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Sunday, 17 March 2013

St Patrick’s Day


Cry God for England, St George, and St Patrick!
by Sandra Rimmer


17 March marks St Patrick’s Day.  It will be celebrated in Ireland, and by the Irish Diaspora around the world, with parades, the wearing of green, eating, boozing and generally hard partying.
One of the biggest gripes among the English about St Patrick’s Day is that it is celebrated more in England than their own patron saint’s day – St George’s Day – which falls a month later on 23 April.
Birmingham holds the largest St Patrick’s Day parade in Britain with a massive parade through the city centre; it is considered the third biggest parade in the world after Dublin and New York.  London has had an annual St Patrick’s Day parade, usually inTrafalgar Square, since 2002.  Manchester hosts a 2 week Irish festival in the run up to St Patrick’s Day, including a large parade and an Irish Market based at the town hall, which flies the Irish tricolour opposite the Union Jack.  Liverpool, which has the highest proportion of residents with Irish ancestry of any English city, hosts its own long-standing St Patrick’s Day parade and other cultural events.
Further afield, St Patrick’s Day is also seen as a day to celebrate individual links to Irish heritage.  It is marked throughout the United States as a celebration of Irish American culture; Irish patriotism in New York in particular soared with immigration and the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in New York City has grown to be the largest in the world.  In Canada, St Patrick’s Day parades have been held continually in Montreal since 1824.  St Patrick’s Day is also widely celebrated in Australia and New Zealand, owing to the large numbers of Irish people that emigrated there, or where brought over as convicts during the 19th century.
St Patrick
Who is the man they will all be toasting?  St Patrick born into a wealthy Romano-British family in the 4th century AD.  As a boy, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to the west coast of Ireland, possibly Mayo.  Escaping captivity, he returned to Britain and later studied to be a priest.  He then returned to Ireland as a bishop with a mission to Christianise the Irish people, remaining there for thirty years until his death.  The feast day of St Patrick was celebrated by the Irish in the 9th and 10th centuries and was officially made a holy day by the Catholic Church in the early 1600s.  St Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday in Ireland in 1903.
St George
And who was St George?  He was, according to tradition, a 3rd century Roman soldier from Syria who became venerated as a Christian martyr.  He has more diverse ‘geographical coverage’ than St Patrick and is celebrated as a patron saint in many countries and cities around Europe and theMiddle East.  The earliest recorded mention of St George in England comes from the chronicles of St Bede (c. 673–735).  The admiration of St George became more widespread during the Crusades, when it was reported that he had appeared to the crusaders outside Jerusalem in 1099; English knights began to wear his colours into battle.  Edward III put his Order of the Garter under the banner of St George in 1348.  In his play ‘Henry V’, William Shakespeare famously invokes St George prior to the battle of Agincourt(1415): “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’”  At Agincourt many soldiers believed they saw St George fighting on the English side.  The Cross of St George was flown in 1497 by John Cabot on his voyage to discover Newfoundland and in 1620 it was the flag that was flown by the Mayflower when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The church declared St. George’s Day as a feast day in the kingdom of England in 1222, and by the early 15th century it was a national holiday on a par with Christmas Day.  However, it began to wane after the union of England and Scotland in 1707.  Attempts were made to revive it by groups such as the Royal Society of St George, founded in 1894.  In recent years, politicians have tried campaigning to make St George’s Day a public holiday in England; last year an e-petition was set up on the UK government’s website.
So, why has St George’s Day never returned to its former glory as a national celebration to match St Patrick’s Day?  Is it the same reason why there is no ‘English Diaspora’, or why ‘English-Americans’ don’t parade through US cities celebrating their English heritage?  Is it because the English have lost their sense of nationhood and cultural identity?
The Irish have a day off for St Patrick’s Day and have their own Republic.  The Scots have their own Parliament, and a day off for St Andrew’s Day.  The English have no separate parliament, no elected leader who speaks purely for England and no national anthem.  St George’s Day is a normal working day in England.  A YouGov poll showed that 7 out of 10 young English people don’t know when St George’s Day is – I doubt many of them even know what it is.
England does have its own flag – the Cross of St George – but many local authorities seem reluctant to fly it from public buildings.  It has an image problem.  It has become associated with football hooligans and far right-wing nutters.  Consequently, left wing loonies suppress it, and wring their hands about St George being ‘too war-like’, and ‘not relevant’ to the English.
Do you think the Irish worry about the ‘relevance’ of St Patrick to Ireland- he was an Englishman after all!  St Patrick’s Day is bigger because it has a better ‘brand image’.  It allows exiled Irishmen all over the world to get misty-eyed for home (even if they have never set foot there), and it lets ‘plastic Paddys’ pretend to be Irish for the day.  It is widely celebrated in England for the same reason that Irish theme pubs are big business here.  It’s all about the craic!  In Ireland itself, it represents a day off work and, for the devout, a day off from any sacrifices made for Lent (that’s probably why the booze traditionally flows so much).
I was born in England, so if the English ever get St George’s Day properly sorted out as a national holiday, I will gladly celebrate it with a day off work, roast beef and pints of ale.  But, as all of my family history lies in Ireland, and many of my extended family still live there, I will always raise a pint of the black stuff to them on 17 March.
Happy Paddy’s Day!