St. Patrick’s Day: A reflection on life as an Irish Catholic born in the North of Ireland 🇮🇪 ☘️
It’s the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of Ireland’s Patron Saint, credited with successfully bringing Christianity to our lands by “driving out the snakes”. It’s pretty telling about the strength of Christianity sweeping the world at that time; that the presiding populace practices of Paganism and Druidism were referred to as snakes; dangerous, deathly and to be avoided. Additionally, the creation of ‘feast’ days inline with Pagan worship periods denotes the smarts within Christianity in facilitating an easier transition to the faith for those a little more hesitant; similarity and all that.
So this is our 2nd St. Patrick’s Day lockdown in Ireland; North and South. This feast day has been religiously observed by the Irish since the 9th or 10th century, but the first real St. Patrick’s day celebrations began in Florida, America, in 1601, organised by the colony’s Irish Priest, Ricardo Artur. Over a century later in 1762, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day Parade occurred in New York; an apt reflection of modern celebratory parades, with serving Irish Soliders in the English military marching in their hundreds to celebrate their Patron Saint and mark their homesickness.
Dublin’s celebrations are amazing, particularly to a teenager from the North with little experience of anything so extensive. The fun began on the journey down, mostly by train at that time with my local youth group and then with friends when I was old enough to travel on the train independently. It’s around 100 miles from Belfast to Dublin, taking approximately 2 hours by train and similar if travelling by car. Looking back it’s astounding that as a young person I had to travel that far to celebrate my Patron Saint and my identity. Later on in life we’d travel to New York to celebrate our Irish Patron Saint.
On that point, this lockdown is a little more poignant for us in the North because whilst the celebrations are annually enjoyed the length and breadth of the Globe, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations here weren’t fully supported nor recognised by councils properly or proactively until recent years beginning with The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. March 1998 was the City’s first official St. Patrick’s Day parade, even though some of our English neighbours celebrated them; Liverpool for instance.
Prior to that whilst Catholic Schools closed for the day, if you ventured into the city centre you’d have little inkling that it was any different from other days. And It’s really only in the last 5 years that our city has engaged in any robost, strategic planning for an inclusive city celebration that is inline with those across the world.
I remember small localised celebrations as a child, funded by families and local businesses in the area. I recall being dressed in greens and lemons every year for the occasion, having a great time waving a miniature Tricolour to the “Irish Music” played by local bands and being totally oblivious to the politics at play behind the scenes.
The partition of Ireland occurred in May 3rd, 2021; forming Northern and Southern Ireland and then Northern and Republic of Ireland. Drawn up by the British, the border at Ulster not only politically separated the North from South but also excluded Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan from Ulster’s Northern Statelet due to their large Catholic majorities. Renowned as a Protestant state for a Protestant people, the strategic thinking back then was that the 6 counties; Antrim, Down, Armagh, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone would successfully maintain the Protestant majority.
Ironically, the ban on contraception by the Catholic Church, meant that Catholics tended to have large families – one local family that I knew consisted of 16 children – and alongside the large Protestant majority dwindling over the past century it is forecasted that they could become a large minority as early as in 2021 / 2022.
Between 1990 and 2017 the proportion of the population aged 16 and over reporting as Protestant has dropped from 56% to 42%, while the proportion reporting as Catholic increased from 38% to 41%.https://m.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/northern-ireland-catholic-school-population-surges-to-record-high-38063956.html
Life for Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland was extraordinarily difficult. Gerrymandering meant that they had to live in slums with large families, employment was contained to low paid, low shilled positions in various Mills and local businesses, meaning unemployment was extremely high. Education, if you were supported to attend regularly, lasted until the age of 14 if you were lucky, before having to leave school to find low paid work to support your family. Catholics couldn’t vote, enter the judiciary system, achieve professional status in their career nor held decision making positions alongside their Protestant colleagues on the development of their city.
Decades of this 2nd class treatment in addition to a physically brutal and corrupt policing strategy towards the Catholic / Nationalist population, the momentum for Civil Rights, primarily voting rights and equality began to grow rapidly in the 1960’s. And whilst there was always “troubles” here with sectarian killings or deaths from police brutality, they began in earnest with whole communities being burned out of their homes further cementing green & orange ghettos.
Anyhoo roll forwards to me aged 11 attending a cross community school quiz. Until then I’d been fiercely protected from anything remotely sectarian. My father’s parents formed a ‘mixed marriage’, meaning that my grandfather was Protestant and my grandmother was Catholic: this meant that I was taught respect for difference and all from a very early age but they couldn’t prevent me observing or hearing things outside of our home.
There was a bomb planted at the front wall of my school, detonating at lunchtime when pupils were playing in the yard. I’d been in a classroom taking extra English because I’d been elevated to a class a year above and my teacher regularly provided me with extra classes to ensure I kept up academically with my peers.
I remember hearing a large “BOOM” followed quickly by the classroom windows smashing and then after a few seconds of silence, the squeals began. I know that a young British Solider lost his life that day and I know I was taken home by my parents but I don’t remember this nor having any conversations about what had happened afterwards. I was 6 years old.
Another vivid memory i have is playing outside and hearing that the ‘orangies’ were coming. My vivid imagination pictured creatures with oranges as heads coming for us and I remember frantically running home to tell my parents. Orangies is a reference to Orange Man, from the Orange Order; a sectarian organisation that bans Catholics from joining, bans marriages to Catholics and even attempts to ban members children from marrying Catholics.
Back to the school competition. So the goal was to create groups that were made up of Catholics and Protestant school children to compete in general knowledge competitions jointly. I was oblivious to what cross community meant. Anyhow, the first steps involved having us sit and talk with each other and being a huge Madonna fan I eagerly asked the group if they also liked her. One girl replied ‘no, sure she’s a fenian’ which totally baffled me as I’d no idea what she meant for years afterwards as my parents refused to explain what it had meant.
Going to Catholic Grammar school opened my eyes to not only the segregated school system here but also to the class differences in our society. I had successfully secured a place in this school through hard work and an excellent test grade, yet some of my peers parents paid a lot of money annually for their placement in the school. It was a lot to process away from my little bubble.
Anyways my school days were brilliant albeit weirdly secluded; there were constant bombs and shootings in our city and throughout the country, which I’d see on the news, yet in a strange way I didn’t feel threatened or frightened. I now know that this was a result of normalisation and subsequent desensitisation.
A number of years later the Rave scene hit the North and alongside this came my true introduction to cross community life. Whilst the bombs continued, young Catholics and Protestants danced the night away together in the many venues throughout the North. We wanted no part of the death and hatred going on around us. However, the nights always came to an end, returning us back to our divided conclaves.
Today, whilst progress has continued, a lot of focus remains on calling perpetuators and state agencies to account for their roles in almost 4000 murders, and rightly so. True peace can only stem from justice and reconciliation and I’m thankful that the vast majority here remain committed to our Peace Process.
Brexit, however, has thrown a massive spanner in the works; there has been no other period as unstable since the GFA in 1998, in my opinion.
It’s with joy that I can write with sincerity that the younger generation have no interest nor tolerance for sectarianism and they proceed in life with their Catholic and Protestant friends. Devastatingly though, the Brexit fall out relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the border down the Irish Sea, has sown the seeds of a referendum on a United Ireland alongside a fear of a fresh return to war.
It’s a frightening time as a Catholic Irish Nationalist but moreso as a Mother of a 21 year old son and a 15 year old daughter. I talked before about being protected from the prevailing sectarianism within our communities growing up, I think about how difficult that must’ve been for my parents given the wrongful imprisonment of my Grandfather and Uncle, lasting over 15 years and resulting in the untimely death of my Grandfather. It must’ve required super powers to ensure that us children heard nothing of their feelings or fears. Looking back I can see the vast benefits of the absence of the internet and social media – something that is renown for its ability to radicalise individuals.
I’m not a praying person, not religious at all in fact but I do repeat mantras in my mind pleading for calm and for reason to prevail. We in the North have under the GFA the right to dual identity or to self identify as Irish, British and/or Northern Irish which is validated by our right to chose which passport we want or both.
The beauty of this enables us to remain in the EU via our Irish citizenship whilst the rest of the UK have had their membership removed. I struggle to fully understand the increasing narrative within Unionism that views this as problematic because I can only see the benefits of being able to freely travel, study, work and live in EU countries without loads of bureaucratic tape. I can appreciate the context of an identity crisis that it has created for those loyal to the British crown however.
I do know these things for sure; no matter the outcome:
- My identity as a strong Irish Woman (mná) remains unchanged, no one nor establishment has the power to change that.
- That it’s too soon for a referendum on Irish reunification as much as I wish to see my country whole once more. It will only be when my unionist neighbours feel the full financial impact of a poorly designed Brexit before they will see the benefits of Ireland reunifying.
- That the British Government and very much the majority of the British people think little of Northern Ireland apart from being a thorn in their sides.
- And that when Ireland is reunified, it must become a new Ireland that meets the needs of all of its citizens which in my opinion points to a Provence federal system, which will ensure that unionist voices are heard and will inform the collective decision making process.
- And finally, my Irish neighbours in the Free State must also be on board for this.
My plan for St. Patrick’s Day 2021 is to kickback with my family and have some nice food and drinks. Lockdown means no pubs or restaurants open to celebrate with friends. So it’ll be a quiet one all around.
Wishing you a happy and safe day!