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The bloody origins of Britain's St. Patrick's Day shamrock tradition

A soldier wears a St. Patrick's Day shamrock.
A soldier wears a St. Patrick's Day shamrock.
Tim Graham

It's a quaint tradition that continues to this day: Every Saint Patrick's Day, a member of the British royal family presents the Irish Guards with shamrocks for their headgear. Sometimes the green clover falls so far it covers their faces.

But many people may not be aware that this shamrock tradition has a grisly history. Queen Victoria devised the "wearing of the green" in 1900 in support of one of the British empire's most brutal wars.

The shamrock tradition originated with Irish deaths in the Boer War

The Queen Mother presents shamrock in 1997.

The Queen Mother presents shamrock in 1997, almost 100 years after Queen Victoria began the tradition. (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

The Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902, and was, in part, precipitated by gold. In 1886, gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand ridge in the Transvaal. As the British moved into the region, they came into conflict with the white, non-British settlers known as Boers. War soon broke out, with the Orange Free State and Transvaal allied against the British empire.

Britain thought the war would be a cakewalk. It wasn't. As described in Gregory Fremont-Barne's The Boer War, Boer guerrilla warfare challenged the Brits' formal military style. The British, in turn, responded with scorched-earth policies and concentration camps that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Boers and black South Africans.

Throughout it all, Queen Victoria remained staunch in her advocacy of the British military, saying in 1899: "We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist."

And that brings us to the shamrock. Irish volunteer soldiers made up a few regiments of the British military. And, as Irish casualties mounted, Victoria responded with a gesture of support. On March 2, the queen formed a new unit, the Irish Guards, and declared they could wear a sprig of shamrock on their heads to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

This was a sharp break with tradition. For years, the British forbade "the wearin' of the green" because it symbolized Irish dissidence. The sudden reversal was portrayed as a way to hold together the empire and maintain Irish support of the war. A volunteer regiment required volunteers, and the shamrocks were an easy way to keep support. It wasn't just a way of shoring up the military in South Africa, however — it was also an attempt to maintain relations with Ireland.

Queen Victoria circa 1899.

Queen Victoria circa 1899. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On April 2, 1900, Queen Victoria continued her PR push with Ireland by visiting Dublin. Despite the threat of Fenian attacks by those seeking Irish independence, Victoria stayed for three weeks, openly campaigning for Irish support and sharing gratitude to "the motherland of those brave sons who had borne themselves in defence of my Crown and Empire."

Not everyone was swayed by Victoria's flattery. As biographer Sydney Lee wrote, the trip "brought into broad relief the neglect of Ireland that preceded it." Like the shamrock on Irish headgear, it was a symbol rather than a change in policy.

Irish soldiers still wear shamrocks today

Kate Middleton presents the shamrock in 2014.

Kate Middleton presents the shamrock in 2014. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Today, it's still a tradition for Irish soldiers to wear shamrocks on March 17. The shamrock is usually presented by a member of the royal family; in 2014, Kate Middleton did the honors.

The Boer War ended with British victory in 1902, but only after a bloody conflict over gold that rewrote British war. It was followed in 1910 by the Union of South Africa, and in 1921, Ireland gained some independence, as well. Slowly, the British empire was shrinking. But one strange tradition borne out of imperial necessity — a pile of shamrocks on a soldier's head — endures even today.

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