The Saint Patrick Centre

Over the last 10 years the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, County Down, has played an important part in educating communities and school children about the unique role Patrick can play in bringing our traditions together, as someone from Britain who became the Patron Saint of Ireland, someone who showed forgiveness to his captors and someone who is already recognised by churches on both sides of the community. I met members of their Young Ambassador Programme both here, as High Sheriff in the City Hall, and recently in Milwaukie and have maintained contact with several of these exceptional young people.

The Director of the Saint Patrick Centre, Tim Cambell, gives regular talks to groups from all over Northern Ireland and welcome them to Downpatrick. I recognise a growing interest from all parts of our society in reaching a greater understanding of Patrick, how his message can be more relevant beyond festivals and parades and I also see an increasing willingness for joint celebrations which can involve all communities. Their first Saint Patrick Peace and Reconciliation Conference in March 2011, which had President McAleese as Key Note Speaker, as well as myself, reinforced this view, demonstrated the need for providing a greater knowledge of Patrick, particularly within the Unionist tradition, and the need for a way to help joint celebration on Saint Patrick’s Day.

The Saint Patrick Centre is a cross community charity which houses the only permanent exhibition in the world about Ireland’s Patron Saint and provides a Reconciliation Education Program based on Patrick which attracts thousands of children annually. We run community tours aimed at reconciliation using local historic sites and local churches and have an outreach lecture program for groups. The Centre is a major place for community conferences and concerts, we have a community garden, support local craftspeople in our shop, local artists in our art gallery and 21 young disabled people who run their Daisies Café.

The Centre has founded six charitable ‘Chapters’ in America and Canada called the Friends of Saint Patrick. Friends support our work, encourage a greater understanding of all of the cultures of Northern Ireland, send Young Ambassadors over to learn about our traditions and raise funds for good causes ‘In the Spirit of Saint Patrick’ every March. This model of going beyond archetypal shamrocks, green beer, flags and parades to focus on charitable giving for those most in need has proved extremely successful in bringing a greater understanding and cross community support to Saint Patrick’s Day beyond Irish American communities. We believe that this ‘working together for a greater charitable cause’ approach would work very effectively in Northern Ireland, where Saint Patrick’s Day has been seen in the recent years as a day of potential division, contentious parades and there has been a general lack of engagement around the theme of Saint Patrick within the unionist community.

Their vision is to instil the 'Spirit of St Patrick' and Christian charity into the ethos of St Patrick’s Day celebrations by going beyond flags and parades and creating an emphasis on meeting needs which are important to both communities in Northern Ireland Issues like cancer, homelessness and disability (to mention a few) impact on all communities and they believe that using Saint Patrick's Day to help people in need will bring our communities together in a joint cause and can make the day more relevant to all our people and particularly those sections who have expressed an increased interest in learning about and celebrating Saint Patrick but have until now had no way of doing so. This will be the first year of making Saint Patrick’s Day a day of national reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

The Centre will bring leading politicans and businesspeople together as a Friends of Saint Patrick Chapter in Northern Ireland using the charitable status of the Centre. They will agree on a charity to support and help create the mechanism to make this work. They will meet monthly, launch in January at Stormont and focus on March 2012 as a time of raising money in a major Northern Ireland-wide campaign involving schools, community groups, churches, the GAA, the Ulster Scots Agency, Irish representatives from the House of Lords, local politicians and the general public. The theme will be working together ‘In the Spirit of Saint Patrick’. The outcome will be a revision and ne perspective on Saint Patrick’s Day which will allow for a better understanding of the shared Christian heritage of Saint Patrick in Northern Ireland. This will challenge stereotypes, reduce cultural barriers and bring people from different backgrounds to work towards a common goal of helping others.

The objective of the project is to extend knowledge and increase the tolerance of the shared heritage of Saint Patrick amongst communities, challenge stereotypes, allow young people to learn about their shared culture and bring people together to work towards a better future and common goal, which in this case will be rallying communities to provide charitable giving to a shared cause within Northern Ireland. The target groups will be from all communities at all levels from primary and secondary students to youth groups to rural and urban dwellers to more mature church-goers and there will be recognition that people from the Unionist community need to play a central role.

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