Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Paddy's Day needs to move out from the narrow ground

Sea of green: crowds enjoying the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in Belfast city centre
Sea of green: crowds enjoying the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in Belfast city centre

Tomorrow we will all be celebrating St Patrick's Day in our own different ways, but I wonder what our patron saint would think of us.

Certainly the religious dimensions of our homage to Patrick will be underlined by church services all over this island, including those in Protestant churches which do not have a service on St Patrick's Day if it falls on a weekday.

I am glad to note that one Presbyterian church near Belfast will be holding a traditionally Irish 'sausages and mash' lunch. My heart will be with them but my body will be in Rome, hopefully celebrating an Irish rugby victory over Italy. At the moment any Irish victory is to be celebrated after such a disappointing season.

St Patrick, of course, was not an Irishman.

He was a West Briton who came across long ago to convert us to Christianity.

He made such a good job of it that for many decades Ireland was known as 'the Land of Saints and Scholars', though we have steadily lost our reputation for saintliness because of our violence against each other, and anyone else who gets in our way.

St Patrick is both a unifying and divisive figure in our history. For many years he was regarded as a 'Catholic and Irish nationalist' saint, rather than an inspiration for all of us. As a young Presbyterian, I felt that the Catholics had all the fun on Paddy's Day while the buttoned-up Protestants could not even declare it a holiday.

The best that we had was an elitist rugby Schools' Cup Final, boringly won every year by Campbell College or Inst or Methody or some other big school.

To be fair, the Church of Ireland never lost sight of its patron Saint Patrick and held annual services at Downpatrick Cathedral, and also visited Patrick's supposed grave outside the building with little historical justification for doing so.

However, St Patrick's Day has become much more of a celebration for mainstream Protestants who may not go to church.

It is also an excuse for university students drinking too much and causing mayhem, and this has disfigured some celebrations in recent years.

One of my major regrets, however, is that we have not been able to evolve a St Patrick's Day celebration which has the full support of everyone in Northern Ireland, in the same way that Paddy's Day is celebrated in Dublin, New York, Boston and many other cities throughout the world where there is a large population with Irish roots.

Our St Patrick's Day celebration are covered in green, which is fair enough, but there is also an added element of white and gold which can turn into another form of flag-waving nationalism which is making a political rather than a cultural point.

Flags and emblems, as we know, are the quickest way to create trouble between both sides in Northern Ireland, and a more sensible attitude to flag-waving is long overdue.

This is where a true allegiance to St Patrick could help to point the way ahead. The patron saint was pre-Reformation, so he was neither a Catholic nor a Protestant.

He was a humble and courageous man of God whose lifestyle of service and sacrifice showed all of us a better way forward as human beings made in the image of God.

By all means enjoy your party tomorrow, as I will, but don't forget the real St Patrick who can still be a role model for all of us.

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