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Figure of Speech

By Gerry Turcotte


Gerry Turcotte

The heroic heart of St. Patrick

Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? — 1 Corinthians 6:2

Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending a workshop for university presidents at Harvard. As part of that program we were given a tour of the campus, and we listened as the guide raved about the institution’s oldest surviving building, built between 1718 and 1720. Unbeknownst to the guide, one of our fellow presidents was from Ireland, and he in turn observed pragmatically that buildings on his campus dated to the 1590s! Such things, as we know, are relative. By coincidence, the group reconvened in Ireland some years later, and I recall discussing Down Cathedral, an Irish church built on the site of a Benedictine monastery that dates back to 1183. Down Cathedral is said to be the resting place of Saint Patrick.

Stephen Gwynn once noted that the “list of Irish saints is past counting; but in it all no other figure is so human, friendly, and lovable as St. Patrick — who was an Irishman only by adoption.” Like many of the saints in the Catholic canon, St. Patrick lived a life of adventure and heroism. He was captured by pirates as a teenager and made a slave; he travelled the high seas and then found a life of prayer and contemplation. He was a cleric, a bishop and eventually a saint. As a child, I knew him as the man who chased the snakes from Ireland (no doubt apocryphal), but came to know him more as the organizational pretext for some of the best music, Guinness and celebration I’ve ever experienced for any cultural holiday. March 17 is, I’m sure, a favourite for many, Irish or otherwise.

The reality is that wherever you go, the Irish have stamped their influence on host cultures. Their indelible literature, their heart-rending ballads, their irrepressible and subversive humour: the Irish are known for all of this and more. And St. Patrick’s Day is both a legitimate reason and an unabashed pretext to celebrate all that is remarkable about the Irish. Indeed, the passion for Ireland is often as intense abroad as it is in the Emerald Isle itself. When I first moved to Australia many decades ago I was adopted by a dedicated group of Irish expats who took me in as their own and immersed me so thoroughly in their sub-culture that I wondered if I’d travelled to Ireland by mistake.

Some years back St. Mary’s University hosted an Irish fundraising dinner. I remember discovering not only an inordinate number of staff and faculty suddenly claiming Irish ancestry, but also a surprising number of our students who had a passion for solo step dancing. The event was raucous, big-hearted and full of good cheer. In the moment, we were all Irish to the core. This I think is the gift of the Irish, and their gift to the world: for all the melancholy of their brilliant songs and stories, there’s a heroic heart that beats mightily and that welcomes all in the name of hope. Or as Pope John Paul II once said, “Love is never defeated, and I could add, the history of Ireland proves it.” Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.