And the blackbird sang
You could say that St Patrick’s church in Edinburgh’s Cowgate is a place with a sense of atmosphere. It is surrounded by the capital city’s “Old Town” and, since its construction in the 1770s has continually evolved to stand at the heart of its local community.
Originally, the Cowgate was the “Back of the Canongate” – the foot of gardens which swept down from the merchant’s houses on the High St and, as such, an area where the Episcopalian religion might be expected to flourish, explaining St Patrick’s origins as a church of that faith. With the building of the New Town, the old town lost many of its wealthier residents, and the United Presbyterians took over the building in 1818. However, by the mid-19th century, the area had declined and become “Little Ireland” – an Irish ghetto for the thousands of post Famine refugees who flooded the city. At that point, the church became St Patrick’s to serve the Catholic community.
So, in its very history, it stands testament to a scarcely suspected Ecumenism over two and a half centuries.
It has a personal resonance as well.
My grandfather and his family first worshipped there in the 1890s, as immigrants from Ireland, and Hibernian Football Club had already been founded in the Parish in 1875. Parish Priest, Canon Hannan, from Ballingarry, Co Limerick, had agreed with the leader of the Catholic Young Men’s Society – Michael Whelahan, from Kilglass, Co Roscommon, that the youth of the parish would be better employed playing football in their spare time than carousing and fighting in the closes off the Cowgate.
Fifty yards from the church is the old St Anne’s school building, where James Connolly’s education began and ended – at least in a formal sense, and the church is now the last resting place of trade unionist and nun, Margaret Sinclair, who is on the road to sainthood, in recognition of her selfless life, lived for others. Both, in different ways, epitomised the basic Christian values of brotherhood and common cause.
So, attending Mass there – particularly at a time of the year like Easter, is an evocative and reflective experience which suggests the idea of “Faith” is about much more than rules and regulations and tribal adherence to a particular label. It always seems a place where the spiritual and the human are entwined to a degree which makes a kind of sense of both.
The Easter Service involves the creating of new fire – a ceremony which dates back to pagan times and perhaps even further – as a sign of hope. It’s performed in the courtyard of the church which is nowadays overlooked by the bedrooms of two budget hotels. In keeping with the church’s history, it didn’t seem out of place against the backdrop of revellers passing along the Cowgate and hotel guests coming and going. As it’s always done, the church was fulfilling its function, cheek by jowl with the life of the people and community it serves.
One of the pleasures of attending St Pat’s, along with a keen sense of its history, is the feeling of walking alongside my family and their friends from days gone by: a shared experience which is scarcely possible in any other setting. Faith is about belief, but it also evokes continuity – an experience just as sensual as the tang of incense in one’s nostrils.
And continuity is important to many. The many arguments and hostilities towards religion tend to base themselves on theology, philosophy, and the perceived hypocrisies of those who claim Faith. The sense of comfort and belonging which comes from that sense of continuity is maybe undervalued in a fast and furious, interactive and instant world.
For many, their spirituality is a simple, more positive part of their humanity – its complexities best left to academics, and to those who find themselves offended by the apparent impossibilities of Faith.
There are many ways of reaching St Pat’s – spiritually, historically, and physically.
On Saturday evening, we took an Old Town route, involving closes and stairways which held much Edinburgh history.
As we waited to cross the road to the church, the traffic lessened, and the only sound came from birdsong. It was from a blackbird, boldly atop a tree, singing with the volume, beauty, and conviction that only a blackbird can muster in the twilight of a Spring evening. It was, to coin a phrase, heavenly.
As it happened, the tree was in the grounds of the city Mortuary – the imponderables of life and death, beauty and decay, presented to us side by side, as we prepared for a ceremony of hope and new life, in a place where those who came before me had experienced the same feelings..
It seemed somehow appropriate – and, if my Faith means anything, it tells me while death shall have its dominion, the blackbird will always sing.