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Faith. You “gotta have” it, as George Michael says, and for centuries, what Ireland had was the Catholic religion – and not just when it came to church. Our hospitals, education, even our laws are intertwined with it. But the country has gradually become more and more secular in recent years, so where does that leave us, with all our Catholic teaching? (To this day, most schools in Ireland have what they call a ‘Catholic ethos’.) Where does it leave me? I thought it’d be enlightening to catch up with someone with his finger on the pulse. The man behind our patron saint : St. Pat himself.
As he’s been reclusive of late, it takes me a while to track him down and, when I do, he asks me not to disclose his location. So I won’t. But let’s just say it was pretty Meath-sy to find. The property is gated, and the voice that answers and buzzes me in is surprisingly spry. He tells me to park behind the property. I do.
It takes some time to walk around to the front of the house. I say ‘house’, though it’s more of an earthen mound with a round tower sticking up out of it, impressive in its own way. Much like the man himself.
He answers the door wearing pyjamas and slippers and that famous sweet smile. ‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘I’m just up. It’s been quite the week and I’m not as young as I used to be! Takes me a while to get down the tower steps.’
I have to give him this. It’s barely a week since the St Patrick’s Festival, focused on 17 March, his Day and busiest time. As I step into the tower, I realise with some surprise that for despite his being such a familiar figure, I’ve never heard his voice before. It’s hard to place his accent. Not Irish, not … well, it’s not Irish, but there’s definitely a hint of the ancient about it. He gathers up newspapers strewn here and there, all bearing front page pictures of Paddy’s Day parades from around the world, and gestures for me to sit. I remark that I’m surprised to see that nothing – not the leather couch, not the stripy pyjamas, not even the potted plant – is green. For a second, the twinkle leaves his eye. I’ve made some kind of faux pas but it appears he’s too polite to tell me what it is. He is, after all, a saint.
Or is he? Once he has served me tea (he doesn’t drink, he says, and won’t keep alcohol in the house) and settled into the large throne that forms the centrepiece of the room, rather than tiptoe around the most controversial question, I decide to open with it.
Tara Flynn: Isn’t it true that you’re no longer a saint, or that you never were one in the first place, or something?
Saint Patrick: (chuckles) Straight in! You don’t mess about do you?
TF: I think it’s something people are curious about.
SP: I don’t pay much attention to titles. After all, some of the most atrocious people in history have been sainted, or are about to be. There are some clubs it’s better not to be a member of. The celebrity has been fun, so long as I have this place to get away from it all. I get a lot of heat one week of the year. For the rest of it, they leave me more or less alone.
TF: So you’re not a saint, really?
SP: There you go, with your titles again! Let’s leave it at this: how many people do you know with thrones in their living room?
I admit I don’t know any, and agree not to push it.
TF: The whole snakes thing …?
SP: Oh god! The snakes! That was a schoolboy prank that got legs – unlike them! Sure, there were never any snakes in Ireland. About nine hundred years ago, I was in charge of bringing a basket of eels to a friend’s stag do (a weekend hunting actual stags). We were going to drop them down the groom’s tunic. En route, I fell asleep near a river and they slithered away. The lads were devastated that the prank was off, and I got an unmerciful slagging, which stuck. But most crushing of all was my own disappointment in myself. Since then, no more mead for me. I get a lot more done during the day. And I haven’t lost an eel – not to mention a snake – since.
TF: What’s your day like?
SP: I’m up very early. Not this week, of course, I get a lie-in shortly after the Big Day, but usually I am. In the week of My Festival, I have a lot of public appearances to make. Like St Nicholas, I have to employ the odd lookalike, but I try to personally make as many as I can. The rest of the year is mainly spent in preparation. Sit ups, that kind of thing.
TF: Tell us something we wouldn’t know about you.
SP: I invented the shamrock. Actually invented it. I wanted to teach the whole Holy Trinity thing, yada yada, and I picked up a four-leaf clover, secretly pulling off one of the leaves to make my point. Ireland’s natural clover used to be the four-leaf clover; so, to give the story credence, I have to go around and pull the one leaf off all of them. Ta-da! Shamrock! Something local to take in a bowl when visiting foreign dignitaries. Pulling those single leaves off is a year-round job. Detractors say that’s why Ireland has had no luck of late, but that’s just silly superstition.
My elderly host is visibly starting to flag, but before I finish my tea and take my leave, I have to ask.
TF: Women, St Pat. Do they figure in your story at all?
He tents his fingers and muses before answering.
SP: I have Twitter, you know. I read what people say: that if I hadn’t come along, women in Ireland might be in a lot better position than they have been. I don’t know if that’s true – there were always those who saw them as chattel – but I can tell you what I think. Irish women have had to put up with an awful lot of dung, so fair play to ye for sticking around at all. St. Bridget is a very good friend of mine.
TF: St. Bridget is still alive?
SP: Oh, she’s at every feminist rally. In disguise, of course – she can’t give the game away. But look down next time … she’ll be the one wearing home-made rush sandals.
He yawns. It really is time to go. As he shows me to the mound door, one last question. Why the no green?
‘It’s not my colour,’ he says, ‘I’m more of an autumn.’
I know there must be more to this glorious mystery, but he slowly shuts the door, holding my gaze as he does so. There’s something about Patrick, but all I know for certain is this: it’s not what you think it is.
HAPPY SAINT PATRICK’S DAY. Stay in if you can, wash your hands, mind yourself and your loved ones x
The above piece first appeared as a Headstuff column in 2016 and was subsequently published as part of ‘Rage-In’, a collection of column and essays (Mercier Press, 2018). If you’d like to buy it, please favour a local bookseller. But it’s available as a e-book too.