Belfast Telegraph

Tomorrow Ireland will come together as never before for St Patrick's Day and the rugby. Wouldn't it just be great if it was like this all the time?

What would our patron saint say were he to walk among us again at the Six Nations rugby, or in the Holylands? Whisper it, but he might even be an England supporter. By Martin O'Brien

Ireland’s Paul O’Connell and Rory Best celebrate after winning the Grand Slam in 2009
Ireland’s Paul O’Connell and Rory Best celebrate after winning the Grand Slam in 2009
The Holy Land in Belfast

Whatever the political and constitutional divisions and regardless of the sectarianism and all the other -isms that afflict us, there is nothing that can unite Ireland more than rugby.

That will be evident more than ever tomorrow, St Patrick's Day, when an all-Ireland rugby team representing our four ancient provinces bid to beat the auld enemy at Twickenham and do what an Irish team has achieved only twice before in the 143 years since Ireland first fielded a national team, also against England, in 1875: win the Grand Slam.

For those tuning in who may not be that well-versed in rugby and wondering what all the fuss is about, that means beating every other team in what is now the Six Nations Championship.

Already, Ireland have beaten France, Italy, Wales and Scotland. Only England stands in the way of this Irish team attaining a special mark of greatness.

Ireland have only won the Grand Slam before in 1948, when they were inspired by the legendary Jack Kyle of Belfast Royal Academy and Queen's University fame, and in 2009, when Brian O'Driscoll (Blackrock College, UCD and Leinster) led them to the title.

On both occasions the elusive Grand Slam was clinched by defeating England in the final match, so tomorrow, on St Patrick's Day, an Irish team led by Rory Best (Banbridge and Ulster), a son of Poyntzpass, an alumnus of Portadown College and Newcastle University, do battle to carve for themselves a place in sporting history and become rugby immortals.

Talking of St Patrick, he is celebrated here and worldwide in a thousand different ways, but particularly evocatively, I think, in a famous hymn that I was taught to sing by my primary school teacher Bryan Gallagher (still, thankfully, regaling BBC Radio Ulster audiences with his strikingly lyrical Thoughts for the Day) at St Mary's Mullymesker, Arney, a few miles outside Enniskillen, in the 1960s.

Its first verse goes as follows:

Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our Isle,

On us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile;

And now thou art high in the mansions above,

On Erin's green valleys look down in thy love.

From "the mansions above", what would St Patrick make of the showdown at Twickenham tomorrow?

He may be patron saint of Ireland and his feast day celebrated worldwide in a way he could never have imagined, but might he be possibly conflicted in terms of who he will be rooting for?

After all, Patrick was a Brit, a Roman Brit, who spoke Late Latin. Scholars are not sure of his precise birthplace, but it may have been in England, possibly in Cumbria in the north west of the country, or in the Severn Valley, in the mid-west, somewhere between, say, the towns of Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire, active rugby union country today, so you can see that his support for Ireland tomorrow might not be a foregone conclusion.

Though, if he was born somewhere in Wales, which is another possibility, then his call might be less difficult to make.

One would hope, however, that St Patrick, famously known as "Apostle of Ireland", could not possibly be conflicted about his allegiance and that any intercessions from such an august source will be firmly on behalf of the men in green from the land to which he returned to spread the Gospel, having been told in a dream: "We ask you, holy boy, come and walk once more among us."

That revelation about "The Voice of the Irish" calling on Patrick to return to Ireland comes in his Confession, one of two short, semi-autobiographical pieces of writing, which portray a person of deep faith and humility.

Patrick had formerly been taken as a captive to Ireland by pirates at the age of 16 and forced to work as a herdsman.

After six years of captivity he somehow escaped back to Britain, became a priest and later experienced that calling to return to Ireland.

It is reasonable to surmise that Patrick would be pleased that an Ireland team, composing players of all creeds and backgrounds, Protestants, Catholics and neither, from all parts of the island and from foreign lands, such as South Africa and New Zealand, can unite the island in support and admiration as it bids to accomplish what so few have achieved before.

Patrick, who is believed to have lived to be around 70 in the 5th century, spent much of his 50 or so years as a missionary in Ireland, not just baptising and ordaining, but also brokering peace between rival Irish chieftains, kings and princes.

So, what would this holy man, who both embodied and struggled with the complicated relationships of his day, who came from Britain, then a Roman colony, to spread Christ's word in a pagan society riven by divisions of different kinds, say to us, the peoples of these islands today, as we strive, however fitfully, to rebuild political institutions in a post-conflict society and grapple with Brexit and the strain that it has placed on hitherto excellent relations between Dublin and London?

Or, at a more micro level, what has he to say to people, for example, in the small Holylands area of Belfast, who prepare for his feast day with foreboding each year owing to the unsocial behaviour of some students?

Whatever the situation, or challenge, Patrick, a person of overwhelmingly strong faith, would exhort people to find a Christ-centred way through by asking citizens at every turn to put themselves in the shoes of the other person and modify their behaviour and attitudes accordingly.

In Confession, he wrote: "I must fearlessly and confidently spread the name of God everywhere to leave a legacy after my death to my brothers and children, the many thousands of them whom I have baptised in the Lord."

Perhaps Patrick is saying to us today, all of us, to contemplate hard about the legacy we wish to bequeath to those who will follow us.

Will it be a legacy that will help to heal and reconcile? Or one that will keep wounds raw and minds less open to compromise?

If we could apply ourselves to the goal of leaving a wholesome legacy for our children and grandchildren with the same vigour with which so many of us will unite to back Ireland tomorrow, St Patrick might be a little happier "in the mansions above".

Martin O'Brien is a journalist, communications consultant and award-winning former BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph


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