A shared St Patrick’s Day in Downpatrick

Madame Oui and I were disciplined enough to get up in time for the early morning ecumenical service at St Patrick’s Church in Saul. We parked our car in Downpatrick and boarded a bus shuttle service, noticing straight away the high numbers of young Americans amongst us.

It turned out that there were actually more of them than us. The diocese has a twinning with another in Albany, New York.

They contributed to the huge overflow of parishioners at St Patrick’s Church. Madame Oui and I were luck to be able to sit inside, where we quickly got talking to our neighbours in the pew.

Now, everyone was aware of the controversy in this year’s cross-community parade at Downpatrick, where political consensus broke down on the issue of which flags to officially display.

In years past, Down District Council distributed miniature flags of St Patrick (red cross on white field) and of the council itself (green and purple with logo in centre), I don’t recall seeing any large flags presented at the head of the parade in years past.

So, at the start of the service at St Patrick’s Church, the Church of Ireland Bishop, Rt Rev. Harold Miller, joked that if we couldn’t see him in the parade procession later today, it may be because they would be surrounded by a “sea of tricolours”!

The sermon was delivered by Mr Dominic Breen, a senior teacher at Assumption Grammar School. He described in particular the prayer group work he is involved with, and how that represents a form of unity of diversity.

Afterwards, the vast majority of us made the pilgrimage walk to Down Cathedral, stopping a few times along the way for brief open-air prayers and reflections. It was gracefully sunny and fine weather, making the walk all the more pleasant.

20110317 St Patrick’s Day Pilgrimage from Mr Ulster on Vimeo.

At the cathedral, again Madame Oui and I were lucky to find seats in the well packed cubicles. I sat behind a pillar with limited view, but sure so long as I could hear the service I was confident I would get the message all the same.

And the message was “A Shared Past, A Shared Future”. The address was given by Rt Rev. Norman Hamilton, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. I was very impressed with his moral arguments for each of us to take concrete action in realising a cohesive society.

20110317 Down Cathedral – A Shared Past A Shared Future – Norman Hamilton by Mr Ulster

Rev. Hamilton made Biblical reference to the Samaritans, and rightly so. Many (if not most) people believe the expression “a good Samaritan” is a benign, polite expression. Well, its origins was meant to be provocative, in that even a Samaritan — unliked by the Jewish people — was willing to help an injured Jew (inferring that would a Jew come to the aid of a Samaritan in need).

Specifically, the reading was Luke 9:51-55, where disciples James and John asked Jesus whether they He should smite the Samaritans for not accommodating Him in His passage to Jerusalem. No, “For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to to save them.”

Thus, Christians, if they are to be true to the word of God, do not get to pick and choose whom they wish to save.

The moral imperative is clear, and was underlined in the sending out response:

We commit ourselves
To make the ministry of reconciliation a priority in our prayers
To build relationships of trust and mutual respect with those from whom we differ
To work for justice for all, not just those with whom we identify as belonging to “our” community
To support all who build peace and promote reconciliation in our divided society

We joined a post-service catered feed of Irish stew and apple pie in a large canopy. I am always very impressed with efficiency of service — “No one has starved on us yet,” said Bishop Miller — and conviviality. It is one of my favourite parts of celebrating St Patrick’s Day.

After this spiritual and dietary sustenance, we went down to the main street for the imminent parade. The pre-parade entertainment was provided by “Flash Harry” aka Harry Hamilton, new Alliance Party election candidate. I met him when he was wearing a suit at the party’s conference; here he was in Queen mode, white tanktop and theatrics. I have to confess, Flash Harry puts on a very good show!

And here we go with the parade. How would everyone react to the display of the tricolour?

20110317 St Patrick’s Day Tricolour from Mr Ulster on Vimeo.

Well, Councillor Eamon McConvey was proudly holding the 3’x5′ flag, accompanied by an Irish wolfhound. Madame Oui and I thought emcee Julian Simmons (UTV) handled the situation well, when he called for the crowd to give an applause for the wolfhound!

Honestly, I counted about two persons and one family who brandished tricolours from the crowd. Episode lasted about 15 seconds, then the rest of the colourful parade proceeded.

In my opinion, Councillor McConvey may have prevailed with his right to express his political opinion, but thankfully the greater public audience of near 20,000 just wanted to enjoy the festivities.

An Irish nationalist could interpret this as, “See, what’s the problem displaying a tricolour?” But from the television vox pop interviews, the common response was more akin to “Catch yourself on.”

I think both fervent nationalists and unionists risk alienating themselves from the public even further by such antics.

Madame Oui and I certainly enjoyed the entire day, and were cream crackered (knackered) by the time we got home.

And all this without consuming any alcohol — how did we skip that Guinness?

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