There are some people who seem to remember their youth with all the colour and clarity of a Hollywood-highlight-reel; their first day at school, their first fight, their first kiss, the first time they were allowed into the town with their friends.
Unfortunately, I have not been blessed with the kind of mind capable of recording and retaining memories in this way, thus I do not really have any clear visual timeline of life.
I am always amazed, for instance, when older people tell stories from their childhood with the unclouded recall of someone explaining yesterday’s news.
Because, you see, in spite of the fact that my teenage years were only a lock of years ago, many of my memories from that time, recollections I thought would never fade, have already become blurry and indistinct.
Deadly days, ones that we believed would become the stuff of lore and legend, have instead become tangled and confused with one another.
Unforgettable stories, yarns that caused guts to twist, slabbers to fly, and veins to pop, are now fragmented and partial versions of their original selves.
But when it comes to forgetting things that you once reckoned to be eternally banked, you need look no further than the lessons you were taught (unsuccessfully, it turns out) at school.
Year after year, how those teachers tried their best to hammer, ram and grind the same stories, lessons and ideas into our heads.
For those of us who went to faith-based schools, not only were we taught all the secular stuff that we were always destined to one day forget, but we also received a religious education too.
Why am I dwelling on this? I’ll tell ye why.
As I sat down to write this week’s column, I felt it my patriotic duty to make the cultural and religious celebration of St Patrick’s Day my subject.
So, naturally, I started by having a think about the great man himself.
“Right, St Patrick…” I whispered inwardly.
“Remember, recall, ruminate,” I said, hoping that thinking the words would have the same effect as engaging in the contemplative acts meant by them.
“Where are you at Patrick?” I said to myself, hoking about in the shadowy corners of my consciousness.
“Come on, ye snake-chasing, sheep-herding, staff-carrying, pagan-purging son-of-Slemish.”
“Oh,” I thought to myself, “not bad,” a twinkle of pride fizzing through me.
But, continuing to raid the recesses of my mind for further information, I was alarmed to discover that all I could find were loose scraps of the story of our patron saint.
“Jesus, that’s not going to cut it, McElhatton,” I admonished myself. “We need a well-structured story, not a load of hyphenated descriptors!”
“There has to be a coherent biography in here somewhere,” I said, holding my breath and plunging deeper into the caves of my subconscious.
Returning to the surface empty handed, I gasped as I emerged, sucking hard to catch my breath, knowing that I had swam as deep as I could.
So, disgusted with myself, I scorned my plastic patriotism, and consulted somebody that I knew had attended Mass on St Patrick’s Day morning.
“You were at Mass when I was in the pub, yes?” I double-checked as they answered the phone.
“I was,” he replied.
“What’s the craic with St Patrick again?” I asked, feeling stupid and desperate, like the desperate so often do.
“Be more specific,” they said.
“I’m writing a column and I need to get reacquainted with the story of St Patrick,” I said.
“Jesus Christ, sure I can’t mind it right either. He was English, anyway. Was he a Protestant too, was he? Did they even have Protestants then?” he said, uncertainly.
“This is useless,” I said, defeatedly.
“Wait… There was something the priest said in his homily that was interesting,” he said.
“Go on,” I encouraged.
“Well, he said that everybody used to say that St Patrick was sent to Ireland by God. You know, that God came to St Patrick and told him he needed to get himself to Ireland to free us from the shackles of paganism, and liberate us with the word of God,” he said.
“Shackles of paganism – nice.”
Tearing on, he said, “But the more modern version, so the priest said, it that young Patrick was actually abducted by a gang of Irish pirates, held against his will, and forced into slavery.”
“Grim,” I said, half remembering what he was on about.
“Today, the priest was saying, we would say that St Patrick was the victim of human trafficking. St Patrick was trafficked. That’s mad isn’t it? Not only did he become the patron saint of an island he was not from, but he became the most venerated and revered religious figure in the home country of the same people that tried to steal his freedom.”
“That’s actually pretty good,” I said. “I’m glad one of us goes to Mass.”
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