has since become a symbol associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17.

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 plants have each represented the shamrock in Celtic artwork through the centuries. It became a popular decorative motif in Victorian times.

Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock of Ireland. The Gaelic word from which shamrock is derived means little clover. Many lawns in the Upstate of South Carolina, including my own backyard, feature a patch of white clover. Oxalis is also displaying dainty purple flowers in my garden, and black medic is beginning to show new growth.

Traditionally clover has been valued for its medicinal properties. In times of famine Irish peasants ate leaves of the white clover.

In the nineteenth century, the shamrock became a symbol of rebellion against the English. Strongly associated with Irish identity, the plant has subsequently become the emblem of Ireland.

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.

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 knew how to find 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 my sisters, and now our grandson, we have few family members who can spot the tiny four-leaf treasures. Mama’s talent for discovering the lucky leaves was as rare as the tiny charms.

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.

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