St Patrick’s Day
This must be one of the most widely celebrated feasts of the church simply because so many Irish people have travelled abroad and made foreign lands their home. And yet it is a day that is dear to my heart because it is the day when I feel my Irishness very strongly. After Mass my wife and I shall head over to Slemish, which is reportedly the mountain on which St Patrick lived as a slave during his captivity in Ireland.
This is probably not correct but it is the tradition here and many people climb Slemish today as a pilgrimage to honour our national saint.
For me the wonderful thing is that I can go to places like Ardboe Cross or St Lurach’s in Maghera, both of which are only a few miles from where I live, and know that here is a site where there has been a continuous Christian presence for 1500 years. That means a lot to me; the faith is in the blood of the Irish people.
Here is an article I wrote a couple of years ago for a local newspaper:
When I want to know who I am there is one place I always go: Ardboe Cross. The ancient High Crosses of Ireland were carved between 800AD and 1200AD and were commissioned by wealthy landowners as gifts to monasteries. They were used for teaching and ceremonial purposes. There are as many different ways of thinking of Irishness as there are people on this island and every one of them is as valid as the next but for those of us who are only a generation or two from the land the, whole concept of being Irish must include something of nature and our culture. I cannot abide being away from Ireland. After two weeks I get homesick. So what is it about Ardboe Cross in rural Co. Tyrone and its setting that is so special to me?
To answer this I need to share what it is about Ireland and being Irish that I love. Immediately, three things come to mind; the land, the family and the faith. Perched on the western shores of Lough Neagh in the midst of a sixth century monastic settlement, an eighteen foot tall prime example of an Irish High Cross has stood sentry for over a thousand years, holding within her gaze all that we need to be a nation. Looking across to Co Antrim, a person can sit within her shadow and see the far side of the Lough where fields and hills stand at a distance which makes manmade structures irrelevant.
This trick of the eye coupled with the silence (on an April evening you can sit a long time and hear no mechanically made noise at all) functions as a time machine that can take one back to ages past and one can almost hear the monks chanting their prayers with their hoods pulled over their heads. My wife and I have recited Evening Prayer here on more than one occasion and the effect of the deposit of prayer over the centuries on this sacred site can be felt and provides a feeling of peace and stillness. It becomes a simple trick of the mind to stand in choir with these venerable holy men.
Across the Lough, you can see a piercing example of the land. Sitting at the foot of the High Cross and below the altar window of the monastery ruins we feel the faith of our fathers run in our veins, so how does this ancient monastic site speak of family?
When you look at the headstones in the graveyard, you can see families which have been buried in the same grave for over 200 years. They were probably there from before that but the writing is no longer visible or the headstones have fallen down. Many of the visitors I have brought to the site, especially those from America, find the idea of a family being in the one place for several generations astonishing. These long dead human roots lying in the land give a sense of security about our identity that cannot be measured. Whilst ancestor worship may have disappeared from our culture long ago, acknowledging our predecessors and knowing that we continue a line carries powerful symbolism for our personal identity and self worth.
The cemetery is still in use today and the presence of families and relatives looking after the graves ensure that this is still a place of pilgrimage. You often see people quietly working at tidying the family plot. For a millennium and a half this has been a sacred place.
Others may read this and ask, “What of our sports, what of our music?” We play our sports on the land and learn music after the work is done. While these things are important they do not lie at the heart of our identity as Irish people. Tyrone and Derry winning the All Ireland, glorious events that they were, are fleeting moments of joy that soon pass.
When I wish to recharge my batteries, when I long for a peace that money cannot buy, I travel back to my roots. In a certain respect the search for who we are continues every day of our lives. Born here, from Clans Quinn and O’Rourke, belonging to a faith that has been in my blood for 1700 years, I am secure in being an Irishman.
Sitting below the old church window, a few yards from this ancient Cross, I see, feel and experience all that I need too, and I know that when I am long gone my bones shall rest where I belong as a hundred generations before me have done. Future generations of Irishmen shall sit at Ardboe Cross and wonder why they feel so at peace. I hope that like me they sit long enough for the answer to come to them.