Saturday A.M. Quilt Break: Nora’s Shamrock

Irish bread pudding with caramel-whiskey sauce

Irish bread pudding with caramel-whiskey sauce

As I write this I am listening to traditional Irish music via Pandora internet radio and just finished eating a piece of the whiskey-laced bread pudding I made to share with my coworkers. Even though it’s not officially St. Patrick’s Day as I type, I’m wearing a shirt from an Irish pub in Santa Cruz that my brother gave to our mom when he was in college, as well as her monogrammed green baseball jacket emblazoned on the back with a shamrock and the words “South Side Irish.”

shirt from The Poet and Patriot Irish pub in Santa Cruz

shirt from The Poet and Patriot Irish pub in Santa Cruz

Considering my name is Mary Kate, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I am Irish American. Well, mostly. My dad was about half Irish, but my mom, Nora, was of 100% Irish descent, with grandparents who immigrated from Co. Kerry in the 1880s and settled on Chicago’s South Side. Bridgeport, to be exact, home of the Mayors Daley and Comiskey Park and Schaller’s Pump, which was Chicago’s oldest bar before it closed last year and the site of many family gatherings and wakes over the years, including one for my parents.

Schaller’s Pump, Chicago, 2016

Schaller’s Pump, Chicago, 2016

Memory quilts can take different forms. Although I held onto some of my parents’ clothes for their future use as fabric, I haven’t made any t-shirt quilts or other memory quilts from them yet.

Last year, though, right before St. Patrick’s Day, I started sketching a design for a scrappy patchwork shamrock. It took me a few tries, working with pencil and graph paper, to get the proportions of the three leaves to fit a grid 12 units by 12 units and to structure it so it could be traditionally pieced. It may have been easier to foundation piece or even applique it, but I like the challenge of creating pieced designs, so that’s what I went with.

Nora's Shamrock Scraps

Nora's Shamrock Pillow

I made the block 15” x 15” so I could turn it into a 16” x 16” pillow sham that I named Nora’s Shamrock; readers of McCall’s Quick Quilts may recognize it from the February/March 2018 issue. (I don’t have input on what quilts are put on the covers, so I was a little tickled to see it featured as an inset when the fresh issue landed on my desk.)

Fifteen divided by 12 equals 1.25, which means that those scrappy green squares finish at 1¼”, and some of the smaller patches finish at ⅝”. I grant you that’s pretty small, but as I said above, I like the challenge.

Nora's Shamrock Block

The good news for people who may not want to work so small is that we included information on how to use my original pattern and dimensions to make blocks any size you choose. So if you wanted to make a 48” block (as I’m planning to do for a lap quilt), you would use the formulas in the sidebar to figure out how big to cut each of the patches.

For example, the basic unit in a 48” block would finish at 4” based on the 12 by 12 grid of the design. (Remember that the units in the grid can be made any size.) Therefore those scrappy squares (patch C in the pattern) would be cut at 4½”. Patch D, which is a rectangle that measures 1 unit by ½ unit, would finish at 4” x 2” and be cut at 4½” x 2½”.

We included that sidebar in the hopes that people interested in Irish quilt patterns can take this pattern and personalize it for a variety of uses—after all, not everybody will want to make a shamrock pillow, no matter how Irish they are. If you make your own version, I’d love to see it! You can email us at

As for the pattern’s title, while it’s clear I named it for my mom, I named it for her family as well. My mom was named after her Aunt Nora, a fun, lively woman whose house was just two blocks away from my grandparents’ and who was very close with my grandmother. Aunt Nora was named after her own mother, who had immigrated to the U.S. as a young woman in the decades following the famine, when times were still very hard in the west of Ireland and America’s promise was worth the long journey. I like to think that we her many descendants do our best to deliver on that promise. These are the things I think about on St. Patrick’s Day. While enjoying whiskey-laced bread pudding and music from the Chieftains and the Clancy Brothers.

Nora's Shamrock Binding

So with that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite little verses about the Irish, from Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse.”

The great Gaels of Ireland
Are men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad

Mary Kate

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