There have been many famous Dubliner’s but as we approach St. Valentine’s Day you may be surprised to hear the good saint is among the illustrious group! The saint was clubbed to death in Rome on 14th February in 269 AD for supporting loving couples and marrying them together, practices which were forbidden there at that time. His remains were given to an Irish priest, John Spratt, in 1835 by Pope Gregory XVI.
St Valentine’s Feast Day falls on 14 February, on which day lovers have customarily exchanged cards and other tokens of affection. It is not clear why Valentine should have been chosen as the patron saint of lovers, but it has been suggested that there may be a connection with the pagan Roman Festival of Lupercalia. During this Festival, which took place in the middle of February, young men and girls chose one another as partners. Legend, no doubt embellished if not entirely fictional, has it that the Roman Valentine resisted an edict of the Emperor forbidding the marriage of young men bound for military service, for which offence he was put to death. St Valentine apparently fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her a love letter signed ‘from your Valentine’ on February 14th, the day of his execution, as a goodbye.
The Skibbereen Eagle’s readers will not be astounded with his latest revelation as we approach the feast day of lovers on the 14th February, St. Valentine’s Day, that the good saint himself is, like Count Dracula, in fact a Dubliner! It is a little known fact as we approach the highly commercialised Feast of St Valentine that his bones are under an altar in an unassuming Carmelite Church in Dublin. Now you may feel as Dublin is a highly popular weekend destination for young people from all over Europe and America that there are adequate ad hoc tributes (sometimes in private) being paid to the good Saint around Dublin. However on the 14th February there is an extra effort to commemorate the saint at his resting place in the unlikely setting of Dublin Town. There appears to be little basis for any of the St. Valentine’s to be patron saints of lovers in the famously misogynistic early Christian Church other than they lost their heads!
Valentine’s Feast is also linked with the belief that birds are supposed to pair on 14 February, which legend provided the inspiration for Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls”. The crocus, which starts to bloom in February, is called St Valentine’s Flower. The earliest Valentine letter is found in the fifteenth-century collection of Paston Letters. The general custom of sending tokens on Valentine’s Day developed during the nineteenth century, and in the present century has spread to the east, where it appears to be particularly popular in Japan. The exchange of Valentine cards, flowers, sweets and other gifts has thus become a multi-million dollar international industry. It is estimated that in excess of one billion Valentine cards are sent each year in the United States of America alone.
The Roman Martyrology commemorates two martyrs named Valentine (or Valentinus) on February 14 which seems to indicate that both were beheaded on the Flaminian Way, one at Rome the other at Terni which is some 60 miles from Rome. Valentine of Rome was a priest who is said to have died about 269 during the persecution of Claudius the Goth (or Claudius II Gothicus). The other Valentine was allegedly Bishop of Terni, and his death is attested to in the Martyrology of St Jerome. Whether there were actually one or two Valentines is disputed. One possibility is that is two cults – one based in Rome, the other in Terni – may have sprung up to the same martyr but that in the mists of time his true identity became confused.
In ancient Rome, February 14th was a holiday to honour Juno – the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses. The Romans also knew her as the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia. At the time the lives of young boys and girls were strictly separate. However, one of the customs of the young people was name drawing. On the eve of the festival of Lupercalia the names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and they would then be partners for the duration of the festival. Sometimes the pairing of the children lasted an entire year, and often, they would fall in love and would later marry. Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns.
Claudius the Cruel was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military Legions. He believed that the reason was that Roman men did not want to leave their loves or families. As a result, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. Claudius had also ordered all Romans to worship the state religion’s idols, and he had made it a crime punishable by death to associate with Christians. But Valentinus was dedicated to the ideals of Christ, and not even the threat of death could keep him from practicing his beliefs. Valentine and Saint Marius aided the Christian martyrs and secretly married couples, and for this kind deed Valentine was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off. He suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February, in either 269 or 270.
Throughout the centuries since Valentine’s death there have been various basilicas, churches and monasteries built over the site of his grave. Many restorations and reconstructions took place at the site, therefore over the years. In the early 1800s such work was taking place and the remains of Valentine were discovered along with a small vessel tinged with his blood and some other artefacts.
In 1835 an Irish Carmelite by the name of John Spratt was visiting Rome. He was well known in Ireland for his skills as a preacher and also for his work among the poor and destitute in Dublin’s Liberties area. He was also responsible for the building of the new church to Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Whitefriar Street. While he was in Rome he was asked to preach at the famous Jesuit Church in the city, the Gesu. Apparently his fame as a preacher had gone before him, no doubt brought by some Jesuits who had been in Dublin. The elite of Rome flocked to hear him and he received many tokens of esteem from the doyens of the Church. One such token came from Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) and were the remains of Saint Valentine.
On November 10, 1836, the Reliquary containing the remains arrived in Dublin and they were brought in solemn procession to Whitefriar Street Church where they were received by Archbishop Murray of Dublin. With the death of Fr Spratt interest in the relics died away and they went into storage. During a major renovation in the church in the 1950s/60s they were returned to prominence with an altar and shrine being constructed to house them and enable them to be venerated. The statue was carved by Irene Broe and depicts the saint in the red vestments of a martyr and holding a crocus in his hand.
The Shrine to St Valentine is found on the right hand side of the church as one enters the main body of the church. The casket sits beneath the marble altar in a niche which is protected by an ornate iron and glass gate. Above the altar stands the life-sized statue of the saint set into a marble mosaic alcove. The saint is also barefoot. The casket is wooden and on top bears the papal coat of arms of Gregory XVI along with two large gold plates which have the letter of Cardinal Odescalchi inscribed in English upon them. Between these two plates and beneath the papal crest is a smaller plate with the inscription: “This shrine contains the sacred body of Saint Valentinus the Martyr, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood.” Today, the Shrine is visited throughout the year by couples who come to pray to Valentine and to ask him to watch over them in their lives together. The feast day of the saint on February 14 is a very popular one and many couples come to the Eucharistic celebrations that day which also includes a Blessing of Rings for those about to be married. On the feast day, the Reliquary is removed from beneath the side-altar and is placed before the high altar in the church.
The Reliquary contains some of the remains of St Valentine – it is not claimed that all of his remains are found in this casket. Indeed the Catholic Church has a somewhat ghoulish interest in dismembering old Saints and dispersing their “relics” far and wide for the “veneration of the faithful.” The Reliquary contains some of the remains of St Valentine – it is not claimed that all of his remains are found in this casket.
Indeed the Catholic Church has a somewhat ghoulish interest in dismembering old Saints and dispersing their “relics” far and wide for the “veneration of the faithful.” For this particular Valentine bits of his body are found in the Basilica of Santa Maria, Rome; in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, Dublin; in the collegiate church in Roquemaure; in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna; in John Duns Scotus’ church, Glasgow; and the Oratory, Birmingham. Here in Whitefriar Street 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 is 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.
When the Reliquary arrived in Dublin it was accompanied by a letter, in Latin, which reads:
We, Charles, by the divine mercy, Bishop of Sabina of the Holy Roman Church, Cardinal Odescalchi arch priest of the sacred Liberian Basilica, Vicar General of our most Holy Father the Pope and Judge in ordinary of the Roman Curia and of its districts, etc., etc.
To all and everyone who shall inspect these our present letters, we certify and attest, that for the greater glory of the omnipotent God and veneration of his saints, we have freely given to the Very Reverend Father Spratt, Master of Sacred Theology of the Order of Calced Carmelites of the convent of that Order at Dublin, in Ireland, the blessed body of St Valentine, martyr, which we ourselves by the command of the most Holy Father Pope Gregory XVI on the 27th day of December 1835, have taken out of the cemetery of St Hippolytus in the Tiburtine Way, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood and have deposited them in a wooden case covered with painted paper, well closed, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with our seals and we have so delivered and consigned to him, and we have granted unto him power in the Lord, to the end that he may retain to himself, give to others, transmit beyond the city (Rome) and in any church, oratory or chapel, to expose and place the said blessed holy body for the public veneration of the faithful without, however, an Office and Mass, conformably to the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, promulgated on the 11th day of August 1691.
In testimony whereof, these letters, testimonial subscribed with our hand, and sealed with our seal, we have directed to be expedited by the undersigned keeper of sacred relics.
Rome, from our Palace, the 29th day of the month of January 1836.
Philip Ludovici Pro-Custos
For those wishing to visit St Valentine’s Shrine in Dublin, Whitefriar Street Church is located between Aungier Street and Wexford Street, and is just a few minutes’ walk west of St Stephen’s Green. Within the Whitefriar Street Church building there is a shop where one can purchase various souvenirs, such as cards, key rings and other material bearing Valentine’s image. Unlike most other surviving inner city churches in Dublin, Whitefriar Street always seems to be busy, and as well as the shrine to St Valentine, there are shrines to the Black Madonna and St Albert. The Whitefriar Street Fathers today emphasise St Valentine’s association “with young people and their needs as they grow into maturity and adult life”. To express it more romantically, the Whitefriar Street Shrine to St Valentine has been and continues to be a place of pilgrimage for those celebrating love – as well as for those who have lost it or have yet to find it!
The Irish poet and Dubliner W. B. Yeats expressed the feeling of falling in love maybe somewhat better than an old saint’s bones which ended up in Dublin by a strange circumlocution!
A Drinking Song
by William Butler Yeats
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
As for Saint Valentine himself we may ask the not unreasonable question is he happy in Dublin or would he have preferred to stay in the sunnier climes of the Eternal City of Rome? Well, Valentine didn’t get where he is today by having good negotiating skills or indeed asserting control of his own destiny. So on 14th February, pay tribute to the good saint Valentine, as Dublin as a pint of Guinness!