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St. Patrick’s Day…should be safe now?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 29, 2012

As our readers may have noticed this past Saturday was the official drink green beer day also known as St. Patrick’s Day. I thought we would do a little examination of this Irish and Catholic holiday. I waited till after the drinking because…well, who wants to have drunk Irish people listen to a show that might offend some Catholics. We may be skeptics but I am not that stupid. So, after the fact, here goes. Let’s start with the history and origins of the Saint.

First, we should remember the St. Patrick was not actually Irish but a British import…literally. He was captured by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. He eventually escaped; returned to Europe became a priest and went back to Ireland to wreak centuries of revenge on the Irish by converting them to Catholicism. Something Ireland has yet to fully recover from.

Actually we may have to cut Patrick some slack. According to historical evidence, notably a paper published in the 1940’s and to a large degree accepted, there were two Patricks. One is our central focus, the other being Palladius. Palladius worked the south, while Patrick worked the north. Over time, the work of both became seen as performed by Patrick alone…making it possible for him to seem to have done more work than one person could passably have. I wonder if this was one of the miracles that pushed Patrick into sainthood?

It’s also little known that he was not the first saint. The first Catholic saint and likely first dateable papal emissary was Saint Ciaran Saighir (the Elder), the first Bishop of Ossory, who worked a century before Patrick arrived on the scene. Although in some ways Ireland is a backwater compared to Rome, the Irish were well known in the heart of the former empire because of its natural resource such as gold, copper and tin. So, although Patrick has become the most famous of the Catholic evangelicals he was neither the only one nor the first.

It also seems that Ireland was NOT a Christian nation in the 5th century. What Patrick and a number of other evangelicals did was establish a solid and robust network of monasteries and strong abbots. This proved to be an important strategy for the later success of the Catholic conquest of pagan Ireland.

When Patrick died, Ireland was still a pagan country; although church chroniclers would like to claim otherwise. But the foot hold was made. Over the next 500 years the church expropriated pagan ceremonies and integrated itself into Irish culture.

It was not until 1000 CE that Armah, the monastery founded by Patrick and central to his ecclesiastical ‘empire’, became the religious capital of Ireland. This was part of a political move by the would-be upstart, soon to be High King of Ireland Brian, to gain the wealth and strategic support of the church.

It is important to remember, that in Ireland, and to a lesser degree in England, the Catholic Church was not centered on bishops and diocese (i.e. tracts of land) but around abbots and monasteries. Monasteries acted as fortress strongholds; a valuable resource in any kings’ attempt to conquer a land.

For the record, Patrick did NOT drive the snakes from Ireland. Ireland, like most islands, never had snakes. However, if one extrapolated from the Garden of Eden myth, one could see that as Patrick converted Ireland, he drove out the proponents of the tree of knowledge…i.e. the snake.

Today thought, the celebration that we know as St Paddy’s day is really an American invention. In Ireland, the day was one of many religious observances but in an attempt to retain a sense of identity, the Irish on this side of the Atlantic make it more a cultural festival of all things Irish.

Should we celebrate today?

I confess to feeling uncomfortable about celebrating a Saints day, but it seems in our culture to be far from that; that the only people who go to mass on St. Paddy’s day are devout Catholics.

Unlike Christmas, you do not get the call “remember the reason for the season”. In fact I would wager that if you asked people, 9/10…maybe more would say it’s about celebrating all things Irish.  As such, I don’t think there is any problem with this day, even for a fundamentalist atheist such as myself.

There was one issue that arose in my discussions about this…and frankly one I did not really think about until raised. Is St. Patrick’s Day reinforcing ethnic stereotypes?

Well, there are a number of traditional elements to the day. Ireland sees itself as the Emerald Isle, so the liberal application of green (to land, people, food and drink) seems harmless and appropriate.

The Shamrock does have some religious mythology behind it but is now seen as ubiquitous for Ireland…again no problem here. Leprechauns…don’t think that denigrates much. They are cast as mythic creatures and not as the Irish themselves; although they are VERY Irish.

When I say VERY Irish, I refer to another typical element of St. Patrick’s Day…drinking. It is very much a stereotype that the Irish are drunks, prone to violence (weirdly with an emphasis on domestic violence) and criminally inclined (although usually as a result of drunkenness). This is largely an English thing; take note the Scottish are also seen as violent drunks as well.

Well, it is true many cultures take pride in their ‘prowess’ with the demon drink, and I think in this regard no harm done but there is an ugly undertone that is often forgotten these days.

When we think of racism in a modern context, it is exclusively colour based. However if we go back only 100 years, there was violent and overt racism between the ‘perceived’ European races. Let us remember the paddy wagon (which referred to a portable jail cell) was named so because ‘it was always filled with paddies’ (i.e. Irish drunks).

We often have the stereotype of the Irish policeman. One reason this identification occurred was because this dangerous low-paid job was one of the few the newly immigrant Irish could get. This was also the fate of the navvy (grunt labour that dug the canals and laid the rail system in the UK) who was almost exclusively Irish.

So…there is a dark side to the history of the Irish in America (and England) but I don’t think St. Patrick’s Day glorifies this past (like Columbus Day), nor does it seem applicable to conjoin past racism with this celebration…I see no connection. Lots of celebrations have lots of drink but this does not explicitly or even especially implicitly imply the ‘drunken’ stereotype of days gone by. Lastly, it is celebration embraced by the Irish here and in Ireland, if they don’t have a problem with it, why should I?


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