The Frontline Workers Public Holiday should not be linked with religion

Atheist Ireland has sent the following letter to the Taoiseach and members of the Cabinet.

The purpose of the new public holiday is to mark the efforts of frontline workers during the Covid pandemic. The most obvious way to do that is to call it the Frontline Workers Public Holiday, or the February (or November) Bank Holiday dedicated to the frontline workers during Covid.

Alongside this, some people are proposing that the public holiday should be dedicated to Saint Brigid. There is absolutely no need, and indeed it is a distraction, to add religion into this scenario. When the healthcare workers were protecting us from Covid, nobody was applauding Saint Brigid.

Saint Brigid has a very different symbolism, which is religious evangelisation. She supposedly wove a Christian cross out of rushes to convert a pagan chieftain into Christianity as he was dying. That is exactly the wrong message to convey about the multi-cultural Ireland of today.

Some people are suggesting that Saint Brigid would balance the public holiday named after the male Saint Patrick. That is a separate issue from the Frontline Workers Public Holiday. If you want to have a public holiday dedicated to Irish women, then you should do that separately and not entangle it with religion.

Even treating it as a separate issue, adding a new saint would not balance an existing saint. It would just reinforce the divisive and anachronistic idea that we all identify with mythological saints that are already over-represented on our calendar.

On that separate issue, a better balance to a male saint would be a women scientist. Here are two examples:

  • Physician Dorothy Stopford Price (1890-1954) from Dublin was central to the elimination of childhood Tuberculosis in Ireland.
  • Chemist Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) from Kildare was the first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography.

Kathleen Lonsdale was born on 28 January, and Dorothy Stopford Price died on 30 January, so a public holiday dedicated to either or both of them could fall midway between New Year’s Day and Saint Patrick’s Day.

Dorothy Stopford Price

Physician Dorothy Stopford Price (1890-1954) from Dublin was central to the elimination of childhood Tuberculosis in Ireland. She studied social science while working with the Charitable Organisation Society before studying medicine at Trinity College Dublin. She tended to injured combatants in the War of Independence and the Civil War, and joined Cumann na mBan where she gave lectures on first aid.

She then worked as a house surgeon at St Ultan’s hospital in Dublin where she came into contact with mostly poor families suffering from Tuberculosis. She worked on TB testing and was a pioneer of the BCG vaccine that was central to eliminating TB from Ireland. She tried to set up an Irish Anti-Tuberculosis League in defiance of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

She was made head of the National Vaccination Programme in 1949, but had a stroke a year later and died in 1954. Her professional archives are in the library of Trinity College Dublin.

Kathleen Lonsdale

Chemist Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) from Kildare was an Irish emigrant, scientist, pacifist, prisoner of conscience, prison reformer, author, and symbol of the closeness of the peoples of Ireland and Britain. She was born in Kildare, and her mother soon moved with to London with her children to escape a failed marriage.

As a scientist, Kathleen proved that the benzene ring is flat by using X-ray diffraction. She was the first woman tenured professor at University College London, and the first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

During the Second World War, she sheltered refugees, and spent a month in jail for refusing to register for civil defence duties. This led her to campaign for humane prison reform. She was also a pacifist anti-nuclear campaigner and author.

A plaque was erected on her family home in Newbridge in 2003, a hundred years after her birth. There are university buildings named after her in London, Limerick, and Dublin. NUI Maynooth awards a student prize named after her. Lonsdaleite, a rare form of diamond found in meteorites, was named in her honour.

Conclusion

The purpose of the new public holiday is to mark the efforts of frontline workers during the Covid pandemic. The most obvious way to do that is to call it the Frontline Workers Public Holiday, or the February (or November) Bank Holiday dedicated to the frontline workers during Covid.

If you want to have a public holiday dedicated to Irish women, then you should do that separately and not entangle it with religion. Even treating it as a separate issue, adding a new saint would not balance an existing saint. A better balance to a male saint would be a women scientist, such as Dorothy Stopford Price or Kathleen Lonsdale.

You could look at this separate idea after you establish the Frontline Workers Public Holiday.

Atheist Ireland

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