News and Views

St Patrick – a migrant for all migrants

20 Mar
Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí, UCC Image: John Sheehan

Saint Patrick is the national saint, not only of Ireland, but of the Irish and their descendants worldwide.

In terms of Brand Ireland, he is as big as it gets, the ultimate symbol of both people and country. The name Patrick is an enduringly popular one here and elsewhere and stories and legends, from his use of the shamrock to explain the Trinity when converting the pagan Irish, to the banishing of snakes from Ireland, are still handed down. The feast day itself is of huge importance, celebrated with parades in Ireland and worldwide. In what has become an annual pilgrimage in its own right, the Taoiseach of the day customarily calls upon the President of the United States to present him with a gift of shamrock – this year is no exception. While such events have their critics, it must also be said that no other small country has such regular privileged access.

There is another and equally timely side to Patrick. It is the one touched upon by President Michael D. Higgins in his remarks for St Patrick’s Day last year:

It is appropriate that we celebrate as our National Day the Day of St. Patrick, whose own life story was one of hardship and migration. St. Patrick, we are told, was trafficked into Ireland as a slave, managed to escape, but chose to leave his native land again and return to Ireland. In the centuries that followed, migration has remained a constant feature of the Irish experience, defining us as a people, and shaping our outlook on the world.

We know of all this through his own extraordinary autobiographical account, the Confessio

My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time.…I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. …The Lord brought his strong anger upon us and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth.

The 21st century is seeing new waves of people displaced by war, famine and climate change. Indeed, it would be fair to describe migration as one of the existential challenges of the age. So far we are not handling it with great success in Ireland or the EU. Barriers are going up everywhere and people are even being denied their legal right to seek refuge. Racism and xenophobia are stronger now than at any time since the 1930s. The Irish record in the diaspora is not always the best either.

Imagine if we were at the receiving end? We were, once. On 20 June 1631 a pirate raiding party kidnapped over 100 English and Irish people from the village of Baltimore in West Cork and took them to a life of slavery in North Africa. Some spent their days as galley slaves, others became prisoners of the Sultan. At most three of them ever saw Ireland again.

In the Catholic tradition, two people are described as having a particular vocation to minister to migrants. St Frances Xavier Cabrini, better known as Mother Cabrini, worked with Italian migrants in the Americas, and Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, also Italian, founded the Congregation of Missionary Priests and Missionary Sisters of St Charles. Both are well remembered to the present day, notably by descendants of the vast Italian exodus to the New World.

The story of more marginalised migrants, especially those who were trafficked and enslaved, is a murkier one, but they too had their dedicated intercedents. The Catholic Church’s World Day of Prayer of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking falls each year on 8th February, the feast day of Sudanese-born St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Sudan and Italy. Once freed, she became a nun and dedicated her life to sharing her testament of deliverance from slavery and comforting the poor and suffering. She died in 1947 and was canonised in 2000. Centuries earlier, the Catalan, St Peter Claver, who died in 1654, ministered in the Spanish colonies. Described by the Church as the ‘patron saint of slaves’, he was canonised in 1888 and is widely remembered, notably in Colombia.

The Pope’s comments on trafficking on the eve of St. Josephine Bakhita’s feast day this year are worthy of note, the more so as they received very little coverage in the Irish media. “Having few possible legal channels, many migrants decide to risk other avenues, where often there awaits abuse of every kind, exploitation and slavery,” the pope told his weekly general audience. Criminal organizations specialized in trafficking people take advantage of migratory flows “to hide their victims among migrants and refugees,” he added. In an appeal, the pope invited everyone to “join forces to prevent trafficking and guarantee protection and assistance to victims.” He prayed to give “those suffering because of this shameful scourge the hope to regain freedom,”.

These words should resonate in the Irish context. The more than one million Irish who fled famine and disease in the mid-19th century at least had places to go. Even if they were sometimes received grudgingly, calls to ‘build that wall!’, if there were any, went unheeded. Their circumstances were miserable, but they were not denounced as murderers, thieves and rapists by the highest politicians of the day.

Ultimately, they were seen as downtrodden people who hauled themselves out of hardship and made something out of themselves wherever they went, without losing a sense of their own culture, history and identity. That is something we can celebrate, but we should also recognise our present-day responsibilities in a wider world where we are no longer at the bottom of the ladder. Even in Ireland itself people are still being trafficked, whether into the sex industry or into forms of labour undertaken in appalling and oppressive conditions. In all cases, someone, somewhere knows of these abuses and does not act.

Perhaps, as well as stressing the centrality of migration as a ‘constant feature of the Irish experience’ we should also attend rather more seriously to the ongoing and brutal reality of human trafficking and forced migration as a constant feature of human experience. In so doing, we could more fully embrace Patrick’s legacy and our own place and responsibilities in today’s world.

Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí is a lecturer in the Department of Geography and Institute for Social Science in the 21st Centruy at UCC

For more about courses and research at the Department of Geography at UCC visit here

For more about the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century visit here

This article was published on RTÉ Brainstorm. Read more here

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