Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy Saint Patrick's Day.

Little is known about the life of St. Patrick. Born around 390, Maewyn Succat (the name "Patricius" was bestowed much later at Patrick's induction as a bishop of the Catholic Church) was the son of a Roman civil servant and the grandson of a Christian priest. Although Patrick wasn’t Irish, the fact that he was born somewhere in Roman Britain (both the Welsh and the Scots like to raise their hands at this point) technically makes him Celtic.

Patrick's strange odyssey began at 16 when he was abducted from his home by Ireland's fierce pagan raiders, who pillaged coastal villages across the Irish Sea. Sold into slavery, he was forced to be a herdsman in the lonely hills of county Antrim. Isolated, sparsely clothed and unable to speak the local language, Patrick turned inward and spoke to the God of his youth, whom he had previously abandoned. After six years, he escaped Ireland by ship and ended up on the coast of France. There he joined the priesthood. But because he had finally learned the pagans' language and customs, the church sent him back to Ireland to preach the Gospel.

Patrick triumphed in introducing Christianity to the warring Celtic tribes of early Ireland. He chose Armagh, formerly a site of pagan ritual, as his base of operations. Schools and other churches grew around the settlement he built there. By the eighth century, Armagh had became a major center of learning. Even today, Ireland's major Catholic and Protestant cathedrals are located there.

There are many legends surrounding Saint Patrick. This is where the snakes come in, or rather, go out. Christianity has long had a talent for creating clever parables. The tale of Patrick driving all the serpents out of Ireland (actually, there were none because of the climate) is a code for Patrick driving the pagan religion out of Ireland. The shamrock, which was Patrick's tool for explaining the mystery of the Holy Trinity was also a clever use of religious metaphor.

But according to Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization), Patrick's greatest feat as the Roman Empire fell and the Dark Ages enveloped the rest of Europe was to introduce the Latin alphabet and to establish Ireland's first monasteries. There, among cloistered halls, Irish monks learned to read and write, then dedicated their lives to copying by hand the secular and sacred tomes of Western literature. Thus, the Irish literary tradition can trace its roots, and its ascendancy, directly back to the work of Patrick and his monks.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place in New York in 1762. It was made up of Irish soldiers serving in the English military, who employed their bagpipes and drums in a melodic and patriotic fashion. When I was a young man growing up in Ireland, indeed until the late 1970s, all the pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick's Day. It was one of three holy days (the others being Christmas and Good Friday) on the Catholic calendar that shuttered the public houses. The only place you could get a drink was at the annual dog show, so thousands of people “went to the dogs” on that day.

I'm going out to celebrate tonight and I hope you are too. And wear something green while you're at it ......

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