As a child growing up in an Irish family in Coventry, St Patrick’s Day was the cause of some embarrassment for me because my mum would send my sister and I off to school, having pinned to us various green, white and gold badges plus floppy bits of shamrock that had been sent over from Ireland in an envelope.
Four years ago, arriving at the Irish Embassy for the St Patrick’s reception I was given a bit of (non-floppy) shamrock, which I attached with pride to my lapel, and it even got me into conversation on the train home afterwards with a man from Cork whose wife’s best friend from childhood turned out to be someone I knew. Two years ago the reception was cancelled, like everything else. Last year too we had to make do with St Patrick’s celebrations via zoom but the pandemic unleashed a wave of creativity and there were some great sessions on line organised by the likes of the Irish Embassy and the London Irish Centre.
Five years ago and shortly after I’d started work at the Irish Chaplaincy I attended for the first time the St Patrick’s parade that processed in scenes of unbridled joy through the heart of London, finishing with a concert in Trafalgar Square. Growing up in the 70s I was all too aware of the existence of anti-Irish sentiment, especially following such events as the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, part of the consequence of which was the banning of St Patrick’s parades in some places. As I stood with my wife in March 2017 on the pavement of Piccadilly I was in tears as the long procession went by and at the thought of Ireland having taken over for a day, by completely peaceful means, the centre of London. And how my heart swelled with pride as there passed by the float from Galway, where my dad grew up, and that of Down, where my mum is from.
As we emerge now from Covid we can once again celebrate St Patrick together in the flesh. The Irish Chaplaincy will have a Mass at the London Irish Centre, and our Fr Gerry will concelebrate as well at Sacred Heart in Kilburn. We will also, like we did last year, link up with a parish in Co. Galway for a Mass in Irish, for such Covid-related innovations are here to stay. But there is surely no substitute for face-to-face contact. I was recently singing Irish songs in a care home for people with dementia where I used to go every month pre-Covid. It was my first visit in two years and I was rather shocked by the changes. Three of the Irish people I used to sing to had died, and those who were still there seemed to have aged by years and appeared far more passive, surely a result of the enforced and prolonged lack of social stimulation. I was due to be back to do a special St Patrick’s gig on March 17th for we so need to meet together, to sing together, to celebrate together, and it does us all good. As it turns out they have had a new outbreak of Covid in the home so the residents will have to wait a bit longer for more live music.
Sadly I will also miss the reception at the Irish Embassy because I’m singing with my choir in Canterbury Cathedral, our first concert for over two years. Had I been at the Embassy, and had they been giving out shamrock again, I would have been the first in the queue!
Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona
Happy St Patrick’s Day