Did St. Patrick Use the Shamrock to Teach the Trinity?

photo of a statue of St. Patrick holding a shamrock

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If you’re unfamiliar with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, buckle up, because it certainly requires a bit of mental gymnastics to understand. The gist is that the Christian God exists as three coequal entities: the Father (the Big Guy, the Man Upstairs), the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit (the Holy Ghost, the means by which God communicates with and influences people). It’s a tad confusing, of course, when you consider that one of the Ten Commandments—typically the one at the top of the list, in fact—asserts the following: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”

But if the Lord is God, and Jesus is also God, and the Holy Spirit is God, too… I mean, it seems like there are two too many Gods. In their efforts to spread Christianity, missionaries—including Patrick—needed a way to explain away this apparent contradiction.

If only there were a common object, a plant, let’s say, that sprung up everywhere across the landscape, a plant that consisted of three essential parts that formed a whole, single entity. It would be the perfect tool for a proselytizer such as a Patrick to use to teach pagans about the Trinity. And the shamrock (seamróg in Irish)—or more accurately, the yellow suckling clover (Trifolium dubium), which is the plant the Republic of Ireland officially acknowledges as the shamrock, since, botanically speaking, shamrocks don’t exist—fits that mold perfectly.

There’s only one issue with this seemingly reasonable idea: The pagans of pre-Christian Ireland didn’t need to look at a three-leafed plant to understand the concept of a tripartite God—they had plenty of tripartite gods, or “triple deities”, in their own religion. Most notably, these included Danu (or Dana), mother goddess of the Tuath Dé Danann; Brigid (or Brigit), who consisted of three sisters, Brigid the goddess of healing, Brigid the goddess of smiths, and Brigid the goddess of fertility and poetry; and the Mórrígan (or Morrígu), the goddess, of war, death, and slaughter, who consisted of the three sisters Macha, Badb, and Nemain.

What’s more, the shamrock does not appear in any of the old stories concerning Patrick. The connection first emerged in 1684, when an English visitor to Ireland observed the following:

“The 17th day of March yeerly is St Patricks, an immoveable feast, when ye Irish of all stations and [conditions] [wear] crosses in their hatts, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3 leav’d grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath.”

source: Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (Google Books)

Based on all of the above, can we conclusively say that St. Patrick never picked up a clover and used it in his teachings? Of course not. To quote Thomas Cahill, “There is no way of knowing whether he used the shamrock to explain the Trinity.

Want to learn more about Saint Patrick? Check out…

Saint Patrick in Your Pocket

Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…

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