As our people envisage their emergence from the destructive and debilitating, all-enveloping fog that is the pandemic of COVID-19, as our planet wounded, and in peril from what was a discarded respect for balance, between what might be consumed for the necessities of life and the very capacity of the planet to renew itself, even survive, what then might be an appropriate message from Ireland on the Feast Day of the Patron, Patrick, all of us on the island of Ireland, and Irish people everywhere and those who came to be in the country, might share?
Perhaps, in the special circumstances of this year, we should give the day back to the story of Saint Patrick, that powerful mythic source upon which our National Day, which we offer to the world every year on the 17th of March, is based.
Patrick arrived in Ireland as a slave, escaped and returned. He is of the stock of our early foundational Irish migrants, which anticipates our monastic messengers, our nineteenth-century emigration prior to the Great Famine, and the haemorrhage of our people who managed to flee for survival in post-Famine times.
In 1901, of all the Irish born on the island of Ireland, a majority lived outside of the island of Ireland. Saint Patrick’s Day, then, must always be a special day for recalling our migrant history and learning from it, be a source of our ethics and of our policy at home and abroad.
When in so many places, in so many different circumstances, voices of invocation by Irish people sing out on Saint Patrick’s Day, they are placing their invocation alongside the invocations and prayers of migrant communities everywhere who have, over generations, sought to collectively transcend present circumstances.
The messenger, of that invocation to a power beyond the self, to a spirit that informed nature, was, for us Irish, Saint Patrick, a migrant carrying to us the message of another compassionate migrant which could be placed, with respect, alongside other sources of the spirit.
All sources of transcendence and the spirit beyond the misery of the self are important. Our Patron Patrick saw the necessity of placing his message alongside respect for nature, with its right and promise of renewal that was there in indigenous forms of spirituality.
On Saint Patrick’s Day 2021, we have been reminded of our shared vulnerability, our interdependence, the need for an understanding that can fly past borders. In the message we have received from COVID, surely there is the undeniable insight that we must all, and together, exit the fog of not only the pandemic but all of the hubris, the arrogance, the vanities of assuming the right to dominate, to impose, to exclude; strategies of life which have left us such a legacy of lost communality and a planet in danger.
We have had the opportunity, since last year in particular, then, to examine the assumptions that have brought upon us less than the best of ourselves. There is much to be discarded, and we should do so without unnecessary recrimination. Surely we do not need to make war to find peace; and then when we discover a remedy, an insight of science for the avoidance or cure of disease, it must be for the sharing, rather than the hoarding as a commodity for use in aggressive trade competition.
There will be a capacity for joy in our exit from COVID-19, but that joy should be informed by our reflection on the new values we will invoke and practice as we set out on the new journey we undertake together.
Out of COVID we must globally share that which we need for a shared journey. Trust in words is fading. That trust must be restored.
In this year, no doubt, there will be pain. While there will be a recall of journeys remembered, there will be the disappointment of journeys anticipated but now, necessarily, postponed. Our hearts must be with those many for whom a technological alternative is an insufficient substitute for touch or intimacy.
Invocation to our Patron, our transcendent rivulet of hope, will be empowered in a different way this year. We can learn from it all as we always do, and when in years to come we parade again and gather in celebration, make a new invocation, no longer needing to be consumed in our consumption, we will recall how we made Saint Patrick’s Day 2021 the beginning of a new journey, one we are happy to share with the whole world and all of its people, and one that helped renew a respect for Mother Earth to which we all belong, and of which our Saints Patrick and Brigid left us such insights and enduring wisdom.
When in the future we recall Saint Patrick’s Day 2021, let us have returned with even more energy to music as we lift the glass slowly, and replenish it even slower. Music and creativity were our resource in the pandemic, and in the music of the heart is rehearsed that for which words are insufficient, feídearachtaí ag heitheamh dúinn – forms of renewal, possibilities rehearsed, journeys to wonder and new places.
“We make an affirmation.
The stuff of hope beckons.
Out of the darkness we step,
And blink into the new light.”1
On behalf of the people of Ireland, I extend a hand of friendship across the globe to all those who are Irish by birth, descent or association, and to all those who have assisted our Irish people, especially over the past year.
I wish you, and all those who form part of the Irish family, and its friends in the families of the world, a happy and peaceful Saint Patrick’s Day.
1 “Memory”, from New and Selected Poems (2014) by Michael D. Higgins, Liberties Press: Dublin.