Saint George, Saint Andrew, Saint David – I suppose there is a bit of a revival going on to celebrate their patronage of England, Scotland and Wales. But such a renewal has never been necessary for Saint Patrick, carried high and proud by the Irish the world over. I don’t know why is it so. A few guesses might include: us Irish and our willingness, at the pop of a cork, to party; that, in a largely Catholic country, it was a holy day and people had a day off work; that it lands in the middle of the season of Lent and was (still is for some) a great excuse to break a time of abstinence; that the Irish diaspora kept Patrick alive and well as they clung to their roots and furiously celebrated all things Irish on this day. Whatever the reason, I’m certain you will glimpse swatches of green wherever you turn today as the Irish step up.
We learned about him at school and I think most Irish people could tell you a yarn or two about him. Tradition holds that Patrick, enslaved as a youth, was brought from England (or Wales) to rural County Antrim in the fifth century. He tended sheep on Slemish, a hill just outside Ballymena, and it’s said that during this time he found God. I think it was on Slemish that he is supposed to have used the shamrock to teach about the Holy Trinity; each of the three leaves representing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today, regardless of the bitterly cold weather that has returned, large crowds will climb Slemish as a pilgrimage. It’s my sort of climb – not too steep, not too long and at the summit, on a good day, you can take in the Antrim and Scottish coasts to the east, Lough Neagh and the Sperrin Mountains to the west and the valley of the River Bann and the higher summits of the Antrim Hills to the north. I almost wish I were there! I’ve only once climbed Slemish on Saint Patrick’s Day only to find, perched on a rock at the highest point of the hill, a man wearing an Ian Paisley mask playing a tin whistle, and four couples set dancing to his jigs. Craic agus ceol. It was more than suitable, as everyone knows that Patrick had a fine sense of humour. The legend as to why there are no snakes in Ireland is famous: Saint Patrick drove them all into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on Slemish. Or, as the joke goes – ‘What did Saint Patrick say to the snakes as he drove them out of Ireland? “Are you all right in the back there boys?”’
Besides having no snakes (or moles) I’ve thought about some reasons why I love Ireland. We’re a pale breed: there is no summer. We’re a hopeful breed: every year we think summer will come. We’re an inquisitive breed: wherever you travel on the island, you’ll meet someone who knows somebody who knows your mammy, and they’ll find that out in just three questions. We’re a talkative breed: chattering in the cities, on the bog road, on the park bench. We’re a romantic breed: wrapped with deserted beaches, poetry, song, longing, legend, lore. We’re a gregarious breed: quick to dance and sing and play, and as quick again to tip into maudlin, as when the session moves from raucous ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ to tearful ‘Danny Boy’. But, for any of you Irish living away from the island, here’s a reason someone shared with me this morning, maybe you feel this too: “I love it, mostly because everyone is just like me. And outside of Ireland I’m a bit eccentric. Going home is like taking off a pair of tight trousers that you didn’t realise were uncomfortable until you got into your jammies.”
Today there will be shamrock on display at the final day of the Cheltenham races, and at the final fixture of the Six Nations in Twickenham. Yes, I know two other rugby fixtures will be played today, but those games will be shamelessly upstaged by the men in green slamming their way (one hopes) to the big prize. And, if they do it, shamrock will be saturated, drowned to fifty fathoms.
And to my friend R. – thank you for the card, it made it in time from Dublin. You always remember to send me one, and I love to receive it. I do remember that you love to sing this song and I hope you have had a chance to hold your shoulders back and give it a belt today!
“Ever bless and defend the sweet land of our birth,
Where the shamrock still blooms as when thou wert on earth,
And our hearts shall yet burn, wherever we roam,
For God and St. Patrick, and our native home.”