Today Sunday March 17, the Irish and the Irish-at-heart across the globe observed St. Patrick’s Day. What began as a religious feast day for the patron saint of Ireland has become an international festival celebrating Irish culture with parades, dancing, special foods and a whole lot of green.
But aside from drinking a lot of stout, wearing green and having a party, what is the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint really about?
The Eagle is not normally a promoter of Saints but it is time to Stand up for St. Patrick even though he was a Brit! Behind the drinks industry sponsored excesses and politicians climbing on the original Green bandwagon there is a serious argument in favour of St. Patrick on a number of counts – firstly he actually visited and has a real connection with Ireland and secondly he left a body of work which gives us a lot of information and understanding about him. Contrast that with the situation of George of Cappodacia who may or may not be the St. George of England, who didn’t even know England existed and who was foisted on England by Richard the Lionheart, a French Plantagenet who spent less than six months in England during his reign.
Or with St. Andrew, crucified on a saltire in Patras and whose bones are now in Patras and the Duomo in Amalfi who had absolutely no connection with Scotland, unless you believe a cock and bull storey about his bones (he must have had a lot of bones as they also claim to have his arm in Kephalonia!) being brought under “divine guidance” to St. Andrews in Scotland!
Compared to these Patrick is real in body, thought and most importantly, connection to Ireland. The St. Patrick’s Festival is Ireland’s official celebration for its national holiday – St. Patrick’s Day on Wednesday 17th March 2010. St. Patrick and St. Brigid are the patron saints of Ireland but the former is better known due to the world wide Paddy Whackery which takes place on his feast day and indeed over a number of days. In my hometown of Dublin the festival now lasts 4 days – a far cry from many years ago when I used to stand with my Scout Group as part of the “Guard of Honour” in front of the reviewing stand at the GPO in Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, and watch a succession of commercial floats, Irish Dancing schools and over excitable American majorettes go by in a parade of dismal banality.
“I, Patrick, a sinner, am a most uncultivated man, and the least of all the faithful, and I am greatly despised by many.
In his Confessio he describes how he came to Ireland: Saint Patrick is believed to have been born in the late fourth century, and is often confused with Palladius, a bishop who was sent by Pope Celestine in 431 A.D. to be the first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ. Saint Patrick is the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. Most of what is known about him comes from his two works, the Confessio, a spiritual autobiography, and his Epistola, a denunciation of British mistreatment of Irish Christians. Saint Patrick described himself as a “most humble-minded man, pouring forth a continuous paean of thanks to his Maker for having chosen him as the instrument whereby multitudes who had worshiped idols and unclean things had become the people of God.”
“My father was the deacon Calpornius, son of the late Potitus, a priest of the town of Banna Venta Berniae (probably near Carlisle) He had a small estate nearby, where I was taken captive. I was barely sixteen. I had neglected the true God, and when I was carried off into captivity in Ireland, along with a great number of people, it was well deserved. For we cut ourselves off from God and did not keep his commandments, and we disobeyed our bishops who were reminding us of our salvation. God revealed himself to us through his wrath: He scattered us among foreign peoples, even to the end of the earth, where, appropriately, I have my own small existence among strangers.”
Saint Patrick is best known for driving the snakes from Ireland. It is true there are no snakes in Ireland, but there probably never have been – the island was separated from the rest of the continent at the end of the Ice Age. As in many old pagan religions, serpent symbols were common and often worshiped. Driving the snakes from Ireland was probably symbolic of putting an end to that pagan practice. While not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, it is Patrick who is said to have encountered the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rites. The story holds that he converted the warrior chiefs and princes, baptising them and thousands of their subjects in the “Holy Wells” that still bear this name
The association with Ireland’s symbol the Shamrock come from him using this 3 leaved plant to explain the Christian concept formulated by the Council of Nicea of the Trinity, of there being one God but having three manifestations, The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit. It has to be said that despite the Shamrock this is not a concept recognised by many Rabbis, Imans or indeed some other Christians such as the Coptic Church.
There are several accounts of Saint Patrick’s death. One says that Patrick died at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland, on March 17, 460 A.D. His jawbone was preserved in a silver shrine and was often requested in times of childbirth, epileptic fits, and as a preservative against the “evil eye.” Another account says that St. Patrick ended his days at Glastonbury, England and was buried there. The Chapel of St. Patrick still exists as part of Glastonbury Abbey. Today, many Catholic places of worship all around the world are named after St. Patrick, including cathedrals in New York, Dublin and my own favourite, Bridgetown, Barbados.
At his putative burial place in Downpatrick, near Armagh in Ulster there is now an excellent St. Patrick’s Centre with an informative website:
However to my mind there is far more fun to be had with the saint forever associated with the hauntingly beautiful valley of Glendalough (“Valley of the two lakes”) in Co. Wicklow and its monastic settlement of which many remains can be seen still today including a Round Tower where the monastery’s treasures were kept to protect them from marauders. St Kevin is celebrated not just for his piety but also for his misogyny being celebrated in a famous ballad by the Irish folk group The Dubliner’s for killing a woman who tried to lead him astray!
He was Abbot of Glendalough, Ireland, born about 498 A.D., the date being very obscure and died on 3rd. June, 618 A.D; son of Coemlog and Coemell. His name signifies fair-begotten. He was baptized by St. Cronan and educated by St. Petroc, a Briton. From his twelfth year he studied under monks, and eventually embraced the monastic state. Subsequently he founded the famous monastery of Glendalough the parent of several other monastic foundations. After visiting Sts. Columba, Comgall, and Canice at Usneach (Usny Hill) in Westmeath, he proceeded to Clonmacnoise, where St. Cieran had died three days before, in 544 A.D. Having firmly established his community, he retired into solitude for four years, and only returned to Glendalough at the earnest entreaty of his monks. He belonged to the second order of Irish saints and probably was never a bishop. So numerous were his followers that Glendalough became a veritable monastic city. Glendalough became an episcopal see, but is now incorporated with Dublin. St. Kevin’s house and St. Kevin’s bed of rock are still to be seen: and the Seven Churches of Glendalough have for centuries been visited by tourists and antiquarians. The misogyny points to the fact that the monastic tradition in the Irish Church owed more to the Eastern Church and it was only early in the 19th Century with Catholic Emancipation that Rome brought the Irish church back into the fold in more ways than one. So here is the Dubliner’s lyrical commemoration of the “old saint”.
In Glendalough lived an old saint,
Renowned for his learning and piety.
His manners were curious and quaint,
And he looked upon girls with disparity.
But as he was fishin’ one day,
A-catchin’ some kind of trout, sir,
Young Kathleen was walkin’ that way
Just to see what the saint was about, sir.
‘You’re a mighty fine fisher, says Kate,
‘Tis yourself is the boy that can hook them,
But when you have caught them so nate,
Don’t you want some young woman to cook them?
“Be gone out of that”, said the saint,
“For I am a man of great piety,
Me character I wouldn’t taint,
By keeping such class of society.
But Kathleen wasn’t goin’ to give in,
For when he got home to his rockery,
He found her sitting therein,
A-polishing all of his crockery.
He gave the poor creature a shake,
Oh, I wish that the peelers had caught him:
He threw her right into the lake,
And of course she sank down to the bottom.
It is rumoured from that very day,
Kathleen’s ghost can be seen on the river;
And the saint never raised up his hand,
For he died of the right kind of fever.
Until the rest of the world agrees with me that St. Kevin, with his outstanding record and enlightened attitude to women, is far more worthy of our national affections you can wish your friends and colleagues a Happy St. Patrick’s Day in Gaelic:
“Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!”
Beannachtaí Lá Fhéile Phádraig daoibh go léir! Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Skibbereen Eagle!