QUIS SEPARABIT?

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1920s St Patrick’s Day Greeting Card (Click on image to enlarge)

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I found this old greeting card in the attic recently. It comes from post-partition (1922) Ireland and bewails the ‘dismemberment of St Patrick’s Island.’ As we all know St Patrick is the national saint of Ireland. Even if nowadays we might be tempted to associate the old snake banisher with stout and whiskey and raucous parades, he is usually accredited as an early proselytiser of Christianity on the rain-soaked, windswept ‘pagan’ isle of  Hibernia. Of course, he was neither a Catholic nor a Protestant, being active some time in the fifth century. However he is fundamental to the traditions of both sects. Armagh, in present-day Northern Ireland, is today the primary seat of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Ireland and both cathedrals in the town are named after Patrick. He has been claimed, invoked, his image brandished, and his myth massaged by various religious and political factions from soon after his death right up to recent times. Control of the symbols and tradition of St Patrick and his legacy became a cornerstone of those who wished to claim ownership over the island of Ireland. So much so that it became difficult to separate the historical and the mythic Patricks. And yet, as a symbol of post-pagan, ecclesiastical, God-fearing Ireland, the manner in which his identity has been requisitionned for political kudos reveals some of the irony and tragedy of a history of tribal conflicts on a sod of land on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Most modern scholars support the concept that there were in fact two Patricks, whose personalities and activities have been melted mythologically into one super Patrick. Neither Patrick was born in Ireland. The first was Palladius, a Roman deacon, apparantly sent to Ireland by Celestine I to curb the spread of the doctrine of Pelagianism (which contended that there was no original sin – his success in that matter, at least in certain areas, perhaps best indicated by the later notion of Catholic guilt). The second Patrick was born in Banwen, in  South Wales. According to legend, he was captured by Irish pirates when he was sixteen and served as a slave for several years. He managed to escape but was called through divine intervention to return to the land of his pagan captors and convert the poor devils to Christianity (or perhaps he suffered from Stockholm Syndrome).

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According to the Annals of the Four Masters, an early-modern compendium of Irish history, after Patrick’s death, there was a fight over ownership of his sacred corpse – the Battle for the Body of St. Patrick. It is tempting to see a mythic symmetry with more contemporary events on the island of Ireland. In the legend, the Uí Néill and the Oirghialla clans wanted to bring the body to Armagh while the Ulaid wanted to keep it on their territory. God intervened halting the progress of the corpse-movers by swelling the waters of a river and blocking their path. Peace terms were reached and then, as if by a miracle, both parties perceived that they had possession of the body and continued upon their ways. The Good Friday (or  Belfast) Agreement and the ensuing pageantry and politics which have thankfully contributed to a more peaceful island might find no better mythic representation than the Battle for the Body of St. Patrick.

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St. Patrick thus is an integral part of both Catholic and Protestant traditions in Ireland, and each sect has used the saintly mythico-historical character to support their claims to represent the Ur-spirit of the island.  While the Republican tradition bemoaned the separation of St. Patrick’s island expressed in terms manifest in the political postcard above, the British or Protestant tradition’s emblematic use of Ireland’s saint may be seen in the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick, a chivalric honour which ceased to exist de facto since soon after the independence of the southern portion of the island.  The order was instituted by George III in 1783, and while never officially disbanded, has not been conferred since 1936. The last surviving knight of the order, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, died in 1974. There is surely a very Irish poetry in historical irony, and the motto of an order which was tacitly and politically ‘dis-honoured’ following the above mentioned ‘dismemberment of St. Patrick’s island’ is “Quis Separabit?” or “Who Shall Separate Us?” While the motto is a reference to Romans 8:35, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”, in the Irish context, the underlying sentiment might better be expressed:  “Who Shall Separate Us from Ourselves?”.  The answer, of course,  is one which holds true for much of the period of our internecine strife: Ourselves (or as we might say in Irish: Sinn Féin’).

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And, by the way, St. Patrick’s colour is not green but blue, and there were never any snakes in Ireland to banish.

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QUIS SEPARABIT?

QUIS SEPARABIT?

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