March 17 is a special day in the Australian calendar, and not only in Catholic ones –your average calendar purchased from the post-office or supermarket will usually feature the words ‘St Patrick’s Day’ in bold print on the 17th of March. If you bother to take notice of the advertisements of your local businesses, you may find that they are promoting another Massive Sale, drawing your attention in particular to their Large Range of ‘St Patrick’s Day Merchandise.’
Some people might wonder why the feast of this British bishop is such a prominent one in the Land Down Under. Surely now that the Aussies have at long last a saint of their own, (St. Mary Mackillop of the Cross), they would put the spotlight on her Feast day, or at least have it on a par with St. Patrick’s. That may happen sometime in the future – we hope – but in the meantime, let us have a look at why good St Patrick is so popular in this country today.
Way back in the 1770’s, when Australia was still new and various intrepid explorers were trying to get some idea of the lay of her land, life in Ireland was rather rough. Widespread shortages of food and money and firewood made life miserable, and, much as the Irish people loved their country, there were those hard-pressed souls who could find it in their hearts to wish to get away from the dreary poverty of daily life. To add to all that, penalties for stealing such common household items as bread or milk were what we modern people might call a trifle harsh. Many Irish were arrested and jailed, because, when they had come to a choice between death by starvation, or theft, they chose the latter. Of course we know what happened when the prisons became over-populated – Captain Arthur Phillip sailed for Australia with a load of convicts, Irishmen among them. It happened that prisoners were occasionally allowed to write to their families back in Europe, and we can imagine the incredulous face of Mrs O’Shea as she reads her husband Mick’s scrawled missive: “ ‘Tis a queer flat country, much drier than Ireland. The fields – sure, an’ they call them ‘paddocks’ here, Mary – are acres and acres across so you can’t see t’other side of them. The Governor has ordered that they be sown with grain and vegetables. I wish you could get some of it all when harvest comes round!”
So there were two very good reasons why Mrs O’Shea should sell her little cottage and sail with the children to Australia: Mick was there, and there was also the promise of better living. Of course she wasn’t the only one to go. Scores of Irishmen and women said goodbye to Erin, taking with them their families, a few necessaries, and their Catholic Faith.
When March 17 came round, the Feast of the Patron of their homeland, the immigrants got together and celebrated St Patrick’s Day with as much splendour as their slender means allowed. Little by little, the Irish settlements grew, and soon we may imagine their non-Catholic neighbours joining in the annual festivities too. So it went on; Australia settled down to being an individual nation, and her strong Irish population ensured that St. Patrick’s Day was made special wherever they were.
Now that’s all very well and good for the Irish and the Aussies with Irish backgrounds, you might say. But why are the Dominicans of Rosary Convent writing about St Patrick? Do they keep his feast? After all, the Sisters hail from just about all over the world. They would very likely leave poor St Patrick with a mere ‘commemoration at Lauds’ or something, while celebrating with great gusto some obscure New Zealand- or American-based Feast.
Let Rosary Convent answer! It’s true that we are a mixed group of nationalities, and most of us have just emigrated from New Zealand, and we are Dominican. But since St Patrick is such a special saint in our new home, we certainly celebrated his Feast. Some of the Sisters cooked a delicious ‘Irish Stew/Shepherd’s Pie’, for dinner, and also a splendid cake decorated on top with real three-leafed clovers from the Bush! (We didn’t eat the clovers though – we took those off before consuming). To round our little party off, we sang Irish songs until the bell rang for Compline.
There! March 17 was indeed a special day for us, and not only because we were allowed to celebrate with cake and song in the middle of Lent! On that day we also welcomed a new postulant from the Philippines to our little community – which isn’t so little any more. Eleven members already . . . I wonder how many more will celebrate St Patrick’s Day next year? O Lord, grant us many holy religious vocations!
Mother General with the five postulants.