Why St Patrick is a figure we can all unite behind
St Patrick's Day. It's a rum one alright - especially if you are (deep breath) someone "of the unionist tradition". No, I'm not about to grouse about all those tricolours flown at the Belfast celebrations and what many unionists would perceive as the "exclusionist" subtext of the jamboree.
That's not at the root of my ambivalence, or rather my uncertainty, as to what it all means.
When I was growing up, St Patrick's Day barely featured in our social calendar. That probably wasn't surprising, but even for Catholic friends it seemed a less than joyous day: no bank holiday, the day mainly seemed to comprise elderly - to my young eyes - men going to Mass with a sprig of shamrock in their lapels, huddling against the sharp March wind, or sheltering from grey laden skies. It may just be my wicked Protestant imagination, but St Patrick rarely seemed to turn the stone.
National celebration? If you were lucky you might get a Val Doonican special, or if St Pat was determined to punish you it was Mary O'Hara and her harp with all that stuff about the cuckoo.
It was all rather stiff, rather sedate. The news would feature a 10-second clip of the Ancient Order of Hibernians marching to somewhere that didn't look that exciting and then even briefer clips of St Patrick's Day in Dublin and New York.
The contrast as I sat on the sofa wolfing down Wagon Wheels and packs of Tayto Cheese & Onion was striking. It seemed that the place where St Patrick really counted was in far-off Amerikay with a version of Ireland straight out of central casting - a Top o' the Mornin' greeting, green-beer swilling, lachrymose reminiscence about the "oul sod", all topped off with the NYPD band, all of whom looked as if they had surnames like McNamara, Malloy and O'Halloran.
In America, St Patrick was a big noise, over here - not so much. Perhaps in a kind of reactive cycle, Ireland had recoiled from the kitsch and blarney.
I suppose I never really got over those early years. St Patrick's Day was a kind of cultural limbo - and that wasn't just because of my background. Ireland - north and south - didn't really "do" St Patrick's Day.
Even the figure of the saint represented in statuette and picture postcard seemed a rather forbidding figure, remote, a bit of a killjoy: that grey beard, that green robe, the crozier and the fingers raised as if in the middle of telling you off.
He was also a figure of mystery. We knew he wasn't Irish (a bit galling); but Breton? Welsh? Scottish? French? All we really knew was that he drove the snakes from Ireland and he had a nifty way with a shamrock.
And that, basically, was that.
Which is a pity, a tragedy even, because Patrick is, in fact, a figure we can all unite behind. The founder of Christianity in Ireland, he stands beyond the schisms of the Reformation and other political/religious conflagrations. Patrick represents the Protestant tradition as well as the Catholic tradition.
And even for those of little or no religious sensibility, Patrick can be seen as a cornerstone in the Irish monastic tradition - a tradition which more than played its part in preserving Western civilisation in the Dark Ages. More, some historians claim that, as a former slave himself, St Patrick became among the first to speak out unequivocally against slavery.
As we today battle against dark forces and become increasingly aware of the new slavery - the sexual exploitation of women, the abuse of children, those trapped in economic and social slavery - we would do worse than align behind St Patrick.
Not as a reason for green beer, fluttering tricolours and all things Oirish, but rather as a rather lonely figure who had the courage to say what he believed and change the world.
This isn't as much of a challenge as it may seem. Returning from booze-sodden partying and excess to something a little more considered wouldn't be a bad thing generally. And it comes as something of a surprise, though it shouldn't, to read the man's own words - for this is a real individual; there may be tales of snakes which stretch a point, but no dragons.
His "Confession" opens with directness and simplicity: "My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many."
Which, when you think about it, just about describes most of us, still, in this country.
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