Reflections on St Patrick’s Day

This Saint Patrick’s Day, in a world where weak-willed politicians looking for an economic leg up court flaxen-haired fascists rather than stand up against tyrannical behaviour, I thought it might be informative to reflect on Patrick, since his day is so widely celebrated.

Patrick, patron saint of the Irish, was a slave. He was ripped from his family, his home, his way of life and forced to live on an isolated mountain to tend sheep in a land where he knew nothing of the culture or language. He escaped his servitude after six years and eventually made his way home.

Patrick was born into a wealthy background. His family owned an estate and had servants. His father was a senior member of the local council and his grandfather held an important position in the church. Patrick gave all of this up and undertook a life of hardship.

Patrick was an emigrant. He left his homeland to serve in another where he was constantly under threat and had to hire bodyguards.

Patrick challenged authority. When the warriors of a distant king took some of his converts as slaves, Patrick wrote to that king demanding their return. When this failed, he wrote a public letter demanding the excommunication of those warriors if they did not do as he demanded.

The Irish, a nation of migrants and refugees, took Patrick with them wherever they went in the world. St Patrick’s Day is a global phenomenon born of the tragedy of Irish history. The curious irony of St Patrick’s Day is that it is an expression of both persecution and community. A diaspora scattered to distant lands clung to ancient traditions and invented new ones to create and reinforce their sense of identity. Their perseverance and success fueled the celebration of the symbol of their identity.

Patrick, the slave who became the saint of emigrants and refugees, is celebrated on shores he never knew existed. The children of the nation that calls him patron are scattered to every corner of the earth. I hope they remember their history and their homeland on this day above all others, in a world where so many minorities are persecuted, where migrants are vilified, and refugees callously turned away. I hope they reflect on how their identity was wrought in the hardships so many now suffer and on the fact that Patrick has more in common with the family being turned away at the border than those who raise a pint of Guinness in his name.

Like tears in the rain…

I have been thinking a lot lately about history and memory, dear Reader. It has all been inspired by a handful of texts which do not have very much in common at first glance. Since the New Year, I have been reading Art Spiegelman’s brilliant and heartbreaking Maus, the defiant Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, the derisible The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, and Lance Parkin’s Magic Words (a biography of Alan Moore), and I went to see T2 Trainspotting with some friends. An eclectic mix, you might think, but they all in some way deal with memory and nostalgia.

Maus is, in part, the story of a man coming to terms with his difficult relationship with his father who is telling him the story of how he survived the Holocaust. The father’s memory is not perfect, which the author notes, and he destroys the diaries of his wife before his son has the chance to read them, eliminating her valuable perspective from the narrative. Persepolis is one step less removed from the reader, being the recollection of a woman who lived through the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath. The Case for Christ contains a chapter where the author feebly attempts to interrogate the authenticity of the initial reporting of the life of Christ (the rest are not great either, but this one is most relevant to the present discussion). Magic Words is a very carefully researched book where the author has found versions of events that conflict with Moore’s memories, even instances where Moore has contradicted himself. All of this coalesced around a very telling moment in T2, a movie in which a former heroin addict returns to his hometown and the friends he betrayed to escape his fate, where one character notes how two other characters, and British culture in general, revels in the past, while she and her people look to the future. This struck a chord with me.

Historians tread a very fine line when dealing with historical texts. I tell my students to always be aware of the bias inherent in their sources, to never trust authors or authority. I think that they think I mean, ‘watch out, they might be lying!’ (which is very likely), but what I actually mean is, ‘don’t for one second think what you are reading is True’. Now, I am not saying that, for example, Bede lied to us… apart from those cases where he clearly obfuscated the facts because they didn’t suit his version of events… and those times where he made errors because his understanding of history and politics was less robust than ours… added to the fact that ‘history’ meant something different to him and his work was designed to reveal God;s plan and act as a moral guide for the reader… but he drew from the memories of his teachers and superiors and from his own experiences, experiences radically shaped by the fact that he spent his entire life as a monk. There is nothing wrong with this, it is inescapable: he and his writing were products of his environment and life. Now, historians are (or at least should be) attuned to this intrinsic feature of the texts which we study; we obsess over placing them in their context, in understanding not only the author but the world they were born into. And I think that people broadly undertake a similar process in day-to-day life when they interact with the recent past. But when it comes to our own lives, somehow we forget.

We know that politicians lie, but not the one I voted for. We know the media is biased, but not the one I watch. We know that people believe strange and crazy things, but my beliefs are not to be questioned. But more than that, we are loath to put others in their appropriate context. People don’t take the time to understand why others don’t respond to situations as they would.

During the Arab Spring, I was amazed at Western commentators saying things like ‘democracy isn’t part of Muslim culture’, and how quick they were to see the revolution as failure. How quick we are to forget the difficult and violent birth of modern democracy in the West and that it more often under threat not from outside forces but internal belligerents. When people denounce the Iranian desire to defend their sovereignty how quick they are to forget how often Iran has been invaded or its government overthrown by other nations (not that I am defending the Iranian government, I am just saying it is worth understanding their position). People baffled by Brexit overlook that nationalism, while feared as the root of fascism in Europe, is wedded to the concept of democracy in the UK (again, I think Brexit is a terrible idea, but we have to see where the other side is coming from). I recall seeing a documentary about the American fascination with medieval fairs and dressing up like knights and wenches because men were more chivalrous and whatnot, forgetting the fact that life then was short and cruel if you were anything other than a nobleman (emphasis on the ‘man’). Our memory is short and fickle, and this is nowhere better underlined than in the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. When, exactly, is this period of history that the American people supposed to harken back to? Because, until very recently, vast swathes of the American people had no voice in their own nation because of the colour of their skin or the nature of their genitalia. Technologically and scientifically, we live in a sci-fi future most sci-fi authors from fifty years ago couldn’t have dreamed up on their best day. Sure, we are wrecking the planet, but at least we now recognise that fact and are trying to fix it, and we no longer put lead in paint or advertise cigarettes to kids. American could be great, but not ‘again’ – but isn’t that the point of America, to always try to become better than what it was yesterday? And the UK cannot leave Europe any more than it could move to the moon. And why would it want to? It enjoys bothering the French and Germans far too much.

‘How on earth did we go from comics and movies to Brexit and American populism?’, you might be wondering, dear Reader. Humans are prisoners of history, we can only understand the present by calling on past experiences, and we try to discern the future based on established patterns. Which is not just folly, it is madness. The world is too complex, there are an infinite number of variables. But to do nothing, to surrender history and forget memory would be not folly in the extreme, but ethically criminal. The texts I noted at the beginning of this essay (which, much to my surprise, is a lot longer and more despondent in tone than I had expected it would be) are all making claim to authenticity, though not in the same way. Maus and T2, for example, are very aware of their fragile narrative, of how tenuous memory is, while Persepolis and The Case for Christ make decisive claims (one is a sincere and honest comic, the other is comically arrogant and verges on deceitful). The biography of Moore walks the line between the two, where the author contrasts Moore’s memory of events with whatever other sources he can find, often showing Moore’s memory to be inaccurate but yet somehow true. All reflect on the past of a certain character or character: the author themself, a historical figure, fictional individuals. All try to evoke a past which no longer exists, whether it is Auschwitz during the Second World Was or Northampton in the Eighties, but T2 explores the nostalgia, or rather the despair, of such memories. Many of the characters of T2 seem to miss the ‘good old days’, which, if you have seen the original movie, were objectively awful.

And that is the trap we are all caught in: we mythologise our own past. Everything was better when we were younger, probably because we didn’t have to pay taxes. If we took five minutes to reflect on the past we would see that it was mostly awful for most people until very recently, and the present still sucks for a lot of people. But it remains a distant land to us, an alien space that we came from but can never truly return to. Spiegelman briefly touches on this despair of memory in a panel where he draws himself working away at his desk which sits atop a pile of emaciated bodies, victims of the Holocaust. We all live because of the sacrifice of untold generations who fought wars so we wouldn’t have to, who ploughed fields from dawn to dusk to provide a better future for their children, who marched and were beaten for daring to ask for equality, who demand that their bodies be respected and held sovereign. For this reason, and many more, we should always reflect on our own biases, on how we understand history and the manner in which it unfurls.

In the end, we answer only to ourselves, and we should live with dignity and extend to others the respect we would expect from them. But we don’t, we are petty and fearful. We ought to be true and good, but that is so very difficult and the world is so very trying. We should look forward to the challenging future, but we comfort ourselves with inaccurate nostalgia and downright fantasy.

In the end, Maus, Persepolis, and T2 have one more key feature in common: hope. Spiegelman is evidence that his parents survived unimaginable horror; Satrapi escaped Iran and found freedom; the most tragic characters of T2 break their downward spiral and change their course.

In the end, our personal memories are lost to time and it is unlikely that we will be remembered by history (the fact that the considerable efforts of a huge number of people are forgotten is a tragedy in itself), and the best we can hope for is to live on in the memories of others. Be someone worth remembering, preferably for a good reason.

In the end, I hope I am.

A Leap from the Lion’s Head

Religious faith has always struck me as a very odd thing. I have faith in things, like democracy, the rule of law, and the basic decency of humans (though this faith has been sorely tested in recent months), but the character of this faith is very different from religious faith. There may be no atom of democracy, but history bears witness to its powerful effect; there is no quantum of law, but all civilised people agree to be bound by it (unless that law, of course, undercuts one’s fundamental and inalienable rights); there is no scale of compassion, but no matter the horrors we see on the news, we always see people willing to help (perhaps not enough people, but that is an issue for a different essay). I know these things to be true as I have seen them, I have confidence (by and large) in these relatively abstract, human inventions, even though they aren’t really real. But they still occupy a literal and semantic space far and away from religious faith.

An intense spiritual conviction in something despite the total absence of evidence is truly baffling to me. I can see why, at a stretch, people have or need faith under certain circumstances: it can be very helpful to think there is a greater plan behind your suffering, an arbiter of justice who will punish the unjust, or some great hope of a better world to assuage the natural fear of death. But this faith is, to me, inherently empty as there is no plan, no judge, and you just die in the end. And I find that comforting. I find the truth far more useful than faith. “But”, you might say, dear Reader, “you are contrasting one truth with another, what makes you so sure yours is right?” Aside from the fact that that question cuts both ways, it is, I think, fair to ask the question all the same.

I think a fundamental problem is that religious faith (and here I mean faith patrolled by organised religions within administrative structures and hierarchical systems of governance) places an ownership on Truth, that there is one ‘Truth’ and a cabal of usually white men get to decide what that ‘Truth’ is. Whomsoever contradicts this Truth is, at best, considered inherently aberrant and must be either be corrected or excised. I find this monopolisation of ‘Truth’ to be intrinsically repugnant. You might be thinking, dear Reader, that religions (or your religion, if you have one) don’t do that, that they accept their ignorance in the face of the vast and all-encompassing wisdom of God. But they don’t. They hold up specific texts and doctrines which they state give them the right to pronounce how people ought to live, usually within very strange and often discriminatory parameters, which is tragically ironic since most religions claim to be founded on love. And each religion claims that their sacred text is true, is the literal Truth, which it obviously can’t be because there are so many. Every religion is suspiciously certain that it is the right one…

So that is their Truth, as I see it. You might disagree. And I believe in your right to disagree, even though most religions wouldn’t and would probably persecute dissent given half the chance (I’m not being flippant; see all of history). I don’t claim a monopoly on Truth, nor does any reasonable atheist (I’ll not deny that there are unreasonable ones, but let’s be fair here, unreasonable people of faith are far more dangerous and insidious). I’m not speaking on behalf of the atheist community or anything like that, this is just where I stand. I find that greater truths are found in literature and comics, in TV and cinema, in music and computer games than in religious texts. The internet is littered with stories about people inspired by Hermione Granger and Star Trek ; Game of Thrones and World of Warcraft create international communities of fans where none existed before; and Superman and the Blues allow us to access and process emotions in often surprising ways (Grant Morrison tells us in Supergods of how he once received a letter from a fan saying that his comics discouraged them from committing suicide – Superman literally saved a life). Now, you might say that the Bible or Koran or whatever does all of this too, which they probably do. People have turned to these religious texts for millennia for hope and solace, to learn from the experiences of others. Indeed, all art, I feel, is about one human trying to connect with another, often across vast distances in time and space. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ makes me happy, and his depiction in Dr Who makes me cry. Both of these are true, but make no claim to Truth. And I doubt Van Gogh would denounce me for my responses.

Religious texts as art, as literature can make the same assertions and can point to the same underlying desires and hopes as any other form of art, like Lord of the Rings (which is a far more coherent text). Art and literature are attempting to achieve the positive aspect of religious faith, the desperate need of humans to connect with one another, to find compassion and understanding, to reach out and say “I have suffered, I have loved, I have lived; have you, do you understand?”. But it does this without prejudice; all modes and manners of expression are deemed to be equally viable. And therein is the failing of religious faith: everything is mediated through one code, one doctrine, however elaborate and wide-ranging it might be. I’ll not deny that religions have inspired great works of art, but it is the art that connects us, not the religion. When I see a Pieta, I am not thinking of God made flesh and his suffering for Man, I am filled with sorrow for a mother who saw her son tortured and killed. I see more valuable meaning in the human aspect, and to attach something unreal and spiritual denigrates the suffering of both mother and son.

I have Christian friends who think I am missing something because I don’t have faith. I’ve explained that there is nothing missing, but they don’t seem to understand. I used to say, “I’m not the one missing something, you are, you fill your emptiness with this story about God you think is real”. I don’t say that anymore, because I now think the space they fill with their story about God I fill with comics and movies and novels and cartoons and comedies and satire and history and art and architecture and friends and family. And they say, so do we, but I can’t help but feel that there is a paucity in their world, a myopic vision.

To me, it’s like religious people really like the colour blue, every shade and hue, and they think blue is the best thing ever. Which is fine, they are totally entitled to that opinion. You can do great things with blue. But they seem to think all of reality should be understood in terms of blue. They say other people are wrong for not thinking blue is awesome beyond compare, that I am somehow lacking for not being utterly devoted to blue, that there must be something missing in me…

Whereas I’m saying, “Have you heard of red and green, and all the colours in between? They’ll blow your fucking mind”.

Stranger Things: The Life of Saint Brigit and Her Astonishing Miracles

A Traditional Irish Upbringing
Growing up in Ireland, you tend to imbibe many tales about Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit, and the odd local favourite like Brendan or Columba. As a kid, I always found Saint Patrick more exciting – after all, he killed druids with magic. Yes, there is a miracle where Saint Patrick gets a druid’s brains dashed out all over the ground. The character of Saint Patrick, as one eminent historian once described, was basically a medieval Dirty Harry. Saint Brigit, well, she was a bit lacklustre by comparison. Her miracles involved taunting kings with tame foxes, making implausible amounts of cheese (which, unless you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls, is not the most enthralling thing), hanging a cloak on a beam of light, and making some ducks change their direction of flight. Hardly thrill a minute stuff. Oh sure, we used to kill a few hours in school on the first day of February making crosses from reeds, but even that lost its escaping-schoolwork glamour after a certain age. It wasn’t until years later, during the course of my PhD, that I discovered that the stories of Brigit are awesome.

The Many Lives of Brigit
This is where things get a bit complicated, dear Reader, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like complicated things. First off, there is some debate about whether or not Brigit was a real person. Some scholars have suggested that the figure we know as Saint Brigit was a Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian Irish goddess of the same name, pointing out that Brigit performs many of the duties of a fertility goddess (remember the cheese?). The contrary argument points to situation of her stories in the real world, the numerous named and identifiable characters she meets, and the unlikely fact that a Christian cult could be founded on top of a pagan one and no rival church exploited such a scandalous origin. I fall broadly into the latter camp (as I think most modern scholars do), while accepting the possibility that some aspects of the goddess were indeed appropriated by later generations and merged with a Christian holy woman called Brigit who lived during the late fifth to early sixth century.

Secondly, the textual tradition is debated. The earliest writings about Brigit are recorded in three saints’ Lives or Vitae. A Life is a genre of medieval religious literature designed to record the miracles of a given saint and extol their virtue, often to suit the political aims of those who control the cult of the saint – this latter point is important, so keep it in mind. Saints often have many Lives written about them, but I shall be concentrating on the earliest Lives of Brigit, of which there are three: two in Latin and one in Old Irish. And here is where we try to avoid the rabbit hole of the great debate on the priority of the Brigitine Lives. In short, it seems that there were three Latin Lives of Brigit written in the mid- to late seventh century, a good century and a half after Brigit would have died. One of these is known as Cogitosus’ Life of Brigit because a chap called Cogitosus wrote it. Now, sometime in the eighth century, someone gathered together these three Latin texts; basically, they made a collected or omnibus edition of the miracles of Brigit. This is known as the Vita Prima, not because it is the first Life written, but because it is the first of the Brigitine Lives in a collection of books called the Acta Sanctorum ‘The Acts of the Saints’. Then, at some later point again, somebody made an Old Irish translation of one of the anonymous Latin texts, except it has stories not found the Vita Prima, which mean someone was leaving things out or adding things in. Sadly, the two anonymous Latin texts have been lost to time, so we have a situation where we have a old text, a newer text which seems to have older material, and a newer text which should have the same material as the second, but doesn’t. And I’ll leave it there, dear Reader, because much ink has been spilled trying to explain the relationship between these texts and I want to get to the good stuff.

Brigit, Wonderworker.
So, Brigit has some amazing miracles. Once a man came to ask for her hand in marriage; she wasn’t keen. After asking God to aid her, one of her eyes burst and liquefied in the socket. Liquefied her eye. The young man was less keen, and God helpfully restored her eye. Or how about the time she met some men who had sworn to kill a guy but Brigit caused them to hallucinate hacking him to bits, proudly displaying the gore on their swords to their kinsmen (this type of miracle seems to have been a favourite, as there are three different versions of it recorded in the Lives). On another occasion, some thieves dared to steal Brigit’s cattle, but as they drove the herd across a stream, the river rose up against them, washing them away, because Nature itself wouldn’t allow such a misdeed.

There is a very interesting miracle where Brigit asks a favour of the King of Leinster, and he asks what he will get in return: she offers him eternal life (in heaven) and that his descendents would be kings forever. The king replies that he has no need of a life he can’t see and his sons should make their own way in life (how… pragmatic). No, he wants his current life to be a long one, and he wants to be ever-victorious against his hated enemy: the Uí Néill. She grants him this boon and the king becomes invincible, winning thirty battles and waging nine campaigns in Britain. The moment he dies, the Uí Néill try to take advantage and invade, the Leinstermen tie the body of the king to a chariot ride into battle, routing the attackers like El Cid, but a good few hundred years earlier.

Brigit also performed an abortion. Did that get your attention, dear Reader? Yes indeed, Cogitosus wrote that a pregnant woman came to Brigit and the saint ‘cured’ the woman, miraculously reversing the pregnancy (a version of this miracle is also found in the Vita Prima). I want to underline the significance of this: an Irish Catholic saint, in a text written by a devoutly religious man who was operating at the behest of his brethren and who belonged to one of the most important and influential Irish churches, terminates a pregnancy. The women is not interrogated or condemned, she is not degraded or denounced. She has a problem and it is resolved. One can’t help but wonder if this was an allusion to a service that Kildare offered; medieval handbooks of medicinal recipes suggest that monks were well aware of methods to terminate pregnancies. Or perhaps Cogitosus was, through this tale, extending compassion to women in difficult situations; there is no mention of forgiveness, no sin has occurred. What makes this more surprising is that several other Irish saints performed similar miracles, all of whom were men. We may never know what lies behind these stories, and, in all fairness, I should point out that the medieval religious mind had a very different understanding of when the soul supposedly entered the body, but it is remarkable how popular this miracle was.

 

I have wondered, ever since I learned of this greater corpus of Brigitine miracles, why we were never told them in school. Actually, no I haven’t, it is pretty obvious why. Tales of a saint who goes around the country making cheese, curing the sick, and feeding the poor is one thing, but a woman equal in status to a bishop giving men violent visions of gory murder, aiding kings to bloody victory, and performing miraculous terminations? Yeah, that is not going to make it into the weekly sermon. Even if none of it ever happened, these were stories that inspired and entertained, gave solace and hope. Who knows what a different world we would have lived in if we celebrated St Brigit the Humble Badass instead of the saint that is hidden in the shadow of Patrick?

Still, I get a kick out the idea that, every first of February, kids all around Ireland are making crosses to St Brigit of the Miraculous Termination.

Back to Blogging (maybe)…

I have long debated returning to this blog. It’s weird how easily I fell out of the habit of writing here, but then, I did have other things to do. Still. I feel a strange sense of neglect. People have continued to read my words and some have left comments (thank you!).

Perhaps now is a good time to return. Perhaps not; we’ll see. But it has been three years since last I wrote anything here, and much has changed. I am not who I was, but then who is?

Christ, that does sound pretentious, doesn’t it? Here’s what it is. Education and work took up a lot of time, some of the (unpublished) comments I received were not the friendliest, and I kind of felt like other people could do a better job at this than I. So I kinda just stopped. It was something that was fun that become a chore. I didn’t like that. But now I think it might be fun again, so I’m going to give it another go.

But let’s be clear on some things:

  1. Still an atheist. Thanks for the comments about hoping I find my way back to God and whatever, but please be aware of the fact that I am equally hoping for you to realise that ‘god’ is a metaphor, and not a very helpful one at that.
  2. Actually a historian now. As in, I get paid for it. Which is cool. When I began this I was an MA student studying medieval history. But now I have more fun letters after my name (and before, if I choose so). I have taught undergrads and mature learners, corrected essays, made many a presentation. I read back over some of the things I have said here and have thought to myself ‘that could have been more clear’. I think I understand better now how to communicate my thoughts, but maybe that is just a pleasant delusion.
  3. I can assign homework if you wish.
  4. The style will be the same. I find history fun and exciting, and it baffles me how some writers make it dull. For the love of gods, history is all the interesting things! All things happen in history! It is inescapable! Join us!
  5. Just to clarify, I am an atheist. But this is only one facet of who I am. I consider, perhaps bizarrely, ‘historian’ to be part of my identity too. But also ‘social democrat’, ‘feminist’, ‘comic-book nerd’, my national identity… I could go one. Do not presume to know me because you once met an atheist and they annoyed you. Every group has its idiots and geniuses. I have Christian friends and we get on very well and have lively debates, and I have met many an idiot atheist who annoyed me with their feeble understanding of the concept. I don’t think believers are stupid, I just think they are wrong. Well, some of them are stupid; like I said, every group has its bad element.
  6. Do I need a sixth point? I feel like I do, but I can’t really think of one. Maybe I’ll come back to it later.

Fair warning, it might be three more years before I post again.

Be awesome to one another.