Tuesday 21 May 2019

Mary Kenny: Hail glorious St Patrick!

David, Andrew and George don't have a prayer next to Ireland's saint…

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Oh, the neighbouring nations have tried. They've tried very hard. Awed by the success of St Patrick's Day, not only in Ireland, but worldwide, there have been concerted efforts to establish St David's, St Andrew's and St George's as national saints' days in Wales, Scotland and England.

The Welsh have managed to get St David's Day on March 1 - called after a sixth-century Welsh bishop - reasonably well-recognised, accompanied by the national emblem of that not-altogether-beautiful vegetable, the leek. But dedication to St David would still be something of a minority pursuit.

Scotland has designated St Andrew's Day on November 30 as their national day, but, inconveniently, they have to share their national saint's day with Romania, who also nominate Andrew the fisherman as their own special saint. Georgia, Cyprus and Malta also have a claim on Andrew.

Moreover, Scotland's saint's day is in competition with another Scots festival - Burns Night, on January 25, when the scallywag poet Robbie Burns is toasted with whisky and haggis. And Burns Night seems to me to be gaining the upper hand.

Each year a few English enthusiasts promote St George as a cause for a national holiday on April 23, but he's a bit of a hopeless case. His historic identity is possibly as legendary as the dragon he is reputed to have slain. Somebody like St George - allegedly a Christianised Roman soldier - must have existed, because his image is claimed by Turkey, Armenia, Syria and Cyprus, too, but the record is a little thin. And then St George's Day is also Shakespeare's birthday. The Bard has probably made a greater contribution to England's identity than the dragon slayer.

Besides which, at least until Brexit, the English had a sniffy attitude towards celebrating a 'national' day. National days were for funny little countries - or mere republics - and the British monarchy already emblemises everything that is 'national' in the English tradition with all the ceremonial monarchy involves.

St George was never really needed in the way St Patrick was needed, throughout the centuries, when Ireland's spirit was battered and there was little enough to celebrate. Patrick reminded the nation that there had been a flourishing Christian civilisation in Ireland from the early Christian era and this was a source of collective identity and self-worth (in the original broadcast of Lord Clark's BBC TV documentary Civilisation, he began the series with an affirmation that Patrick's Irish monks had saved Christian civilisation). Patrick became an emblem of the Irish nation, and yet the miracle is that his image never became politically toxic. It veered towards nationalism, but it also embraced internationalism - like when Jewish Americans dyed their bagels green for Paddy's Day. Although anchored in a Christian tradition, the essentially merry and celebratory element of the festival saved it from being sanctimonious. And, falling in the middle of Lent, March 17 assumed its own Mardi Gras moment.

It accumulated its own legends: Patrick often being portrayed expelling the snakes, which in fact perished in the Ice Age. But the logo, the shamrock, is brilliantly sustainable as both international signage and theological talking point. In green, St Patrick's Day even has its very own colour.

St Patrick's Day is a 'brand' that few competitors could match or emulate, because the conditions are different - as is the candidate. There is only one St Patrick and he stands for Ireland: we don't have to share him with any other nation claiming copyright. His position is unassailable.

Earlier in the spring, there was an attempt by feminists to promote St Brigid to the same status, on grounds of equality. This idea is more traditional than some might imagine (or would like to think): holy people in Ireland long ago often mentioned Brigid alongside Patrick as a focus of devotion. And doesn't the St Brigid's Cross adorn the hallway of many a household, just like the Jewish menorah?

But Patrick is a world brand, and it's almost impossible to take down a successful world brand. Secularists have striven continuously to replace Christmas with 'Happy Holidays', but their efforts are going nowhere, in real life: Christmas is too big to fail.

St Patrick's Day has achieved that brilliant evolutionary trick of changing while also somehow staying the same. It has sometimes been more religious, it has sometimes been more national, it has sometimes been a bit of a mish-mash, with tableaux featuring Chinese dragons (and in recent years, it has attracted complaints about sometimes being too pissed for pleasure). It has also attracted protests about being too manipulated by politicians as they trip off abroad to 'sell Ireland'. Yet quite often Paddy's Day also overrides politics by sheer dint of tradition.

Some people objected to Enda Kenny presenting a shamrock to US President Trump (this year, Leo Varadkar's job). But the bowl of shamrock at the White House is embedded in rite and ritual: the St Patrick brand is bigger than any of the personalities involved.


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