Very few countries are as associated in the global public mind with their patron saint as Ireland is with Saint Patrick. Perhaps that is because very few patron saints have been as integral to the history of their countries as Patrick is to Ireland: For almost two thousand years, the Christian identity which he single-handedly imprinted on this island remains probably the most dominant motif in international images of Ireland. The shamrock, which will be worn and displayed proudly around the country today, was plucked from the soil by Patrick to demonstrate to sceptical pagans how three could, in fact, be one. He gave us the Celtic cross, an enduring symbol of Irishness. Most importantly, he gave us an identity which transcended and outlasted a near millennium of attempts to eradicate it.
In recent years it has become fashionable to recast Ireland before Patrick as in some way a better place than the Ireland that came after him – a land of pagan gods and old celtic culture, where Brigid, his sister saint, was not a saint at all but a goddess, and where people were free from the burden of oppressive Christianity. But that old Ireland of myth and legend is just that: The myths obscure the reality. Patrick came here as a slave – not a slave of the British, but a slave of the Irish. He arrived at an island that enslaved him, and having escaped it, returned here voluntarily to give us a cultural and religious tradition that was so in tune with our people, and so quickly embraced, that it outlasted plantation, invasion, famine, and penal law.
Even as the popularity of Christianity is in abeyance, the legacy of Patrick’s vision of Irishness endures: The irony of today is that those who profess to reject in the strongest terms the legacy of Irish Catholicism practice in effect what they consider to be a superior form of the same basic moral framework: Compassion, welcomes, tolerance, justice, equality, and inclusion. We might be a post-christian country, but the dominant ideology is recognisably Christian in origin, if not in practice.
It is no accident that we celebrate Irishness on the day allocated to Patrick in the Roman Liturgical Calendar: For two thousand years he has been the rock on which Irishness itself is built. The famed hymn “Hail Glorious St Patrick” by Sr Mary Alice McSweeney reads:
Hail, glorious St. Patrick, thy words were once strong
Against Satan’s wiles and a heretic throng;
Not less is thy might where in Heaven thou art;
Oh, come to our aid, in our battle take part!
In a war against sin, in the fight for the faith,
Dear Saint, may thy children resist to the death;
May their strength be in meekness, in penance, and prayer,
Their banner the Cross, which they glory to bear.
Thy people, now exiles on many a shore,
Shall love and revere thee till time be no more;
And the fire thou hast kindled shall ever burn bright,
Its warmth undiminished, undying its light.
Irish history over the last 1,000 years cannot be understood properly if it is not understood as firstly and foremostly a struggle for the right to practice the faith bequeathed to us by Patrick. Where Scotland and Wales and England embraced the reformation, Ireland did not. More than anything else, it was the enduring Catholicism of Ireland that drove succeeding Kings and Chief Ministers of England to distraction: Faith of our Fathers, living still, in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword.
Through the work of Patrick, Ireland gave the rest of the world, for hundreds of years, an example of steadfastness, resilience, erudition, art, and culture. Monks and priests and nuns, following his example, left our island to spread his message throughout the world. We became known to the world as an island of “Saints and Scholars”. All of these things remain integral to our identity today, and all of them are owed, to a greater or lesser degree, to Patrick.
Much of that will be lost in the discussions about what the day means in 2023. The festival we celebrate today would be largely unrecognisable to generations that came before us: The religious element of it has been surgically excised from almost all official materials about the day. Patrick himself has been reduced to a bit of comic dress up: An Irish Santa Claus, to entertain the children. At home, at least in Dublin, the day is not so much about Irishness as it is about celebrating everything other than Irishness – our diversity, and inclusion, and modernity.
All of those things are certainly worth celebrating. But we are here, and independent, and free, in significant part because of the fire instilled in us, over a thousand years ago, by our patron saint. And since it may not be said elsewhere, we invite you to say it with us: Hail Glorious St. Patrick.