The start of February means different things to different people; longer evenings for commuters and office workers, winter coming to an end for nature lovers and outdoorsy types, bank balances recovering from the expenses of Christmas for just about everyone, and an impending important event for loved-up couples; Valentine’s day, of course! Just like many other countries in the world, Ireland’s couples celebrate this day dedicated to love with romantic dinners, giving gifts like flowers, chocolate or jewellery, and various other gestures to show their affection for one another. However, what most people don’t realise is that Ireland has a stronger connection to Valentine’s Day than most. Read on to find out how St. Valentine came to be associated with Ireland, as well as some typically Irish ways to celebrate the day or show your significant other that you care.
Who was Saint Valentine?
Oddly enough, very little is known about Saint Valentine’s life, or how he came to be a saint, or even why he is associated with love. The few concrete facts we know to be true are that he was venerated on February 14th, lived during the 3rd century AD, and was buried on the Via Flaminia north of Rome. Because so few facts have been established about his life and work, his name was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969, although the Roman Catholic Church does still recognise him as a saint. The feast day of Saint Valentine has been celebrated since the year 496 AD.
After that, the story becomes much more vague. In fact there may have been as many as three different Valentines who became saints, all of whom were associated with February 14th. One was a Roman priest, one was the Bishop of Interamna, and one was a man who died a martyr in the province (not the continent) of Africa. However, some accounts attest that they were all the same person, and that the patchy facts from each of their three life stories makes up one semi-rounded out version of Saint Valentine’s life. This amalgamated version is that he was born and lived in Interamna, worked as a parish priest and later became Bishop, and was imprisoned and tortured in Rome on February 14th 273 AD, for marrying Christian couples so that the men wouldn’t have to go to war (since there was a huge shortage of soldiers at the time, this was a big no-no). His body was buried at a nearby cemetery, but a few nights later his disciples returned him to his preferred resting place.
There are of course plenty of myths and legends surrounding Saint Valentine, none of which are based on fact. After his his highly illegal marriage of Catholics, when he had been imprisoned and was awaiting execution, he is said to have healed his jailer’s deaf daughter, who he had become very fond of, through prayers. On the morning of his execution he left a note for her that was signed ‘your Valentine’. Aww.
The Irish Connection
So where does Ireland come into all of this? It’s all down to a priest by the name of Father John Spratt, a legendary preacher who lived and carried out his work in Ireland. In 1836 after giving a particularly good sermon in Rome, he was showered with gifts from all of the influential figures of the city; including none other than Pope Gregory XVI. Naturally, the Pope’s gift was bound to be even more impressive than any of the others; it was a relic of Saint Valentine himself, along with ‘a small vessel tinged with his blood’ and a letter proclaiming them to be genuine relics from the saint. Father Spratt brought them back to Ireland and had them installed in a shrine to Saint Valentine in the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street (now Aungier Street). They’re still there to this day, and the shrine is open to the public for anyone who wishes to pay their respects to the patron saint of love.
Irish Love Poems
Ireland is known as the ‘land of saints and scholars’, and is famous the world over for producing many revered poets, playwrights, novelists and all-round wordsmiths such as WB Yeats, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, to name just a few. They were a fairly romantic bunch, and between them have created some of the most beautiful love poems written in the English language. If you’re looking for some inspirational words to write on your Valentine’s card this year, try some of these for size;
Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven – WB Yeats (1899)
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half light,
I would lay them under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
My Lagan Love – Joseph Campbell (1903)
Where Lagan stream sings lullaby
There blows a lily fair
The twilight gleam is in her eye
The night is on her hair
And like a love-sick lennan-shee
She has my heart in thrall
Nor life I owe nor liberty
For love is lord of all
Oh, Call it by some better name – Thomas Moore (1961)
Oh, call it by some better name,
For Friendship sounds too cold,
While Love is now a worldly flame,
Whose shrine must be of gold:
And Passion, like the sun at noon,
That burns o’er all he sees,
Awhile as warm will set as soon–
Then call it none of these.
Imagine something purer far,
More free from stain of clay
Than Friendship, Love, or Passion are,
Yet human, still as they:
And if thy lip, for love like this,
No mortal word can frame,
Go, ask of angels what it is,
And call it by that name!
Romantic Irish Words
To lend a truly romantic (and Irish) feel to Valentine’s Day, you could consider expressing your love for one another through the country’s native language, Gaelic. This ancient and beautiful language has a wonderful musical sound, and thankfully, there are plenty of different ways to say ‘I love you’. Here are just a few to get you started:
Is tú mo ghrá : You are my love.
Is tú grá geal mo chroí: You are the bright love of my heart.
Táim i ngrá leat: I’m in love with you
Tá mo chroí istigh ionat: My heart is within you
Grá mo chroí: Love of my heart
A chuisle mo chroí: My heart’s beloved.
Mo shíorghrá: My eternal love
Irish Valentine’s Traditions
There aren’t any specific Valentine’s Day traditions in Ireland; most couples celebrate the day in a way that’s personal to them, and the common worldwide practices of giving small gifts, enjoying a nice meal or spending quality time together also take place over here. There are however some unique and romantic gestures and places that either can only be done in Ireland or are specifically associated with Ireland, and are sure to sweep your other half off their feet…
Claddagh Rings: the most authentic Irish gesture of love that you could possibly do is to exchange Claddagh rings (not that we’re biased, of course). These beautiful rings originated in the village of Claddagh in Galway back in the 18th century, where they were originally used by the fishermen of the village as a means of identification. The unique design didn’t take long to spread all across the country however, and soon became a favoured gift for couples or close friends to give one another. The ring’s design is a heart held by two hands with a crown on top, and each element has a specific meaning. The heart, obviously, symbolises love, the hands friendship, and the crown loyalty – in other words, the most important elements of any successful relationship! The tradition of the ring is that if you wear it with the tip of the heart pointing in towards your wrist, your heart has been promised to someone, but if it points outwards, you’re still on the lookout for your soulmate. The left hand is associated with serious relationships, while the right hand is for close friendships or family ties.
Howth Head: Howth is a coastal fishing village at the northern head of Dublin Bay, and on a clear day offers spectacular views of the entire city as well as the Wicklow Mountains beyond. The busy little harbour with its trawlers and sophisticated yachts is a romantic enough destination in itself, not to mention the array of award winning seafood restaurants, rooftop bars, and other activities on offer (cliff walks or boat trips out to Ireland’s Eye, for example) that can make the perfect date night. However, Howth Head (or the Hill of Howth) is the most perfect location to take any literary buff on Valentine’s Day. This was the setting for the final scene of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, where Leopold proposes to his love Molly, told to the reader through her famous soliloquoy.
Leap Day Proposals: Although not specific to Valentine’s Day itself, there is a peculiar tradition common in Ireland (and sometimes in the UK) that once every four years on Leap Day (otherwise known as February 29th, the extra day added in every leap year), women must propose to men instead of the other way around. Legend has it that the practice was instigated by either Saint Patrick or Saint Bridget in the 5th century AD, but there is no historical basis for this, and no mention whatsoever of it before the 18th century. However, in 1288 there was seemingly a law made by Queen Margaret of Scotland stating that if a man refused a marriage proposal, he was obliged to pay compensation in the form of a pair of leather gloves, a single rose, £1 and a kiss. Since Margaret was actually only five years old and living in Norway at this time, this story also doesn’t have many valid credentials.
Happy Valentine’s Day!