Shamrock - The Symbol of Ireland and St Patrick
Think 'Ireland', and it's likely the next thing that springs to mind is one of the following: Saint Patrick's Day, the Shamrock, or the colour green.
St Patricks Day
An official public holiday in Ireland, Saint Patrick's Day is celebrated in a whole host of other countries as far flung as the USA, South Korea and Russia. The day has grown from a Catholic feast day recognising St Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, to a secular celebration of all things Irish - not least the shamrock.
Nowadays, a key component of the festivities is 'the wearing of the green'. For many, it wouldn't be Saint Patrick's Day unless they're wearing at least one green item of clothing. And it doesn't stop there - for one day a year, everything from milkshakes to beer and even the Chicago river is coloured a vibrant green in honour of St Patrick and the Irish.
Why all the Green?
The story starts on the British mainland, way back in the fourth century. Historians disagree on the exact location of Saint Patrick's birth, but they do agree on an approximate date - around 390AD - and that he was the son of a fairly wealthy family.
But Patrick's life changed forever at the age of 16, when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. He spent seven long years in forced labour as a shepherd, and it was during this time that he first truly connected with the Christian faith.
Eventually he escaped, and miraculously made it across the sea and back to his family home. However, his time in captivity had clearly had a profound spiritual effect on him, and he remained a scholar of Christianity. But it seems he had also found a connection with Ireland, and some years later he experienced a vision telling him to return to the Irish people.
He did return, and is now credited with playing a significant role in Ireland's conversion to Catholicism.
One of the most famous stories is that Saint Patrick was responsible for banishing the snakes from Ireland - hence the reason you won't find any living wild on the Emerald Isle today. Legend has it that he was attacked by snakes during a period of fasting, and that he drove them into the sea. Today, this is disputed by those who believe there never were snakes in Ireland in the first place, or that the tale is simply meant as a metaphor for ridding the land of paganism.
Why the Shamrock?
However, another well known story about Saint Patrick is the one directly responsible for the traditions so widely celebrated around the world today. It's said that in his missionary work, St Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate the notion of the Holy Trinity - the three leaves of the plant representing the father, the son and the holy spirit as three distinct aspects of one whole.
While it's possible that this aspect of the lore surrounding Saint Patrick actually sprung up during the centuries since his death and canonisation, it has certainly captured the public imagination.
For those celebrating Saint Patrick's day, the shamrock isn't just for decoration - it's also the centrepiece of a custom known as 'the drowning of the shamrock', where participants who wear a sprig of the plant during the day's festivities place it into their last drink of the night.
If you're thinking of adding this custom to your Saint Patrick's day celebrations, the first thing you'll need to do is find yourself a genuine shamrock. In fact, there is some debate about which particular plant species is the real deal. The trifolium dubium or trifolium repens (lesser trefoil or white clover, respectively) are among the most popular choices, but wood sorrel - not a clover at all - is also a contender.
The stylised shamrock associated with Ireland and Saint Patrick may have originated from one of these or several other species - but whichever you choose to wear, don't compromise on the number of leaves. Four leafed clovers may be considered lucky, but when it comes to the famous shamrock, three is key.