St. Valentine and Irish Romantic Traditions
It’s common knowledge these days that, no matter how commercial it may seem, Valentine’s Day is a much older tradition then the invention of Conversation Hearts. (Remember last year’s shortage? They apparently take eleven months to make enough for the six-week period around the holiday!) Like much in the Western world, it’s a custom poached from the remains of the Roman Empire and though ancient history is a little fuzzy about the details (there may be two or three different St. Valentines,) we’ve landed on this (probably not entirely correct) story: a priest named Valentine was executed for marrying Christian couples and became a saint for his good works. Now we celebrate love in his honor on his feast day (the day he was martyred) in the liturgical calendar: February 14th. (Though the church did remove the celebration officially in 1969, making it wholly secular these days.)
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I know what you’re thinking: why are we writing about St. Valentine under Irish history?
It’s true, St. Valentine wasn’t Irish by birth, but he’s now been in the country long enough to call himself an Irishman. In 1836, an Irish Carmelite priest named Friar John Spratt visited Rome and his sermons were so brilliant he was showered with gifts from the most influential religious figures in the city—including the Pope. The Pope’s gift went above and beyond a commemorative mug: he gave Friar Spratt relics from the body of St. Valentine to bring back to Ireland for the Irish people. St. Valentine was reinterred in a Carmelite church on Whitefriar Street in Dublin (it’s now Aungier Street, but the church kept the name.) Every February 14th, many Irishmen and women come to pay homage and pray for their romantic futures. (Last year Irish Central even interviewed a couple that met doing just that four years ago and now plans on getting married!)
Despite the saint the day is named after being buried in their capital, Valentine’s Day isn’t a particularly Irish holiday. However, that doesn’t mean the Irish aren’t romantics at heart. One only has to look at their literary masters (W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde …to name a few) and their love poems to know romance isn’t dead on the Emerald Isle. Need a line or two to add to your partner’s card this year? The Irish have got you covered. Or when we can travel again, check out this list of romantic spots all throughout Ireland…but don’t forget the beautiful Howth’s Head just outside of Dublin (where one of the most romantic scenes in classic literature takes place: Leopold proposes to Molly there in Joyce’s tome Ulysses.)
Your beloved isn’t much for poetry? That’s okay—try a claddagh ring! The claddagh has become a popular symbol on jewelry all over the world, but originates in County Galway where in the 18th century fishermen used them as identification. The design’s meaning—a heart for love, hands for friendship, and a crown for loyalty—has morphed into a common romantic gift, complete with its own coded language. On the right hand, the heart worn pointing toward your fingertips means you’re available, and towards your own heart means you’re taken. The left hand is reserved for more serious relationships: pointing away is engaged, pointing toward you is married. And ladies, if you feel like doing the proposing, Ireland has a tradition for that too! Every four years on a Leap Day (February 29th,) it’s tradition for women to take the initiative and propose to their male partners. This practice possibly originates as early the 5th century A.D.—which must be why it’s so (sweet but…) antiquated.
Speaking of marriage, there’s an Irish romantic tradition even older than Leap Day proposals: handfasting. The tradition dates back to 7000 B.C. and is simple: couples would announce their intention to be married and tie their hands together with a braided length of rope or ribbon in front of a priest. After a year, they would return to the priest to be married or to decide to go their separate ways. Weddings these days often make symbolic use of the tradition (instead of as an engagement ceremony) to show their new unity. But how do you find someone to get handfasted with? Why not check out the 150-year-old Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival! Originally designed to help young people from rural farms meet mates, this sleepy town in Country Clare is transformed every September into the place to meet your match even today.
Last, but not least, one can’t argue that the Irish Gaelic language doesn’t have its touch of romance. Need a new pet name for someone you love? Ireland has a wealth of them and here’s a few to leave you with:
A stór (uh STORE): my treasure
A ghrá (uh GRAWH): my love
A mhuirnín (uh WUR-neen): my darling
A chuisle (uh KHUSH-leh): my pulse
Mo shíorghrá (muh HEER-ggrawh): my eternal love/soul mate
Is ceol mo chroí thú (Is cyoal mu khree who): you’re the music of my heart
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This post is part of a series. Read more about Ireland's history by reading about the story of Dr. James Barry here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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