Skip to content


March 13, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to the  Alzheimer’s Association, 901 South Pine Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 542-9998.

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 Celtic people’s language and culture. 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 Irish people’s willingness to accept Christianity was due mainly 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.

The holiday celebrating all things Irish is right around the corner. St. Patrick’s Day conjures images of shamrocks, leprechauns, Irish whiskey, green beer, and other symbols associated with Ireland’s patron saint.  People of every background have adopted March 17 as an international holiday. Key signs are part of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. In addition to Kelly green clothing and Irish flags, shamrocks are commonly seen decorating homes and people.

The word shamrock comes from the Gaelic seamrog, which is the diminutive form of the Irish word for clover and translates roughly as young clover.

Our garden features a lovely green grassy area. Recently, we applied an all-purpose, slow-release fertilizer to the lawn. When I purchased the bag, the salesperson asked if I wanted a weed killer in the mix. I declined. My motto for our yard is “If it is green and growing, leave it alone.” Of course, it all needs to be cut regularly. Dandelions have bright yellow blooms. Clover is a grass-like plant, and bees use the white flowers as a prime source of pollen for honey production.

Several healthy patches of clover are scattered quilt-like across our lawn. Last week, two of our granddaughters searched diligently for the prized four-leaf clover. Their quest ended without finding even one.

Three- and four-leaf clovers are a part of Irish imagery. They are commonly thought to have arrived in Ireland with Saint Patrick. Before Christianity and the ministry of Patrick, the Druids believed that they could thwart evil spirits and other dangers by carrying a shamrock. A three-leaf shamrock would enable them to see the evil spirits in time to escape. A four-leaf clover was said to ward off bad luck and offer magical protection. The Druids helped establish the clover as a Celtic charm, and other folklore indicates clovers helped people see fairies and chase the little sprites.

Around 400 in the Common Era, in many areas of the world, including Ireland, pagan beliefs were being replaced in favor of Christianity. The Irish were slowly converted to a new religion. This included a new way of looking at some once-popular Pagan symbolism. According to legend, Eve is said to have carried a four-leaf clover out of the Garden of Eden. Some believe that those who grasp four-leaf clovers hold a bit of paradise in their hands. Christians also thought clovers were a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Irish stories suggest that Saint Patrick used a shamrock to teach the principles of the Trinity. A three-leaf clover represents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Should a four-leaf clover be found, it is considered the Trinity plus God’s grace. The four-leaf clover looks like a cross, giving four-leaf clovers special meaning to some people.

Since the 18th century, the shamrock has been a symbol of Ireland. It was used as an emblem by rival militias and later was incorporated into the Royal Coat of Arms in the United Kingdom, alongside the rose of England and thistle of Scotland.

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

According to legend, Patrick not only used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But the clover’s 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.

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. Many lawns in the Upstate of South Carolina, including my backyard, feature a patch or two of white clover.  Oxalis also displays dainty purple flowers in my garden, and black medic is beginning to show new growth.

I have never have 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 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 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 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 two wilted shamrocks in pots in her garage, 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 to 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. Except for my sisters and 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 small 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.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: