17 March 2019

Why we should remember
that Saint Patrick was
an outsider and a stranger

Saint Patrick depicted in a window in Saint Patrick’s Church, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 17 March 2019: Saint Patrick’s Day (the Second Sunday in Lent)

9.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

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

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

For the past week or two there has been an interesting debate in the newspapers and on RTÉ on Protestant identity.

In two separate features in The Irish Times, Professor Roy Foster of Oxford and the historian Dr Ida Milne, co-editor with Ian d’Alton of Protestant and Irish, gave two very different accounts of growing up in the 1960s and the 1970s as Protestants in Waterford and Wexford, two parts of the south-east that I associate with much of my own growing up, and which I returned to on Thursday and Friday.

Roy Foster says that by the 1970s the sense of difference between Protestant and Catholic cultures in the Republic was eroding fast.

He writes that ‘the Protestant accent,’ ‘if anyone even remembers it, is now gone (along with Protestant cuisine – an unregretted subculture of a subculture).’

He goes on to say that by the time a Republic was declared in 1948, ‘the identity of southern Protestants was more or less uncomplicatedly Irish.’

Both writers describe the deep differences between Protestants north and south, and note the different attitude of Protestants north and south of the border towards the GAA, towards the 1798 Rising, or towards Irish national identity.

Despite large-scale Protestant emigration in the early 1920s, southern Irish Protestants moved away from an initial fear of becoming what Ian d’Alton calls ‘a beached people’ and avoided withdrawing into an ‘inner emigration.’

In the 1950s, Hubert Butler described the Church of Ireland as ‘a poor old phoenix, moulting and blind and bedraggled, gazing mesmerised into the fire, but unable to summon up the courage to take the last leap.’ Yet, he continued: ‘I still think it has the power to lay a very fine egg.’

By the 1980s, the late Victor Griffin, Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (1968-1991), spoke openly of the position of Protestants in Irish public life and challenged the modern Ireland that was emerging ‘to choose between republicanism and confessionalism.’

Throughout all those years, we had a shared pride in our Irish rugby team – despite yesterday’s result. I have no problem of showing my support too for the Wexford hurlers and – since I moved to this parish – for the Limerick hurlers too.

We are defined not by the sports we play, the way we vote, the houses we live in, what we eat, or the religious festivals we celebrate. We are confident in our Irish identity, and, I hope, would be vocal in challenging any efforts to return to the days when people sought to use religious affiliation as a key marker for Irish identity.

Despite some lingering perceptions among a tiny minority of our neighbours, we can be equally proud too of Saint Patrick and his legacy, which we are celebrating today.

But if we are to celebrate Saint Patrick with integrity and honesty today, there are key parts of his story that we must continue to emphasise so Saint Patrick’s Day can retain its core meaning and values.

During the past week, I have been looking at the city centre preparations in both Dublin and Limerick for Saint Patrick’s Day, which has been turned into a five-day festival, running from last Thursday [14 March 2019] until tomorrow [18 March 2019].

The organisers of ‘Saint Patrick’s Festival’ and The Irish Times produced an attractive, glossy 44-page festival programme giving details of much though not all that is on offer this weekend.

There are events that celebrate music and photography, we can choose between poetry and pirates, parades and parties, we can upskill our Irish language skills or dance away the evening at a Céilí Mór. There are myths and monsters, bands and bicycles, walks and pints, games, funfairs and the circus, and a call to ‘Believe in Science.’

But nowhere is there any mention of who Saint Patrick was, what he did, or why we might celebrate him as our national, patron saint.

And nowhere, in a very attractive and full programme, is there any reference to any of the cathedral and church services today that celebrate the life, faith and witness of Saint Patrick.

It is worth remembering this morning that Saint Patrick is a figure of unity on this island. He was sent not so much as a missionary but to unite the Church on this island, which was scattered throughout Ireland, without any sense of unity.

He is an ecumenical figure, shared by Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.

But under the dark cloud of events in New Zealand in the past two or three days, there are a few other details about Saint Patrick’s life that are worth remembering and celebrating:

1, Saint Patrick was an outsider and a stranger. He was born in Roman Britain and had no Irish family background, and was seen as a migrant or immigrant.

2, Despite the presence of pre-Patrician Christianity in Ireland, Patrick was a member of a religious minority … a religious community that was seen as strange and foreign and rather than being accepted as a religion of peace was seen as a threat to the social and political order of the day.

3, Saint Patrick had first-hand experience of slavery and violent oppression. He was trafficked and he was able to escape only because of a network of people who risked their own personal safety by breaking the laws of the day and providing his safe passage to escape.

The context for this morning’s Gospel reading [John 4: 31-38] is Christ’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well [see John 4: 1-42].

Saint Patrick too was affirmative of the women who came into his life with their questions about religion, but who had been marginalised and who had been kept out of religious society and debate.

But we should also remember that the reaction in society at the time of Christ to the Samaritans is similar to the reaction to Muslims in many places today. Both Samaritans and Muslims are monotheists who worship the same God as Jews and Christians believe in, but so often they were or are seen as having a strange, unrelated and even threatening faith community.

In an island community, everyone who is either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants – no matter how recent or distant those ancestors may be, we all share a multiplicity of identities. But the labels Catholic, Protestant and Christian were never intended to be ethnic identities. Nor is Muslim an ethic label or identity.

The rise of antisemitism across Europe and the tacit acceptance of Islamophobia should disgust all decent Christians. We should be heard to speak out when Jewish graves are toppled and spray-painted with graffiti, when Jews and Muslims are taunted, when synagogues and mosques are attacked.

It is embarrassing, to say the least, that the man who carried out the attacks boasted that he was partly Irish in background. Does he not realise the irony and incongruity of an Australian, with mixed Irish, Scottish and English background, being opposed to immigration to New Zealand?

The sadness of Friday’s attacks in New Zealand is made even sadder by the name of the city where they took place, for violence must never be in the name of Christ or in the name of the Church. What a meaning and significance to give to the name of Christchurch!

In so many ways Ireland is like New Zealand and Canada: despite all our economic and political problems and difficulties, these three countries on three continents are emerging as voices for tolerance, diversity and pluralism.

What happened in these recent days in New Zealand must be warning to us all. We have a similar-sized Muslim population in Ireland, and for most people they are a respected and a valued minority, with a valued place in the mosaic that is this beautiful society.

But we cannot take our religious communities, majorities or minorities, for granted.

The saying, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty’ is often attributed to the Irish lawyer and politician John Philpot Curran (1750-1817). What he actually said in 1790 was: ‘It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.’

We must speak out when our neighbours are victimised or discriminated against. Like Christ at the well, we must listen and learn from the people who are the equivalent of Samaritan women among us today. Like Saint Patrick, we must be willing to keep alight the flame of the Gospel that speaks against oppression, slavery and discrimination.

We must be careful that everything we say may be interpreted as the word of Christ and the word of the Church. In our words and our deeds we are called to show the love of God and to love our neighbours as ourselves.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saint Patrick … an icon received as present in Crete last year and now in the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 4: 31-38 (NRSVA):

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him [Jesus], ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33 So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

The reliquary made for relics of Saint Patrick, now in the Hunt Museum, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White

Penitential Kyries:

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who trust in him.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Lord ransoms the live of his servants
and none who trust in him will be destroyed.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Come my children, listen to me:
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


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.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Peace be to you, and peace to your house, and peace to all who are yours (I Samuel 25: 6).


To this land you sent the glorious gospel
through the preaching of Patrick.
You caused it to grow and flourish in the life of your servant Patrick and in
the lives of men and women, filled with your Holy Spirit,
building up your Church to send forth the good news to other places:

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.


God, who in days of old gave to this land the benediction of his holy Church,
fill you with his grace to walk faithfully in the steps of the saints
and to bring forth fruit to his glory:

A fading statue of Saint Patrick in the grounds of Saint Patrick’s Church, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)


459: For all the saints, who from their labours rest (CD 27)
611: Christ be beside me (CD 35)
666: Be still my soul: the Lord is on thy side (CD 39)

Saint Patrick in a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic parish church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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