St Patrick’s Day is known the world over as a celebration of everything Irish, synonymous with the proverbial green outfits. Here in England, it is celebrated far more widely than St George’s day (April 23).
Yet, behind the excuse for the party lies the story of a Briton who made his home in Ireland in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
I am old enough to remember March 17 as the one day of the year we had Mass in Irish before going to the parade. What does St Patrick signify today, in the increasingly diverse nation that is modern Ireland?
It seems to me that St Patrick can be very much a unifying figure. In the past, the close ties between the Catholic Church and the Irish state resulted in his being seen as linked to Catholicism and a symbol of fidelity to the faith in the face of persecution under the penal laws: https://lxoa.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/patrician-year-1961-cardinal-cushing-on-st-patrick-and-the-irish-catholic-people/
It was the ‘faith and fatherland’ era, and yet Protestants also saw the national apostle as very much part of their tradition.
The Church of Ireland, of course, has numerous churches dedicated to St Patrick, including its national cathedral in Dublin, while his tomb is in the grounds of its Downpatrick cathedral. The cathedral in Armagh, like its Catholic counterpart, is also dedicated to him.
This article, while it ignores the significance of the Protestant input to Irish nationalism, is interesting in outlining how the earliest celebrations of March 17 in what is now the United States were by Protestant migrants, many connected to what used to be called the ‘Scotch Irish’ tradition, mainly of Presbyterian origin: https://owlcation.com/social-sciences/Protestant-St-Patricks-Day
As this article describes, all sorts of people, from Mormons to gay rights campaigners, see something of themselves in St Patrick: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2013/03/st-patrick-no-snakes-no-shamrocks-just-the-facts.html
In the last 30 years, Ireland has seen a dramatic growth in the number of Orthodox Christians, and they too see St Patrick as one of their own, as the late Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox priest, wrote about over three decades ago. From their perspective, they did not break with Rome, but rather Rome broke with them. This article describes how he is celebrated in Greece: https://greekreporter.com/2018/03/19/greek-orthodox-church-celebrates-st-patrick-video/
Thus, to simply refer to St Patrick as a ‘Catholic saint’ ignores the fact that he is honoured by all branches of Christianity, and was accepted as a saint long before the idea of canonisation was introduced by Rome.
St Patrick, is, of course, honoured in many lands, and I wish to emphasise two in particular. He has been patron saint of Nigeria since 1961, due to the influence of Irish missionaries: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/03/17/470679579/how-did-st-patrick-get-to-be-the-patron-saint-of-nigeria#:~:text=Irish%20bishops%20in%20Nigeria%20named,opened%20its%20embassy%20in%20Lagos.
This happened in the same year that Ireland opened its embassy in the then capital, Lagos (since, of course, moved to Abuja): https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2020/05/17/st-patrick-and-nigeria-the-irish-influence-on-an-african-countrys-catholic-mission/
The Caribbean island of Montserrat marks March 17 every year: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/st-patricks-day-montserrat I recall seeing a documentary on television about its Irish ties, transmitted nearly 40 years ago, the narrator being a certain Michael D Higgins! It is the only place outside Ireland that marks it as a public holiday.
As in many Caribbean islands, the Irish influence there includes both Protestant and Catholic elements. Shivonne Riley is interviewed here about the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, where she grew up: https://flywith.virginatlantic.com/pk/en/stories/beyond-antigua-celebrating-st-patricks-day-in-montserrat.html
Thus, St Patrick is a figure who not only unites diverse sections of the Irish nation, but as a Briton who ended up in Ireland, he underlines the bonds across the Irish Sea. Whether you are a unionist or a nationalist, you can see in him someone to identify with.
As Ireland becomes increasingly secular, the old Catholic/Protestant divide seems less and less relevant, and there is a common bond in emphasising St Patrick as the founder of a Christian tradition which predates those divisions. So, whether you are Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, whether you are black or white, you can see something of your story in the man who sought to convert his old captors.
I recall, many years ago, the former Irish politician Noel Ahern writing of how this immigrant to Ireland, who helped shape the very notions of Irish identity, can be an example to migrants in today’s Ireland and their families. In particular, for those of Nigerian-Irish heritage, the fact of the two countries having the same patron saint can help with the integration process: https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/nigeria/our-role/irish-community/st.-patricks-day/
Whether or not the saint actually wrote the prayer, St Patrick’s Breastplate (translated to English by Cecil Frances Alexander and used in America by Lutherans and Episcopalians as well as Catholics), has much in common with the African Pentecostal approach to spirituality: https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/st-patricks-breastplate-prayer-irelands-patron-saint
So, whatever our background, we can all say Hail Glorious St Patrick…
Editors note: The image accompanying this post is the statue of St Patrick from St. Patricks Church in Donegal St, Belfast. An interesting fact is the statue was carved by Patrick Pearse’s dad. Patrick’s father, James Pearse, was an English stonemason who came to Ireland in 1857.
Declan McSweeney lives in England but is originally from Offaly. He worked for over 18 years for the now-closed Offaly Express and has also worked as a journalist in the UK.