Dear St Patrick . . . Love, Ireland


To mark our upcoming national holiday we asked a selection of people to compose open letters to our patron saint

Frank McNally

Irish Timescolumnist

Dear St Patrick – First of all, congratulations on 1,600 years of achievement. You’re probably in the top five most famous saints worldwide. Dublin has expanded your feast day into a week-long festival. You still stop traffic on Fifth Avenue every March 17th. And all this despite the fact that you were never formally canonised.

You even have a cross named after you: the red diagonal one on the Union Jack. My sources tell me that a saint normally had to be martyred, like George and Andrew, to earn such an honour, whereas, by all accounts, you died of natural causes. In one version you were 119 at the time. Anyway, I’m not asking how you got the rules bent. Just well done.

The success of your global brand aside, there’s bad news too. Paganism has made a big comeback in Ireland, although you’ll be glad to know that, except at certain music festivals and anti-motorway protests, druids are a thing of the past. Is it true, by the way, that the “snakes” you banished were just a metaphor for the druids’ serpentine symbols, or did Wikipedia make that up?

You probably heard about the economy. The country is in a dire state, and we’re all desperate for solutions. In fact, if you were relaunching your mission to Ireland now you’d attract many followers by lighting a paschal fire under the bondholders. Some people would throw their mortgages on it too, to fan the flames.

Then again, the economy is hardly your concern. On the contrary, the years of hardship that seem to face us may well suit your long-term plans. Perhaps your Earthly Social Research Institute is projecting a return to modest levels of spiritual growth in the third quarter of 2011, increasing to 5 per cent annually by 2015. If so, good luck with that.

But did I mention that a certain now-infamous dinner in 2008, involving politicians and bankers, happened at a place called Druids Glen. What were you at that day? Could you not have afflicted those involved with a plague of boils or something? Setting Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin on them hardly counts.

Anyway, forget about that. I have only one favour to ask you, and it wouldn’t involve any major interventionism. It concerns the disastrous timing of your feast day. I’m not blaming you: tradition has it that March 17th is when you died, and you may not have had any say in the matter. Imagine how much more pleasant the whole thing could be in May or June, or September, when those American majorettes wouldn’t have goosebumps the size of thimbles on their thighs. All you would have to do to help us achieve this is arrange for evidence of an alternative date of death to turn up somewhere.

I suggest it could be contained in an inscribed fifth-century edition of the Bible, hitherto unknown to scholars and found perfectly preserved in a bog. Come to think of it, maybe this find could be part of a priceless hoard of gold treasures from the period. Yes, that would make it convincing.

If you think this is a good idea, all you need to do is inspire me to guess where the location of the hoard is. Just the Google Earth co-ordinates, revealed to me in a dream, would do. My metal detector will take care of the rest. Maybe, to prevent any complications, I’ll buy the land first. – Yours, etc, FRANK McNALLY

Norah Casey

Publisher and Dragons’ Den panellist

Dear St Patrick – Time was when your famous day brought Ireland alive the world over and the simple act of wearing green and donning a shamrock hat made us all proud to be Irish.

You left us the greatest global brand in the world, and, if I’m being honest, we haven’t always valued that great asset. Now, sadly, we have a different global reputation, and maybe we are going to need more than your great day to fix it.

This year we continue to convince world cities to turn iconic buildings green, including Sydney Opera House, New York’s Empire State Building and Table Mountain in Cape Town. Rumour has it that we might even get to turn Mars green one of these days. But behind the gimmickry lies a serious intent. Now more than ever we need to reach out to that vast Irish family through our national day, to attract investment and build stronger links to aid our growth.

So as we strive to regenerate our global image and shake off the shackles of the past we take comfort from the legacy you left us, especially the three-leaf shamrock – it’s been very handy in explaining the triumvirate of the IMF, Fine Gael and Labour coalition. – Yours, etc, NORAH CASEY

Maureen Gaffney

Adjunct professor of psychology and society, University College Dublin

Dear St Patrick – You once saved this nation from bondage. I am writing to you to ask if you might consider helping out again.

Let me explain. You were kidnapped by Irish marauders, sold as a slave and, all in all, suffered a lot. In a horrible twist of fate we, the children of Erin, find ourselves in much the same state, except in our case the marauders were of the financial and political variety. Instead of minding our master’s sheep on a cold, wet hill we have to work till we drop paying off their debts.

How did you stop feeling oppressed and angry about your undeserved fate? How did you rouse your spirits and start to believe that this country could be saved, was worth saving? Because that is exactly what each and every one of us now needs to do: lift ourselves up, get a burst of confidence, and muster enough self-belief to drive the new-style snakes out of Ireland.

In the process of saving the country you had a pretty rough time of time of it. You donned the hair shirt, made your bed a rock and put up with endless nonsense from the druids intent on hanging on to power. Believe me, we know how you felt.

I think you kept yourself going by deciding that these privations you were enduring would count for something. But we can’t really know your thoughts on this without hearing it first hand, right? Perhaps you might give us the benefit of one or two apparitions.

In the first apparition you might tell us about the time you flatly refused to come down off Croagh Patrick, where you had spent 40 days fasting, sleeping in a cave and trying to protect yourself from pretty foul weather.

God knew that you meant business and dispatched a negotiating angel, who offered to expel all demons and save as many of his people “as far as his vision could reach” – in other words, everybody who could be seen.

But you were having none of this as-far-as practicably-possible stuff. No, you insisted that all the people would have to be saved, even the ones excluded and unseen in purgatory. You also wanted a guarantee that the barbarian hordes would never be allowed to hold sway again. Actually, we want much the same thing now. Really, when I think about it, you are the perfect saint for our times because you are the saint of accountability, in the full sense of that word.

The second apparition should be to our latter-day saints, Enda and Eamon, who are grappling with the strains of leadership. Like you, they have to preach a new gospel of beliefs and persuade us all to make some fundamental changes to the way we do things here.

You were the master of what I call symbolic acts: actions that convey a powerful positive message of the change that is about to happen. I am thinking here of the time you took yourself off at Easter and, in defiance of the royal edict, lit a fire on the hill of Slane facing across the valley to Tara, where the old order held sway.

Then on Easter Sunday you marched on Tara, bearing aloft your new message of hope to the assembled masses. Your enemies tried to obscure your message with cloud and darkness, but you banished the clouds and secured victory with another inspired symbolic act. You plucked a shamrock from the sward and used its triple leaf and single stem to explain very complex things in a way that made sense to a grounded people.

As our new leaders face their difficult journey, any chance you could help them out by giving them a few tips on symbolic acts? Could you also stress that, as in your own case, symbolic acts work best at the beginning of a mission, maybe in the first 100 days? You might drop a hint that Easter, only 40 days away, would be a good time to start.

So, how about it, St Patrick? Would you, as they say nowadays, consider stepping up to the plate for a second time and helping us out? We would be everlastingly grateful. – Yours, etc, MAUREEN GAFFNEY. 

Very Rev Robert MacCarthy

Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Dear St Patrick – Unlike the days of other patron saints St Patrick’s Day remains hugely important. As you happened to die on March 17th your feast day has resisted the attempt of liturgists to move it out of Lent, and it is also a badge of Irishness throughout the world.

What should be uppermost in our minds on your day? Two things relate directly to what we know of you. The first is that all Christians in Ireland look back to you as the real founder of Christianity in this land. Yet Christians here have been horribly divided since the 16th century. Christians have much more in common than they have differences, but you wouldn’t think so from the behaviour of the Irish churches. Relations between the churches are, to put it mildly, patchy throughout the island. In the North bishops may be on good terms with one another, but there is very little contact between Christians of different churches; indeed, membership of different churches has been used as the badge of separateness of the warring tribes there over the past 30 years. In the rest of Ireland ecumenism is supposed to be good, but the reality differs widely.

I have found ecumenism in Dublin to be well behind what I found in Kilkenny 25 years ago. I have invited many Roman Catholic preachers to St Patrick’s – Bishop Willie Walsh is to preach next week on your day – but there has been no reciprocation. I have never been asked to speak in any Roman Catholic church in Dublin.

The second point is that you were yourself an immigrant to Ireland, though you wouldn’t think so from our treatment of immigrants. This is in spite of the fact that our hospitals and nursing homes rely heavily on immigrants to staff them. Huge numbers of Irish were the poorest of the poor who emigrated to the US during the 19th century, yet we have been grudging in our welcome to immigrants here.

The churches have done well in Dublin.

St Audoen’s Catholic Church is run as a Polish-language church, with several Polish priests on its staff, while the Anglican St George and St Thomas Church on Cathal Brugha Street is run as an African church, with a Nigerian priest in charge. But none of the traditional churches has anything to do with the burgeoning African house churches, the colour and noise of whose services add a new dimension to Irish Christianity. Which Christian group would you attend if you were to come back to Ireland today? – Yours, etc, ROBERT MacCARTHY.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Professor of modern Irish history, UCD

Dear St Patrick – We Irish need to start over again, and during this time of year, when we pay homage to your influence and legacy, perhaps you would be kind enough to intervene in order to place us on the right path. As a student of history I understand from your fifth-century writings that, after your enforced captivity here, you escaped on a ship. You entered into terms with the sailors but, in your own words, “refused, for fear of God, to suck their nipples”.

I know this frank assertion created some discomfort for those who sought to propagate your name and heritage in subsequent centuries, but I believe it was your instinctive reaction to what you described as a detestation of “cults or idols and abominations”, which you were determined to dedicate your life to overthrowing. Such pagan practices as the sucking of nipples to pledge loyalty were obviously seen by you as particularly odious.

Sixteen centuries on we Irish find ourselves in a similar position to you on that ship. Our sailors and captors are the IMF and the EU, and they too are demanding that we suck on their nipples in order to keep the State afloat. Aside from the humiliation and subjection involved in their tactics, we cannot afford the terms we have agreed with them. Actually we didn’t agree to the terms at all; we were loaded on to the ship without being consulted, destination unknown.

On the subject of destiny, perhaps you could use your influence to banish from this island the sin of undue deference to overlords whose only demonstrable faith is in money, banks and interest rates. I understand that, following your escape back to your family, you received a vision at your parents’ home and returned to Ireland to baptise thousands.

Would it be possible, after all these years, for you to make your own visitation? Maybe you could also offer words of advice or wisdom on how to survive six years in the west of Ireland with little to do except watch over a few scrawny sheep and keep an eye on the weather. There are many people in that situation in Ireland today.

If you’re worried about the appropriateness of a visitation, having heard that many of us in the modern era have gone off the whole religion thing you were so keen to promote, rest assured: we’re back on our knees, day and night, and a visitation from you could give us hope that a nipple-rejecting, God-embracing approach could work wonders. – Yours, etc,  DIARMAID FERRITER

St Patrick's week in The Irish Times


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Win €200 Write a letter to St Patrick

* Have you a message you’d like to share with our patron saint and our readers? Write him a letter, then e-mail it to or send it to Dear St Patrick Competition, The Irish Times, 24-28 Tara Street, Dublin 2, by midnight on Tuesday, March 15th – in other words, the end of that day. The best one will win National Book Tokens worth €200. Letters should be no longer than 400 words, but shorter letters are equally welcome. Entries may be published in The Irish Times. Full terms and conditions from