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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Sam Boal

Opinion St Patrick's story should make us consider how Ireland treats refugees

Author and medieval historian Elizabeth Boyle writes that tomorrow we should reflect on how we can write a new chapter of Ireland’s history.

THE WRITING OF Irish history begins with St Patrick’s first words to us: My name is Patrick, a simple country person and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. In many respects, it has become a familiar story: Patrick was kidnapped ‘along with thousands of others’ by Irish slave-raiders at the age of 16.

He escaped his enslavement in Ireland and returned to Britain, where a religious experience led him to return to Ireland as a missionary, attempting to convert people to Christianity.

Tomorrow we celebrate his feast day in a way that would have horrified him. The copious amounts of Guinness and the general hedonism that is now integral to St Patrick’s Day festivities show us just how much some aspects of society have changed since Patrick wrote his earnest, indignant and often self-righteous testimony.

If we return to his own words, we see that he describes himself in his old age as profugus – someone who has fled their homeland, someone who is exiled. In the classic English translation of Patrick’s words, Ludwig Bieler rendered it ‘refugee’.

The writing of Irish history begins with a refugee. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown refugees back into the spotlight of Irish society, and it has been heartening to see evidence of a warm reception for those fleeing violence and oppression.

But what of the thousands of refugees who are in Direct Provision centres at this very moment? Those who have fled violence and oppression in Syria or Afghanistan or other conflict zones around the world. It is long past time to end the inhumane Direct Provision system and work towards making a more humanitarian society.

‘You well-educated people in authority, listen’, writes Patrick. Patrick returned to Ireland, a country which had enslaved him, because he wanted to make a difference. He tells us that it was the most oppressed in society – women and the enslaved – who flocked to hear his message and convert to this new faith, with its promise that the poorest on earth would be the richest in the hereafter. It would be easier to pass a rope through the eye of a needle than for a rich man – someone who profited from the misery of others – to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Ruling dynasties

Fierce Appetites Jacket

The most powerful ruling dynasties in early medieval Ireland were the Uí Néill, those noble families who traced their lineage back to Níall of the Nine Hostages. When their centuries-long domination of Irish political life was weakening, with the rise of Munster-based Brian Boru in the early eleventh century, an author sat down and constructed an origin story for them.

He wrote that their great ancestor, Níall, was the son of an enslaved princess, the daughter of an English king, who had been kidnapped and taken into slavery in Ireland. Her son grew up to free his mother from her enslavement, and beat his half-brothers to become heir to his royal father. Those who claimed descent from him would go on to rule vast swathes of the island of Ireland for hundreds of years.

The story of Níall’s rise to kingship reminds us, just as much as the historical realities of Patrick’s life, of the long histories of oppression and resistance that characterise Irish history. St Patrick’s Day can be great fun, and I for one enjoy any celebration that involves a public holiday and a chance to drink pints.

But perhaps we also need to take time to consider why we celebrate this day as our national holiday and what darkness lies beneath it: the kidnap, enslavement and exploitation of other human beings.

Patrick had the capacity to record his ‘hardship and troubles’ for posterity, but how many voices have been lost?

And in considering that history, we should also consider the present. Patrick’s story is an opportunity for us to look around us. Who is profiting from the Direct Provision system? What does it say about us as a society that it exists at all? Let us seize the good in our welcome for those fleeing Ukraine – the offer of sanctuary and support and safety – and extend it to all those who are, like St Patrick, a profugus, a person who has fled, a person exiled from their homeland.

We can write a new chapter of Ireland’s history. One in which those who manage to escape violence, persecution and war find not more ‘hardship and troubles’, but rather a society in which they can rebuild their lives and make their own contributions to local and national life.

St Patrick knew and wrote about ‘the cost of leaving homeland and parents’. It is indefensible to make that cost even greater for those who have reached our shores. It’s time for us to end Direct Provision now.

Elizabeth Boyle was born in Dublin, grew up in Suffolk and returned to live in Dublin in 2013. She is a medieval historian specialising in the intellectual, literary and religious culture of Ireland and Britain. A former Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge, she now works in the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University. She recently published Fierce Appetites, her debut collection of personal essays.

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