Tag Archives: Saint Patrick’s Day

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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Patrick, Destroyer of Worlds.

The Apostle of the Irish.

Saint Patrick is, at best, an enigmatic figure, mostly myth and very little fact. The apparition of this historical character which is held in the public mind is Saint Patrickvague at best, and there are many half- and mis-truths circulating on the Internet and the bookshelves about him. While several of the fantastical elements of his legend have been dismissed from popular consciousness, many more persist, and while there has been a substantial amount of investigation as to who the ‘real’ Patrick was, the myth is sustained. This is, to a certain degree, understandable; fantasy is sometimes more fun than reality, that’s why we made it up. I believe, however, that the history of Patrick, and the manner in which his myth has been used, is far more interesting than the myth itself.

A Guide for the Perplexed.

If you find any of the following ‘facts’ in a book, put it down and walk away; if someone informs you of them, please enlighten them;

1. Patrick was born in Scotland on a specific date (385 is the popular one), began his mission to Ireland on a specific date, and died on a specific date. Sorry, but no; there are no dates for Patrick or anything he did, except that his conversion efforts probably began after 431. He was born in Roman Britain, somewhere on its north-west coast, which includes bits of modern-day England and Wales. And the year of his death is recorded four times in the Annals, which is impressive, since even Jesus (supposedly) only rose from the dead once.

2. He studied at the monastery of Lérins in France, or was a student of St Germanus of Auxerre. No proof for this whatsoever. Not a shred. This little ‘fact’ was invented hundreds of years later to provide this rogue preacher with an honorable pedigree, and to ‘prove’ that he was a legally ordained bishop, and not just some random guy who heard voices.

3. Patrick’s mission covered the whole island of Ireland. Sure, but only if by ‘the whole island’ you mean ‘Connacht and Ulster’. There is no good reason to believe he ventured into Leinster or Munster. Again, this was inserted hundreds of years later by the writers of Armagh who were doing their level best to make themselves top dog over all the Irish churches.

4. He converted all of the Irish to Christianity. Nope. Wrong again. There were already Christians in Ireland, so many in fact that Pope Celestine dispatched a bishop from Rome to rule over this flock in 431, a man named Palladius, who is specifically referred to as ‘the first bishop of the Irish’ by the chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine. These Christians were in Leinster, and so the theory goes that the mission of Palladius was subsumed into the myth of Patrick over hundreds of years so that Armagh could claim the entire island as being under their authority.

Oxalis acetosella

Image via Wikipedia

5. The shamrock/trinity thing. Again, no evidence. Or for the snakes thing (but nobody ever really believed that one anyway, right?), or for his battling with druids, or converting High-Kings at Tara (there weren’t any High-Kings at the time, and they wouldn’t have lived at Tara, it was a ceremonial site). Some reckon that the banishing of snakes is symbolic of his getting rid of the native paganism (which he didn’t, it survived til at least the 7th century) because the druids painted snakes on their bodies. There is no evidence for that, and since there were no snakes in Ireland that image may have been unfamiliar to the native population anyway. He didn’t invent the Celtic Cross (I really don’t know where a certain channel that specialises in history got that one from), and he didn’t superimpose Easter over native traditions, but this would, in fairness, at least follow the well-established pattern of how Christianity co-opted local traditions, although the Paschal celebration had a habit of wandering, and no-one knows what calendar Patrick used.

6. He’s a saint. Oh no wait, he isn’t. Not officially anyway. He was never canonised, but that’s just the old-school way of doing things; many saints were never officially canonised, but given a blanket get-into-heaven-free card. And once he began appearing in stained-glass windows in churches, and people started having parades, and naming things after him, it would have been rather hard for the Vatican to say “ah, hang on, he’s not on our list”, so Patrick is, in a sense, a saint by popular consent, which is how sainthood was decided before the Church started taking the fun out of faith with rules, tithes, and sin.

7. Patrick cunningly converted the Irish with wordplay by replacing their worship of the sun with veneration of the Son. That is just stupid; neither he nor the Irish spoke English, no-one did, it hadn’t been invented yet. And you can’t change any combination of grian or sol into mac or filius (the Irish and Latin for sun and son respectively) by any stretch of the imagination. And besides, the worshiping of things would have been anathema to a Christian; the sun may have been a symbol of Christ or God, but to worship it as God would have been heretical.

8. He was the first Protestant. Again, not invented yet. There have always been schismatics, heretics, dissenters, and reformers in the Christian Church, but Protestantism refers to a very specific movement which began when a man nailed his thoughts to a door over a thousand years after Patrick died. To call Patrick a Protestant is deeply historically inaccurate. He is venerated by the both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (to varying degrees), and several Protestant Churches, and was accepted as a saint long before all these Churches formally split up to pursue their own careers.

Patrick wanted Us All Dead.

What do we really know about Patrick? Very little, but enough to build a historical figure more interesting than the myth. His second appearance in Ireland seems to have been due to a personal call from God, rather than being dispatched on an official mission from Rome. So right from the start, Patrick is a free radical in the Christian Church. He did convert people, build churches, and all that, but may not have been a popular figure after his death as his cult largely vanishes until Armagh stoke the fires a few hundred years later for their own ends. The most fun possibility about Patrick, in my opinion, was that he was trying to kill everyone. Seriously. Apocalypticism was really popular in the 5th century; some missionaries hoped to accelerate the return of the Messiah by going to the extremes of the Earth to convert whoever they found. Patrick, considering that he wrote a letter defending his actions in Ireland against the disparaging remarks of bishops, might well have been one of these apocalyptic charismatics, not unlike certain elements of American TV evangelism. What may be a wonderful irony is that, because of this letter, Patrick was remembered while the bishops, who may have been the true founders of Christianity in Ireland, were forgotten. Patrick was probably an evangelical Christian who went rogue, a fact that Armagh airbrushed out in their great myth-building books about him, inventing a good and orthodox Christian hero who performed magic tricks. And he didn’t wear a pointy hat.

Of Saints and Scholars

Saint Patrick

Almost everything commonly known about this man is a lie. Saint PatrickHis legend is possibly one of the most successful fabrications of all time, up there with Santa Claus and the paper-clip. The only real evidence for his existence are two documents which he wrote; a letter to a man who had captured some of Patrick’s flock, and his Confession. He did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, do battle with druids or decree that we celebrate his holy day by staggering around trying to find a parade at 3am. He wasn’t even Irish. He was in fact two men; Patrick and Palladius. The latter was subsumed into the myth of the former and forgotten over time, even though he was the first bishop of the Irish. The Church of Armagh decided that they needed a superhero and chose Patrick as the man for them and used his legends to enhance their own position in Ireland above that of all the other rival churches, such as Iona and Kildare. All in the name of fortune and glory. Patrick went from being a monk with no real authority to a clerical Dirty Harry, beating non-believers senseless. At a time when Ireland had several contenders for patron saint Patrick won because he kicked druid arse, had a pointy hat, and the best propaganda machine in the country, and so was way cooler than Brigit, Brendan, or Columba.

Saint Brigit

Performed some strange miracles, and at least one immaculate abortion. And probably never made a cross out of reeds as she probably wasn’t real. Probably.

Saint Columba, a.k.a. Colum Cille

Descending as he did from Niall of the Nine Hostages, Columbathe man who nicked Patrick from his homeland, Columba seems to have been destined to be a holy troublemaker. And he was. He copied a book. … … Which caused a huge battle in which many men died, and so he went to exile (by choice or by order is not entirely clear). The Irish clearly took their books really seriously. Anyway, Columba ended up on Iona, and then found himself embroiled in the politics, and the conversion, of the lands which were to become Scotland (at this point the ‘Scots’ were still Irish). His federation of monasteries was hugely successful, and produced such amazing works like the Book Of Kells. What is possibly cooler is that his foundation gave rise to a man known as Adomnán, who wrote a law banning violence against women, children, and clerics during times of conflict. This was essentially a medieval Geneva Convention signed by Irish, Pictish, and Dál Riada kings, and other such important folk. Whether or not it worked, Adomnán was the Man; saints often run around preaching peace, he actually went and did something about it.

Saint Columbanus

This man is possibly the pinnacle of medieval Irish religiosity. Not content with preaching in Ireland, having become adept at such things as Latin and computus (don’t ask, trust me, it’s really hard), he set off to preach and educate the people of the most backward and ignorant place he could think of; France. When he got there his piety and scholarly-ness impressed everyone, and his monasteries were so popular they were opening faster than Starbucks franchises. Pretty soon however he was annoying the local bishops, since he didn’t recognise their authority, and thought that they were pretty bad at their jobs. So he sent a letter to the Pope saying so. And told the Pope that he was wrong about the date of Easter. Nobody tells the Pope that he’s wrong about anything. Ever. Especially not some braggart from the edge of the known world. And in better Latin too! By this time Columbanus had moved on, indeed he moved around a lot, setting up monasteries like there was no tomorrow, because there may not have been for him since he had a unique talent for annoying powerful people who had a fondness for running pointy bits of steel through troublesome clerics. The monasteries he founded became some of the most influential and celebrated centres of learning in medieval Europe, playing a key role in the Carolingian renevatio, themselves spawning an endless tide of missionaries and scholars inspired by their founding father. An Irishman abroad, headstrong, confident and never asking for directions, nothing but death could stop him. Which it did.

Medieval Ireland in 5 words

The medieval Irish were brilliant.

Medieval Ireland in 500 words

I imagine you’d want to know why they were brilliant. Well, for a start theyRound tower had a unique legal system. Where Europeans were ruled by the whims of their lords and kings who could proclaim laws whenever they so wished, the Irish were governed by a fixed legal code which kings themselves had to abide by. It took Europe ages to catch up with this great idea. They had lawyers but no prisons. The guilty had to pay fines to or work for the plaintiff, or were exiled if the crime was really harsh. No hanging from a jib or quartering. It was thoroughly civilised. Mostly. The medieval Irish were very fond of fighting, but no more so than their continental counterparts. Cattle raids, land disputes, and dynastic rivalries led to frequent battles where alliances could shift rapidly. But every king abided by the same laws, and spoke the same language, and worshipped the Catholic Church. Of course, since they were Irish, they couldn’t worship the same exact church as the Europeans did, that would be too easy. They came up with their own version of Catholicism which differed not on faith, but on strange things like how to cut your hair, and the date of Easter. Easter had to be calculated with a bunch of strange sums, and the medieval Irish thought their sums were way better than anyone else’s. And so was their Latin. While European bishops fought, often physically, over the claims of their diocese, Irish abbots and monastic foundations, who also fought a lot, managed to encourage a level of learning unknown to Europe. The medieval Irish had better Latin and Greek, and were more deeply versed in the Bible than their European equivalents and so were revered as missionaries and scholars. Their version of Catholicism was largely dominant in Ireland, Scotland and England until the synod of Whitby, when the king decided to change to the Roman Church because his son was going to rebel against him. And he wanted to have sex with his wife. No really, that may have been an issue. She followed the Roman Easter and he adhered to the Irish one. That’s two Lents! And they didn’t give up sweets for Lent, they gave up everything. And they probably didn’t get a break in the middle for St Patrick’s Day! So he switched, and eventually so did everyone else because it was much easier in the long run. Except for a bunch of English monks who settled in Mayo. Irish culture was admired greatly in Scotland and Northern England, so much so that they learned how to write from the Irish, copied their style and wore their clothes. Their kings had Irish advisors, as did the kings of the Franks, because they were the smartest guys around. And then the Vikings came and made life rather difficult for a while, and just when things got better the Normans came. And later again, the English. And we all know how that turned out.