St. Valentine's Day image c.1910- where did it all come from?
Valentine’s Day is once again on the horizon. This event sees worldwide chocolate supplies decimated, red-roses massacred by the million, and restaurant reservations become more valuable than the combined GDP of several small European countries. But who was St. Valentine? And what connection does he have with Ireland?
There are a number of different St. Valentines, and it remains unclear which of them the 14th February date refers to. At least two lived in Italy; one was a Priest in Rome, the second a Bishop in Interamna. They were both martyred sometime in the 3rd Century AD. A third St. Valentine was from Africa and also became a martyr, but little is known of his life. It is thought that the tradition originates with one of the Italian Valentines, and various legends have sprung up around him to explain his romantic associations. These include one tale which relates that the future saint fell in love with his gaoler’s daughter, and sent her the first Valentine card to express his feelings.
Charles of Orleans, a love-sick French Knight
It seems likely that the day has some connection with Lupercalia, a pagan health and fertility festival that was celebrated around the same time as Valentine’s Day; February was also an important month in the worship of Juno, the Roman Goddess of Marriage. However it was in medieval France and England that the days connection with lovers really took off, and began to take on associations that we would recognise today. During this period February 14th was seen as the beginning of the birds’ mating season, and it was a natural jump to connect this with love-ties in human romance. The earliest known Valentine’s poem also appears at this time. It dates to 1415 and was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans in the Tower of London, where he was being held following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. Entitled ‘A Farewell to Love’ it was for his wife, and begins with the lines:
Je suis desja d’amour tanné,
[I am already sick of love]
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
[My very gentle Valentine]
Pope Gregory XVI who sent St. Valentine to Ireland in the 19th Century
But what of the Saint’s connection to Ireland, and Dublin in particular? This dates back to 1835, when an Irish Carmelite, Father John Spratt, visited Rome. He was a renowned preacher and was invited to speak at the famous Church of the Gesu in the city, which was thronged for the occasion. Pope Gregory XVI wished to give the Carmelite a token of his esteem, and so Father Spratt was presented with some of the supposed remains of St. Valentine and a vessel containing the martyr’s blood. He had them taken back to Ireland, where he was overseeing the construction of Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin. St. Valentine (or at least a part of him) arrived at his new home on 10th November, 1836, where he is to be found to this day in a specially constructed shrine within the church.
The reliquary of St. Valentine has now been in Ireland for some 177 years, and can be visited by the public. Given his long-time residence in the country, a period which has seen a scientifically documented increase in the romantic tendencies of the Irish (based on sales analysis of ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ t-shirts across the same time-span), it goes without saying that at this point he is considered a true blue ‘Dub’, and is firmly regarded as one of our own!
The Shrine of St. Valentine, Whitefriar Street Church, Dublin