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Our Forever Valentine

Our Forever Valentine – You can keep Paris, and forget about Rome. If it’s love you’re after and not just a good time Patrick Ryan explains why dear auld Dublin is actually the most romantic city in the world.

St Valentine’s Day. The description isn’t in the title anymore.
February 14th is now much more than another tick on the calendar, it’s a cultural phenomenon which according to Forbes magazine results in $24 billion being spent per annum over several days on chocolates, dinners and romantic trips away by people who want to be a bit more than just pals every St Val’s.

It might come as a surprise to learn that the remains of the man who inspired all of this, lauded by lovers and the love-lorn alike, lie in our capital drawing countless visitors here. And even more amazingly it’s all thanks to a man from Cork Street in Dublin 8 who worked relentlessly to help the poor and homeless in his native city.

Our unlikely story begins more than 2,000 years ago. Amidst the bloody sacrifices that took place in the the pagan festival of Lupercalia, the Ides of February, dedicated to Faunus the Roman god of agriculture and Romulus and Remus, the twins purported to have founded the Eternal City, young women would have their names placed in a large urn from which local bachelors chose a mate for the coming year.

Lupercalia was reconstituted in the 5th century by the Pope as the Feast Day of St Valentine the patron saint of love and marriage, and believed by many to have been martyred over 200 years earlier for presiding over unions featuring Christian soldiers and local women in defiance of Roman laws.

It would be another 1,000 years before the romantic associations with the day emerged however, all thanks to love birds.
By the Middle Ages people in France and England believed the birds paired off in early spring for mating season and in 1375 Geoffrey Chaucer was the first in a long line of poets to record St Valentine’s Day as a time of romance. Over the forthcoming centuries countless couples embraced this ideal and the tradition of exchanging flowers, sweets, and later cards became commonplace. The US-based Greeting Cards Association estimate that one billion will be sold in the lead-in to February 14th this year.

Fr Spratt

St Valentine’s remains stayed in Rome until the arrival of Fr John Spratt there almost 200 years ago. The Dubliner of the great Irishmen of his generation and the driving force behind a host of charities, including a homeless shelter for women and children on Cork Street at the edge of the Coombe, where he had lived until moving to Spain to continue his studies for the priesthood. Fr Spratt went on to become head of the Carmelite Order and is remembered today not only as a churchman and theologian, but for his campaigning to stop the transportation of Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien, his work on behalf of poor tenant farmers, and his efforts to help distribute emergency aid to victims of the Famine.

His sermons, philanthropy and vision certainly impressed the Vatican. In tribute Cardinal Carlo Odescalchi was instructed by Pope Gregory XVI to send several of St Valentine’s remains, including a small vessel tinged with his blood, as a token of the esteem in which the Liberties man was held, to the Carmelites’ Whitefriar Street Church at Aungier St, close to St Stephen’s Green in Dublin 2. In 1836 these relics (believed by many Catholics of that time to prompt miraculous healing and bring the faithful closer to God) were carried through the streets in solemn procession before being received by the Archbishop of Dublin.

Ironically for a man born within a stone’s throw of Guinness and the many distilleries producing whiskey near his home Fr Spratt was an enthusiastic supporter of Temperance, and refused doctors’ instructions to take a drop to improve his failing health. There was irony once more in the demise of this man so connected to St Valentine: John Francis Spratt died of a heart attack in 1871.

Dublin’s link to the patron saint of love gradually faded until renovations in the 1950s when a new shrine and altar were constructed in the church, topped with a commissioned statue by the famous sculptor Irene Broe.
This depicted the saint in red vestments  – the clothing of a martyr  – and holding a crocus, replicas of which are now sold in the church shop and found in places of honour in homes all over the world.

In the decades which followed and thanks in part to the increasing popularisation of St Valentine’s Day, word of this remarkable story spread far and wide.

On February 14th people will once again travel from throughout Ireland and abroad to murmur a prayer and even shed a tear as they sign the visitors’ book and ask for divine help in finding their heart’s desire in a church in Dublin forever synonymous with romance and true love.

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