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Sin, death, fighting for the faith: the rousing ‘Hail, glorious St Patrick’ is wonderfully un-PC

I always identify with the religious and patriotic sentiments it expresses

By on Monday, 19 March 2012

St Patrick depicted at St Patrick Church in Glen Cove, New York (CNS photo/Gregory A Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

St Patrick depicted at St Patrick Church in Glen Cove, New York (CNS photo/Gregory A Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

As Saturday was the feast of St Patrick, we sang that rousing old hymn “Hail glorious St Patrick, dear saint of our isle” as the recessional hymn at Mass yesterday. I always identify completely with the religious and patriotic sentiments it expresses. My mother comes from Cork city and my father was the son of Ulster immigrants to Glasgow. (As I myself was born and grew up in Surrey my children think my Celtic aspirations are pure fantasy but I ignore them; heredity matters.)

There is something wonderfully un-PC about the words of this hymn: “Hail, glorious St Patrick! Thy words were once strong / Against Satan’s wiles and an infidel throng…” Satan: who on earth is he and who, apart from a few fuddy-duddy evangelicals and charismatic Christians, believes in his existence anymore? Infidels? Aren’t we all equal and all friends and isn’t all truth relative nowadays?

“In the war against sin, in the fight for the faith / Dear saint, may thy children resist unto death…” Sin? Didn’t that go out the window with psychotherapy? We don’t want to be crippled by guilt, after all. And death is now the great unmentionable; we don’t want to know about it and are slightly mystified that with all the great technological breakthroughs of the last century, scientists haven’t cracked it yet.

In his homily our parish priest reminded us that St Thomas More didn’t want to die; after resigning as Lord Chancellor he hoped to live quietly at home with his family. But Henry VIII forced him to choose; so he chose death rather than dishonour. MPs are apparently to be allowed a free vote over David Cameron’s own “great matter”: the redefining of marriage. This time heads won’t roll; so one hopes that as many MPs as possible will vote against it.

“Thy people now exiles on many a shore / Shall love and revere thee till time be no more / And the fire thou hast kindled shall ever burn bright/ Its warmth undiminished, undying its light.” The word “exiles” reminds me of my mother, sitting two pews in front of me at church (she likes to assert her independence); now 88 and living next door, she left Ireland for an English convent boarding school aged 13, then married and never returned to live there. But she has stayed Irish to her fingertips and completely loyal to her faith which she in turn passed on to her children.

The chorus line to verse two of the hymn runs, “Oh come to our aid, in our battle take part.” As we were leaving the church, our parish priest who, as I quoted on my blog last Monday, referred to the Coalition’s “modest proposal” to change the ancient, natural meaning of marriage as “outrageous”, opened his arms wide as if to invoke the heavens and repeated this chorus with emphasis.

There has been some recent secular reappraisal of St Patrick: apparently he wasn’t captured by pirates and he didn’t banish snakes from Ireland. Oh really? Well, I believe the story of his life that I read as a child. And it’s a well-known mystical phenomenon that those who are close to God can have mysterious authority over the animal kingdom: look at St Francis and the birds, St Cuthbert and the seals, and St Jerome and the lion. For religious believers, the Coalition is beginning to look a bit like a snake pit. St Patrick, we need you – and not just in Erin’s green valleys.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    It sounds as though you have a parish priest who speaks out clearly  and is not afraid to go against the received wisdom of the liberal-hedonistic and egocentric society in which we live. Would that others, ours included, find such courage  – there is still deference being shown to the secular in case we are too judgemental and upset some “community” or other. There has been very little leadership from many clergy, for example on the “gay” marriage issue even though a request was circulated for just that. As for “Hail, glorious St Patrick — ” I remember singing it as a child (together with “Let Erin remember the days of old when her faithless sons betrayed her –” perhaps this one too would be uncomfortable today) in, guess where – St Patrick’s parish church. As you say many of the words are far too enequivocal for today’s society. Of course this s precisely the reason we rarely hear it today – instead we have the insipid,  often banal modern 60s timewarp “inoffensive” stuff with overwhelming guitar accompaniment with clapping when possible.

  • Gareth

    Was kind of with you up until the point you claimed saints have magical powers and can control animals…

  • Anonymous

    We sang it with gusto on Saturday. ( In Scotland!)

  • Anonymous

    Totally agree with your comments – we sang the hyman too, stirring stuff – we need to start singing more of the old favourites, like that good old Faith of Our Fathers. The kind of hymns that put blood in your veins and fire in your belly - as opposed to the anaemic twaddle we’ve had to stomach for the last four decades.

  • James

    I LOVE Faith of Our Fathers, and it’s been far, far, too long since I last heard it in Church.

    And if I ever have to hear the execrable Colours of Day again…

  • Anonymous

    I am a liberal, but how do you presume to know I am an hedonist or have a large ego? Like a lot of people on this site you find all the characteristics of society you dislike and try and apply them to vast swathes of the population without even trying to provide any evidence…

    I also have no issue with the words of this hymn (I can’t see how I could be offended frankly), so please don’t simply assume the opinions of others.

  • theroadmaster

    Hymns like “Hail, Glorious St Patrick” come from a tradition of rousing, anthem-like songs of praise which call for the Faithful to remain steadfast and faithful amidst the travails of life, as God’s Providence is called upon.  These hymns are incredibly non-PC and remain all the refreshing for that.  I suppose that the passion invoked in them to fight the good fight against the unambiguous moral evils which surround us, make uncomfortable hearing for modern hymn-writers who like to wrap their lyrics in a inoffensive pap of slushy sentiment and well-intentioned but unchallenging fuzziness.  We need more Catholic hymnody in the same vein as this great and evergreen celebration of the life of Ireland’s Patron Saint.

  • John Byrne

    Highly soporific   Zzzzzz………
    However it is an ill wind (as they say) that blows nobody any good. So let us celebrate the fact that these folk, and Gusto in Scotland, had a great time.

  • Scyptical Chymist

     Please re-read my post. I do NOT mention people but essentially the zeitgeist. It is up to each person to decide how it affects them.

  • Anonymous

    Zeitgesit – ‘The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.’

    If you believe that you can describe society as ‘liberal-hedonistic’ and ‘egocentric’, then you clearly have a dim view of humanity.

    Of course some people are hedonists and egocentric. But liberals can be motivated by much more than that. Jesus and his message to protect the poor for example.

    You know it wasn’t so long ago that a day out for the family was to watch a public hanging. Today our ‘hedonistic’ society gives more money to charity then it ever has.

  • Scyptical Chymist

     Sorry,  I seem to have struck a nerve  as you seem to be more in tune with the spirit of the age, and you are entitled to argue your corner, but I am not the only one to draw the conclusions mentioned.  I agree with the definition of zeitgeist, although you do not quote the source you went to to look it up. I presume also that you are not implying that only liberals can be motivated by charity and the message of Our Lord – of course not.