Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Saint Patrick was the man
Who, through piety and stealth,
Drove the snakes from Ireland!
Here’s drinking to his health!!!

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Whatever one’s ethnic heritage, one can wear the green and raise a glass in celebration. It is a particular genius of our American melting pot that we can be Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day, Mexican on Cinco De Mayo, Lovers (which is to say: Citizens of the World) on Valentine’s Day, and anything at all at Christmastime, while being Americans all year ’round.

Contrary to a common assumption, St. Patrick was indeed an actual historical person about whose life we have much documentation. He wrote a Confessions which, while not rivaling St. Augustine’s similar work, is nevertheless a an important piece of post-classical Latin, and a valuable reference for fifth century Church history.

Patrick was born in Roman Briton, near modern-day Bristol. When he was a young man, he was kidnapped by a band of Irish pirates and enslaved. During his period of slavery, he became fervently devoted to the Christian faith in which he had been raised, and he determined to Christianize the pagan Irish. He also, unsurprisingly, developed a life-long hatred for slavery.

Patrick was finally rescued from slavery after several years, and he returned to Briton where he took holy orders and became a priest. He returned to Ireland unaccompanied to begin his mission of converting the Irish. Patrick preached the Gospel to the heathen Celts throughout Ireland’s four provinces (Ulster, Munster, Linster, Connaught, and Meath*) and he found a remarkably receptive audience. Though the Irish were fiercely attached to such classic Celtic pastimes as violence and sexual license, they nevertheless accepted the message of the Gospel and Patrick became attached to the court of the Ard-Rí (high king,) ultimately becoming Ireland’s first bishop.

It is not known if the legend of Patrick using a seamróg – or shamrock – to illustrate the concept of the Trinity has a basis in fact — he certainly makes no mention of it in his writings; it is even more doubtful that he drove the serpents from the island, but, one supposes, it could be true … His aversion to slavery became influential in Christian thinking and is significantly responsible for the fact that for nearly a millennium Western Europe did not practise slavery (per se.) The Irish aversion to slavery was also manifest in the massive migrations of Irish who flocked to the free states of the U.S. and the trickle into the slave states. Southern politicos railed against Irish immigration, and the Irish became strong abolitionists, mainly, Gerald O’Hara notwithstanding.

What is known for sure is that Patrick was responsible for an absolutely unique occurence in Western history: the completely peaceful conversion of an entire people. Alone in European history, Ireland experienced no violence nor strife in the conversion to Christianity, yet the complete conversion was effected in a generation. Well, just how complete is complete? As recently as 1992 I was invited to visit a “holy well” on the outskirts of Sligo, being assured that its waters were healing and beneficial (one elderly lady even told my traveling companion that if she would wet her feet in the well, she’d bear a child within the year! Which Michelle, being then single, really didn’t wish to happen …) Such holy wells — and groves, and mountains, and fields, and such — were a feature of Druidic religion, and festivals such Lughnasa and Halloween and Michaelmas all tie to Druidic feasts: in many ways the Irish simply fitted Christianity over the old, pagan ways. Yet they embraced Christianity with a passion, and with Christianity they also embraced the necessary literacy and in so doing became master scribes and authors.

The Irish, as Thomas Cahill’s book title claims, “Saved Civilization.” When the whole of Western Europe was being marauded by barbarians and Vikings, the Irish at the far West of the world, copied classical literature and religious texts, and added their own works to the cannon. By the ninth century, there were Irish monasteries from Scotland to Kiev and from Sicily to Upsala. It was from these resources that Charles the Great, king of the Franks and Emperor of the newly formed Holy Roman Empire, was able to launch the Carolingian renaissance.

Of course the Irish still retained a love of fighting and a sense of fierce independence that prevented the political unification of the country (except briefly in the 1000’s under Brian Boru) and the difficulties of that legacy are still vexing the Irish today. Easily divided and defeated seriatim, the Irish became subjected under the Vikings (who founded virtually all of Ireland’s great cities: Dublin, Derry, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, but not Galway) and later the Normans in England. In the late 1100’s, the pope was so frustrated with the political instability in the most Christian see of the Church that he permitted England’s Henry II to take the title of King of Ireland, and for the next 750 years the Irish were subjects of the king of England. Periodic revolts — some 70 major risings in that time period — were to no avail because even the most successful revolt would end with the fragmentation and ultimate suppression of the participants.

Finally, in the 1920’s, England relinquished Ireland (after some incredible brutality on the parts of The Crown and the IRA) but retained control of six of the nine counties of historic Ulster. The painful results of that compromise are well-known down to our own day.

The internal trials in Ireland led to massive waves of emigration throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. “Unhappy Ireland, whose chiefest export is her children,” a 19th Century commentator observed. America, Canada, and Australia are heavily populated by the descendants of these emigres, but to a lesser extent the Irish also settled in Latin America; one of the heroes of Latin American liberation is Bernardo O’Higgins. Interestingly, though the best census figures estimate that possibly one in four Americans has Irish heritage, and some 40% of U.S. presidents have had Irish heritage, (including Mr. Obama) surveys repeatedly find that nearly 60% of the U.S. population claim Irish descent!

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!!!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It is said that God created whiskey
so that the Irish wouldn’t conquer the world.

— Irish Folk Wisdom

* Yes, that’s FIVE provinces … precision is not a particularly Celtic concern 😉

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