Local History, Migrant History, Social Life

Who Owns St Patrick?

When I was growing up, a pliant little Catholic girl at St Mary’s Convent Mudgee, St Patrick belonged to us. We wore green on St Patrick’s Day. We sang his hymn year after year, with the gusto that the nuns expected.
Hail glorious St Patrick, dear saint of our isle
On us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile
And now that you’re high in your mansions above
On Erin’s green valleys look down with your love…

We believed our ancestors came from Ireland, even if they didn’t. In fact Ireland was more second home to us than England. In a line-up of saints we could have picked out St Patrick in his  green regalia, shamrock and staff (which he used to chase the snakes out of Ireland). We knew he sailed in a little boat from England and turned all the pagan Irish into Christians. Somehow we connected with that benign figure, perhaps because he hadn’t had a horrible death like most of the other saints. And certainly because we usually got a holiday. 

I remember being in a St Patrick’s concert in Mudgee town hall. I have vague memories of excitement, apprehension and being good, but not much else. The Mudgee Guardian (20/3/1952) enlightened me: “a group of little girls whose voices were in perfect unison recited ‘A Little Bit of Heaven’”. I was six. The words on Google were immediately familiar:
Have you ever heard the story of how Ireland got its name
Well I’ll tell you so you’ll understand from whence old Ireland came

When I started researching Kandos history almost two decades ago I was intrigued by the number of newspaper articles about St Patrick’s Day in our industrial town. This month I headed back to St Patrick and discovered a few unvarnished truths. St Patrick didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland. There were none there in the first place. St Patrick is not just owned by Catholics. Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, the Church of Ireland and the Anglican Communion all venerate him. St Patrick’s Day is widely celebrated, not just in Australia and Ireland, but in the UK, USA, Canada, NZ, Brazil and Argentina – with a lot of drinking and a lot of green. In Ireland (north and south) it’s a public holiday, as it was in Australia for a few years. So you see, while St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and a national figure, he has wider kudos than that – universal saint, mythical figure, popular cultural icon. 

How come I was led to believe St Patrick was an exclusive Catholic saint? It probably began with the passing of the Public Instruction Act in 1880 when state aid was withdrawn from religious schools. The Catholic Church decided that by importing troops of Irish nuns, brothers and priests to Australia;  by having them instruct Catholic children in the four Rs – Reading (W)riting (A)rithmatic and Religion; and by relying on the Catholic community to fund schools and support their religious, they could win the battle against secularism. Irish Catholic Archbishop Patrick Moran who arrived in 1884 and became Australia’s first Catholic Cardinal the following year, was the ideal leader to spread the Irish perspective. When you consider that in 1901, 87% of priests in Sydney were born in Ireland, you can understand why St Patrick was so elevated.

Kandos, a new and growing industrial town, obviously had Catholic workers. The first St Patrick’s Day event was in 1918 when the Shamrock Football Club held its first social. The club faded but St Patrick got stronger. Almost every year through the 1920s and 1930s there was some sort of celebration to raise money for the Kandos Catholic Church building fund: euchre nights, dances, concerts, parades and sports days. It was sports days that grabbed the attention of the town. They ran for more than ten years.

Imagine more than a thousand people spread around the sports ground in 1933, having paid their entrance and received a lucky gate ticket, which might win them a lottery ticket, which might win them a fortune. Some make for the side shows while others head to the woodchopping. Cheers ring out for Kerney, Fisher, Slapp, Curry, Walker, Wilson, Moss, Levan and Niperess. In an exciting finale Kerney beats Fisher by one chop.

Under shady trees forty babies and their mothers present themselves for the baby competition, judged by Dr Hansard in three categories – under six months; 6-12 months; 12-18 months. Winners are Julia Symon, Douglas Weatherley and Eva Miskle. The Boxing booth attracts a good crowd especially the grudge fight between McDonald of Rylstone and Fergusan of Kandos. The latter, according to the reporter, was completely outclassed and got the mother of a hiding. Throughout the day there is a program of athletic events including broad jump, running and stepping the 100 yards. 

Ever seen a “catch the greasy pig” event? Not allowed today I wouldn’t think. That’s where a pig is covered with grease and let out into an enclosure, where contestants fall over each other and the pig trying to catch it. N Evans of Kandos Quarry wins that event. Many in the crowd bring a picnic but there is also a refreshment stall, run by a group of women volunteers serving drinks, fruit, sandwiches, cakes and home-made sweets.  

From year to year events changed. Tug-of-war was popular. Car, bicycle and motor cycle events featured in some years. Sporting competitions included kick the football or throw at a wicket. And of course there were always raffles and guessing competitions. 

You can see by some of the names above, that the St Patrick’ Day celebrations at Kandos were enjoyed by Catholic and non-Catholic. Yes he was a popular saint. But it might have been that sectarianism was not as strident at Kandos in the early decades. It was a new town where fund-raising and volunteering were crucial. In any case the Catholics claimed St Patrick and the town embraced him.

7 thoughts on “Who Owns St Patrick?”

  1. Enjoyed your Who Owns St Patrick. Well done Col. Growing up Protestant in Cowra, I knew without being told that the Catholics had got in early and owned most of the Saints including St Patrick along with leprechauns.


  2. A cousin who grew up in Sydney was born on St Patrick’s Day and for years she believed (as her mother had told her) that all the green decorations were especially for her! I enjoyed your article Colleen, a lovely piece of writing, as always 🙂


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