Saint Patrick's Day

A Time and a Place and a Celebration for

Each and Every One of Us

To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man's lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?

(Cicero, 106 - 43 BC)

People will not look forward to posterity who will not look backward to their ancestors.

(Edmund Burke, 1729-1797 )

People who forget those from whom they are sprung quickly forget who they are.

(Bishop Daniel Mullins, Menevia, November 1996)

It has been said that St. Patrick has become "probably the only patron saint who belongs to the entire world".

"Who is this, and what is here?"

How has it come about that the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, a one-time backwater referred to in an old song as "the most distressful country that ever yet was seen", is now acknowledged to be second only to Christmas Day in its popularity and in its worldwide influence?

The enduring poverty of Ireland changed from a grinding but tolerable struggle for survival to the sheer heart-stopping terror that stalked the maddened populace during the tragic years of the Great Famine. From being a people so deeply attached to their own land that it was said of them that they were homesick even when they were at home they found themselves having to

choose between 'Hell and the Coffin Ships'.

The census of 1841 revealed that Ireland had a population of more than eight million people. By 1961 it was little more than four million. It is estimated that between those two years more than six million emigrated. They went to the United States, to Canada, to Mexico and to all of Latin America. They went to Australia, to New Zealand and “to many's a place besides”.

Wherever they went they brought with them their customs, their music, their songs, their dances, their gift of 'the craic', their spirit of hard work and their endless courage.

Most of all they brought with them their Christian faith and their wonderful Saint Patrick. Was there ever a patron saint so loved and so revered by the people of his adopted country? Were the twin crimes of piracy and slavery ever so generously forgiven and so richly rewarded? Was there ever a national symbol so proudly worn as the "green little shamrock"?

It is known that Patrick was a Christian Briton and that his father was a minor official in the service of Rome. He must have been born somewhere in modern Wales, most likely along the coast of the Severn, in all probability Banwen in the Vale of Neath.

Then came some Irish pirates who captured him, still probably not much more than 15 years of age, and sold him as a slave in Ireland.

There is no time to quote from the Confession, his account of his origins, of his time in Ireland and of his escape to France where he became a priest and then a bishop.

"I, Patrick, a sinner" is how that great man begins his story. There is no doubt that from his 16th year, when as a slave herding pigs and sheep on the slopes of a mountain in Antrim, he followed the Prodigal Son into the arms of a forgiving Father, he became a life-long penitent.

Saint Patrick's low opinion of himself and his enduring gratitude to a God of mercy and compassion made it easy for him to mix it with people of every rank and station. Just take a look at this folk tale from Ballyvourney in County Cork to see how easily Patrick could be incorporated into the (almost!) everyday life of a pub in fifth century Ireland!

That was his way from the first day of his mission to the Irish on their remote island at the very edge of the known world in AD 432. It is still his way in the year 2008, when his mission to the Irish takes him to wherever the four winds may blow. It is a mission which brings him here also, to Cardiff's Cathays Cemetery, where so many of his children from Ireland and from Wales found their last resting place.

Cardiff was once called a “stony-hearted stepmother” to the Irish who came here seeking an escape from disease, starvation and death. They arrived, it was said, "with starvation in their stomachs and fever on their backs".

They found refuge where they could, often in overcrowded lodgings, where many, too weak to withstand the wretched conditions, soon perished.

The late John O'Sullivan wrote:

"They lived in small brick houses, which were built with indecent haste to accommodate the refugees. Their homes in Cardiff were slums from the start...”

They were, he goes on, “the most wretched members of the society from which they had been cast out...They lay side by side, stinking and ragged..."

The National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff Bay meets where its members and staff may look out over the waters, now held back by a barrage, that cover the former mudflats. Over these filthy wastelands hapless refugees of all ages were sometimes forced to crawl. Some drowned or died from exposure. The captains of the small ships in which the despairing people had been smuggled across the sea from Ireland ditched them into waist-deep water so as to avoid being fined for bringing them illegally to a relatively prosperous Wales.

It was from scenes like these that the largely Catholic (but some Protestants also fled from an Ireland in ruins) Irish community in Cardiff emerged, and it was mainly to their descendants that we owe the existence of the Wales National Great Famine Memorial in Cathays Cemetery.

This year's Ceremony of Remembrance and Reflection will be the tenth to have been held on what has already become a hallowed spot. It will also be the last to be arranged by the Wales Famine Forum.

It may seem strange indeed that we in Cardiff have come to associate St. Patrick's Day with a graveyard ( However, it needs only the briefest reflection on the links between the Great Famine in Ireland and the world-wide celebration of the feast and festival of its celebrated patron saint to agree that there can be no better way and no better day to remember, not only with the good cheer of drink, music and the craic, as St. Patrick himself would have done in his day among his beloved common people of Ireland, but also "to remember for years, to remember with tears."

The Wales Famine Forum,


Thursday 13 March 2008.

St. Patrick's Day Ceremony 2008