St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham: Devotion and Celebration

MS 4672 Clonmacnoise Crozier An Post

Clonmacnoise Crozier, 1993.Courtesy of An Post  [MS 4672]

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and his feast day is the Seventeenth of March.  It is celebrated across the world, wherever Irish people gather:  from Dublin to Derby to Dubai and from Belfast to Barnsley to Brisbane – and all points in between.  Birmingham has a long history of celebrating this day, Thomas Finigan observing the practice amongst Irish immigrants in 1838 [MS 3255 Journal of the Rev. T.A. Finigan].

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Monday March 20th 1916. Irish and Proud of It.

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Irish and Proud of It. 1916.

These were informal, self-generated affairs, but from 1869, formal events were held at Birmingham Town Hall.  Music Halls also staged entertainments, such as the revue ‘Irish and Proud of It’, shown at the Grand Theatre of Varieties on Corporation Street, in 1916.  Populist entertainments like this chimed with some Irish but for others the simplistic portrayals of evictions and caricatures of drunken Irish strengthened their resolve to have their culture and experiences represented appropriately.  Such sentiments were perhaps strengthened, given the revue’s performance just weeks before the Easter Rising in Ireland ushered in momentous changes to Anglo-Irish relations.

In today’s generally tolerant atmosphere, there is less sensitivity over community representation, with self-parody now playing a part in the City’s St Patrick’s celebrations.  These last for up to two weeks, this year’s festival having been launched on the Sixth of March with a range of events (large and small) scheduled until beyond St Patrick’s Day.  The main feature of this programme is the St Patrick’s Parade, which has a proud history, being the first in Britain [in 1952, beating London’s event by 45 minutes!].  Despite an absence of over 20 years from 1974, it has developed from 1996 to be counted as the third largest in the world after those in Dublin and New York.

What makes 80,000 people stand for hours in dreary March weather in dreary Digbeth to watch a parade?  Why does a procession of [amongst many other things] vintage tractors and over-sized leprechauns excite so many and bring them back year after year?  There are no simple answers, but underpinning the complex reality is a combination of the long standing devotion of many Irish people to the memory of Saint Patrick with the urge to celebrate and promote their Irish identity, wherever they may find themselves.  The Parade showcases components of Irish culture, heritage and sport, giving snapshots of each which can be examined in more detail at various events throughout the Festival.

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

Cynics see St Patrick’s Day as just one more element in the phenomenon known as ‘Marketing March’ where the celebration is commercially exploited along with events including the Six Nations Rugby Championship, Cheltenham horse racing festival and [even] Red Nose Day.  Whilst Irish people are willing participants in all of these events, the more thoughtful recognise that the crux of St Patrick’s Day continues to be something worth nurturing.  Running in parallel with the public, organised celebrations are informal, often private gatherings of friends and family, at home or in small venues.

St Patrick’s Day remains at heart a religious festival and whilst contemporary society in Ireland and across the Irish Diaspora is no longer so overtly religious, many people still recognise this element of the celebrations.  The Parade’s opening Mass may not be as well attended now and the days of it ending at St Chad’s Cathedral are long gone, but many people still sing the hymn ‘Hail glorious Saint Patrick’ with a feeling of gratitude for his recorded decision to trust and minister to the Irish [Patrick was a Briton, kidnapped by Irish raiders, who escaped and subsequently returned to support Christianity amongst a mainly pagan Irish society].  The customary wearing of shamrock still reminds many people of Saint Patrick’s legendary use of the plant to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.  For many years the ceremonial highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the arrival via Aer Lingus of a consignment of shamrock from Dublin, to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral for distribution amongst congregations.  Private devotions to the Patron Saint by their nature cannot be quantified, but are undoubtedly still observed in the City.

 Saint Patrick’s Grave, Downpatrick by Robert Welch [C19] [MS 3196]

Saint Patrick’s Grave, Downpatrick by Robert Welch [C19]
[MS 3196]

This reverence for Saint Patrick spans most denominations in Ireland, with both Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh regarding themselves as successors of Saint Patrick as the first Bishop there.  His reputed grave at Downpatrick is in the Anglican Cathedral grounds and is a site of pilgrimage for Christians of all denominations. The noted Irish photographer Robert Welch showed business sense in photographing the grave, given Saint Patrick’s appeal to worshippers and tourists alike.  This image above is taken from a print collected by Sir Benjamin Stone [MS 3196] who had a global fascination with photographs depicting faith, customs and practices.

The Dove of Peace [1985] Courtesy of An Post [MS 4672]

The Dove of Peace [1985] Courtesy of An Post                    [MS 4672]

This ecumenical approach has been tested during the Irish Troubles of the past forty years.  However, religious and civic leaders have sought in different ways to harness Saint Patrick’s traditional reputation for peace and gentleness to counter political and sectarian strife.  The image from 1985 reflects this and is shown courtesy of An Post, the Irish Post Office.  It is captioned ‘The Dove of Peace carries Saint Patrick’s message of peace to the world’.  This card is one of a series of ‘postage paid cards’ published in the 1980s and early 1990s, giving a modern and convenient impetus to the traditional practice of sending messages across the Diaspora.  This desire to contact loved ones near and far continues today and whilst mobile technology and social media have absorbed the bulk of St Patrick’s Day greetings, posted cards still bring their welcome messages across the world.  This card and the one depicting the Clonmacnoise Crozier [both from collection MS 4672] reflect a time where such messages helped sustain Birmingham’s Irish community during its collective retreat from open displays of Irishness.

1974’s Pub Bombings created a climate where the St Patrick’s Parade could no longer be held and for twenty years St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in muted tones and within trusted circles.  A mini-parade was organised for children, but this stuck to the perimeter of the Irish Centre in Digbeth and did not venture further afield.  Events in Irish-managed pubs and clubs were staged and the shamrock continued to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral.

Newsletter of Montserratians & Friends of Birmingham [June 2008] [MS 4755]

Newsletter of Montserratians & Friends of Birmingham [June 2008]
[MS 4755]

The restoration and continued success of the annual, public parade has signalled a more tolerant time and the organisers have ensured that the Parade also reflects this openness.  Members of other communities are encouraged to join in and Bhangra musicians and dancers regularly perform, as do Polish folk dancers and members of the City’s Chinese community.  The historic significance of St Patrick’s Day for Montserrat islanders has resulted in a poignant link between Birmingham’s Irish and Montserratian communities.  Montserratians celebrate St Patrick’s Day for the slave uprising in 1768 against their Irish overseers on this Caribbean island.  Today, the two communities in Birmingham enjoy close relations, with exchange programmes and representative bodies on both sides supporting the ‘Green Shamrock’ symbol, which is used officially in Montserrat.  For St Patrick’s Day in 2007 a sponsored Walk-a-thon raised funds for the organisation ‘Montserratians & Friends of Birmingham’.  The Montserratian community has participated in events around the main parade for some years.

Birmingham Parade’s commitment to openness has enabled it to avoid the controversies that have dogged some parades in other major cities in recent years.  It has remained open to displays and participation by LGBT groups such as ‘Cairde Le Cheile’ as well as women’s groups.   In this regard, Saint Brigid has recently had an increase in popularity, as a further focus of Irish identity.  Her feast day is the First of February and contemporary attention has augmented but not supplanted existing devotion to Brigid as fellow Patron Saint of Ireland.  Like Patrick, her burial place is at Downpatrick.

If you wish to know more about the Festival, please visit http://stpatricksbirmingham.com/

Happy St Patrick’s Day

 

Sources

MS 3255 Journal of the Rev. T.A. Finigan [see MS 4755 for Typescript version]

MS 4237 ‘Records relating to Birmingham Irish Association and Predecessor Bodies’

MS 4755 ‘Records relating to Birmingham Irish Heritage Group’

 

Further Reading

  1. Chinn ‘Birmingham Irish: Making Our Mark’ (2003) ISBN 070930241X
  2. Groden ‘Saint Patrick, Spirit and Prayer’ (2002) ISBN 0855976373
  3. Limbrick ‘A Great Day: Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham’ (2007) 9780955542107
  4. Moran ‘Irish Birmingham. A History’ (2010) ISBN 9781846314742

Jim Ranahan                                                                                                    12/03/2015

 

 

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3 responses to “St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham: Devotion and Celebration

  1. Very interesting summary. It makes me contemplate my Brummy childhood of living in Exeter Rd Selly Oak. What an awful shame my Irish Catholic neighbours didn’t get to openly celebrate their Irish heritage on St. Pat’s Day. There was so much unsaid that I am urged to speak out. Must be the Irish storyteller in me, I didn’t know existed then!
    I knew my friends went to a different school and learned Latin, were proud of their communion dresses and accessories, plus I walked to St. Edward’s RC Church on Raddlebarn Rd as she had to confess to the priest every week. The kind of things she said, like not eating chocolate at Lent didn’t sound like a sin to me, but it was all alien to me.
    Looks like it’s time to go to my own blog and finish the story! Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

  2. Pingback: St. Patrick’s Day 2015 | FAIRNEY VIEW

  3. Pingback: St Patrick's Day blog penned by Birmingham archivist

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