All eyes have been on the Vatican over the past number of days as the dramatic rituals of a Papal election were played out.
Back in March 1932 there was a Papal theme on view in Edenderry when the saffron-and-white Papal flags formed a backdrop to the St Patrick’s Day commemorations in the Offaly town.
The display of Papal banners reflected the intensely Catholic nature of Irish society at the time – the fact that 1932 marked the 1500th anniversary of the arrival of St Patrick in Ireland with his message of Christianity served to intensify the association of national patriotism with Catholic devotion.
The Edenderry correspondent of the Kildare Observer newspaper summarised the sentiments by writing: “The fifteenth centenary of the coming of St Patrick to Ireland was commemorated in Edenderry on the night of the National Festival by illuminations, bonfires, the display of Papal flags on many houses, and a procession through the streets headed by St. Mary’s Brass and Reed Band.”
The tone of the report shows how in the Ireland of the 1930s patriotism and religious devotion trumped sensitivities as regards the material welfare of the people.
The “poorer classes” were commended for joining in the commemorations with “especial fervour” while the reporter also noted that “Every tenement room in the town was lighted-up.”
The Edenderry commemorations were devotional rather than festive and indeed took on the character of a prayerful procession rather than the kind of celebratory indulgence which in other times had marked the national patron’s feast day.
Torch-bearers led the procession which although apparently not pre-arranged was said to be “a splendid evidence of organisation and devotion to the spirit of the celebration.”
A constant theme running through reports of St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland over the years was the fear that the occasion would degenerate into a day of drunkenness.
Huge efforts had been made in the early 1900s to promote temperance among the Irish population and St Patrick’s Day had become a barometer of whether the Irish people had managed to distance themselves from the demons of drink.
Thus there was subtle note of approval evident in the reporting of the Edenderry commemorations in 1932: “As if actuated by a knowledge that this was not a time for loudly manifesting their joy, the big throng wended their way through the urban area silently and orderly, and except for the strains of the band and the tread of marching feet there was no sound of festivity or jubilation to be heard.”
The sense of approval that the anniversary of St Patrick’s arrival was being marked in a suitable devotional manner devoid of any intoxicated behaviour was reiterated: “It almost seemed as if the assemblage felt that a display of silent fervour was more fitting than one of wild and enthusiastic rejoicing.”
The Edenderry commemorations were described as having exhibited “the innate Irish sense of deep respect for anything that appertains to the Faith founded in the land by St Patrick 1500 years ago.”
The mention of a new church in the town and the recitation of housing estates all with religious-inspired names emphasised the devotional nature of Irish society in the 1930s: “During the commemoration bonfires blazed in St Mary’s Road opposite the beautiful new Church on the gates of which the Papal Flag hung and in St Brigid’s Road, St Francis Street and Fr Paul Murphy St.
Later that night a ceilidh under the auspices of the Edenderry Gaelic League was held in the Town Hall.
If Edenderry in 1932 demonstrated the nexus between nationalism and religion a report of a St Patrick’s night concert in Blessington in 1908 showed how a romanticised view of the national character prevailed in the years known as the “Celtic Revival.”
The report opened with the news that “On St Patrick’s night a very successful concert was held in the New Concert Hall, Blessington, the hall being filled almost to overflowing.”
A long forgotten form of transport helped swell the attendance: “A special tram arranged by the Dublin and Blessington Tram Company was well patronised from Dublin.
An early number on the programme for the night was, naturally, the song “St Patrick’s Day” sung by a Mrs Rock who when asked for an encore pleased a Wicklow audience with the equally patriotic “The Meeting of the Waters.”
Later Mr Healy sang “Home of my heart” and in response to an encore call treated his audience to “My native hills.”
The impression is one of a soft-focus patriotism with no apparent religious overlay.
This was typical of the first decade of the 1900s when a revival in a sentimental view of the Irish race was popular within a wide range of both Catholic and Protestant affiliations among the population.
What St Patrick would have thought of his name being invoked in pursuit of various religious or patriotic projects is another question but the varying accounts from Edenderry in 1932 and Blessington in 1908 go to show how commemorations reflect as much the current political and religious concerns of a population as they do the historic nature of the event being commemorated.
Fógra: Leixlip History Club - Thursday, 21st March at 7.15pm in Leixlip Library:-
Presentation on the renowned artist, sculptor, painter and coin designer, Gabriel Hayes, who lived in Newbridge Lodge, Leixlip. There are examples of her artwork in public buildings and churches in Ireland but she is probably best known for designing the bronze Irish coins when decimal currency was introduced in 1971. She also carved the stone Madonna on the front of the Church of Our Lady’s Nativity, Leixlip in 1954. The presentation will be given by her daughter-in-law, Roisín O’Riordan.
Series no: 323