Sunday 18 February 2018

Catholic saints and star-crossed sinners

Lay of the land

The remains of Saint Valentine are to be found in Ireland.
The remains of Saint Valentine are to be found in Ireland.

Fiona O'Connell

Today is St Valentine's Day, as is evident from all the shops around the country crammed full of chocolates, flowers and teddy bears clutching red satin hearts. And all this even though we have never exactly been known as a nation of red-hot lovers.

Blame our damp climate - or our reputation as a land of saints and scholars.

Yet the remains of this romantic saint are to be found in Ireland. They have been kept in a shrine in Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin since 1836.

But maybe it is appropriate that this saint associated with affairs of the heart is here, because until recently the Roman Catholic Church laid down the law when it came to our love life. So much so that its grip on our gra sometimes turned a beautiful and natural experience into one of horrendous heartbreak, the roots of which lie in one story about the saint.

This priest lived during the reign of Claudius the Cruel, who blamed family and lovers for his difficulty in recruiting soldiers to wage his wars. So he cancelled all marriages.

Enter the hero of the hour, Valentinu, who married couples secretly in the name of Christ. The price he paid for helping those who lost their hearts was losing his head. As the church put it, he suffered martyrdom for marriage.

Unfortunately, this led many in Ireland to likewise endure a life sentence in his institution, according to a widow in her 80s who lives near this country town and has never received a Valentine's card in her life.

"Not one. Not ever. I lived in cow town," she says with a laugh, referring to the fact that she married a farmer by way of explanation. "The cows came first - they mattered more than me."

She thinks it is much better that people don't have to get married any more, or can live together first. "At least then you know what you're getting," she says.

This from a woman who lost her freedom when she got hitched back in her day, which is also when priests had the power to force couples who were incompatible into marriage if a pregnancy occurred.

This led to some appalling tragedies, like one that happened when this widow was very young but which she still remembers vividly. The poor girl was found drowned in a barrel shortly after the wedding.

"The man, her husband, was in a mental hospital for a short while afterwards. It was never called murder," she says.

"But how could you drown in a barrel?"

It was the saddest funeral she ever attended, the girl and her unborn baby in the same coffin, especially when the funeral met the husband, who hadn't attended, as it passed through town.

"He just glanced at it and then walked away," she says with a sigh. "So much for holy Ireland."

Yes, back then saints sometimes made life harder for star-crossed sinners.

Sunday Independent

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