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.

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2 responses to “Reflections on St Patrick’s Day

  1. Enjoyed your St. Patrick’s Day article. I’d like your professional opinion on something that has driven me mad for years because of the misinformation that surrounds it. I realize the Milvian Bridge/Constantine seeing a “cross” and craving it on the shields but it was really the “chi-rho” sides will espouse their own stories. It looks good with the Hollywood treatment. Same with his conversion, but what’s up with the cross? I’d always thought that the cross/crucifix was used a an icon starting around the sixth century. I’ve never considered the Church Daddies Eusebius, Clement, Tertullian, etc. reliable anythings, but those guys were claiming very early 2nd century iconic uses. The other day I came across a reference to a CE 79 Herculaneum cross! Is this a case of the Church stealing the Zodiac cross to embellish their later stories? Followed with usual pitiful editing?

    • Hi there!
      To the best of my knowledge, and I have to admit that I am no expert in the early Church, but the cross/Crucifixion became a very important symbol by the second century AD. Prior to that, the Resurrection had been the focus. There is early iconography of Christ as shepherd. There is little in the way, apparently, of distinctly Christian imagery before the second century. By then, however, the tau- or T-cross had become a popular symbol associated with Christianity. If you are interested, check out ‘Early Christian Voices: in texts, traditions and symbols’, Warren et al (Princeton, 2003). But I would think that there is no need to ‘steal’ a symbol; first of all, the guy was nailed to a cross, it’s a fairly emphatic image to hold on to. The Romans were big fans of crucifixion, so the appropriation of a symbol of torture and execution to one of (spiritual) liberation and resurrection is quite clever. And there is no need to take it from the Zodiac; the cross is a common symbol across cultures, like a circle or spiral. If they had appropriated the rod of Asclepius or some other very specific symbol, then sure a case could be made. As it stands, the symbol is inherently drawn from the manner of execution.

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