GROWING up as a teenager in the Westport of the 1970s had its bleak moments. From the tarmac to the sky, and most things in between, shades of grey were everywhere. Summer holidays, Christmas, The Wimpy, The Mermaid and an occasional film were the highlights. And of course St Valentine’s Day!
The day could be a bit iffy! It was a crushing blow to your ego if the postman passed the door and the grey descended on all fronts. For those ‘away at college’ in St Jarlath’s you ran a ‘public’ risk as post was ‘delivered’ in the ref at mealtimes.
One memory sticks out from those years in educational exile. I, along with siblings, always received a Valentine card from Westport. To say it put a pep in your step is an understatement. The killer was that you never deciphered the writing. In those days cards were sent unsigned with verses full of romantic rhyme. For days you wondered. And for days you hoped…could it be…?
It is recorded that the first person to write a Valentine card was a priest, signing it ‘From your Valentine’ to his jailer’s blind daughter Julia. She was under his instruction with her father hoping for a cure for her blindness. St Valentine was jailed for his Christian beliefs and married couples even after the Emperor forbade it because many young men were favouring home life over army campaigns.
He is honoured in Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, among other churches in Christendom. Following a visit to Rome in 1835 by Irish Carmelite John Spratt, a noted preacher, he was gifted a reliquary of St Valentine’s remains. It was brought in procession to Whitefriar Street Church on November 10 1836.
“The Reliquary contains some of the remains of St Valentine – it is not claimed that all of his remains are found in this casket. There is also included a small vessel tinged with the blood of the martyr. These are contained within a small wooden box, covered in painted paper and tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with wax seals (which is the usual way in which relics are contained within reliquaries). This container is inside the casket, which is seen beneath the altar. The outer casket has only been opened on a couple of occasions and then only to verify that the contents are intact. The inner box has not been opened or the seals broken.”
Through the ages
After Fr Spratt’s death the reliquary went into storage only to emerge during renovations in the 1950/60s and given a place of prominence with an altar and shrine. Irene Broe made a statue depicting St Valentine in red holding a crocus.
Before his martyrdom on 14 February 269, he sent a note to Julia. “The little girl opened the note and discovered a yellow crocus inside. The message said, ‘From your Valentine.’ As the little girl looked down upon the crocus that spilled into her palm she saw brilliant colours for the first time in her life! The girl’s eyesight had been restored.”
St Valentine’s Day on February 14 honours his death but also Christianised the Lupercalia pagan fertility festival at that time. St Valentine was buried at the Church of Praxedes in Rome, near the cemetery of St Hippolytus. It is claimed that Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree at his grave. Almond trees are a symbol of abiding love and friendship.
Amazing how a third century priest can impact on life throughout the ages, even brightening the grey shades of teenage angst in the west of Ireland. While history fades into grey the rich red lush of truth always survives.
My faithful teenage Valentine revealed herself some years ago, not long before she went to her eternal reward, Sr Oliver from Westport Convent of Mercy. Aided and abetted by my mother, who taught with her, the holy scribe would post Valentine cards to all of us ‘away in college.’ “And sure why wouldn’t I?” she retorted when I eventually questioned her.
Sr Oliver always signed herself “From your Valentine,” continuing a sacred tradition. Then again, she was all heart, always. May she celebrate with her Valentine.