BELFAST – St. Patrick may be the patron saint of Ireland, but he did much of his ministry in Northern Ireland, so much so that he even asked to be buried here. But the view of who Patrick is and what he stands for is as divided today in Northern Ireland as the part of Belfast still divided by a wall between Catholics and protestants.
While many nations celebrate St. Patrick's Day enthusiastically, in Belfast it's complicated, at least for many British protestants, who see Patrick as being hijacked by Catholics.
St. Patrick: Embraced by Catholics, but Not by Many Protestants
"I think that for some, Patrick means probably two different things to two different groups of people," says Johnny McKee, Lead Pastor at New Life City Church, which sits squarely on Belfast's so-called 'peace barrier,' with part of its building in Catholic Belfast and part of it in protestant Belfast.
"The Protestants don't celebrate him," McKee continued, "Because they view him as 'green,' as Irish, as Ireland, as Catholic, and the Catholics unwittingly celebrate him as Catholic even though he was neither for me Catholic nor Protestant.
Patrick May have Walked Through Areas that Would be Ravaged by "The Troubles"
Local legend has it that Patrick walked Belfast's infamous Shankill Road during his ministry. But later it would become a symbol of bloodshed and destruction in the time known as 'The Troubles.'
30 years of fighting – between Catholics who wanted to join Ireland and protestants who wanted to stay British – left 3,500 people dead. A peace agreement was finally signed in 1998, and Northern Ireland is healing, but some communities still have a ways to go.
Because all of Ireland was once a part of the United Kingdom, the red x-shaped cross in the Union Jack is the saltire of St. Patrick. But that doesn't seem to impress the protestant British here.
"We would like to think that what Patrick stood for could be a great unifier within our communities, but we politicized him and made him into a religious icon," says Jack McKee, Senior Pastor of New Life City Church, who walks with the cross through Catholic and protestant communities of Belfast. He walks with former terrorists, now born again believers, who used to fight each other. and says Patrick could be a unifying symbol here.
He says Patrick's message "was one of love and was one of hope that people on both sides would accept, but perhaps both sides wouldn't genuinely want to hear what he has to say."
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Patrick landed on the coast of Northern Ireland in County Down in the fifth century, and it is near the Cathedral of Downpatrick that his remains are believed to be buried.
But Irish historian Clive Scoular says the exact burial site near Down cathedral in Downpatrick is not known. "He's not buried right here underneath that stone," Scoular said, pointing at the huge rock carved with Patrick's name, "but somewhere on this hill. If you can imagine this centuries ago, it was just one of the hills of Down. He was brought here in 461 and buried on this site."
If Patrick Returned to Belfast Today, Would His Message Be Accepted?
Patrick, who ministered to violent tribes, would have had a heart for modern Belfast, parts of which are still plagued by hatred, drug abuse, and broken families. But how if Patrick returned today, how would his message of Christ be received? Pastor Jack McKee has tried carrying the cross on St. Patrick's Day in Belfast and has felt the hostility.
"And as I'm walking past [St. Patrick's Day revelers] with the cross, one of them shouted, 'You're an f-ing idiot,'" McKee said, "And I thought to myself, that's so ironic that on St Patrick's Day, the idiot is the one carrying the cross."
So, like parts of the new, peaceful, Northern Ireland, Patrick still waits to be rehabilitated, to become meaningful not only to Catholics but to Protestants, as well.
"As far as I'm concerned, Patrick was fully committed follower of Jesus Christ," Jack McKee said, "Whether we call him 'Evangelical,' whether we call him 'born again,' Patrick was a totally committed follower of Jesus Christ, and promoted Jesus as Savior for all humanity."