12 March 2016

The Life of Saint Patrick and his message for us today:
4, the wearing of the green or of the faith Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick and the Fire of Pentecost at Tara ... a stained glass window in Saint Patrick’s Church, Tara, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Readers Retreat,

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

12 March 2016.

2 p.m.: The Eucharist

Tobit 13: 1b-7; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 21-38.

In the name + of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

We have come to the end of our “mini-retreat.” Next Thursday [17 March 2016], hundreds of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations are taking place worldwide. In Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway or Limerick, if you find yourself in the centre of the major cities on this island, you will need to have your wits about you as you collide into drunks and revellers.

Writing some years ago in the Word magazine, Professor Vincent Twomey of Maynooth said that “it is time to reclaim Saint Patrick’s Day as a church festival.” He questioned the need for “mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry,” and argued that “it is time to bring the piety and the fun together.”

I wonder sometimes whether we make too much of Saint Patrick’s Day … and whether we have emphasised the wrong traditions.

During the course of this “mini-retreat” this weekend, we have examined both the myths and facts surrounding Saint Patrick, and we have looked at the Patrician mission and the pre-Patrician roots of Irish Christianity.

But we cling onto Saint Patrick’s Day as if everything we think, say and do in regard to the patron saint’s day is part of sacred, national myth. People who say things like Vincent Twomey said some years ago are dismissed as myth-busters, killjoys and spoilsports.

But Saint Patrick’s Day never was at the heart of Irish identity, and never was at the heart of commemorating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

Let me share 10 things you may not already know about Saint Patrick’s Day:

1, Saint Patrick’s Day does not date back to Saint Patrick’s days. It is also a feast day in the calendar of the Western Church since the mid-17th century, thanks to Luke Wadding (1588-1657), a Franciscan theologian from Waterford who founded Saint Isidore’s College, the Irish College in Rome. He claimed Saint Patrick had died on 17 March, and encouraged his students to remember the saint on that date each year. But the commemoration was almost unknown, even in Ireland.

In 1629, Pope Urban VIII asked Luke Wadding to reform the Roman Breviary and calendar, his cousin, Patrick Comerford, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, wrote to him, stressing the importance of including Saint Patrick in any new list of saints: “For your life … endeavour that at least a semi double be accorded to Saint Patrick.” And so 17 March entered into the official Christian calendar as a feast day in 1632.

2, If Saint Patrick is dressed for Saint Patrick’s Day in all those posters, statues and stained glass windows, then he is dressed in the wrong liturgical colour ... the correct liturgical colour for his day is white, not green. Despite all those songs about the “wearing of the green,” despite green floodlighting at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, for over 1,000 years Saint Patrick’s hue was blue. Blue is still the official colour of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the official colour of the President and the official colour of the National Stud. Before partition, the strip of the Irish football team, representing the whole island, was Saint Patrick’s Blue.

3, The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is not an Irish invention or tradition. The first recorded Saint Patrick's Day Parade in the world took place in Boston – on 18 March 1737. The first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York was staged by Irish troops in the British army in 1762, most of them probably Protestants, perhaps as a recruiting drive for the British army. Today, the parade in New York is the longest and the oldest in the world.

4, The Cork village of Dripsey has the world’s shortest parade – a total of 23.4 metres from The Weigh Inn pub to The Lee Valley bar at each end of the village. But the Dublin parade only dates from 1931. It began as a military parade, and its present form, with bands and music, only dates from 1970.

5, At first, the Church of Ireland Gazette strongly opposed Saint Patrick’s Day becoming a public national holiday … because it would lead to too much drinking.

6, Saint Patrick’s Day has been a public holiday in Ireland for only little more than a century. In 1903, Luke Wadding’s hometown, Waterford, became the first city to declare Saint Patrick’s Day a public holiday. But 17 March only became a public holiday throughout Ireland later that year when Parliament in Westminster passed a bill introduced by the MP for South Kilkenny, James O’Mara.

7, The Gaelic League, formed by Douglas Hyde, a rector’s son, to promote the use of the Irish language, also campaigned to have pubs shut on 17 March. One TD said “the drowning of the shamrock” was “a direct insult to the saint.” A senator claimed Saint Patrick would drown anyone drowning the shamrock. Countess Markievicz wanted hotels to stay dry too, declaring: “I do not see why rich people should not be kept off their drink as well as poor.”

8, When the law eventually forced pubs to shut in 1927, TDs were still worried about sales of wine from chemists and so-called “dairy shops.” One politician was worried about women getting prescriptions filled and slipping a sly bottle of port into their handbags.

9, From 1927 until 1961, the Dog Show at the Royal Dublin Society was the only place to legally drink alcohol on Saint Patrick’s Day. Huge crowds turned up. One TD complained it was a grand occasion “except for all the dogs.”

10, For decades, all broadcast advertising was also banned on 17 March, which was filled with traditional music, religious services and speeches such as Eamon de Valera’s address in 1943 when he spoke of “happy maidens dancing at the crossroads.”

So, before we finish this retreat and go from here, prepared to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day next week, and to enjoy ourselves, let us take to heart Vincent Twomey’s recent comments as a timely reminder that the central truths of the faith Saint Patrick preached on this island – the life, passion, death and Resurrection of Christ – are more important than any commemoration – secular, civic or religious – of the saint’s life.

Let us, like Paul and Patrick, let us enter into the labours of those who have gone before us (John 4: 38) and seek to “Let light shine in the darkness … to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4: 6).

And so, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Closing Eucharist at a Diocesan Readers’ Lenten retreat on 11-12 March 2016.

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