Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Miracles happen all the time in our gardens – just think about a seed or compost or a hyacinth bulb with its own embryo inside and the food to nourish it. Or the intricate wonder of a passion flower. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that we have our very own patron saint.

No it isn’t St. Francis. It’s St. Fiacre.

And today is his feast day.

We don’t make much of a fuss about him in this country, but in Europe – especially in Ireland, where he was born, and in France, where he died – there are hymns and floats and floral displays in his honor.

Which makes sense. As is the case with a lot of gardeners I know, St. Fiacre (pronounced fee-ah-kruh) was an interesting character whose life was tied to the land. He was born in Ireland late in the Sixth Century and could have followed in his father’s footsteps as a tribal chieftain. Instead, he disdained power for peace and entered a monastery on the banks of the Nore in County Kilkenny, where he immersed himself in the pursuit of what seems to me an ideal combination – gardening and the classics.

Fiacre’s fame as an herbalist and healer flourished and soon followers flocked to him. He took off for France in search of solitude and a place to sow. He found both thanks to the Bishop of Meaux, who gave him a quiet spot in the woods where the monk built a hermitage and planted a garden. But the people came and eventually, Fiacre asked the bishop for more land so he could feed the hungry and heal the sick.

As the legend goes, the bishop said Fiacre could have as much land as he could dig up in a single day. The monk prayed for guidance and the next morning all he had to do was drag his spade across the earth. Trees toppled, bushes and briers were uprooted, trenches appeared and stones fell away. Word of the miracle and the monk’s charity spread. Before long, the future saint was nurturing a hospice and monastery and a great garden in what would become Saint-Fiacre in Seine-et-Marne, a small farming village not far from Disneyland Paris.

There are other things you should know about St. Fiacre, who died in 670. It saddens me to report that he was a confirmed misogynist – even though his oratory honored the Virgin Mary. He barred females from his commune after a suspicious woman reported his unorthodox tilling technique as witchcraft. His aversion to women is believed to be the reason he’s also known as the patron saint of victims of venereal disease. Really, I’m not making this up.

And in a fitting twist, centuries later, one of his most ardent followers was Anne of Austria, the Queen of France, who credited his divine intervention with curing her husband, Louis XIII, of a life-threatening illness. In thanksgiving, she made a pilgrimage by foot to his shrine at Meaux in 1641.

Oh, he’s also the patron saint of cabbies because hackney carriages for hire in 17th century Paris piled their trade from the Hotel Saint-Fiacre. In time, the cabs were called fiacres and the saint had someone else to watch over.

But it's said that the prayerful monk who craved solitude was happiest alone, digging in his garden. I can relate. When it comes to gardening, a little help would be divine.

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