Battle for St PatrickChris Ryder
- 11 March 2006
The patron saint of Ireland, once an exclusively Catholic icon, is the subject of some rivalry for ownership between the Protestant and Catholic communities. But his adoption by both sides could have a cohesive effect, as his image becomes an increasingly secular symbol
Eight years ago, the Belfast sculptor Annette Hennessy designed an 8ft-high bronze depiction of St Patrick as a shaven-headed warrior, clad in a skirt and carrying a staff topped with antlers. The radical creation outraged purists who raised such a hue and cry that the authorities backed down and what was prematurely called “the homo on the hill” was never cast, nor installed on its planned site at the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, a site conventionally associated with Ireland’s national saint.
Traditionalists much prefer the long-established image of St Patrick as a Catholic bishop, clad in a mitre, chasuble and carrying a crosier, the way he is portrayed in another landmark statue at Saul, Co. Down. This year, as they have done every St Patrick’s day since Cardinal McRory unveiled the work in 1938, many of the faithful will make the customary pilgrimage there and to his reputed grave at nearby Downpatrick to pay homage to his memory.
But the concept of Patrick as an exclusively Catholic icon is undergoing a far more serious redefinition than any at the hands of an imaginative creative artist. The Protestant majority community in Northern Ireland is staking out as never before a claim to a share of the Patrician heritage. However, the result of this bid for diversity is, ironically, that perceptions of St Patrick are fundamentally changing and the religious dimension of his legacy is being weakened. Steadily his life is being unravelled and re-interpreted, and his reputation as a pastor and harbinger of Catholicism or Christianity in Ireland is being re-assessed. The entire character of St Patrick’s Day is increasingly secular.
In Belfast, for instance, St Patrick’s Day this year will be celebrated with a far-from-traditional £100,000 multicultural parade and an open-air rock concert in the city centre. There will be the usual abundance of toe-tapping traditional Irish music but most of the participants will come from 400 groups across the community and include representatives of the growing Indian, Chinese and Ba’hai communities, as well as performers from the Ulster-Scots tradition.
Pat Convery, the city’s deputy mayor, says that all flags, emblems, football tops and alcohol have been banned. “We are saying there should be no emblems or symbols that would be deemed as sectarian or racist or anything that would be offensive to anyone.” Green shamrocks, however, have been excepted.
In Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, where the Catholic and Irish-Anglican primates minister from twin hill-top cathedrals, the local-council-organised parade is being freshened up with a series of cameos depicting the seven ages of St Patrick, one of which focuses on the customs of the Roman baths from his time in Wales. Such innovation is in line with the council’s view that “St Patrick is for everyone and we want everyone involved.”
Ever since Northern Ireland was created by partition in 1922, St Patrick’s Day has been seen as a Catholic celebration. While officially designated a bank holiday, it was not a public holiday. Only the Catholic schools closed for the day and the main festivities were those arranged by the Church or the Gaelic sports clubs. As with Ash Wednesday, when Catholics could be identified by the black smudge on their foreheads, they also stuck out on “Paddy’s day” by wearing a bunch of shamrock, usually wrapped in the silver foil from a cigarette pack, pinned to their lapels. The uncomfortable fact that St Patrick was said to be buried under a great stone within the shadow of the “Protestant” – Church of Ireland – cathedral at Downpatrick was dismissed with an embarrassed shrug.
As with all things Irish in the Unionist dominated pre-Troubles era, the BBC largely ignored the day, consistent with an era in which the morning radio newspaper review gave the impression there were no Dublin newspapers, the large number of Gaelic sports were totally ignored and even the television weather forecast seemed to be confined to an isolated wiggly outline map called “Northern Ireland” where the rain, clouds and sun stopped at the border. No more.
The modern BBC Northern Ireland is not only a model of political correctness but also a comprehensive forum where all shades and points of view are aired across the spectrum of radio and television. This reflects a massive cultural revolution, the scale of which is only now becoming clear as the fog of the Troubles clears and a faltering conflict resolution process steadily consolidates.
There is now official recognition that the history, heritage and values of the two main traditions are equally valid and to be cherished. Thus Irish language broadcasting increases and flourishes, not least because of a generous government subvention for programme making, and the expression of arts, literature and sports from both traditions is given full and detailed exposure. Where the broadcasters have led, the print media have followed and, even though Belfast’s three main newspapers have well-defined and widely recognised political standpoints, their editorial content is increasingly identical as they reflect the cultural and social diversity that is the new convention.
Against this backdrop, the challenge to the historic standing of St Patrick dates back to 1997 – the same year the traditionalists opposed the statue – when the Education Committee of the Orange Order published a scholarly pamphlet, A Protestant View of Patrick, which examined the St Patrick story in detail, dismissing many of the myths and perceived realities that had developed during the 16 or so centuries since he is thought to have first come to Ireland as a slave.
The pamphlet concludes that he wore neither chasuble nor mitre – they were not invented until 1,000 years after his death – and that he did not drive snakes out of Ireland as he is reputed to have done. Above all the pamphlet disputes the association of Patrick with the Church of Rome, preferring the interpretation that what he brought to Ireland was “a ministry covering the length and breadth of Ulster and through his preaching many became Christians”. They built churches and men of God came forward to be ordained and preach in them – “Patrick was God’s man for Ulster, the Apostle of Ulster”.
The study proved to be far more influential than its authors could ever have imagined for it helped spark off a hunt for cultural roots among the Protestant community and ignited a rivalry between factions of St Patrick supporters that would convulse debate for several years, most notably among the deeply divided councillors of Belfast, for several years.
As nationalist cultural traditions became more widely recognised and disseminated, longstanding Protestant allegiances to the Union flag, the Queen and that community’s sense of Britishness dwindled. Distrust of the British commitment to the union with Northern Ireland burgeoned. In their search for an alternative cultural allegiance, many Protestants turned to Scotland from where the planters of Ulster had come. An Ulster-Scots cultural caravan gathered pace, although many dismissed its efforts to characterise Ulster dialect as a language on a par with Irish as merely people speaking English with a funny “Norn Iron” accent.
Meanwhile, others turned to questioning the ownership of the Catholic-Nationalist cultural and religious legacy, triggering the rivalry over St Patrick. The initial manifestations of the contest were decidedly unsavoury. In Belfast, a cross-community committee to organise St Patrick commemorations splintered. Unionists could not live with the Irish-tricolour-waving celebrations that diehard Nationalists intended.
Behind the scenes, however, a consensus was slowly building. In 2000 a cross-party group of Assembly members called for the St Patrick holiday to be elevated to the status of a full public holiday. The proposition remains on the table awaiting the full implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. A year later a state-of-the-art St Patrick’s centre opened in Downpatrick, its treatment of the St Patrick story notable for the comprehensive and neutral way it accommodates dissenting and conflicting views of the saint. Last year in central Belfast unofficial St Patrick’s parades converged on the City Hall from three Catholic areas but protests about the political aspects of the event were muted. That paved the way for the new consensus about a neutral and secular St Patrick to come into play among the councillors whose “Good Relations” working group agreed to the bold step of funding this year’s event.
It will be watched closely by its supporters with bated breath and firmly crossed fingers. Any manifestation of ugly politics or, more worryingly, violence would be a distinct setback but whatever the outcome there will be no going back to the view that St Patrick was a Catholic, and a saint only for Catholics.
Chris Ryder is an author, journalist and broadcaster based in Belfast.