The Spirit Of St Patrick

18 March 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

This Thursday, St Patrick’s Day, people will gather in a number of towns in our circulation area, in common with people of Irish lineage or affiliation throughout the world, to give expression to their sense of national identity and pride in the name of the patron saint who brought the Christian message to our country some 1,600 years ago.
The motivation for the celebrations that take place on March 17 is now arguably more communal than spiritual. St Patrick’s Day is no longer an appreciably religious occasion in its manifestation.
However, there is undoubtedly something Christian-spirited in the exceptional level of voluntary endeavour expended annually on the organisation of the parades that will be enjoyed by thousands of people in the towns of Monaghan and Cavan where they are held.
At a time when the country is attempting to recover its confidence and capacity for enterprise and growth, and when many people find themselves in extremely difficult and challenging circumstances financially and in their working and domestic lives, the value of our town parades should not be underestimated.
They can be showcases for the positive aspects of our local communities in their business lives and community endeavours; events that can uplift the spirits and reinforce local confidence. They form an occasion for celebration of the great achievement of Irish culture; and for reflection upon the artistic, literary and intellectual legacy that our small island nation has given to the world.
To be afforded a window through which to view the many ways in which our country has impacted upon the world, and how our influence has extended out of all proportion to our geographical size to shape the political, social and cultural destiny of peoples and places across the globe, is a powerful source of inspiration in the times in which we find ourselves.
There remains much to justify the St Patrick’s Day refrain that, “It’s great to be Irish.” But it’s doubtful whether many of us spend the day giving much thought to what being ‘Irish’ actually means.
This is understandable. Questions of national identity tend to be complex, and contested. Those of Irish national identity are particularly so.
For centuries we struggled to reach an accommodation amongst the two traditions on our island whose sense of their own identity had violently conflicted, creating animosities that long looked irreconcilable. We have also a vast Diaspora of people of Irish lineage whose identity is a complex amalgamation of the culture they have inherited and the culture they have grown up within, creating issues of acceptance and legitimacy that have also been historically difficult to resolve
Lately we have achieved some progress in bringing the two warring traditions into some degree of harmony in the north of our country. And we have become sufficiently outward-looking to more comfortably accept and accommodate into our ‘clan’ of nationhood those who profess to a duality of national allegiance, be they English-Irish, American-Irish, or whatever.
During this process of evolution in our sense of what Irishness should mean, our country has become home to a large number of economic migrants from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds.
They have not come, here, of course to lay claim to any ancestral affiliation, but to look for work. Nonetheless they are now a significant component of the population and important contributors to the economy.
There are also people in our midst who are patiently seeking asylum, or refugee, status. These people are constrained from being contributors to our economy, and have been misguidedly criticised in some quarters for being a burden on our resources. But they have turned to this country in desperation, seeking refuge from prejudice, persecution and harm – perhaps because they cherish an outside perception of Irishness as being synonymous with warmth of welcome and compassion for those in trouble.
At least some of our St Patrick’s Day Parades now invite a degree of participation from people of non-Irish background who have made their homes in our local communities. The events are greatly enriched as a result. Indeed, if this facet of our parades encourages a greater spirit of acceptance of diversity in our local communities, that contribution will be at least as important as those for community morale alluded to above.
Some laudable integration strides have taken place in our county, particularly in our schools. But there still remains a great deal to do. Many people of non-Irish origin in this country still live at a suspicious distance from the institutions of community and society. That is by no means all down to hostility or distrust on our part – there are barriers within these groupings themselves that have to be broken down.
Yet there have been instances when the Irish welcome we have extended to people of non-Irish nationality working here, and to those aspiring to find a haven from persecution in our country, has been a cursory one, undercut with resentments and begrudgery that belittle us as a people.
But then, St Patrick, an immigrant of sorts himself, may have got much the same initial treatment at our hands – in fact the reception accorded him when he embarked on his evangelising mission in the fifth century, after an earlier period in captivity here, was probably much more openly hostile in the places where his message was inimical to established beliefs.
Although it is difficult to draw a clear perspective upon him from our contemporary vantagepoint, St Patrick undoubtedly knew the problems inherent in bringing a country’s people together under a banner of shared beliefs. This didn’t deter him, however, and he prevailed.
Perhaps the reason why St Patrick has come to be so closely identified with Ireland was the enduring strength of his unifying message, one that professed, according to the prayerful Breast Plate attributed to him, that Christian salvation lay “in the heart of every man who thinks of me” and “in the mouth of every one who speaks of me”. No one was excluded, or made to feel left out.
This message, the true spirit of St Patrick perhaps, is worth remembering as we go about the celebrations of his feast day, and worth carrying forward into good relations with all our neighbours, old and new.

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