Wearin’ of the Green – With a Bloody Twist

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We talk about the practice of “wearin’ of the green” on Saint Patrick’s Day, which we celebrated just two days ago. I could make a case for the “wearin’ of the orange” as well, but that will have to wait until another day.

Well, here is a twist on the wearing of the green tradition that perhaps is not widely known. As Paul Harvey would say. . . “And now, the rest of the story.”

The Irish Guards, one of the Foot Guards Regiments of the British Army, have a quaint tradition that continues to this day: Every Saint Patrick’s Day, a member of the British irish guard shamrock2royal family presents the Irish Guards with shamrocks for their headgear. Sometimes the green clover falls so far it covers their faces. As I said: it is a quaint tradition.

But many people may not be aware that this quaint 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 Boer War (Boer was the common term for Afrikaans-speaking settlers in southern Africa at the time) was fought from 1899 to 1902 in South Africa, and was, in part, precipitated by the discovery of gold 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.

Great Britain thought the war would be a cakewalk. It was anything but that. 20,000 British Troops were laid to rest in the heat and dust of the South African veldt, with another 22,829 being wounded. The Boer guerrilla warfare hit-and-run tactics caused not only losses the British could not afford, but also such tactics did not conform to the usual “gentlemanly” rules of war. 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. Of the 107,000 civilians who were interned, nearly 28,000 Boer civilians died in concentration camps, plus an unknown number of black 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, Queen Victoria responded with a gesture of support. On 1 April 1900, the Queen formed a new unit, the Irish Guards, to commemorate the Irishmen who fought in the Second Boer War for the  British Empire and declared that they could wear a sprig of shamrock on their headgear to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day.

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

On 2 April 1900, Queen Victoria continued her push to maintain positive relations with Ireland by visiting Dublin, Ireland’s largest city and for a brief period, the second largest city in the British Empire. Despite the threat of attacks by those advocating republicanism during the campaign for Ireland’s independence from the United Kingdom, Queen 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 defense of my Crown and Empire.”

Not everyone was swayed by the Queen’s flattery, however. It was reported that the trip brought into broad relief the neglect of Ireland by Great Britain that preceded the trip. Like the shamrock on Irish headgear, it was a symbol rather than a change in policy.

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

The Duchess of Cambridge visits the Irish Guards on their Saint Patrick’s Day Parade 2014

The Duchess of Cambridge visits the Irish Guards on their Saint Patrick’s Day Parade 2014

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, The Irish Free State was created,  occupying about five-sixths of the island of Ireland and sharing its only land border with Northern Ireland, still a part of the United Kingdom. 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.

. . .And now, you know the rest of the story.

irish guards

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