I lived in Northern Ireland for two years. This was two of the most demanding years of my life. I was challenged theologically, politically, and culturally to rethink many of the stereotypes and images I’d long held. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place to live. In the North, where I served, sectarian divisions (between Protestant and Catholics) now exacerbated by immigrants and refugees still exist. Violence is a way of life on many housing estates and dissident Irish Republicans are active throughout the region. At one point in my ministry, our church hired body guards to protect our congregations members as they came to church on Sunday morning. I was attacked while walking on the streets only six weeks after my arrival. No amount of Celtic spirituality or lyric prayers from Iona made my heard hurt any less. The real world of Irish Christianity means confronting guns, violence, drugs, unemployment, urban decay and a country still trying to define itself after a civil war.
The first year we were there, my family and I decided to attend our town’s local St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. According to the information in the paper, there was to be a parade, plenty of activities for the kids, and it would be a good time to be had by all. At the end of the parade, much like our local Christmas parades, Saint Patrick would ride down the street on the final float waving greetings to one and all.
Using what we knew of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States, we thought, “why not?” After all, this is post-troubles Ireland, what’s the big deal about Saint Patrick’s Day. In the United States, everyone goes to these celebrations, parades, and parties and no one thinks twice. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Here’s where I need to tell you that I lived in a town that was 95% Roman Catholic. I am a Protestant clergyperson. While on the surface, this shouldn’t be a problem, it was; not with the Roman Catholic community but to the dwindling number of Protestants I served each week. Saint Patrick’s Day was seen as a Roman Catholic holiday. To many in my dying congregation, their Roman Catholic neighbors were viewed as the enemy (i.e. terrorists who opposed a United Kingdom and supported a majority Roman Catholic united Ireland).
To attend Saint Patrick’s Day festivities, no matter how innocuous, child friendly, peace promoting, marching band containing, was to give my implicit support to the agenda of the Irish Republican Army and spit in the face of all the survivors of their terrorist attacks. I simply wanted to take my kids to a parade; something I would have done had I been living in North Carolina. However, I wasn’t living in the United States. I had lost the freedom, as a Christian, to mingle with other Christians without being called a supporter of murderers. My congregation members yelled at me, “you just don’t do this sort of thing, good Christians; do not attend these kinds of events, especially with their families.” I’ve never been so angry or afraid in my life. Protestantism has truly run off the rails in Northern Ireland. I’m not the first person to say this nor will I be the last. You can’t have serious debates about the countering secularization in Northern Ireland when there’ll be no angry people left to argue with in less than a generation.
So go out, drink your green beer, drink some Guinness, and tell stories of Saint Patrick and snakes. Pray the Celtic prayers and sing the Wild Goose Hymns. However, remember, that’s not Ireland. It’s some bastardized American version of Ireland and Celtic Spirituality. We feel warm and fuzzy about a past that was never ours and a country we’ve never known.
If you want to remember Ireland tomorrow, forget Saint Patrick and call upon James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Sean McDermott, Joseph Plunkett, Eamon Ceannt, and Thomas McDonagh. These seven men died for a united Ireland. They were real people not legends. Murdered by the crown, so Ireland might be free, they died as martyrs. This is the Ireland I know, one that deserves a greater memory than the fictitious legends of a slave trading saint.