The day began in much the same way as any day begins I suspect. Over 1500 years ago an adolescent woke up in the west of England, the son of a Roman family stationed in the last outpost of empire. What could possibly go wrong? OK, the weather was different from that with which his parents were more familiar, but life was comfortable enough. The finer elements of Roman living were imported; life was relatively quiet. At least until the day that ships arrived from the East carrying men who occupied their time by carrying off those they felt could be better employed in slave labour; people trafficking is as old as humanity. The Roman Empire was none too squeamish about slavery, but only as long as they were in the driving seat.
Our young man is held captive for six years or so and put to work on the side of mountains minding sheep, day in day out and in all weathers. This did not bring the sort of variety of climate you might think, all weathers just meant different degrees of rain and cold. His thoughts turned to God and a life of prayer occupied his thinking. He had a vision one evening of his escape and the following day made good his departure. A tortuous journey took him to France and here he settled for a time. There was always a nagging voice in his head though, a voice he believed was his call from God to return to those who had held him captive and to introduce them to Christianity.
St Patrick’s story contains within it all the seeds of solace and all of the character traits that we would inspire our students with, among them resilience and humility. That theme of calling is redolent of Florence Nightingale’s call, though in very different surroundings both stories also emphasise that individuals can make a difference no matter their background. More significantly, I think both Patrick’s and Florence’s call set out another and underplayed but significant characteristic. Patrick heard the call to serve a people who had oppressed him. His response was a selfless forsaking of his freedom, the better to return to Ireland and convert the people there. Now you will know reader that all my stories are true, some of them just never happened. Patrick’s story contains a golden truth: that happiness is not to be found in serving one’s own need but rather in forgetting oneself and serving a greater cause.
At one point, or so our story goes, Patrick was trying to explain the nature of the Christian God. His audiences were unfamiliar with the findings of the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, so this one would be tricky, or not, depending on how you view those Councils. Patrick had learned the native language and yet he was struggling to explain how the Christian God can be three and on eat the same time. Reaching to the ground, he picked up a small plant and illustrated that though the plant had three leaves it was united as one plant. The shamrock never looked back and has become the symbol of all things Irish. It is a powerful symbol to a passionate people, to the diaspora, of home.
I think though that the shamrock could be a symbol for an Age. For the people of the island of Ireland, it is a symbol of the unity of communities who, for too long, were separated by perceived difference and for a migrant world it illustrates that, though uniquely individual, we share a common humanity.
There will be much celebrating over the weekend, some of it may be particularly intense in one corner of London. There will be all manner of decoration, hats, flags, ‘the little people’ or leprechauns (to the uninitiated) – this is all excellent. But think on, to the fortunes of an adolescent enslaved and freed, who returned as an immigrant to free his enslavers; who themselves went on as immigrants to enlighten Europe in the darkness of the early Middle Ages. Think on, to the truth that in losing oneself you find it and that shamrocks remind us that though many, we are one. Lá Fhéile Pádraig.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School