It’s St Patrick’s Day next week and many of the traditional events will be either cancelled or reduced, because of the Covid-19 situation. Street parades in Dublin and Cork have been called off.
And I’ve heard some people in Ireland breathe a sigh of relief that Paddy’s Day will be a scaled-down event. In latter years, there have been too many images of drunken revelry in the streets. By the end of the day, some of the scenes have become Hogarthian.
Meanwhile, the politicians have used the saint’s day to fly abroad for “marketing” purposes, since St Pat is a universally recognised “brand”. His logo – the shamrock – must be worth millions in terms of “brand recognition”.
So yes, maybe it’s no bad thing, if St Patrick’s Day is a little more focused on Patrick himself, and a little less on pints of Guinness and silly hats saying “Kiss me, I’m Irish!”
There has been a real revival, in recent years, in scholarship studying Patrick and his time – he came to Ireland in about 431-432, first as a slave. There are many legends around Patrick, but modern methods of research, such as carbon-dating, have greatly enhanced knowledge of the early Christian period. Patrick’s most recent biographer, Roy Flechner, has established that Patrick’s father was a Roman citizen of quite high standing, and Patrick grew up in a villa on the west coast of Britain – possibly around Carlisle – “speaking a British dialect”.
Patrick was preceded by another Christian missionary, Palladius, who began evangelising: but Patrick completed the job of making Ireland Christian. He also introduced written records. He is even credited with creating an Irish identity. His Christianity “gave Ireland a sense of consciousness of itself”, writes the scholar Kevin Whelan in a study of Irish religion and landscape. Latin became a vernacular: the monasteries flourished, and Irish monks in turn then started evangelising Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy.
Patrick gave the Irish the confidence to take on the ancient centres of wisdom, according to Prof Whelan: flushed with Patrician fervour, the Irish challenged “Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek and Roman learning, and even the papacy itself ”.
There were 5,529 churches in Ireland in the aftermath of Patrick’s mission.
Maybe this is a golden opportunity to leave aside “Paddy’s Day” as a garish party, and turn to the rewarding story of St Patrick, who it is believed died on March 17, probably in 461.
It’s said that Military Wives is the “feelgood” movie of the month, since it’s about a group of women, whose spouses are serving in Afghanistan, forming a choir. The wife of the top brass, Kate, is played in brisk, stiff-upper lip manner by Kristin Scott Thomas, determined to whip the group into shape. Kate favours Morning Has Broken and other classic hymns, but her rival, ex-rock-chick Lisa, played by Sharon Horgan, prefers something more disco-friendly. This is the story of “Judy O’Grady and the Colonel’s lady”, as Kipling put it.
The film – which is based on a true story – is fairly predictable, from the petty fallings-out to a piercingly catty conflict; from the shy girl with a stunning voice to the sad wife whose hubby dies in Helmand. And yet, for all its predictability, it is genuinely feelgood because it contains those most fundamental human elements: respect for grief, hope of redemption, and triumph over setbacks.
And in an understated way, Military Wives is both patriotic and pro-marriage: these women love and miss their husbands, and the children miss their dads. Yet they face up to their duty, while singing together enhances their sense of community. (There are now 75 military wives’ choirs.)
At a military funeral depicted there’s an English-language version of, I think, Gounod’s Ave Maria, which I hadn’t heard before. Uplifting.
As Harry and Meghan were making their farewell appearance as “royals”, the Commonwealth Day Celebration at Westminster Abbey last Monday will have been very widely watched on television. And if some viewers did tune in to see what Meghan and Kate were wearing (apple green and pillar-box red respectively) they also got a cheerful, ecumenical and genuinely multicultural religious service reflecting a Commonwealth aspiration of being “one people with one hope under God”.