Not only is it the birthday of the Founder of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – one of the greatest Bengalis ever born and who’s held dear to millions of hearts worldwide – but also it’s St. Patrick’s Day.
Who or what is the latter? You might ask.
Well, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and his birthday is one of the largest celebrated religious festivals in the world, second only to Christmas in many countries.
St. Patrick is renowned for having brought Christianity and civilizing the people of Ireland, a then nation of plunderers and utterly brutish marauders – ‘the horrifying terrors of the region’ – who struck fear into the minds of all. They sailed regularly from Ireland to England, Scotland and Wales where they raided, raped, pillaged, plundered and took slaves.
In 344 AD Patrick, then 14, was taken to Ireland as a slave. Six years later he escaped, returned to his family in Wales, and joined the church.
After becoming a bishop he had a vision one night that compelled him to return to Ireland to teach Christianity to the uncivilized pagans. It’s said he banished snakes from Ireland, but there is no record of snakes ever been there. Figurative language was often used in folklore tales and the ‘snakes’ most probably represented druids and pagans.
The three-leafed shamrock seen today on the jerseys of Irish cricket stars came into prominence when he used it to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagan masses.
The shamrock, a weed that is plentiful throughout Ireland and is said to only grow there, is the same as a clover, but without the white spot. It comprises of three parts or leaves, symbolizing the Trinity; the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but all connected to the one stem, God.
By the seventh century he was revered as the patron saint of Ireland. Two letters by him still survive today.
St. Patrick’s Day is truly an unique celebration. It has all but lost its Christian/religious exclusivity and become ecumenical, embracing all religions, all cultures, and peoples from all nationalities. It’s the festivity of the people from all walks of life irrespective of age, nationality or creed. It’s a celebration of life itself and no one gets left out. To ensure this, each year the Irish government confers honorary Irish citizenship on all citizens of the world for that day!
America (New York especially) goes party-wild on March 17 and holds the biggest street procession with marching bands and the A-Z of Irish-American organizations proudly marching to the melodic upbeat of the pipe and drum behind spectacular colourful floats that bring smiles and cheer to all.
American presidents have hosted special March 17 breakfasts at the White House for leaders of the Irish community for decades. The Irish President and/or the Prime Minister usually attend. This year will be no exception with President Obama as host.
A countless number of Americans have Irish ancestry. Perhaps the most famous of all in recent years were the Kennedy brothers: President John F. Kennedy, his brother Attorney-General Bobby, and Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy, who literally turned the world upside down and changed it for the better with their emancipation human rights initiatives. Ted Kennedy will be forever revered among Bengalis, of course, for his pivotal role in 1971. The BBC once asked Bobby how it felt to be Irish and he replied: ‘If I weren’t Irish I’d be ashamed!’
Sir Frank Peters
The most popular and well-known Irishman in Bangladesh no doubt is Sir Frank Peters. Last year he shared this title with William Hanna, the EU Ambassador, but William has since been posted elsewhere.
Sir Frank has a long romance with Bangladesh that dates back to the birth of the nation. In 1971 he supported the homeless and starving people of Bangladesh through awareness campaigns and fund-raising initiatives in the UK.
He created a unique poster that encapsulates the Bangabandhu speech of March 7 that triggered the birth of Bangladesh and is now seen by many to be the unofficial Proclamation of Bangladesh. It hangs in the Bangabandhu Museum, the home of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, The Awami League HQ and many foreign offices and homes of presidents, prime ministers, royal personage, and other internationally renowned dignitaries throughout the world. The following year he became the first (and up to now, the only) ‘foreigner’ invited to speak at a function hosted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in tribute to her father.
He also ingeniously re-invented the famous Bangladeshi lungi by giving it a pocket to hold his mobile phone, pens and keys!
The beggars in Gulshan have nicknamed him “Bondhu Hasse” (the smiling friend) because he refuses to give alms unless he receives a smile in exchange which bestows them dignity. The beggar children also go to him when they need toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap or such. He also takes photos of the beggars and give them prints. “A photograph of a beggar child is as precious to his or her mum as any other mum,” he said.
It is probably his most recent crusade to abolish corporal punishment in Bangladeshi schools, however, that has indelibly inscribed his name in Bangladesh history and endeared him most to the nation. As a result, many children bombard him with birthday, Christmas and New Year greetings each year in gratitude. Last, but not least, he’s the only foreigner to have two baby boys named in his honour by two separate families, Ali and Poppi Akbar and Mamun and Tanya Ali.
He cherishes the accolades and regards their birth certificates like any actor would an Oscar.
He once told a BBC interviewer because he’s been visiting Bangladesh for half of its life (he first arrived in 1995) that he considers himself to be ‘half-Bangladeshi’. “A mere accident at birth – I could have been born in Bangladesh,” he said.
I’m not Irish, but on March 17 I will become Irish for the day and hope you will join me.
I wish everyone a joyous St. Patrick’s Day and eternal rest to Bangabandhu.
(The writer was born in Cardiff, Wales, and is an international financial adviser to the banking industry)