Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Saint Patrick in Manhattan – a reflection by Fulbright Professor Dr. Art Hughes

A Portrait of Art Hughes
by renowned artist Neil Shawcross

I am pleased to introduce Dr. Art Hughes in his first Guest Blog for Soñar.

Dr. Art Hughes, MA, MèsL, PhD is Senior Fulbright Irish Language Scholar for 2009/10. He is a Visiting Professor at Glucksman Ireland House, New York University. He is Director of Irish Language Programmes at the University of Ulster in Belfast. His doctoral thesis was study of the Gaelic dialect of the Bluestack Mountains, Co. Donegal. he is a prominent scholar in the field of Celtic linguistics and literature. He has written and/or edited 15 books (in English, Irish, French and Breton). He is also the Chair of The McCracken Cultural Society and founder of Ben Madigan Press. Recent publications include The Great Irish Verb Book and The Big Drum a translation of Seosamh Mac Grianna's novel An Druma Mór – he is currently preparing a film script for the same. He also has recently collaborated on an anthology of Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill in Irish and French.

Saint Patrick in Manhattan – a reflection by Fulbright Professor Dr. Art Hughes

He did not have a social security number and he worked on the black market. I am not speaking about Seán from Ireland, Maria from Mexico, Ricardo from Italy, Anna from the Ukraine or many of the other so-called ‘illegals’, making their home in modern New York, I am talking, rather, about St Patrick, the fifth century Briton who would later bring the Christian faith to Erin’s Isle.

Patrick was the son of a well-to-do government official of the Roman administration and dwelt somewhere in the west of Britain. Shortly after 400 AD we have a reference, in Irish Annals, to Niall of the Nine Hostages, a powerful Irish king, making a raid up the River Severn (which divides England from Wales). Such raids by Irish pirates on the British mainland were commonplace and it was on such a foray that a band of pirates kidnapped Patrick, a mere teenager, from his home and sold him as a slave in Ireland. His first job, in this ‘black market economy’, was tending to swine - and one source locates this first ‘job’ on Sliabh Mis (or Slemish) in County Antrim.

After some years, Patrick made good his escape to Britain, yet in a vision he dreamt of Ireland and wanted to bring the Christian faith to the country in which he had lived. Following his ordination he was granted permission by the Church to return to Ireland as a Christian missionary. The traditional date cited for his first mission is 432 AD.

Here, then, we have a young man who had spent years working illegally in Ireland getting to know the people and love the country. He later returns, with legal status, and makes one of the most significant contributions to Irish life anyone has ever made before, during or since.
What message, if any, can Patrick’s life and example have for us in Manhattan? I think there are several important ones. Firstly all economies need people from outside to help them sustain themselves and grow. Secondly, most workers, ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, make an honest contribution to society. They work hard, keep the law and want to feel a part of the set up. Any great civilization which enables its citizens to feel that they are stake holders is destined to flourish and succeed.

We cannot, of course, sum up St Patrick from a purely socio-economic perspective. He brought a message, that all men and women are equal and that we should treat our neighbors (irrespective of birth, country of origin, social status, color of skin or religious denomination) as our fellows and – as such – we should do unto them as we do unto ourselves. This model is at least worthy of an attempt to make it work.

St Patrick’s Day is a highly significant day for the Irish, but St Patrick’s message is not one merely for the Irish, it has much wider implications and ramifications. St Patrick’s life is a story of immigration and exile, of settling in a new country – and in that regard, it has significance for Manhattan. He, as a “Brit”, is an excellent reminder to the Irish of the dangers of xenophobia, or excluding the other.

If St Patrick were to walk among us today in Manhattan, how would he feel about thousands of hardworking people who yearn to be ‘legal’ and yet who are looking over their shoulders? What would he do for these people? Immigration was a real and a burning issue for St Patrick in his own time - it is also one which should be center-stage in our times. What are we doing about it? Perhaps, after all, Patrick’s life, work and example have something very real to offer the legislators and citizens of Manhattan.

To all creeds and classes, then, Happy St Patrick’s Day.

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