By Diarmuid Moore
THE first claim ot the shamrock to public attention was not as the Irish national emblem, but rather as an article of food. For almost a century from the date of its earliest appearance in literature, the shamrock presents itself solely as a bread-stuff or food herb of Ireland, probably so used only in times of famine or scarcity of corn.
The custom of the Irish eating what purports to be shamrock is mentioned in 1570 by a Flemish botanist named Lobel, whose memory has been kept alive by the flower lobelia.
Blessed Edmund Campion, in his "History of Ireland", written in 1569 and published in 1571, mentions "Shamrotes, Watercresses, and other herbs they feed upon."
There are many references to the shamrock as an article of food during Elizabethan times. Spencer, describing in 1595 the frightfulness of the Munster Wars, mentions the use of watercresses and shamrocks as items of food. There is no reason to believe that this shamrock food was used at any date later than 1682.
Curious as it may seem now, the shamrock as a food was supplanted by the potato. A Dublin doctor writing in 1772 shows that it had altogether ceased as a vegetable food in his own time, but says it was a staple food of the Irish in former times.
In the great mass of early Latin and Irish . literature dealing with the acts of St. Patrick there is not a single reference to the incident which popular belief now so generally associates with the shamrock. It is commonly believed that St. Patrick used the shamrock to demonstrate to the pagan Irish the fundamental truth of the Blessed Trinity. The legend which connects St. Patrick with the shamrock did not in fact make its appearance in literature until at least 1727.
In 1896 Nathaniel Colgan, a Dublin botanist, in an article contributed to the "Journal Of The Royal Society Of Antiquaries" gives to the general reader the result of his many years of research.
"Though popular belief assigns to the use ot the shamrock as our national badge, and origin in the days of St. Patrick. it seems hardly possible to concede any great antiquity to the tradition which associates the plant with the evangelist of Ireland." (Journal R.S.A.1 Vol. XXVI).
While the Trinity legend did not make its appearance until 1727, the shamrock as a badge or emblem appears in literature in 1681. One Thomas Dinely, an Englishman who travelled Ireland in the reign of Charles II. remarks that "the vulgar (i.e. the ordinary people) superstitiously wear shamroges which they likewise eat to cause sweet breath.
According to Colgan, Swift writing to Stella from London in 1712 or 1713 makes no mention at all of Shamrocks: "It was St. Patrick's Day and the Mall was so full of crosses that I thought all the world was Irish".
It appears that the Irish in London wore green crosses on their National Feast during the early eighteenth century and that shamrock was unknown among them.
Mr. Gratton Flood in an interesting article in the Jesuit periodical the "Month" in 1921, has claimed great antiquity for the shamrock because of the shamrock ornaments in the Book of Kells, in the St. Gall Antiphonary of 870, as on tip many crosses which are found throughout the Irish countryside.
But, as Dr. Ludwig Bieler points out in his book "The Life and Legend of St. Patrick", there is no iustification for the view that the popularity of the shamrock as an artistic motif proves the "Trinity Legend" right.