Comment & Analysis

Changing, but remembering our roots
What would Ireland be without St Patrick? asks Mary Kenny

St Patrick depicted in a stained glass window.

What would Ireland be without St Patrick? Before Christianity, the classical world knew almost nothing of Hibernia. 

According to Philip Freeman, visiting divinity scholar at Harvard, “the few references to Ireland in classical sources are largely complaints that the island was a land of savages who brought terror to the good people of the Roman Empire with their vicious attempts and pirate raids”. 

There were even suggestions the Irish were cannibals.

There were a hundred independent tribes in pre-patrician Ireland, each ruled by its local ‘rí’ or king. Patrick did not unite Ireland, but it can be said that he began the process of a national consciousness of the land of Erin, with a common ethic and a coherent structure. 

From Patrick’s evangelisation, there followed traditions of many holy men and women who brought to Ireland a reputation for being ‘an island of saints and scholars’. 

Patrick’s example inspired St Brigid, a remarkable woman of energy, piety and peace, whose distinctive cross is still such an everyday feature of Irish life. Patrick was also the direct model for St Brendan the Navigator, who may well have got to America on his famed ‘Voyage’: yet the voyage is also a special metaphor of the journey of a Christian life. 

The shamrock is one of the world’s most successful logos, but its origins remain rooted in faith, being an emblem of the Holy Trinity. 

Let’s move with the times, but let’s not forget our Patrician roots. 

 

The prospect of a United Ireland

In the wake of changing political circumstances in Ireland – prompted by Brexit and the success of nationalist parties in the North – a United Ireland is now being seriously mooted. And if it can be achieved in peace and in mutual respect, it’s an aspiration worthy of Patrick himself.

Still, there’s currently a car seen in North London carrying a sticker bearing the Red Hand of Ulster flag, and the tag ‘Norn Iron’, a comedic rendering of Northern Ireland. A confederate Ireland may beckon, but ‘Norn Iron’ will always want to affirm its identity, methinks. 

 

Being ‘without character’

Some decades ago, I interviewed the late author Margaret Powell who wrote a successful memoir called Below Stairs. Margaret had been a housemaid ‘in service’ in a number of English homes between the two world wars, and she wrote vividly about her experience. 

She told me that the one prospect that ‘terrified’ girls in service falling pregnant out of wedlock, or, as Margaret herself put it, “being in the family way”. 

In most cases, where it happened, Margaret told me, the maid would be dismissed without a reference (in the phrase of the time ‘without a character’, since a reference attested to an individual’s good character) And without a reference she couldn’t obtain another job, so a common result was that the young woman ended up in prostitution. 

Margaret recalled visiting a friend in Brighton in the 1940s who was thrown out on the street after a pregnancy – she was in dire straits, and working as a street girl. 

In some cases, the maid might even have been seduced by the son (or nephew) of the master of the house. 

Sometimes, Margaret said, if the family felt they should take responsibility, they might find a suitable husband for the seduced girl, in exchange for a rent-free cottage. And sometimes the baby’s father would ‘do the decent thing’ and marry her. But it was humiliating.

Margaret met a good man, married and had a family. Later, she enrolled at a university course as a mature student. She was fortunate – but always remembered those who met a different fate.