17 March 2017

The tall tales and the big fish
found on Saint Patrick’s Day

Saint Patrick depicted in a window by Catherine O’Brien in the south of porch Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick,

17 March 2017,

Saint Patrick’s Day,

11 a.m.: The Eucharist

Tobit 13: 1b-7; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

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

Saint Patrick’s Day traditionally provides a welcome break in the middle of Lent from resolutions to observe the spiritual practices of discipline and self-denial. And when it falls at a weekend, it provides a good excuse for many for their first weekend away after the dark days of winter.

I think some of our family, friends and neighbours may be surprised that these Lenten disciplines are also recommended in The Book of Common Prayer and are part and parcel of Anglican tradition.

Indeed, some are even surprised to realise that Saint Patrick is part and parcel of the Anglican tradition too.

Hundreds of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations are taking place worldwide today. And later on this day, in almost every city, town and village 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.

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 many do not know about Saint Patrick’s Day:

1, Saint Patrick’s Day does not date back to Saint Patrick’s days. It is only 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, the Irish College in Rome. He claimed Saint Patrick had died on 17 March, and encouraged his students to remember him on that date each year. But, until then, the commemoration was almost unknown, even in Ireland.

In 1629, Pope Urban VIII asked Luke Wadding to reform the church 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 beer and green floodlights, 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, Saint Patrick’s Day Parades are not an Irish invention or tradition. The first recorded Saint Patrick's Day Parade ever took place in Boston – on 18 March 1737. Today, the parade in New York is the longest and the oldest in the world. But 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.

4, The Cork village of Dripsey has the world’s shortest parade – a total of 23.4 metres from one pub to another 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, 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.

6, 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.

7, The Gaelic League, formed by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, 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.’

If in the past in the Church of Ireland we were not good at owning Saint Patrick’s Day, then we were not good either at owning the Old Testament Apocryphal readings in the lectionary, such as this morning’s reading from the Book of Tobit.

The Book of Tobit is replete with the commandments and wisdom of God as well as parallels with the story of Christ – the only Son who is sent by the Father to redeem a Bride from death. This story has inspired an oratorio by Handel, and many great works of art – by Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Abraham De Pape, Jan Massys, Barent Fabritius, Bernardo Strozzi, Pieter Lastman, Gerrit Dou … and so on.

There is even a stained glass window depicting Tobias and the Fish in Whitechurch Church of Ireland parish church in Rathfarnham, given by Don Tidey in thanksgiving for being freed from his kidnapping.

Perhaps we could make some connections between this reading and the National Apostle whose life and mission we are celebrating today:

● The stories about Tobias and Patrick are about slavery and liberation from darkness;
● They are stories about exile and being protected by God;
● They are stories about deliverance from evil, represented in banishing the snakes or killing the fish;
● They are about faithfulness in the midst of idolatry;
● They are about bringing God’s message to other nations;
● They are stories that teach the value of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

So, before we go on to celebrate the rest of Saint Patrick’s Day, and to enjoy ourselves today, 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 Saint Paul and Saint 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 Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Saint Patrick’s Day Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, on 17 March 2017.

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