Sunday 25 December 2022

Saint Patrick's Flowers

It seems strange perhaps to be writing about Saint Patrick at Christmas, but the shamrock is not the only plant to which our national apostle has a link. Below is a poem by Irish-American poet Patrick Joseph Coleman, a frequent contributor to the popular religious press. In this offering from the December 1908 edition of The Rosary Magazine he recounts a legend of Saint Patrick, travelling in France at Christmas time on a visit to Saint Martin of Tours, where he is offered shelter by a thornbush which miraculously burst into flower. Father William Bullen Morris, author of a substantial Life of Saint Patrick, gave a short summary of this story: 

The inhabitants of St. Patrice record an ancient tradition, which in its simplicity is full of freshness and poetry. St. Patrick, it is said, being on his way from Ireland to join St. Martin in Gaul, attracted by the fame of that Saint's sanctity and miracles, and having arrived at the bank of the Loire, near the spot where the church now bearing his name has been built, rested under a shrub. It was Christmas time, when the cold was intense. In honour of the Saint, the shrub expanded its branches, and shaking off the snow which rested on them, by an unheard-of prodigy arrayed itself in flowers white as the snow itself. St. Patrick crossed the Loire on his cloak, and on reaching the opposite bank, another blackthorn under which he rested at once burst out into flowers. Since that time, says the chronicle, the two shrubs have never ceased to blossom at Christmas, in honour of St. Patrick.

When the present writer visited St. Patrice in August, 1881, he was struck by the extraordinary beauty and luxuriance of the foliage on the tree: it was so dense from the ground upwards that it was impossible to distinguish the stem, and he could under- stand how, when it flowers at Christmas, it supplies the country round with trophies of St. Patrick. It also appears that they are objects of religious veneration, as we learn that M. Dupont always kept a branch of the Fleurs de St. Patrice, hung up in his room...

Rev W.B. Morris, Life of Saint Patrick, with a Preliminary Account of the Sources of the Saint's History (4th ed., London, Dublin and New York, 1890), 271. 

Coleman's poetic rendering of the legend sticks very closely to the story recounted by Father Morris but adds a postscript telling us that the thorn bush flowers every Christmas night. Nollaig Shona daoibh go léir!

St. Patrick's Flowers 

By P. J. Coleman 

Beneath the freezing winter gale 
Poured Loire its waves in sullen flow; 
’Twas Christmas Eve, and hill and dale 
Lay mantled deep in snow. 
’Twas Christmas, and of Christ, our Lord, 
To hut and hall the church bells told, 
When to the river’s bank there trod 
A pilgrim, faint and old. 
A pilgrim, worn with many a mile 
Of weary journey since the dawn — 
’Twas Patrick, Saint of Erin’s isle, 
To Tours of Martin drawn. 
At Tours lived Martin, Patrick’s friend. 
Upon the river’s southern shore. 
How shall he gain his journey’s end. 
Or win him passage o’er? 
There was no sound of boat or bark, 
Nor fisher’s keel, nor ferry frail; 
Deserted flowed the river dark, 
With not a single sail. 
Deserted lay the lonely shore 
Beneath the cruel winter storm; 
No cheering light, no ruddy door 
To give him welcome warm. 
Then, while he paused upon the bank, 
Footsore with many a weary league. 
Beneath a leafless bush he sank. 
All spent with sore fatigue. 
Now shall he perish in the storm, 
The pilgrim, wearisome and faint; But no! 
A breath of summer warm 
Blows round the sleeping saint. 
A breath of fragrance, as if June 
Had culled a rosy coronal, 
And on the gentle saint aswoon 
Had let the blossoms fall ! 
And lo! as if the snow-drifts blanch 
Its boughs, — oh, miracle divine! — 
The bush in every bole and branch 
With blossoms ’gins to shine. 
And spreads above Saint Patrick’s head 
Its fragrant canopy of bloom; 
Bestrews for him a petalled bed, 
And pillows of perfume. 
And draws around, of leaf and flower, 
To shield the sleeper from the storm. 
The woven branches of its bower, 
Its shelter sweet and warm. 
So, sheltered by the blessed thorn, 
Slept holy Patrick all the while. 
Until at last the glorious morn 
Across the land did smile. 
N. B. — This event occurred at the village of St. Patrice on the northern bank of the Loire. The white-thorn blossoms every Christmas night.

The Rosary Magazine Volume XXXIII, December 1908, 642-643.

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