Sunday 17 March 2013

Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick

People expect me to hate it. In fact, it is a pretty good hymn tune, since it is genuinely designed, as the old ones are, for congregational singing. And the lyrics are so unremittingly bad that I find them quite endearing. They may or may not have been written by an enemy of the British State. But they were certainly written by an enemy of the English language. Not a category in which one normally puts the Irish, but there we are.

I am told that in every parish it is people whose families have been cradle Catholics since the dust, and I do not in any sense mean Recusants, who complain every year, as they were certainly doing in my ear this morning, that "It reads like it was written by a member of the IRA" and that "We've been waiting forever for X to die so that we no longer have to have it, but they have only gone and lived another bloody year." As I said, they assume that I agree with them. But I feel as if I should be intruding on an internal family squabble if I were to do anything other than listen to them in silence.

It is quite clear that this sort of thing now only goes on once a year, if it still goes on at all in many places, and then only because one or two people in their eighties would complain if it didn't. But there used to be, and perhaps there still is, a lively belief at the Higher end of the Church of England that Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick was sung at the conclusion of every Mass, certainly every Sunday and possibly every day, throughout this country and even throughout the entire English-speaking world. I remember being told that as a fact well into the 1990s, and I have heard it expressed as a concern about becoming a Catholic into the present decade. Was it ever actually the case? I only ask.

All of which is one of my characteristically roundabout ways to my main point. Those of you downing pints of the Black Stuff this evening, or who had been doing so by the time that you read this, take note that well into the 1960s, more than 40 years after Irish independence, Guinness refused to employ Catholics in any managerial capacity and was owned by the dynasty that provided four successive Tory Members of Parliament for Southend, a town a mere 40 miles from the centre of London. The last one, a former Cabinet Minister under Margaret Thatcher, did not retire until 1997 and did not die until 2007. Everything that you probably think that you know about Ireland is wrong.

There is much emphasis on land reform as having allegedly broken the power of the Ascendancy. But in fact the Anglo-Irish Protestants continued to own everything from the breweries to the banks, via things such as Merville Dairy, all of which practised frank anti-Catholic discrimination in employment for many decades after independence, as in a different way the great concerns of the present day still do.

No even nominal Catholic was made Editor of The Irish Times until as recently as 1986, 64 years after independence. It is also notable that even in 2013 one of the Governors of The Irish Times Trust has the OBE while another has nothing less than the CBE; such, quite amusingly and very tellingly, is the Irish Republic's newspaper of record.

We were singing Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick this morning in England, Scotland and Wales; in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; why, even in parts of the Pope's own Argentina, where there is no shortage of Irish surnames as one of many monuments to "the Informal Empire" through which Britain once dominated South America. Under that Imperial Flag with Saint Patrick's Saltire on it, the Irish carried the Faith even "to the end of the world".

But few will have been those who were singing it in Ireland. Or at least in the part of Ireland where that flag no longer flies, having been replaced with one that makes no reference to Saint Patrick, although it does have an Orange stripe on it, for which there is a reason. The Church vigorously, but unsuccessfully, opposed the adoption of the Constitution there under de Valera in 1937. Everything in that last sentence tells you something important.

Frankly, to have sung Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick, then they would have had to have gone to Mass. And even if they had been minded to do that, then there would have had to have been a priest to say Mass for them. The country that once discriminated against Catholics in favour of Protestants now discriminates against such practising Catholics as there still are, a far lower proportion of the Catholic population than in England and quite possibly a lower absolute number, in favour of wallowers in each others' published and unpublished, spoken and written misery memoirs of embittered ex-Catholicism.

They know their own to be packs of lies, and sometimes utterly preposterous, such as the supposed persistence of corporal punishment in schools decades after it had been abolished. But they assume everyone else's to be genuine. They therefore see themselves as somehow expressing a broader truth. And in any case, it is the only way to get on.

Far from there having been some taboo against criticising the Church until Mary Robinson became President in 1990, this sort of thing goes back at least to George Moore, and it has made the fame and fortune of many a mediocre to downright abysmal writer, with Frank McCourt only the latest in a very long line. Moreover, being able to produce this drivel to interviewers is now the only way to become any sort of public or responsible figure in the Irish Republic, in the way that being a posh Protestant remained long, long after independence.

No wonder that those who wish to turn up and sing Hail, Glorious Saint Patrick now live somewhere else. Anywhere else at all, in fact. "Thy people, now exiles on many a shore," indeed.


  1. It is gratifying to hear you speak so frankly about your own sense of exclusion from the Irish diaspora. You described how you feel separate from a Catholicism of convention, with your own faith born out of a sense of conviction.

    The convert treads a difficult path, he is marked out on the one hand for his zeal, and on the other for lacking both a heritage and a history in common with the people of God.

    Don't worry David. Days like today are few in the calendar. Tomorrow your non-Irish heritage will not matter. We do love you for crossing the Tiber.

    When one has been even a nominal Catholic it is hard to look at the C of E without feeling something akin to pity. They do try, bless them. Lovely churches, mind. Maybe one day, when the last of their crowd dies out, we'll get them back.

  2. You are very kind, but I feel no sense of exclusion, and I never have.

    I started at the Catholic secondary school serving, among other places, Consett in September 1989, I was there for seven years, and I recall absolutely no sense of Irishness even among people's grandparents even a generation ago, never mind now.

    It is not there, and it is quite possibly not been there since the War, certainly not since some time in the 1960s or 1970s. It is cradle Catholics, often with Irish surnames, who forcefully dislike the occasional occurrence of it.

    When younger priests do lean towards it, then it is either because, in what is now their mostly upper-middle-class, heavily convert way, they assume that it is what the punters want, or else it is because they are infatuated with all features - good, bad and indifferent - of the Church in the 1950s or before. They are wrong on both counts.

    But in any case, if the sermon that I heard a very young and totally orthodox priest (cradle Catholic, this Diocese, Victorian church dedicated to Saint Patrick) deliver to a Saint George's Day Scout Parade last year was anything to go by, then they are having none of it. I never, ever heard that kind of frank, uncompromising English patriotism in the C of E.

  3. Forgive me David, but why did they send you to a Roman Catholic Secondary School? Was it women priests?

  4. It was before all of that, Anonymous 22:41. Do I look that young? It was just the nearest and best local school. I was made a governor of it only a little more than a year after I became a Catholic, and I remained one for longer than I had ever been a pupil, which was the full seven years.

    It served and serves Consett and Stanley, but it is conveniently located in leafy Lanchester when it comes to filling up places with "local" non-Catholics, although that will not have been a consideration when it was built, which was in the 1960s.

    "Not our fault if "within walking distance" means far and away the most middle-class village in the catchment area," and even more so in those days. The results are very, very good...

  5. That is quite understandable. Thank you David.

  6. It's a pleasure. Now, if I may, is anyone going to comment on the points in the post?