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Secret Weddings, Raging Bonfires, Churches’ Competing Claims and the Power of Love: St Valentine and his Ireland Links

Secret Weddings, Raging Bonfires, Churches’ Competing Claims and the Power of Love: St Valentine and his Ireland Links

Do the Irish have a special gift for attraction and romance and love? If so, does it have anything to do with St Valentine and the love saint’s links to Ireland? If it’s all just a story, is it a story worth telling? Let’s find out all about St Valentine and Ireland.

As all those who swooned a little over Kildare man Paul Mescal’s down-home-country-boy performance in Normal People, been seduced from the big screen by Dublin’s own Colin Farrell or admired from afar the deep-blue irises of County Cork’s Oppenheimer and Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy might attest, many Irish men seem to have the unique combination of smile, charm and accent — often fondly called “the brogue” — that might occasionally make a lady go a little weak at the knees.

And neither is it restricted to the lads. Irish ladies have turned heads all over the world too, from Maureen O’Hara’s dashing redhead in Hollywood’s golden years in the 40s and 50s, to Alison Doody’s attention-grabbing turns in James Bond and Indiana Jones movies in the 80s all the way through to current movie icon Saoirse Ronan.

But are these and others like them — actors such as Liam Neeson, Ruth Negga, Domhnall Gleeson or Jonathan Rhys Meyers, say, or television media personalities Vogue Williams or Angela Scanlon — just outliers, or are attraction and romance and love a central part of what it means to be Irish?

And does this have anything to do with the supposed presence of St Valentine himself right in the heart of Ireland’s capital city?

Let’s find out with a deep dive on what love means in Ireland, whether Valentine’s Day is more than just a “Hallmark Holiday”, and how exactly the saint’s remains might have ended up in a Dublin church.

Table of contents:

Who was St Valentine?

A Christian martyr of the 3rd century CE, St Valentine has over the centuries become revered as the patron saint of love, with his feast day on February 14th now celebrated worldwide as Valentine's Day.

As we saw with his Irish saintly counterpart St Brigid, there is little that’s truly known about Valentine’s life on earth, but we do know that his martyrdom and association with romantic love have made him an enduring figure in Christian tradition. 

The saint’s life is believed to have unfolded amidst the backdrop of the Roman Empire's dominance and the spread of Christianity. By the 3rd century, when Valentine was alive, Christians in the Empire were facing persecution under the Roman Emperor, Claudius II.

Claudius is said to have passed laws forbidding young men to marry, in the knowledge that the sprawling empire needed fighting men to defend it and the belief that single men made better soldiers — and if we’re honest with ourselves, almost two millennia down the road, we might say old Claud was onto something there.

Now, you don’t have to be a devout student of history to say that during the height of the Roman Empire, one of the fastest ways to see heaven (or hell) was to defy the Emperor.

That, apparently, is exactly what Valentine decided to do, holding marriage ceremonies in secret to bind lovers together for as long as each might live.

When the Emperor, or more likely some of his minions, found out about it, Valentine’s days performing marriages were brought to an end. Evidence of how exactly that happened, but this was Rome, so we can expect that it was a brutal sort of farewell. (Beheading is believed to have been his most likely fate.)

His body was buried somewhere along the Via Flaminia, in English the “Flaminian Way”, an ancient road from Rome to Rimini over the Apennine Mountains.

Word started to spread and before long Valentine was afforded the status of Christian martyr. By the 8th century, Valentine’s Day was being celebrated, and somewhere around the turn of the first millennium — long before [checks notes] the establishment of the Hallmark greeting card company — his feast day became forever and always associated with romantic love and gifting.

While it’s a good start, martyrdom is no guarantee of Christian sainthood; saints need the odd legendary miracle attributed to them also.

Sooner or later those stories bubbled to the surface. One suggested that Valentine, after he had been apprehended by the Romans and while he was awaiting his fate, gave the power of sight to the blind daughter of one of his jailors. 

Stories that upon his execution a note signed “Your Valentine” was discovered might be no more than stories, but whatever the truth of it, those two words have been a powerful puller of heartstrings and tugger of emotions for centuries.

Is modern day Valentine’s Day associated with pagan traditions?

As with many other Christian feast days during the year, from the midwinter festival which encompassed Christmas, St Stephen’s Day and Little Christmas to All Saints Day and Halloween, it has become commonplace to attribute their place in the calendar back to old pre-Christian and pagan traditions.

That has also been attached to Valentine’s Day, with several suggestions having taken root throughout the 20th and 21st centuries that February 14th — the feast day in the western Christian calendar, although it must be pointed out that the Eastern Orthodox Christian calendar recognizes St Valentine’s Day in July — is a modification of the old festival of Lupercalia.

Lupercalia was an early spring festival that is said to have promoted the ideas of health and fertility. 

Some sources suggest that Lupercalia was celebrated between February 13th and 15th — exactly enclosing the date of modern day Valentine’s Day — and point out that Valentine’s Day originated with the decision of Pope Gelasius I in or around the year 495 finally to outlaw Lupercalia and implement the new Christian saint’s day in its place.

Other scholars, however, refute the suggestion that Valentine’s Day and its links to love and fertility were no more than a Christian version of an old pagan festival.

Jack B. Oruch, a professor at the Department of English at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, conducted deep research on the matter in the 1980s, concluding that far from a Christianization of Lupercalia, Valentine’s Day, and the association of St Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, could actually be traced to the work of the English medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

In an academic paper, Mr Oruch wrote: 

The idea that Valentine’s Day customs perpetuated those of the Roman Lupercalia has been accepted uncritically and repeated, in various forms, up to the present … As far as I can determine, the first suggestions of a lottery of lovers on Valentine’s Day occur in the fifteenth century in poems of Lydgate and Charles d’Orleans, discussed below; the only known attempt to suppress the practice and substitute the names of saints was that of St. Francis de Sales early in his career as bishop at Annecy (in 1603). [The] ideas were prompted, in all probability, by a confused knowledge of the date of this isolated event; a less charitable explanation would [be] wishful or pious fantasy.

He continued:

Late in the fourteenth century Chaucer and his friends John Gower, Sir John Clanvowe, and the Savoyard soldier-poet Oton de Grandson wrote poems in which St Valentine features as a patron of the mating of birds and human lovers. Of these pieces Chaucer’s two poems, the ‘Parlement of Foules’  and ‘The Complaint of Mars’, have attracted the most attention. 

Although many critics speak of these two works as belonging to a ‘Valentine tradition’, and some even discuss ways in which Chaucer makes innovations in the ‘Valentine convention’, no evidence has been discovered of such a tradition, either literary or in social customs, before Chaucer. 

So depending on your viewpoint, or just what you’d like to believe, you might decide that Valentine’s Day goes all the way back to pre-Christian celebrations of spring and fertility, to the decision of an early Christian Pope, or that the poet Geoffrey Chaucer of Canterbury Tales fame kicked everything off in the 1300s. 

Whatever the truth of the matter, what seems absolutely certain is that Valentine’s Day is not a 20th century capitalist festival dredged up, by Hallmark or others, to part romantic lovers of their hard-earned cash every February 14th.

Valentine’s Day and its romantic roots go back a long, long way, and we can surely expect those traditions to continue for as long as romance and love between human beings is a thing.

And who thinks that will stop anytime soon?!

dublin-city-aerialAerial view of Dublin city

“Blind Date”: What were Valentine’s Day Love Lotteries?

In the work by Jack B. Oruch mentioned above, there is reference to “a lottery of lovers on Valentine’s Day”.

If your antennae buzzed at that, let’s do what we can to try to satisfy your curiosity.

That mention of St Francis de Sales, the bishop of Annecy, suggests that this might have been a uniquely French tradition.

The French — and with their red wine and their very own charming accent, they might rival the Irish in terms of romance — were said to have celebrated Valentine’s Day every year with an event labeled the “loterie d’amour”, translated, as you might have guessed, as a “lottery of love”.

So how did this love lottery work?

Well, it was sort of an early form of the game show Blind Date, but instead of a wooden panel separating men from women, we had an entire street.

The aim of the lottery was to reduce the number of single men and women — singledom being, one presumes, a Very Bad Idea Indeed™. 

So in whatever town or village the lottery might be taking place, the single men and women would be directed off to whatever street was assigned the role of venue, with the men taking their place in houses on one side and their female counterparts heading across the street.

Thereafter, the men and women could try to court each other from afar through open windows. Before long mates would be chosen, and they would come down to the street to meet one another for the first time.

It might not end just there, however.

Upon meeting in the cold light of day, the man — of course — would have the option to say “no thanks” or “non merci”.

With the assumption that the up-close version of his “date” might not be exactly what he had expected, it seems that “non merci” was said a few times too often.

Women left without a partner at the end of the lottery — including, one assumes, all those who had got the “non merci” — gathered and built bonfires to burn their heartache and rage. 

Some histories suggest that these bonfires became so feverish and well-fuelled by rejections that the French government had to intervene and ban the lighting of fires on Valentine’s Day!

The line “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is sometimes wrongly attributed to William Shakespeare. Maybe William Congreve, the English writer of the late 17th century who actually penned those words, had once found himself in France around Valentine’s Day and seen for himself the fall-out from a French loterie d’amour.

What are Valentine’s links with Ireland?

Now, as we also found with the disputed location of the remains of St Brigid as well as the most prized search of all, for the Holy Grail, the one undisputed thing about relics and remains that are almost two thousand years old is that no one ever truly knows where exactly they are now.

As we learned above, the legend had it that the remains of Valentine were buried somewhere along the Via Flaminia, which stretched 200 miles north and east of Rome towards the Adriatic Sea.

Whatever happened to the bones of Valentine thereafter — or indeed whether his body was buried along that old Roman road in the first place — is a matter of much speculation.

What we do know for sure is that a Dublin Carmelite priest in the 1830s, Fr John Spratt, had become an eminent speaker and preacher, was invited to Rome to give some sermons and while there, so impressed was Pope Gregory XVI by the Irish visitor that Fr Spratt was given a special souvenir of his trip.

In November 1836, the story goes, Fr Spratt arrived back to Dublin with his luggage containing one remarkable extra item: a small wooden box wrapped in white ribbon which was said to contain the remains of St Valentine.

box-of-st-valentine

Eventually Fr Spratt brought the box and its special contents to Whitefriar Street Church, where they were received by Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, in a specially convened ceremony.

And it is there, in a little church on modern day Aungier Street in the heart of Dublin city, that the apparent remains of St Valentine, as well as a vessel said to be tinged with the saint’s blood and the box of relics, still wrapped in paper tied with ribbon and sealed with wax, have been held ever since.

st-valentine-shrine

Whatever the truth of the history, we know for a fact that as many as a dozen other churches around Europe have advertised their own claims on the remains and relics of Valentine.

Among those are the Church of St Mary’s Assumption in the Polish city of Chelmno, where a St Valentine reliquary has been on display since 2002. 

The town becomes a magnet for romantic couples around Valentine’s Day each year, with florists popping up with the ubiquitous roses and carnations and bakers also selling their goods around the church — “get a crumpet for your crumpet!”, perhaps?

Churches in the UK cities of Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as others in Vienna, Prague and Madraid, also claim to holding a piece of the saint, but maybe the most compelling — or the most ambitious — claim of all comes from the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome, where on display is a skull wearing a crown of flowers, which is said to be of Valentine.

st-valentine-skullsource: Irish Times

The fact that the skull was only unearthed in the 1800s, more than 1500 years after the saint’s execution, might give some reason for skepticism about the validity of that claim, but when it comes to ancient history and important relics, one of the things we know for sure is that a good story can go a long, long way.

But before we finish, let’s return to Dublin and Whitefriars Street Church.

whitefriars-street-churchWhitefriar Street Church alit with candles. Photo credit: Whitefriar Street Church

The Church has a powerful list of shrines within its walls — as well as Valentine, you can go to Whitefriars to venerate St Jude, St Thérèse of Lisieux, St Albert of Sicily, St Joseph, St Anne, St Anthony, St Michael the Archangel, Pope St Pius X, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Dublin, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Infant of Prague, the little one to whom many an Irish mammy has sent up a heartfelt prayer the night before a wedding to keep the rain at bay.

And here, at Whitefriars, alongside all these saints and holy ones, if you are fortunate enough to walk into its quiet at any time of year, but especially around February 14th, you will no doubt feel the true power of love in the items left behind by hopeful lovers passing through.

Because what is romance and love if not a story we tell ourselves, and not just any old story, but one of the most powerful stories of all?

It’s a story that can shape your life, the life of your beloved, and — if things work out for you both — the lives of the little loved ones you might bring into the world in the years and decades to come.

We might not know with absolute certainty the truth of the whereabouts of the saint’s remains, but maybe the truest thing of all is love itself.

So next time you’re in Dublin for a spell, you could do much worse in the old city than step into Whitefriars Street Church, give yourself a moment of peace and presence, and see if you can feel the love.

 

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