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St Patrick commemoration remains a barometer of relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic

Brian M Walker

Coronavirus may have taken the shine off this year's celebration, but the national saint's commemoration remains a barometer of relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic


Crowds gather for the St Patrick’s Day parade in Belfast

Crowds gather for the St Patrick’s Day parade in Belfast

Crowds gather for the St Patrick’s Day parade in Belfast

This year the restrictions due to the coronavirus have placed a dampener on celebration of St Patrick's Day. Nonetheless, many of us will continue to mark this important festival in our own way.

Over the centuries celebration of St Patrick's Day has changed considerably, both in form and meaning. Since the early 1900s these changes have been very marked.

At the beginning of the last century celebration of St Patrick's Day was an inclusive occasion in Ireland, north and south, among unionists and nationalists. This changed and, by the middle of the century, it was largely an exclusive event which many northern unionists ignored. Today it is once again an inclusive event.

In the early 20th century St Patrick's Day was celebrated widely. All the main denominations regarded St Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland. Many Catholic and Church of Ireland churches were named in his honour.

In 1903 a Bill to make the day a bank holiday was backed by all MPs from Ireland at Westminster - an unusual occurrence.

That same year the Belfast News Letter observed: "The anniversary helps to create a spirit of mutual tolerance and good will amongst Irishmen."

Even after the rise in political controversy over the next decade, on March 17, 1913, the Belfast unionist 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."

Subsequent events led to the establishment of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Important differences would now emerge between north and south in how St Patrick's Day was celebrated. The two new states sought to develop their own identities and this impacted on how the anniversary was marked.

In the new Irish Free State St Patrick's Day quickly took on special significance. In 1922 it was made a general holiday. Army parades, sporting events and cultural activities were promoted. In 1926 southern premier W T Cosgrave made the first official radio broadcast on St Patrick's Day. He called for mutual understanding and respect.

Cosgrave 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."

From 1932, however, with the accession to power of Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fail, St Patrick's Day took on new confessional and political features. Links between Rome and Ireland were emphasised.

In his St Patrick's Day broadcast of 1935 de Valera reminded people that Ireland had been a Christian and Catholic nation since St Patrick's time. He declared: "She remains a Catholic nation."

De Valera also used these broadcasts to launch vigorous attacks on partition. In his St Patrick's Day broadcast from Rome in 1938 he recorded that he had made a pledge beside the grave of Hugh O'Neill that he would never rest until "that land which the Almighty so clearly designed as one shall belong undivided to the Irish people". He urged his listeners to do likewise.

In their St Patrick's Day speeches in the 1950s de Valera and J A Costello continued to make strong denunciations of partition, as did other government ministers in a range of venues in Britain and the USA.

In Northern Ireland from 1922 St Patrick's Day was still observed, but in a more understated way than in the south.

The day remained a bank holiday, when sports activities and other events, including AOH parades, were held.

On the unionist and government side, however, there was no attempt in the 1920s and 1930s to hold official parades or make speeches on the day.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Lord Brookeborough used the occasion to issue public addresses to Ulster people abroad, while some of his ministers spoke at events in Britain.

By the mid-1950s such unionist efforts on the day had largely ceased.

In the late 1950s a government official urged the Northern Ireland Cabinet that it might be wise to "quietly forget" St Patrick's Day and abolish it as a bank holiday.

This advice was rejected, but it is clear from newspaper reports in the 1950s and 1960s that, for many people, St Patrick's Day was "business as usual". Correspondents in the unionist Press regularly denounced the political and religious overtones of the day in the south.

At the same time we should note that there were others for whom it remained a significant anniversary.

St Patrick's Day continued to be an important day for many Catholics and nationalists in Northern Ireland.

Editorials in the Belfast Telegraph often urged that the day should be made a full public holiday. The Church of Ireland held an annual St Patrick's Day service and pilgrimage in Downpatrick and Saul, which was well attended.

From the 1970s celebration of St Patrick's Day changed, especially in the south.

There were efforts to remove the political and denominational overtones of the day.

Speeches by leading politicians no longer mentioned partition.

Confessional divisions associated with the event were reduced, with the holding of interdenominational services and an ecumenical blessing of the shamrock at the Dublin parade.

By the 1990s St Patrick's Day had become a major cultural and tourist festival in the Irish Republic.

At the same time the day provided an important opportunity to link with the Irish diaspora.

Changes were slower to come in Northern Ireland. On March 17, 1992, a Belfast Telegraph editorial 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 this time, however, the day began to assume more importance. Some members of the Apprentice Boys of Derry and Ulster-Scots groups showed a new interest in St Patrick's Day. From 1994, at unionist instigation, the flag of St Patrick was flown at Belfast City Hall.

The Churches co-operated in events on St Patrick's Day. In some towns St Patrick's Day parades were revitalised or commenced. There was an effort to give these events a cross-community focus, notably in Downpatrick, due in large part to the work of Edward McGrady MP.

Attempts to organise a major parade in Belfast in the late 1990s were dogged by controversy over flags and emblems, but this parade has now received wide support and has become a major festival, organised by Belfast City Council.

Since 1998 the First and Deputy First Ministers have visited the White House each St Patrick's Day.

In 1999 the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly Dr John Alderdice organised the first annual official reception on St Patrick's Day at Stormont and this has continued annually.

St Patrick's Day celebrations have changed greatly over the last century, from inclusive to exclusive, but are now inclusive again. At least they will be next year. Surely, St Patrick would have approved?

Professor Emeritus Brian M Walker is author of the recently published Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities And Commemoration (The History Press)

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