Flat Earth: Irish myths

OUR STORY last week of China's mandarins munching their way on St Patrick's Day through a huge bowl of shamrock, air- freighted at enormous expense from the Emerald Isle to the Dublin embassy in Peking, prompted a reply from Ireland's shamrock expert, Charles Nelson. Dr Nelson is the taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin and author of the definitive book on the three-leafed clover, now available from his basement at 14 Connaught Parade, Dublin 7, after his publishers went bust.

He tells us that the Chinese were acting no differently from the ordinary Music Hall Irish, who traditionally 'drown' their shamrock at the end of the day by swallowing it with their whiskey. He also pointed out that there is no evidence to link the English-born St Patrick with the Irish-grown shamrock; and that the shamrock is not Ireland's official symbol, though it does pass muster from time to time as a trade mark. It is now only to be found in the coat of arms of British royalty and the badge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The harp is the official symbol of Ireland.

And the wearing of shamrocks on St Patrick's Day originated with Queen Victoria, who ordered her Irish regiments to put them on their hats as a mark of respect for the dead of the Boer War. Perhaps best of all: the large 'shamrock' button hole worn across the US on 17 March is not shamrock at all, but an oxalis from South Africa.

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