The next time someone says, “Valentine’s Day is for the birds“ don’t write the person off as an unromantic curmudgeon. It could be a highly romantic anthropologist speaking. Or even a moderately romantic ornithologist. The fact is, it’s true. It seems that birds mate on February 14. And humans take note: most birds, being by nature monogamous, do that just once.
And speaking of humans, even superficial research reveals an amazing level of convergence around this day in mid February. What I refuse to call “coincidence” begins in third century Rome, migrates to Dublin in the 19th Century and still draws the searchers and a journalist to Whitefriar Street in the 21st Century. All this plays out against a backdrop of nature’s mandate observed first as a Medieval legend and later as science.
But before we get to the past history, if you are single and reading this in the early morning of Valentine’s Day you may want to look skyward for a sign of what your romantic prospects may be. Contemporary bird watchers and bloggers describe the significance of the first bird a single person sees on the fateful February day and how it foreshadows the kind of human partner the person can expect to find
Looking for a wealthy partner? Keep your eyes closed until you hear a goldfinch. If you’re over-primaried in this interminable election sideshow, then avoid seeing a bird of prey that signals a politician. A pigeon means you’ll have a partner that always returns home; as a blackbird foretells a member of the clergy; and a sparrow predicts a farmer. Travel buffs should look for a gull that promises you’ll find a likeminded itinerant. Listen for the woodpecker or the caw of a crow if you’re commitment-phobic, since both indicate a partner that is “not quiite ready yet.” And it might be worth a trek to a bird sanctuary or aviary to find a bluebird that means a partner that is fun and happy. I think it would be a great “two for the price of one” if the sanctuary had a stream running through it with a resident swan “aswim.” That would cap off the bluebird factor with the prospect of lifetime love and loyalty. We look forward to reports and affirmations from our early rising readers.
Meantime, back in the history books, here we are in Rome in the late 200s. In spite of the threat of martyrdom, a gallant priest named Valentine defied the Emperor Claudius who forbid his soldiers to marry. Taking his stand on the side of love, Valentine carried notes between the young marriage-minded couples that helped them find their way around the Emperor and to the altar. Near the end of his life, the miracle worker sent a note before his martyrdom to one he had saved from blindness and signed it “Your Valentine.” The legend of the “original’ Valentine lived on and a grateful Pope Theodore honored it and him by having a church erected in his honor on the spot where he was executed.
By the mid1830s the reputation of Carmelite Father John Spratt had reached Rome as had stories of his legendary eloquence and outreach to the poor and needy of Dublin where he had founded the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel known as the Church and School of Whitefriar Street (so called for the signature white capas of the order’s habit.) He was invited to preach at the Jesuits’ signature Church of the Gesu in Rome. The threads of destiny wove their way into that place in 1835 when again, by no coincidence; Pope Gregory XVI was present to hear the legendary preacher from Dublin. Father Bernard McKay, today’s spokesman to those who visit the shrine housing Valentine’s relics believes that his brother Carmelite likely spoke that day in the 1830s of the Poverty of Christ and the churches’ response to it, and especially to the poor. So though he probably did not speak directly about Valentine, the great-hearted Carmelite succeeded in “channeling” the Saint’s gift for giving voice to the voiceless. The Pope was so moved by Father Spratt’s message of empowering the powerless that he decided to gift the Carmelite with the relics of that other sensitive champion of people in need.
So, the eloquent Father Spratt returned to Dublin and its needy to make a home among them for the eloquent relics of Valentine. There they have rested until today in a shrine Irish journalist Barbara Scully chronicled in 2014 in an Irish Examiner feature called “Love Letters to Saint Valentine.” She reported that Father McKay allowed her to look at some of the messages that regularly fill the small notebook that lies on the altar of Valentine’s Shrine in the Dublin Church. Father Bernard reports that the notebooks are filled and need to be replaced every six weeks. The innocent messages speak of hopes ranging from finding the love of one’s life to prayer for the life of one’s love, an expected child or a wealthy spouse.
One final suggestion. Should you sight a Valentine’s Day partner on this day, you may want to consider sealing the bond or symbolizing the budding relationship with a Claddagh Ring. The traditional ring depicts two hands symbolizing friendship, upholding a heart that stands for love and surmounted by a crown that speaks of loyalty. It is named for a seaside village in Ireland’s County Galway and recalls the legend of a man named Joyce, captured by Moorish pirates who used the goldsmithing skills he learned while in captivity to create the ring he presented to his true love when he was freed and returned to her and his native land. I think of it as “Ireland’s Valentine to the World.” And that’s definitely not for the birds.
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears each Sunday.