Thursday, March 20, 2008

The confusion of the Irish

March the 17th is always St Patrick's Day. Isn' it? Well, you'd think so wouldn't you? But this year, there was some confusion as the church decided that it was March the 15th. Apparently it's all something to do with ecclesiastical calendars and Easter falling where it has this year. Did it make any difference to the Irish? Hell no. They carried on celebrating as usual, only now they had two days of celebrating to do.

St Patrick was a great character and his life was just as confused. Born in England or Wales, or maybe even France, he was carried off by pirates, and spent six years in slavery in Ireland before escaping and becoming a missionary. He’s credited with almost single-handedly introducing Christianity to the country. And he got rid of all the snakes by popping them in a box and chucking it into the sea. Which is why the Irish Sea is so stormy apparently.

St Patrick’s Day is marked by ‘wearing the green’ i.e. a shamrock. And a funny hat. Shamrock (the actual word is Seamrog) is simply the Irish Gaelic for ‘little clover’. There has been some debate over which of the many hundreds of clover species is the original Shamrock, but White Clover Trifolium Repens seems to be the most popular candidate. According to tradition, White Clover was held in high esteem by the early Celts of Wales as a charm against evil spirits. And in Ireland itself, the plant most often referred to as shamrock by the people seems to be the White Clover.

And who first identified White Clover as the true Irish Shamrock? None other than one Nathaniel Colgan. How cool is that? It’s not a common surname by any means and most Colgans are related to each other in some way. So it seems likely that the man who first identified the Irish Shamrock – the luckiest plant on Earth if you can find a four leafed one - is probably related to me. Hoorah.

The most popular story as to why the Shamrock became associated with Ireland states that St Patrick used it to illustrate the Holy Trinity to his parishioners. By parishioners, we presumably mean people who weren’t intelligent enough to understand the concept of ‘three’ without having a plant with three leaves held in front of their eyes. I’m not convinced that the Irish are doing themselves a great service with this theory. Another story I found says that the leaves have a different meaning. It’s one for Faith, two for Hope, three for Love and four for Luck. It’s also said that Eve carried a four-leaf clover out of the Garden of Eden. I have no idea why she would do this when every type of fruit and vegetable was available to her. Maybe it was a subtle dig at Adam’s manhood?

“You hardly need anything as big as a fig-leaf dear … here, use this …”

But Seamrog? Maybe instead of debating when St Patrick's day falls or why four leaved clovers are lucky, we should instead sort out Irish Gaelic spelling. I was watching a programme about Irish folk music the other night and one of the singers had the extraordinary name of Seosaimhin Ni Bheaglaoich. That’s Josephine Bagley to you and me. Come on guys ... either use English letters properly or make up some of your own.

I guess I would be entitled to spell my name in Gaelic fashion too if I so chose as my paternal grandfather was a Sligo man. The name Colgan originates in County Derry and then spread up through Sligo to Ulster. It means ‘swordsman’ (Oo-er!) and our family motto is Virtus Probato Florescit or ‘Tried virtue flourishes’. And my name in Irish Gaelic? Apparently it would be Stiof├ín O Colghain.

Hmmm ... I'll stick with what I have I think. Nothing says 'numpty' quite so much as a man who can't spell his own name.

Photo by Alice Gomstyn

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