Welcome to the Club. Like the trusty Penguin, this doughty milk chocolate biscuit evokes the nostalgia of an 80s childhood and the advertising slogan sung by the kids in commercials: if you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club! I never did find out how to join exactly but if buying a packet of these is the price of entry, I’m in. In Great Britain Club biscuits are produced by McVitie’s but in Ireland – where they hail from – they’re made by Jacob’s, better known in the UK as a maker of savoury biscuits and crackers. It’s a company that still exists in name at least but sadly no longer operates from the Emerald Isle.
I must admit I only clocked that the Club was Irish when I did a little research on Irish biscuits for St Patrick’s Day. It was difficult to find recipes that seemed authentically Irish as opposed to just ordinary biscuits flavoured with a dash of Guinness or Bailey’s (an Irish cookie to go with your Irish coffee, Sir?) but I did come across a few species of biscuit I hadn’t come across before such as Lace Biscuits and the fondly remembered Mallows / Mikados. However, the Club seemed the most appropriate choice for St Patrick’s Day for reasons I hope will become apparent the deeper we delve…
As you can see from the picture below, the Club is a solid-looking biscuit: a veritable chocolate bullion in a silvery wrapper containing about the same satisfying thickness of chocolate as you’d get in a McVitie’s Gold Bar. The crunchy middle layer is entirely surrounded by a thick and delicious wall of chocolate. This mint chocolate version was so strongly scented I could smell the mint through the foil!
According to that august online authority, A Nice Cup of Tea and A Sit Down, the original Milk Club predates the First World War and creation of modern Ireland. In their 2008 entry they could only find the original Milk Clubs on Ireland’s West Coast but a recent check reassured me that Jacob’s still make them for their Irish market. (The other flavoured varieties UK biscuit lovers are more familiar with were first produced for the UK at a later date from a satellite factory in Liverpool.)
It also surprised me to discover that the reason these biscuits were known as Clubs has nothing to do with the clubbability factor. Instead, it refers to the design stamped on the wrappers of the original Milk Club, the same symbol for the Club suite on a pack of playing cards which in turn reminded me, perhaps intentionally on the Jacob brothers’ part, of the seamróg or shamrock: the three-leaved clover that, along with the harp, is a famous symbol of Ireland. Whichever type of clover it was, or if it ever actually existed, St Patrick is supposed to have used it as an illustration of the Trinity in his efforts to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity – a great story, even if it is almost certainly an early modern fabrication.
It may also surprise some readers to discover Patrick himself was not Irish but Romano-British back in a time when relations between the two islands were freer and simpler. While the history is a little hazy, the best guess seems to be that he was Welsh or Scottish, and that he was captured by raiders and taken off to Ireland as a slave while still a young teenager. It was there, in his desperation, that he found God, who he says protected and consoled him like a father. He actually tells us a little of his story first-hand in his Confessio: an English translation can be found here and is short enough to read in a coffee break (with your choice of biscuit):
So I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall…
While Patrick describes himself as unlearned and perhaps believed that to be true, his writing reveals him to be immersed in the scriptures. This passage reads like a vivid illustration of Psalm 40, where God lifts the despairing David ‘out of the mud and the mire’. Browsing the Confessio this week, I was struck by how similar parts of it feel to the letters of St. Paul who likewise felt caught up in a divine commission to advance a faith he’d formerly rejected. To my mind the Confessio offers us a more believable account of the career of a fifth-century missionary than the fantastical tales of evicting all the snakes from Ireland (a common story among early Celtic saints: Hild of Whitby and Columba of Iona are rumoured to have done something similar). Far from lowering him in the reader’s estimation, Patrick’s account of his life has the effect of raising it. It certainly reads like that of a very ordinary man in some respects, but the light that shines through it all is one of honesty and holiness.
Like Paul, Patrick is candid about his hardships but also of the love that drove him to return to Ireland to preach to the people there. In another memorable passage, we get a glimpse of him doing it:
The sun which we see rising for us each day at his command — that sun will never reign nor will its splendour continue forever; and all those who adore that sun will come to a bad, miserable penalty. We, however, believe in and adore the true sun, that is, Christ, who will never perish. Nor will they perish who do his will but they will abide forever just as Christ will abide forever…
This acknowledgement that the sun would one day burn out may seem prescient in view of what is now common scientific knowledge, but the strictures against solar adoration may strike a modern reader as peculiar. It is details like this however that give the Confessio another touch of authenticity as many of the people Patrick came into contact with were still influenced by older pagan druidic cultures that had worshipped the sun. (‘They can’t have worshipped much…’ quipped the late great Terry Wogan in his commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest in one of the many years Ireland hosted it.)
Patrick’s metaphor of Christ as the true and lasting sun is a good illustration of the way in which Celtic Christianity sought to build as many bridges as walls between the pagan and Christian understanding of life which shared a reverence for the beauty and power of language and nature. Although it’s debatable whether he himself authored it, the well-known Hymn of St Patrick is in this tradition:
Christ as a light illumine and guide me.
Christ as a shield overshadow me.
Christ under me, Christ over me.
Christ beside me on my left hand and my right…
And the moral? Just as a solid wall of chocolate covers every part of the Club biscuit so wonderfully, so in prayer we are invited to follow Patrick (and other medieval Celtic Christians) in invoking Christ’s special presence and protection. Encircling prayers, as they are sometimes called. Not a bad place to start – and end – the week (thank God it’s a Friday!) Wishing a Very Happy St Patrick’s Day to all who celebrate it.
Can’t get to Ireland for St Patrick’s Day? Let the internet bring it to you…
More on St. Patrick and the Confessio from the British Library Medieval Manuscripts blog (and see the text of the original – with helpful contextual resources – here).
Stumped by Shamrocks? Here are some of the elusive facts surrounding the symbolic clover.
And finally, a chance to put on St Patrick’s Breastplate and the Armour of God for those looking for extra spiritual cover! (And a special credit is due to the musician responsible for the beautiful adaptation of the hymn in the above video: www.dwightbeal.com)
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