It’s Saint Patrick’s Day…or is it?

A Celtic snake. An ironic statement on my part.

Green is the color today. Green shirts, pants, shoes. Green fingernails. Green beer, green rivers. Pinching someone if they’re not wearing green.

Everyone is Irish today. Shamrocks and leprechauns everywhere, corned beef and cabbage for dinner, fake Irish accents while drinking that green beer. “Begorah” will be said more often than “fuck” today.

Parades with green and Irish, marching bands playing “Danny Boy”. Local councilmen in open cars, waving and reminding everyone to “vote for me”. Majorettes, the local hiking club, and the floats. Longer than usual happy hours, green-dyed cheese dip and green parsley on everything. (Even stuff that doesn’t usually get parsley on it.)

This annual “excuse for drinking enough to walk home on my face” has historic roots.

A religious celebration, right?

St Patrick’s Day, or the Feast of Saint Patrick (in Irish: Lá Fhéile Pádraig, “the Day of the Festival of Patrick”) is a religious (and now cultural) holiday on March 17th, the accepted date of St. Patrick’s death. It began in the early 17th century as a church feast day because it is also a recognition of Saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It has become a public holiday officially in Ireland and some areas of Canada — but is celebrated by more countries than any other national holiday.

One of the more “Irish” traditions of this day includes something known as “wetting the shamrock” or “drowning the shamrock”. It is done by placing a shamrock in the bottom of an empty glass and then pouring (Irish, of course) beer or whiskey (or cider for those who don’t imbibe in spirits) to fill the glass. Then of course you drink it down — and you can either swallow the shamrock with the liquid (better than a Tequila worm!) or fish it out of the bottom and throw it back over your shoulder for good luck. I suppose if you drink it, the good luck is in you now.

Because it began as a Church feast day, Catholics were given an abstention from Lent’s abstinence. They could partake of food that had been “given up” for the 40 days and (almost more importantly) they could drink alcohol. This might have been the source for the idea that St. Patrick’s Day is a day to drink. And drink. And drink. By the way, after drinking all that green beer, you do pee green the next day.

From the Wiki about St. Patrick’s Day: “Christian leaders in Ireland have expressed concern about the secularization of St Patrick’s Day. In The Word magazine’s March 2007 issue, Fr Vincent Twomey wrote, “It is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival”. He questioned the need for “mindless alcohol-fueled revelry” and concluded that “it is time to bring the piety and the fun together”.” That would really make a lot of the Irish diaspora unhappy. (Diaspora: “ the dispersion of any people from their original homeland”) In fact, until fairly recently it was the Irish OUTSIDE of Ireland that had the most celebrations for this day. Ireland finally came into the fold in 1996 and it’s grown, almost exponentially until today.

The Irish had a rather specific mission statement for their celebration:

  • To offer a national festival that ranks amongst all of the greatest celebration in the world
  • To create energy and excitement throughout Ireland via innovation, creativity, grassroots involvement, and marketing activity
  • To provide the opportunity and motivation for people of Irish descent (and those who sometimes wish they were Irish) to attend and join in the imaginative and expressive celebrations
  • To project, internationally, an accurate image of Ireland as a creative, professional and sophisticated country with wide appeal.
    (from Wikipedia’s listing)

Also straight from the Wiki, the criticisms that have been made:

In recent decades, St Patrick’s Day celebrations have been criticized, particularly for their association with public drunkenness and disorder. Some argue that the festivities have become too commercialized and tacky, and have strayed from their original purpose of honoring St Patrick and Irish heritage. Journalist Niall O’Dowd has criticized recent attempts to recast St Patrick’s Day as a celebration of multiculturalism rather than a celebration of Irishness.

St Patrick’s Day celebrations have also been criticized for fostering demeaning stereotypes of Ireland and Irish people. An example is the wearing of ‘leprechaun outfits’, which are based on derogatory 19th century caricatures of the Irish. In the run up to St Patrick’s Day 2014, the Ancient Order of Hibernians successfully campaigned to stop major American retailers from selling novelty merchandise that promoted negative Irish stereotypes.

Some have described St Patrick’s Day celebrations outside Ireland as displays of “Plastic Paddyness”; where foreigners appropriate and misrepresent Irish culture, claim Irish identity, and enact Irish stereotypes.

So know that we have understanding of the holiday, let’s take a look at the Saint himself. Here we are looking literally at him; this is a popular depiction:

Saint Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland

In this particular picture, St. Patrick is driving out all of the snakes in Ireland after they attacked him while he was on a 40 day fast (on top of a hill; why there?). Scientific note: there is NO evidence of any snakes in Ireland after the glaciers receded so he could not have driven out creatures that did not exist in the area.

The snakes are a representation of the Pagans that did live in Ireland. Until his arrival, most, if not all, Irish were followers of Paganism, some of which were specifically Druids. They had their own interpretation of the snake’s meaning. Many Pagans consider it a sign of the natural cycle of birth, death and rebirth, from the seasons of Nature and agriculture. It can also symbolize rebirth with the shedding of its skin. It is often associated with females, giving rise to the story of Eve and the serpent.

When St. Patrick began his mission, he found ways to connect emotionally and spiritually with the Pagans in their veneration for deities in a set of three. He used the shamrock to demonstrate the concepts of the Christian god, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which fit into their current beliefs.

It is interesting to note that St. Patrick himself was converted to Christianity during a period of captivity; apparently he spent large portions of his life being held a captive, being a slave. He was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16 and was held by them for 6 years, serving as a shepherd. During that time he prayed to God and made his conversion. He did return home to Britain, but after a few years, and a vision of the people of Ireland calling to him with one voice, saying, “ We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” So he went back and landed at Wicklow County. Tradition has it that St Patrick was not welcomed by the locals and was forced to leave to seek a more welcoming landing place further north.

It’s not hard to imagine that he wouldn’t be welcome. Why would he, when his goal was to point out how wrong the Irish were in their spiritual lives, that they were bad people who needed the saving grace of his god? I would make the suggestion that his use of the shamrock as an explanation of the Trinity would woo the Irish not away from their Paganism, but merely add another trio of gods to their pantheon. Like Voodoo and Baron Samedi, the Irish could have taken bits and pieces of both and mashed them together.

There is a legend of a martial St. Patrick — conversion by force — in which he attacked Druids, destroyed Pagan idols and cursed kings and their kingdoms. (One has to wonder if the curses really worked, although misfortune and bad luck were common occurrences, and could be labelled as “results of a curse”. There are also stories of him converting rich women, who would then turn over all their wealth to the Church (in this case, to St. Patrick) and become nuns in his new monasteries. He worked among the poor and the “unfree” (slaves) and encouraged them to choose the monastic life. He had discovered this concept of a cloistered practice of religion when he was captured in France and held for some time.

As with any man, especially from the past halls of history, it’s hard to know what the real truth is in St. Patrick’s legend and life. Another opinion about him disputes all I’ve just told, and from the Wikipedia of St. Patrick himself says:

A recent alternative interpretation of Patrick’s departure to Ireland suggests that as the son of a decurion he would have been obliged by Roman law to serve on the town council (curia), but chose instead to abscond from the onerous obligations of this office by fleeing abroad, as many others in his position had done in what has become known as the ‘flight of the curiales’. However, according to Patrick’s own account, it was the raiders who brought him to Ireland where he was enslaved and held captive for six years. Roy Flechner also asserts the improbability of an escape from servitude and journey of the kind that Patrick purports to have undertaken. He also draws attention to the biblical allusions in Patrick’s own account (e.g. the topos of freedom after six years of servitude in Exod. 21:2 or Jer. 34:14), which imply that perhaps parts of the account may not have been intended to be understood literally.

So St. Patrick can either be the missionary who brought the Irish to God and Catholicism, thus “saving their souls” or he can be the unwanted destruction of the Irish people’s own religion/s. Maybe he was avoiding serving in the curia, maybe he was captured by pirates. Who knows if he was a Godly, good man, concerned with helping others — or just someone who had found a way to get money without working for it. We can’t know for certain — chances are good that he’s somewhere in the middle of those options, like real human beings often are.

Regardless of your choice, it’s a good day to drink. But it’s always a good day to drink. (Disclaimer: not advocating alcohol consumption; please feel free to insert the liquid of your choice.)

Today’s health tip.