The Irish Valentine

sun cove

February evening in Rossbrin Cove

I was surprised to discover Saint Valentine in Ireland…

You mean in a card shop – or a flower shop?

No – I mean the real Saint Valentine – his remains are in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Whitefriars Street, Dublin: we were there last week.

carmelite church

That can’t be true – Saint Valentine was a Roman – martyred, I believe, in the 3rd Century.

He was, of course: Emperor Claudius had him beaten to death and then beheaded on 14th February 269. Valentine and another Saint, Marius, had secretly married young couples, which was against the law.

Why was it against the law?

Because Claudius II (Claudius the Cruel) was engaged in many bloody and unpopular campaigns and was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military forays. He believed that the reason was that Roman men did not want to leave their lovers or families. As a result, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome.

So it’s because of Valentine’s clandestine activities that he is the patron saint of love?

old card

That’s certainly a possibility. There are many other things associated with Saint Valentine’s Day which may have contributed to its continuing celebration.

Such as?

In ancient Rome, 14th February was a holiday to honour Juno – the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses, also known as the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, 15th February, began the Feast of Lupercalia. On the eve of that festival the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and they would then be partners for the duration of the festival.

irish roses

Let’s get back to Saint Valentine in Ireland…

Well, it all centres around a famous Irish preacher, John Spratt. It was he who built the Whitefriars Street Church. He went to Rome in 1835 where ‘…the elite of the city flocked to hear him and he received many tokens of esteem from the doyens of the Church…’ One such token was given by Pope Gregory XVI: the remains of Saint Valentine!

Is this genuine?

It seems to be. The Pope also sent with the relics a letter of authenticity, written in Latin, which still exists:

‘…To all and everyone who shall inspect these our present letters, we certify and attest, that for the greater glory of the omnipotent God and veneration of his saints, we have freely given to the Very Reverend Father Spratt, Master of Sacred Theology of the Order of Calced Carmelites of the convent of that Order at Dublin, in Ireland, the blessed body of St Valentine, martyr, which we ourselves by the command of the most Holy Father Pope Gregory XVI on the 27th day of December 1835, have taken out of the cemetery of St Hippolytus in the Tiburtine Way, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood and have deposited them in a wooden case covered with painted paper, well closed, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with our seals and we have so delivered and consigned to him, and we have granted unto him power in the Lord, to the end that he may retain to himself, give to others, transmit beyond the city (Rome) and in any church, oratory or chapel, to expose and place the said blessed holy body for the public veneration of the faithful…’

That’s remarkable. This must be a very popular shrine?

Nowadays it is – but no one was very interested in it in the time of Father Spratt and the relics were put away in a cupboard and forgotten.


Until around 1950 when the present altar and shrine were constructed to house them. The statue of Saint Valentine that is there now was carved by Irene Broe and depicts him in the red vestments of a martyr and holding a crocus in his hand.

What happens there on the Saint’s Day?

Couples come to the Eucharistic celebrations which include a Blessing of Rings for those about to be married. On the feast-day, the Reliquary is removed from beneath the altar and is placed before the high altar in the church and there venerated at Mass.

You must have a legend about Saint Valentine?

A rather nice one, actually – and it explains the crocus…

When Valentine was imprisoned in Rome for his Christian beliefs his jailer had a daughter – Julia – who had been born blind. The jailer asked Valentine if he could cure the blindness. Valentine couldn’t promise this, but he did offer to teach the girl: he read stories of Rome’s history to her; he described the world of nature to her; he taught her arithmetic and told her about God. She saw the world through his eyes, trusted in his wisdom, and found comfort in his quiet strength.

On the eve of his execution Valentine asked the jailer for a paper, pen and ink. He wrote a farewell note and handed it to the jailer to give to Julia. He urged her to stay close to God, and he signed it ‘…From Your Valentine…’ His sentence was carried out the next day, 14th February. When the jailer went home, he was greeted by his blind daughter. The little girl opened the note and discovered a yellow crocus inside. As the girl looked down at the crocus she saw brilliant colours for the first time in her life! The girl’s eyesight had been restored.


That’s wonderful! So now I can tell everyone that St Valentine’s resting place is in the Emerald Isle…



Well, perhaps you ought to know that the remains of St Valentine are also said to be held in Rome, Prague, Poland, France, Vienna, Malta, Glasgow, Birmingham (UK) and even in Missouri – among other places…

Saint Ferdinand’s, Florissant, Missouri also claims relics of Saint Valentine

Saint Ferdinand’s, Florissant, Missouri also claims to hold relics of Saint Valentine

Oh no! That certainly puts a dampener on Ireland’s claim.

Not really – it’s certainly not unusual for a Saint’s relics to be spread around Christendom: a little veneration goes a long way.

Has anyone ever looked inside the reliquary in Whitefriars, Dublin?

No – it was a condition of the gift that the seals should never be broken, and they haven’t. Personally, I’m very happy with the idea that St Valentine – or some of him at least – rests contentendly there: I shall visit him whenever I’m passing

An Post Valentine stamp for 2015

An Post Valentine stamp for 2015


Morning prayers on the Großglockner, Otto Barth 1911

Morning prayers on the Großglockner, Otto Barth 1911

Is it us? We seem to be following in the footsteps of thieves and wreckers… Back in June 2012 we visited St Manchan’s Church, in Boher, Offaly and saw the splendid shrine of that Saint securely locked in an armoured glass case and mounted in front of the equally magnificent Harry Clarke window depicting him. That was at about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. We were shocked to hear on the news that evening that the shrine had been stolen at 1.30! Two men had taken just a few minutes to break open the case – in spite of alarms and cctv – and make off with the Saint’s remains…

We were relieved to hear the following day that the robbery had been bungled: the shrine was thrown out of the getaway car and landed in a bog: both it and the perpetrators were picked up by the Gardi. I wonder if perhaps the thought of what divine justice might be wrought from on high (from St Manchan himself, even) had put doubts into the minds of the thieves and diverted them from their intentions – whatever they might have been.

Harry Clarke's depiction of the Saint's shrine

Harry Clarke’s depiction of the Saint’s shrine

Nevertheless, the incident led to some considerable debate on whether the reliquary should be returned to the church – where the security was evidently lacking – or whether the original 1,000 year old artefact should be put into Ireland’s National Museum and the replica which happens to be there should be sent back to St Manchan’s. The Boher people campaigned vigorously against this – quite rightly in my opinion – and eventually, after some improvements to the arrangements in the church, the shrine has been restored to where it belongs.


Carrauntoohil Summit – photo by Noel Mulcair:

So there we were just a week or two ago, honeymooning in the shadow of Ireland’s highest mountain (although warmly ensconsed in a comfortable Kerry hotel) when we heard the news that, not far away, someone had climbed the mountain at night and felled the iron cross that had stood up there for many years, with an angle-grinder! Obviously some point was being made, although nobody was quite sure what that was at the time…

The Mountains of Kerry

Gap of Dunloe, in the shadow of Carrauntoohil


The cross is felled...

The cross is felled…

The Carrauntoohil incident sparked off a lively correspondence in The Irish Times. Many were indignant at the act of vandalism, while others took the view that there is no reason why wild places should be ‘sullied’ with religious symbols. Hmmmm… that’s a bit harsh, perhaps: crosses on mountain tops have a been around for a long time all over the world and, ever since prehistory, humans have marked their presence on the landscape with monuments of one sort or another. As you all know, the two of us are fascinated (obsessed might be a more appropriate word) by megaliths, tombs, circles and inscribed rocks – and these are preserved archaeological artefacts – it would be unthinkable for someone to get it into their head that a standing stone should be destroyed because it might have represented someone’s god. At the very least, surely, the subject should be aired and a democratic decision made by a public majority before any such action is taken. Indeed, the subject did get aired after the event and I gleaned that the majority of respondents felt that the iconic cross should not have come down.

Well, this story – like the St Manchan one, has had a happy ending. A group of volunteers has been up to the summit with block, tackle and welding equipment and the cross is back again.

Ireland has many summits adorned with constructed pieces – ancient cairns and tombs, and more modern statues and symbols, not forgetting the wind farms which are another source of controversy. We are all part of human history and one of Ireland’s big attractions for me is that the history is so visible and accessible. In 1968 a white marble Pieta was placed high up on the Goat’s Path in Glanalin townland. It’s someone’s personal monument to a much loved father. In my opinion the melancholy statue enhances the wild place: I make a bee-line for it whenever I’m in the area – partly to enjoy the magnificent view but also, I have to say, because I am fascinated to see how many coins and offerings are put into the outstretched palm of Mary. Look here for a fuller description on the excellent website Sheep’s Head Places.

Hilltop Pieta

Hilltop Pieta

Given our experiences to date I worried a bit about our visits to Holy Cross Abbey and the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne in Cork, where we came across the shin bone of Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy. But it seems to be ok: fair enough, the fragment of the True Cross was stolen from Holy Cross (it’s now been replaced with another), but long before our visit, while the saintly shin bone seems to have survived unscathed so far. I can’t help looking over my shoulder, though, when we visit such places. Ireland is full of enigmas…


Sacred shin bone – with Angelic guardians

Finola's childhood haunts: the cross on Bray Head, Wicklow

Finola’s childhood haunts: the cross on Bray Head, Wicklow