The Lucky Four Leaf Clover: Celtic Christianity at its best

A four-leaf-clover

A four-leaf-clover

When Catholicism arrived in Ireland there had been a strong Celtic presence for centuries. The Celtic religion, Druidism, was based in nature. Mountains, storms, rivers and seasons were all significant in Druidism. Then Saint Patrick arrived.

Patrick used a three leafed clover to explain the Holy Trinity, his attempt to teach the Celts that Polytheists were a step lower on the ladder to heaven than Monotheists. The stem united three people in one God. Patrick explained that the leaves of the shamrock/clover represented Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Celtic traditions had such a stronghold in Ireland, Catholic priests decided to mingle existing Celtic feast days, beliefs and customs with Catholic ones in an attempt to sway the indigenous group’s beliefs more easily and readily.The four-leaf clover is an example of Celtic myth and Christianity intermingling. That fourth leaf represents luck. Superstition had no place in this new religion called Catholicism.

Artist's imagining of the Celtic festival of Beltaine on May 1st. The sun grows warmer and crops and cattle will hopefully flourish.

Artist’s imagining of the Celtic festival of Beltane on May 1st. The sun grows warmer and crops and cattle will hopefully flourish.

There are many examples in Irish stories and culture of both the old religion and the new co-existing. My mother was a devout Catholic. On May 1st every year she hung egg shells from a tree. Beltane, which means good fire, is the Celtic festival that welcomes back the warmth of the sun. The warming sun assured Celts that agriculture would be bountiful. The fertility of crops and cattle being important to subsistence farmers, as were the Celts.

The four-leaf clover legend is that if you find one, you will have luck; white clovers are considered to be even more lucky, due to their rarity. Historically it is believed that ancient Celts warded off evil with clovers.
The generation before me put four leafed clovers between the pages of their prayer books!
The assimilation of Celtic mythology into Christianity is most apparent in Irish folklore.
In the myth, The Children of Lir, the swans are converted into their original human forms when they hear the ringing of a church bell for the first time.
Although I sometimes think that Patrick, and missionaries like him, destroyed a unique culture; the truth is that we would know very little about Celtic history unless Catholic monks recorded oral myths such as Tain Bu Culaigne. The “Tain” is known as the most complete Irish epic myth and recounts the tale of the cattle raid of Cooley.
This assimiliation by the Catholic missionaries is a double-edged sword really. The Celts were going to be assimilated into the Roman Empire, maybe those on the fringes of Europe might have survived, some in fact did; but the assimilation into the Christian faith meant destruction of the old ways, while recording the history of an oral tradition. An oral tradition was preserved due to religious invaders and their ability to keep a written record of events.

If you are interested in the Celts and their lives before Christianity arrived in Ireland, check out my book

Mona The Body in the Bog

release date is the end of January.


9 thoughts on “The Lucky Four Leaf Clover: Celtic Christianity at its best

  1. Another interesting article. I wasn’t aware of the druid connection to the 4 leafed clover. And just to let you know, THIS generation also presses them into their Bibles. I have done that since childhood. I still have at least one pressed between waxed paper. I’m glad to hear this fascination intermingling of symbolism and tradition.

  2. I’ve always been fascinated by the close lines drawn between tradtion and religion. It never ceases to amaze me, the merging of faith, religion, myth, folklore, and tradition. This is a very good article.

  3. It doesn’t take away from the point of your article, but Patrick was not the first Christian to come to Ireland, he was just the most evangelical. There were small pockets that kept to themselves before he came. And I prefer to say Christian, rather than Catholic because this was way before the Reformation (or catholic with a lowercase c.) Okay, one more minor thing: there is no proof Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity. He might have, but it’s a legend. But even so, you are right about the co-mingling of the druid faith and Christianity in Ireland. It’s fascinating that’s how Patrick converted the country–without bloodshed (or mostly, just unlike the later crusades.)

  4. Pingback: The Meaning of St. Patrick’s Day | The Random Musings of a Gypsy Archaeologist...

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