Every March, Americans gear up to get blasted on green beer and whiskey while gobbling up (what we view as) traditional Irish fare. Somehow I don’t think cheesy nachos should be on the menu, but when you’re spending all day hopping from bar to bar, strict traditionalism takes a back seat.
What is St. Patrick’s Day all about and why are Americans so obsessed with celebrating with drunken debauchery what in Ireland is observed with quiet austerity? For that matter, who was Patrick anyway and what does ‘driving the snakes out of Ireland’ really mean, considering Ireland never had any snakes to begin with?
According to Catholics, he was born in Scotland of Roman parentage, named Maewyn Succat. His parents were decurio, official Roman representatives to the area, and by then Constantine had converted Rome to Christianity. There are claims that his father was also a deacon and his grandfather a priest. When he was abducted by Irish raiders and sold into slavery at the age of sixteen, he turned to his faith for strength. Six years in pagan captivity taught him the Celtic language and the ways of the Druids. While fasting he “heard a voice” (of an angel in the shape of a bird, possibly named Victor, of course), which prompted him to escape from Milchu, his master and set out seeking freedom. After wandering 200 miles to the coast and spending two months in the rough company of barbarians who were willing to give him a lift, Maewyn arrived home.
Once free, he began studying to join the clergy, traveled Europe for a couple decades, and eventually leveled up to Bishop after being sent to battle Pelagian heretics in Britain with St. Germain (then Bishop of Auxerre, by whom he was originally promoted to the priesthood). There he was struck by more visions, this time of Irish children instructing him to return and save them with the Gospel. It was also, conveniently, the place where the British supporters of Pelagianism fled to after being dispatched by St. Germain’s “superior rhetoric”, and were gaining a foothold there despite Palladius’ attempts to dissuade them from their heretical thinking. Pope Celestine gave Maewyn the name Patercius in his early 60′s, just before sending him off to Ireland to replace Palladius, who had since died. The name Patercius is supposed to come from two Latin words, pater civium, meaning “father of the people”, and was anglicized to Patrick by his converts, of which he “baptised thousands”.
Do I really need to point to these snakes?
Is that what they mean by “driving out the snakes”? Hakim Bey seems to think so. Was the Celtic Church influenced by the invading Moors to include some aspects of Islam? If the quite literate and thoughtful monks were engaging their Moorish conquerors in philosophical and religious debate, it’s more than possible. Was the Church more concerned with ridding western Europe of Islamic influence than we may have considered, or is the snake just a poor symbol for the Druids?
How did he drive them out, anyway? Surely a man of his age didn’t have much time left to commit to individually winning the hearts and minds of the youth of Ireland. He needed a grand gesture, and on Easter eve, 432, he found his opportunity to make one.
The Druid festival of Beltane was held at Tara, that time under the rule of King Laoghaire (pronounced Leary). The tradition held that all fires were to be extinguished until the sacred “King’s fire” had been ritually lit, and each new fire be lit from the same (as is done with the Olympic torch). Patrick learned that all of Ireland’s chiefs and high Druids were to be gathered at Tara for the festival. Easter coincided with Beltane that year, and Patrick seized on this. He lit his own Paschal Fire (which symbolizes Christ as the light of the world) on a nearby hill before the King’s Fire could be set; a direct challenge which was easily seen by everyone from Tara.
”O King”, (said the Druids) “live for ever; this fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished.”
They were right.
The next day, Patrick came to Tara (Tera Patrick, I see what you did there) with his entourage to meet with King Laoghaire. The legend gets fuzzier than usual at this point. One account has Patrick battling the Arch-Druid Lochru, who has Dragon-Ball-Z-like abilities but who ends up being yanked from the air mid-flight and “dashed to pieces on the rocks” by Patrick’s prayer. Another version has Patrick and his posse just walking up to the gathered leaders and plucking a clover from the ground to explain the Trinity, which up to that point had been a symbol for the pagan triple-goddess known as Brigid. He apparently won them over by saying something to the effect of:
“Do you not see how in this wildflower three leaves are united on one stalk, and will you then believe that there are indeed three persons and yet one God?”
By supplanting the native beliefs with Christianized versions, Patrick was able to hijack their core ideas to ensure a foothold for Christianity in the minds of pagans. He may have baptized thousands himself, but he set the stage for countless others.
The stratagem of replacing ‘old’ gods with new saints and ‘old’ rituals with new holidays was at least partially successful, but may also explain why in the United States, at least, St. Patrick’s Day looks more like an ancient greek orgy than a Catholic saints feast day.