Happy St.Patrick’s Day.
I was born and bred in Northern Ireland, and this day was always a good one. Why? We got the day off school. That was it. We didn’t paint our faces green or parade ( there was enough of that at other times of the year). There was no green beer or great excitement. I suspect that was the consequence of living in a deeply sectarian society where even the celebration of the national saints day came with all sorts of complicated baggage.
However, I’ve always had a soft spot for St Patrick and as I’ve lived in England since the age of 18 this national day has always been a chance to reflect a little on my heritage. I love that St Patrick came back to Ireland from his home in England. Growing up in a country which many English people despised (‘thick Paddy’s’ was a frequent moniker for myself and my compatriots) it was great to be able to point to one English man who’d chosen to return to Ireland. In my childish mind I probably thought that meant he preferred Irish people to English people and I’d have given him full marks for that decision. He is attributed with bringing christianity to Ireland, and as a christian myself I’ve always felt personally grateful to him. Not only did he like the Irish and bring christianity but legend has it that he got rid of all the snakes from Ireland and as a snake-fearer I like the man even more.
Married to an Aussie and with children who have been raised in England I use the 17th March as a chance to cling on to my Ulster roots and the family evening meal is the place where I do it. Irish food, however, is not wildly exciting. It can be – if you’re near the coast (and tbh most of Ireland is relatively near the coast) there is great sea food and shellfish, but in my attempt to celebrate my forefathers I tend to go back to basics. Ham, potatoes and cabbage. It would be fair to say my children don’t jump up and down with excitement at the thought of St.Patrick’s Day dinner but it’s a good meal and it reminds me of the simplicity and the difficulties of life for many Irish in the past. The Great Potato Famine between 1845 and 1852 brought about the mass migration of Irish people and death by starvation to many others. When my grandparents were alive it was still in their family memories. Their grandparents were alive at that time. Potatoes were life, and the potato blight brought death.
So tonight we will eat potato, but in a particularly Irish form. I’ll make Champ, which is mashed potatoes with spring onions, plenty of butter and seasoning. I remember my mum making it for us when I was a child, and we’d pile it on our plate before digging a well in the centre to add a very generous portion of butter. We ate it at our wedding, and although I never really make it any other time we’ll have champ.
Some years back I was trying to decide what to make for a St Patrick’s Day pudding. I suppose I could have made a Guinness chocolate cake, but I didn’t know about that back then. I thought about making traybakes – a Northern Irish tradition of making all sorts of sweet things in a baking tray. But then I thought of a desert which every tea room in the North of Ireland serves. When I googled it I found that it actually originated in England – East Sussex to be precise, but given St Patrick himself came from England to Ireland, it seemed entirely fitting that we should honour his day with a pudding which also came from England to Ireland and was enthusiastically welcomed. So Banoffee Pie is our St Patrick’s Day dessert. If you’ve never tasted it you are missing out!
I leave you with the prayer of St Patrick. I particularly love the 3rd verse which begins – ‘I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven’. I’m sure St Patrick was an outdoors boy who loved the beauty that surrounded him in Ireland.
Happy St Patrick’s Day to all the Irish and to all who wish they were Irish 😉
I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;*
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.