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St Patrick's Day: For all of us to embrace shared legacy

First Minister Arlene Foster says unionists and loyalists feel alienated from St Patrick's Day because it has been 'Gaelicised', but for huge swathes of the last century the opposite was the case, writes Brian M Walker.

Published 15/03/2016

A recent St Patrick’s Day celebration in Armagh
A recent St Patrick’s Day celebration in Armagh
St Patrick’s Day parade through English Street, Downpatrick, in 1939
RUC escort St Patrick’s Day parade that started from Unity Flats, went across Clifton Street and onto the New Lodge Road in 1971

Today in our society there is a new maturity in the way we commemorate events or people from our history. We see this in efforts to mark 1916 in Dublin and at The Somme.

As well, some of our annual commemorations or celebrations, which were once widely marked but became largely exclusive, are now conducted in a more inclusive way. This has happened with Armistice Day/Remembrance Sunday. It has also happened with St Patrick's Day.

In the early-20th century St Patrick's Day was celebrated throughout Ireland. Many churches and cathedral buildings of both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland were named in his honour. Since 1801 the red saltire of St Patrick had been incorporated in the Union flag.

In 1903 a Bill was introduced at Westminster to make St Patrick's Day a bank holiday and it quickly passed into law with the support of all unionist and nationalist MPs - an outcome that, as the Belfast News Letter commented, was "rare good fortune" for an Irish Bill.

The rise in political controversy over the next decade did not dent this wide support for St Patrick's Day. On March 18, 1914 the Belfast Northern Whig noted: "Irishmen, whatever their creed, or politics, have an affectionate regard for St Patrick's Day and yesterday the shamrock was worn in honour of the festival by fully nine-tenths of the population of the country."

After 1921, however, important differences emerged between north and south in how St Patrick's Day was celebrated.

In the new Irish Free State St Patrick's Day quickly took on special significance. In 1922 it was made a public holiday and, from 1925, thanks to the Irish Free State licensing act, all public houses were closed on that day.

In 1926 the Dublin premier W T Cosgrave made the first official radio broadcast on St Patrick's Day. He called for mutual understanding and harmony and declared: "The destinies of the country, north and south, are now in the hands of Irishmen and the responsibility for success or failure will rest with ourselves. If we are to succeed, there must be a brotherly toleration of each other's ideas as to how our ambition may be realised and a brotherly co-operation in every effort towards its realisation."

With the accession to power of Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fail in 1932, however, St Patrick's Day took on a different importance. In his St Patrick's Day broadcast of 1935 de Valera declared that Ireland had been a Christian and Catholic nation since St Patrick's time. He stated: "She remains a Catholic nation."

De Valera now used the St Patrick's Day broadcasts, which were transmitted to the USA and Australia, to launch vigorous attacks on the British Government and partition.

In their St Patrick's Day speeches in the 1950s heads of government J A Costello and de Valera continued to use the event to make strong denunciations of partition.

Irish leaders in their speeches often emphasised links between Ireland and Rome.

In Northern Ireland after 1921 St Patrick's Day was still observed, but in a more understated way than in the south.

During the 1920s and 1930s the shamrock continued to be worn widely and the day remained a bank holiday when banks, government and municipal offices and schools were closed.

Sporting activities took place on St Patrick's Day, including the Ulster schools rugby and Gaelic football cup finals. There was no government involvement in St Patrick's Day.

In Catholic churches St Patrick's Day was an important feast day, which was well-attended. The Ancient Order of Hibernians organised demonstrations on this date and nationalist politicians often used the occasion to make speeches.

In the early-1950s Northern Ireland premier Lord Brookeborough used the occasion of St Patrick's Day to issue public addresses to Ulster people abroad. By the mid-1950s, however, these attempts to match the political use made of St Patrick's Day by the southern government had mostly ceased.

In the late-1950s a government information officer urged the Northern Ireland Cabinet that it might be wise to "quietly forget" St Patrick's Day and abolish it as a bank holiday. The suggestion was rejected, but it is clear from newspaper reports in the 1960s that, for many people, St Patrick's Day was "business as usual". Many schools dropped it as a holiday and shops and businesses remained open.

Correspondents in the unionist Press denounced the political overtones of the day in both the north and the south.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that there were some who believed that more attention should be given to the day. From the mid-1950s the editorial in the Belfast Telegraph often urged that St Patrick's Day should be a full public holiday.

The Church of Ireland inaugurated an annual St Patrick's Day pilgrimage and special service at Downpatrick and Saul, which was well-attended in the 1960s.

From the early-1970s celebration of St Patrick's Day changed, especially in the south. An editorial in the Irish Independent (March 16, 1974) pointed out that "since the Troubles began in the north" speakers at St Patrick's Day parades had become "hyper-sensitive about words, concepts, tributes and ideologies which hitherto had been taken for granted" and talked of a new, growing acceptance of different traditions and a slow redefinition of Irish patriotism.

Speeches by leading politicians no longer contained strong condemnation of partition and, both in America and at home, Irish Government ministers often denounced violence and support for the IRA.

Interdenominational services were held on the day and an ecumenical blessing of the shamrock became a regular feature of the Dublin parade.

By the 1990s a new feature of St Patrick's Day was an effort by the Irish Government to promote Ireland abroad and to connect with members of the Irish diaspora. Government ministers now visited centres of the Irish diaspora all over the globe. In Northern Ireland changes in the observation of St Patrick's Day were slower to come. It remained a bank holiday, but there was little special about it apart from some sporting events, several AOH parades and a number of religious services.

There were celebrations in a few towns and, occasionally, parades on the Falls Road in Belfast and in Londonderry.

On March 17, 1992, an editorial in the Belfast Telegraph commented: "A casual visitor to Ulster would need to be very perceptive to realise that this is St Patrick's Day. Our celebrations are so muted as to be invisible. Yet across the border, March 17 is an occasion for national rejoicing by people and government."

From the early-1990s, however, the day began to assume greater importance.

Parades in nationalist towns such as Newry and Downpatrick were revitalised. At the same time there was an effort to give these events a cross-community focus, especially in Downpatrick, due in large part to the work of the SDLP MP Edward McGrady.

The Churches organised various interdenominational events in honour of St Patrick, who was now widely accepted as a common Christian saint.

From 1994, at unionist instigation, the flag of St Patrick was flown at Belfast City Hall. Efforts to organise a major parade in Belfast were dogged by controversy over flags and emblems, but eventually achieved wide support. By 2006 the event in Belfast had become a major festival organised by the city council.

From 1994 unionist politicians began to visit Washington DC on March 17 to attend events at the White House, where SDLP and Sinn Fein leaders had already been guests on St Patrick's Day. After 1998 the First and Deputy First Ministers were received at the White House by the President.

In 1999 Speaker of the Assembly, John Alderdice organised the first official reception on St Patrick's Day at Stormont and this has continued annually.

Politicians from all parties have urged that St Patrick's Day be made a public holiday in Northern Ireland.

This has not happened, but St Patrick's Day now enjoys markedly wider support than before. There are festivals and events on the day in many parts of Northern Ireland.

Once more St Patrick's Day is seen as a day for people of different backgrounds and traditions to share the Christian legacy and inheritance of St Patrick.

It is also an opportunity for the people of Ireland - north and south, at home and abroad - to celebrate their links with Ireland and for all to enjoy a non-threatening and pluralist sense of Irishness.

  • Brian M Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen's University, Belfast and author of A Political History Of The Two Irelands: From Partition To Peace (Palgrave Macmillan)

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