Sainthood and exile — Ray Burke on the long reach of St Patrick

St Patrick’s Day is a normal working day for most exiles, who know why and precisely when they left Ireland

The word “exile” appears only once in the nearly 6,000-word Confession of St Patrick, but the professed reason why 38 Irish parliamentarians and Oireachtas officials are travelling to a record 86 cities in 48 foreign countries this month is to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of Irish exiles in those places.

“Confessio Patricii”, written in Latin nearly 1,600 years ago, is more a testimony than a confession and “it is the oldest and perhaps the most important document in British history”, wrote Oliver St John Gogarty in his 1938 book I Follow St Patrick. The confession details how Patrick, aged 16, was kidnapped in Wales early in the fifth century and enslaved in Ulster for six years before he escaped, only to return to Ireland 21 years later to spend the rest of his life here.

Gogarty contended that Patrick must have been homesick during his years of captivity and later bishopric when “he sentenced himself to a life-long and barbarous exile for our sake”. But Patrick merely says in his confession that his kin “besought me that now at least, after the great tribulations which I had endured, I would not ever again go away from them”.

St Patrick’s week is when Irish people in Ireland have traditionally been urged to think about their kin among the Irish abroad. An Post has for decades distributed millions of free St Patrick’s Day postcards almost annually to encourage people to send greetings to relatives overseas. “We introduced the cards in 1984 at a time when emigration was very high in Ireland. Sales and distribution followed the emigrant trail at the time”, the company says.

The destinations of the State emissaries reflect the changing geographical spread of the Irish diaspora. Nine government Ministers and two Oireachtas officials will visit the United States. Others will go to China, India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and South America. Most will go to 23 countries in Europe. The visits “will highlight the impact and achievements of young Irish and diaspora leaders. . . around the world,” according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The visitors will be welcomed by the Irish communities overseas, but with reservations. Like migratory Irish diplomats and transitory Irish company executives who arrive to readymade employment, accommodation and social networks, the visitors are tourists, not exiles. St Patrick’s Day is recognised around the world, but it is a normal working day for most exiles, who know why and precisely when they left Ireland.

Writer Edna O’Brien, who spent almost all her adult life in London, said that her native Tuamgreaney, Co Clare, was the “fount” of all her fictions. “If you live in another country from the country of your birth, most of your preoccupations are with your first country”, she said, adding that the house in which she grew up was now uninhabited “but in the nights that I dream, it’s always that house I dream of”. And New York-based Dubliner Maeve Brennan said that an exile was “a person who knew of a country that made all other countries seem strange”.

London-Irish writer John Walsh, recalling the longing for home of his father, a GP from Athenry, Co Galway, long exiled in London, wrote: “The word I most associate with my father is ‘beyond’ . . . He used to say the word with inexpressible wistfulness, to mean Ireland, almost as if saying the name of his native land was just too much to bear . . . You could almost imagine he was talking about death and the afterlife, beyond the grave.”

Longtime New York Times journalist Dan Barry recalled the recurring homesickness of his mother Noreen (neé Minogue) who had emigrated aged 15 from her native Shanaglish, in south Co Galway, to Brooklyn, New York, returning only twice to Ireland, once for her father’s funeral. “Some days, though, my mother was someplace else”, he wrote. “Some days she would stay curled on the couch in that sweatshirt and those paint-stained pants. She would not go to bed. She’d top off the beer in her glass and call up, Good night, sleep well, to her worried children on the landing. Leave me be, she was really saying. I’m going home”.

A copy of Gogarty’s St Patrick book was found on the workdesk of James Joyce when he died. A permanent exile from the age of 22, Joyce was asked shortly before he died why he had not returned to Ireland. He replied: “I am attached to it day and night, like an umbilical cord”.

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