All About Shamrocks, Leprechauns, and St. Patrick’s Day

Do you ever wonder why there are so many leprechauns on Notre Dame University merchandise? Or why leprechauns in general are associated with St. Patrick’s Day? And what is up with all that clover and shamrock-themed iconography anyway? Well, the answer to all those questions come from a single place: Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day is a religious and cultural holiday held on March 17. Most Christian sects consider it the day commemorating the death of St. Patricus (Patrick). The day had traditionally been very popular in Ireland, as St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Throughout the ages, the holiday became a celebration of Irish heritage and culture. 

Stained-glass artwork of St. Patrick, St. Benin’s Church, Ireland (Photo from Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia, St. Patrick himself was a 5th-century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop. He was born in Britain (at the time under Roman rule) sometime in the 4th century. He was apparently kidnapped by Irish raiders and was taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. He spent the next six years in Ireland as a shepherd, until he had a divine revelation from God where he was instructed to escape. After he became a priest, he returned to Ireland and preached Christianity. 

Various legends surrounded him after his death. It is said that he drove snakes out of Ireland (even though snakes generally aren’t found there). Another legend states that he described the concept of the Trinity to the Irish pagans by using a shamrock: a small, three-leafed plant. And this is where the ‘lucky clover’ iconography associated with this holiday originates from. 

A four-leaf clover (Photo from

Clovers are small flowering plants that very closely resemble shamrocks. Clovers are best known for having rare, four-leafed variants to their usually three-leafed versions. Traditional superstition states that finding four-leafed clovers is a sign of good luck, because four-leaf clovers are very rare (said to be one in every ten thousand clovers). Due to its similarity with shamrocks, it too became a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day.

A life-size balloon leprechaun at Boston’s St Patrick’s Day Parade in 2018. (Photo from Wikipedia)

A related legend is that of leprechauns. Irish folklore and mythology are known to have all kinds of fairies, from seelies to boggarts to the Aos Sí. Leprechauns are of the more popular kind. It is said that they are creatures who hide gold at the end of rainbows. If caught by humans, they’ll have to give up their gold to them. Alternatively, they will grant three wishes to whoever can find them. As such, they, like the four-leaf clover, have become a symbol of luck. Leprechauns nowadays are imagined as little bearded men dressed in green. Although there have been cases of leprechauns being used as caricatures and stereotypes of Ireland and Irish culture, the Irish nonetheless have embraced it as a symbol of themselves and a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day. 

St Patrick’s Day celebration at Trafalgar Square in London, 2006 (Photo taken from Wikipedia)

Nowadays, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in the Western world in the form of public parades, drinking beer, partying and dressing in green, as well the obvious leprechaun, clover, and shamrock motifs appearing everywhere. 

It is well known that the University of Notre Dame has plenty of obvious Irish influence. As such, St. Patrick’s Day is the best day to celebrate the success of NDU. So, on this March 17, dress in your favourite NDU merchandise, put on a green shamrock-embroidered tophat, and revel in a little party. And of course, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!