How did a Brit of Roman descent find his way to being named the patron saint of Ireland? It seems that every writer and most historians have a different theory on who St. Patrick was and what he did. And they all claim to be right. So let’s sort it out a bit.
First the orthodox view, handed down by the church and state …
Patrick landed in Ireland in 432AD near the village of Saul. Patrick sought to force a confrontation with Laoghaire, the supposed High King of Tara by lighting a paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. He died in Saul in 461AD. He left some writings, the Confessions and the Epistle, and he is a footnote in several historical works of the time.
Things get a little more colorful in the legend, some of which actually comes from his own writing. Patrick was the son of a Roman family living in Briton, born about AD 389, and was kidnapped and taken to Ireland by Celtic pirates as a slave. After six years in captivity he begins to hear voices from God, and he walks away from his captors, halfway across Ireland and onto a ship bound for the mainland. The ship flounders and the crew is washed ashore. Patrick leads them across a devastated wasteland, for a real long time (this is legend remember). Finally at the last possible minute, just before the crew kill and eat Patrick, God intervenes and leads them to safety and civilization.
Patrick spends the next 21 years in various monasteries, till one day he has a vision. In the saint’s own words, “I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.'”
Fate intervened in the form of a heresy, which prompted Pope Celestine to send a missionary, Palladius, to Ireland to quell the pagans. The celts don’t take much of a shine to the bishop and kill him more or less on the spot. Then Patrick is named bishop and sent to Ireland.
Patrick seeks spiritual confrontation with the celtic leaders, and manages to convert at least one long enough to establish a church in Ulster, which spreads like wildfire. In his free time he drove the snakes from Ireland, which according to the saint caused the water to become impure (due to the large population of drowned reptiles), and unfit to drink. Hence the need to drink beer instead of water. This is the legend.
The truth probably falls somewhere in between. Most historians now believe that there were two Patricks. The only way you can make all the dates fit is to have Patrick living to a ripe old age of something like 112 years old, which in the dark ages was damned unlikely. There are written, contemporary accounts of Palladius being called Patrick, and early legends that there were two Patricks, and the first Patrick waited for the death of the second Patrick before ascending to heaven.
The idea that Patrick was the first Christian missionary to Ireland is now also discounted. It’s thought that Palladium’s main mission in going was to serve and protect the Christian communities already in existence at the time of his arrival, as well as converting others.
Whether there was one or two Patricks, it’s hard to deny that Ireland changed under his influence. Patrick himself claimed to have baptized thousand of people, including royals, converted noble women to nuns and established nunneries, monasteries and ordained countless priests. According to some legends, Patrick preached and lived a life of peace, and to others, was almost a warrior for Christ. It’s even said that he tried to convert a couple of ancient warriors, members of the Fianna who had managed to avoid extinction like the rest of their clan, centuries before.
Traveling around Ireland, you could be forgiven for understanding why if half the legends of Patrick and the emerald isle were true, it would have taken two lifetimes for him to have completed the circuit. One story, set at the Grianan of Aileach, an ancient hill fort dating at least in part to the Iron Age in county Donegal, tells how Patrick converted Eoghan son of Niall NoÃgiallach and king of this particular region of Ireland. Dating from at least the eighth century, it tells how Eoghan complains to Patrick about how he feels ugly, which isn’t a good characteristic for a king. So Patrick lays Eoghan on the ground, and beside him, a fair-haired good looking fellow, covers them with a sheet, and when Patrick whisks the sheet away, Eoghan has taken on the good looks of the other. Eoghan then complains of being too short, Patrick tells Eoghan to show how tall he’d like to be, and instantly Eoghan grows to that height. Now convinced, Patrick and Eoghan return to the Grianan and there at a well still called Patrick’s Well, Patrick baptizes Eoghan. Patrick, who carried the Bachall Isa, or Staff of Jesus – slammed the iron end down hard at the end of the baptism, unknowingly piercing Eoghan’s foot, who bore the pain without a sound. Patrick, finally noticing the pool of blood oozing from around the royal foot, asked why he didn’t say something, only to be told that the king thought this was part of the ritual.
Before taking his leave, Patrick consecrates a flagstone as the spot where future kings of Ireland shall be coronated, and gives Eoghan this blessing “When thou shalt put thy feet out of thy bed to approach and thy successors after thee, the men of Ireland shall – tremble before thee. My blessing on the tribes, I give from Bealach Ratha. On you descendants of Eoghan, graces till doomsday. So long as the fields shall be under crops, victory in battle shall be on their men; The head of the men of Ireland’s hosts to their place. The seed of Eoghan, son of Niall, provided that they do good, rule shall descend from them for ever.
What of the staple of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, the shamrock? According to legend, Patrick used the shamrock to explain the concept of the trinity to the pagans, who no doubt countered his theory with one of their own, the triple goddesses Brigid, Ãriu, and the Morrigan.
Patrick didn’t drive the snakes from Ireland, because there never were snakes in Ireland. The island broke off the mainland before serpents found their way that far west, and land snakes aren’t known as being prolific swimmers in oceanic tides.
Green beer? Please. Not even the Irish of today express a fondness for green beer. The Irish beer of choice is Guinness, which is about as black as beer can get. The main purpose of beer in Ireland might well be thought to be to wash down Irish whiskey, believed by many to be among the best in the world (editor’s note: having researched this subject extensively, I can vouch for the sentiment). The rule, as lain down to me in a pub someplace on the island, is that you must choose a whiskey not coming from the north. According to pub logic, since Northern Ireland is still tied to Britain, and whiskey is taxed, by purchasing for instance, Bushmills, your money ends up in the British tax system. “And I’m not paying any fucking tax to the fucking queen.”
Why was Patrick important? On Patrick’s arrival in Ireland, there were small isolated groups of Christians. A hundred years later Christianity had taken root. This led to a culture which prized the monastic calling, and championed literature copying the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The work of the Irish monks saved the works of these writers as the fire of the dark ages destroyed them elsewhere. Then the Irish went across Europe, teaching their brethren to read, and through the literature which they had saved, how to think for themselves.
St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland has always been a more somber affair compared to its American counterpart. Whereas the Americans celebrate in bars by donning stupid hats and green carnations while swilling beer out of little buckets, the Irish celebrated with mass, prayers and somber reflection. That is until a few years back when Ireland discovered in a big way that St. Patrick’s Day sells.
Myself, I’ve grown more tolerant of the day in which the world celebrates the most negative stereotypes of the Irish. It’s certainly true that the Irish as a nation are fond of their drink. But it’s also true that other nations drink more, and that many in Ireland make the decision to avoid it, knowing from experience the downside of alcohol abuse. The cartoonish leprechaun character belies one of the worlds most vibrant and well documented mythos, reducing an art form to little more than an icon on a cereal box. It’s hard to imagine for instance, a worldwide holiday celebrating a Hassidic Jew hoarding cash and dancing around a menorah on Yom Kippur without also imagining the charges of anti-semitism which would arise from that.
But St. Patrick’s Day is more of a celebration of a country, than a man. The diaspora has meant that there are more people of Irish descent living around the world, particularly in America than in Ireland itself. So perhaps it’s only natural that the celebrations of Ireland will eventually be filled with stereotypes based more on films, media and Riverdance than in memories of their home country, which after all are likely several generations removed.
Like Patrick, we forgive the Irish of their sins, just as they forgive us for not being Irish, and accept us as one of their own.
Top Image: Romanesque Doorway Carvings of Faces, 12th century, Dysert O’Dea Monastery, Corofin, County Clare, Ireland