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.


Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from “20 Questions With St. Patrick: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the ‘Apostle of Ireland’”


Further Reading

How the Irish Saved Civilization

by Thomas Cahill

Per the publisher: “Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become ‘the isle of saints and scholars’ — and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians.” Learn more…


The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans

by Juilene Osborne-McKnight

Per the publisher: “Many Irish-Americans today know little about Ireland and their ancestry. Historian Juilene Osborne-McKnight presents Irish-American history in a compelling narrative form, accented with photographs, illustrations, and original, literary interludes. Osborne-McKnight pays homage to her ancestry in this chronicle of the Irish from ancient times to contemporary America.” Learn more…


The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

by Seumas MacManus

Per the publisher: “A classic history of the Irish people from their prehistoric origins to their fight for independence in twentieth century. It provides fascinating insight into the origins of their culture, religion, laws, arts, antiquities, folklore, trade, literature, heroes, and more. MacManus sketches brilliant overviews of a number of the most famous figures from the country’s past, some of whom, like St. Patrick, allowed the Irish to flourish, whilst others, like Oliver Cromwell, persecuted them. ” Learn more…


St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

by Philip Freeman

Per the publisher: “Ireland’s patron saint has long been shrouded in legend, but the true story of St. Patrick is far more inspiring than the myths. In St. Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life. Patrick speaks in his own voice in two remarkable letters he wrote about himself and his beliefs, new translations of which are included here and which are still astonishing for their passion and eloquence.” Learn more…


Patrick

by Stephen Lawhead

Per the publisher: “Set in an era of brutal conflict and turmoil, this epic adventure is the first novel to tell the full story of the slave who became a saint, of the man who rose to the challenge of his time and changed the course of history. In the summer of 405AD, Irish raiders attack the western coast of Wales, carving a fiery swathe through the peaceful countryside. Among the survivors who are rounded up and taken back to Ireland is Succat: an impulsive sixteen-year-old son of a powerful Roman family.” Learn more…


Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

by Tomie dePaola

Per the publisher: “An illustrated tribute to the Irish patron saint from the best-selling author of Quiet, Strega Nona, and many others. This timeless picture book, available in large-format paperback or as the board book Saint Patrick, is a perfect introduction to important Irish legends and an ideal St. Patrick’s day gift. Beloved children’s book author-illustrator Tomie dePaola recounts the life of Saint Patrick—from his noble birth in Britain, to his captivity in Ireland, to the visions which led him to return and found the first Christian church in Ireland.” Learn more…


Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

by multiple authors

A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales. Learn more…


More book ideas:


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