The Unlikely Links Between Ireland, St. Valentine and the Word “Entrepreneur”

Saint Valentine's relicsThis post first appeared in the Irish Executive Network blog.

This month’s brief was to write a St. Valentine’s flavored blog post. Coupled with a theme of entrepreneurship, and then hit with some expert procrastination, it was beginning to look like the post would be a dog’s dinner of bad puns about how entrepreneurs “love” what they do, or how they are “besotted” with building a business, or how they “adore” their customers.

Then it occurred to me that if I actually did some work and researched the article, it could lead to something of mild interest.

And since this is the Irish Executives Network, it seemed fitting to find out how Ireland, St. Valentine and entrepreneurship tie together. It turns out it is easier to triangulate those three things than you might first imagine.

First, we’ll look at the man himself: St. Valentine. Associated since the High Middle Ages with the tradition of courtly love, Wikipedia says of the saint: “Nothing is known reliably of St. Valentine except his name and the fact that he died on the Via Flaminia north of Rome on February 14.” It seems he was tortured and martyred by the Romans in the year 273. Adding to the confusion is that there may even be two Valentines, or there may have been three.

But he is buried in the Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin because his remains came to rest there due to the sermonizing of a Fr. John Spratt. He was famous as a preacher, and when visiting Rome in 1836, he was feted and given many gifts in appreciation.

One gift came from the Pope himself, Gregory XVI, in the form of a Reliquary containing some of St. Valentine’s bones and a vial tinged with the saint’s blood. The Church was also good enough to send a letter confirming the bones were the saint’s. This is important due to the number of other locations that claim to be the saint’s final resting place.

One such is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, which has St. Valentine’s skull on display in a glass case. It may indeed be the saint’s head, but it hardly screams romance, does it?

Meanwhile, the Whitefriar Street Church is a very popular location for marriages on St. Valentine’s Day.

So, first link established, we can move on to the second: Entrepreneurship. Former US President, George Bush, is reputed to have said, “The problem with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur.” What he should have said was that the French had no such word until a Kerryman coined it for them in the early 1700s.

Born in the 1680s, Richard Cantillon was the son of a wealthy landowner in Kerry. In his teens or early 20s, he moved to France. He did well for himself as a banker and as a merchant, and around 1730 wrote a book in French called Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en Général (Essay on the Nature of Trade in General).

Cantillon coined the word entrepreneur to describe a person who pays a certain price for a product for resale at an uncertain price. The terms first appeared in the “Dictionnaire Universel de Commerce” in 1723. As for his French-sounding name, that can be explained by the Norman invasion when the Cantillons were granted land in the 13th Century.

So how does this all fit in with modern Irish entrepreneurship? Whither the smoochie, icky, lovey-dovey stuff?

Writing in her blog (, Irish entrepreneur Debbie Ross wrote of how she spent many years in bad jobs before she eventually ended self-employed working on her “first love.”

In her case it was food. But Ross raised a word that is frequently heard amongst investors, advisers and mentors when dealing with early stage startups. The word is “passion.” An entrepreneur needs it in spades because often their ideas or potential execution are wobbly.

But the investor sees something in the team: a spark. They click. They court each other. They won’t exactly get married. But they are destined to spend a hell of a lot of time together. They will have their ups and downs. It’s a different kind of romance.

Photo of St. Valentine in Whitefriar Street courtesy of Infomatique on Flickr.