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St. Patrick’s Day for Heathens

Even the most ardent heathen has to hold some modicum of respect for St. Patrick. Sure, he’s a saint, and supposedly holy and sanctified, but let’s face it: the guy’s responsible for more annual beer sales than the Budweiser frogs and Paul Hogan combined.

St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. The fact that he wasn’t Irish and wasn’t named Patrick didn’t seem to hinder this. According to the Catholics, Patty’s real name was Maewyn Succat. “Patrick” was the Roman Catholic name he adopted later in life. He was born “Maewyn Succat,” at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, Scotland, in the year 387. The name changed when he was in his twenties. Whether this was because he wanted to distance himself from his original family or just couldn’t pronounce “Maewyn” is unknown. According to church records, Maewyn died in Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland, on 17 March, 493. This would have made him 106 when he died, so I figure there was a record-keeping problem in there somewhere.

Considering that he was born in the fourth century and that they weren’t big on record-keeping back then, we actually know quite a bit about Maewyn’s life. This is likely because his parents, Calphurnius and Conchessa, were political bigwigs in Gaul and Britain at the time. They were basically “governors” of a small area, having been appointed by Rome. As the son of a local political power, Patty’s life was given to a bit more record-keeping than your average Joe back then. The problem is, the records are exclusively religious (Catholic) so there’s a lot of bias to wade through. The best one can do is to recount the Catholic tale and attempt to infuse some common sense into it.

Patrick’s Life

As these tales tend to go, Patty’s luck in being born into a high-class family quickly went sour. When he was 16 he was dragged out of Britain by Irish marauders who had looted the area and taken Patty as prisoner. Being very Irish myself and understanding the Irish mindset rather well, it’s easy for me to deduce what happened next. The marauders, having made it out of England with Patty in tow, realized that he was a liability. They would have to feed their prisoner, which meant they’d have less money for beer. So, to kill two birds with one stone, the Irish marauders did the most logical thing: they sold Patty into slavery and used the proceeds for more beer–beer being the only real reason the Irish ever marauded to begin with.

So, when he was sixteen, Maewyn was sold as a slave to a chieftain named Milchu in Dalriada, a territory of the present county of Antrim in Ireland. For the next six years, he tended sheep in the valley of the Braid and on the slopes of Slemish, near the modern town of Ballymena. (It’s amazing how prominent a role sheep play in the history of these great religious figures.)

Here’s where it gets a bit weird…

It seems that Maewyn started hearing voices while out tending the sheep. In a less than amazing turn of events, these voices kept telling him that this whole slavery thing wasn’t good and that he should escape back to England. For some bizarre reason, Patrick interpreted these voices as “angels” instead of “common sense.” Either way, he skipped out on his master, cajoled the captain of a boat into allowing him passage back to England, and finally got back home when he was twenty-two.

As he credited god and angels for his release, he became intent on being holy and pure to thank the powers that be for his freedom. As soon as he got his life up and running again, he immediately signed-on under the tutelage of St. Germain, a Catholic bishop. Apparently Saint Germain taught Maewyn all there was to know about being a saint. The first step was becoming a priest, which he dutifully did. This is also where he adopted the name Patrick.

There’s a whole era, here, where Patrick follows Germain around, involving himself in the “purification” of England. Basically they were getting rid of all the evil pagans and any Christians that might disagree with the Roman Catholic version of Christianity. Supposedly, during this time, Patrick redid one of Jesus’ miracles by calming a raging storm at sea in the name of Christ. Add to this that he supposedly had a vision at the time telling him to convert Ireland–and we have the makings of a saint-in-training.

Liking the idea of conquering (sorry, saving the souls of) Ireland, Pope St. Celestine I gave Patrick a mission to “gather the Irish race into the one fold of Christ.” (i.e., convert who you can and kill the rest). In 433 Patrick and his entourage landed at Wicklow Head in Ireland to begin their conquest of the evil, vile, heathenous Druids that were living happy, blissful lives unaware that they were, in fact, miserable without Christ.

Strangely enough, the Druids of Wicklow Head didn’t agree with Patrick that they would be better off giving up their own traditions and opting to buy into Rome’s religion. After several, deep, ecumenical debates involving daggers, spears, and clubs, Patrick figured out that these Druids weren’t about to welcome him with open arms. Ever the intrepid missionary, he resolved to search out friendlier souls to save.

This time he headed north to the mouth of the River Boyne where he found a few followers. He tossed in a few miracles at this point just to prove his case, and everyone started to agree that this whole Roman Catholicism was an OK idea. From there, Patrick started traveling about Ireland and converting the masses. Apparently he ticked off a chieftain named Dichu, who drew his sword and tried to kill Patrick. Supposedly Dichu’s arm became frozen when he tried to strike, and no harm came to Patrick. Chalk up another miracle for the saint.

One notable story in all this is that when Patrick achieved enough power and fame, he decided to pay a little visit to Milchu, the guy who had been Patrick’s master when Patrick was a slave. The story goes that, when Milchu saw Patrick coming, he lit his own house on fire and leapt to his death inside the flames rather than confront the saint. I don’t know a jury in the world that would believe that story, but that’s supposedly what happened. St. Guasach, one of the many saints that Patrick “discovered” in Ireland, was actually the son of the guy that leapt into the flames.

Over the years, Patrick went about healing the sick, raising the dead, and doing all the standard “saint” stuff. As payback for all this wonderful work, God supposedly promised Patrick that he could be judge of all of Ireland–instead of Christ–when the Apocalypse came. As a special favor to Patrick, God also agreed to send a huge tidal wave to destroy all of Ireland and kill every Irishman so they wouldn’t be tempted to join the Antichrist in the End Times. Awfully nice of God to be that considerate.

In a rare twist on saint stories, Patrick died of natural causes. The Catholic calendar celebrates the saint on the day of his death, March 17th.

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Until the 17th century, St. Patrick’s Day, like most other holidays, was simply another “holy day” observed by the church. St. Patrick’s Day falls during the Christian season of Lent, however, and Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. One of the big reasons for this holiday remaining on the books is because it was the one day during lent that prohibitions against meat were waived and people could dance, drink, and feast instead of the standard lent starvation.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in the United States on March 17, 1762. Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine and were serving as soldiers in the English military marched through New York City to celebrate the holiday. The party that ensued afterwards went over so well that bar owners across the country leapt on the Irish bandwagon, propelling the popularity of the festival nationwide.

The Shamrock

The current, religious reason for the shamrock being equated with St. Patty’s Day goes as follows:

While being challenged by one of the chieftains on the issue of the Holy Trinity, Patrick supposedly picked up a shamrock and showed it to the chieftain. Patrick explained that the trinity was like the clover. A shamrock has three distinct parts, but is still one thing. So too, he explained, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all separate but one.

This is likely a fable added to the Patrick story somewhere in the 17th or 18th century. Prior to this era we don’t see this tale recorded in popular literature about the saint. (It is not in the Catholic’s Chronology of the Saints, wherein the life and sermons of all the saints are recorded). In all likelihood, someone thought the story up and attributed it to Patrick posthumously in what is called “apocryphal dialectics.” (In those days, people often signed famous names to their ideas to give them credence.)

Banishing the Snakes From Ireland

This story is a hard one to figure out. Supposedly Patrick went up on a mountain and prayed for forty days. His prayers, it is said, were so powerful that they drove all the snakes out of Ireland. The difficult part of this tale is not in figuring out if it’s true, but in figuring out who in their right minds would believe this one.
Ireland is an island. Like all islands its biosphere is unique. Australia (another island) is famous for its bizarre and unique flora and fauna. The same is true of Ireland.

A reptile expert will tell you that snakes and other reptiles would not flourish in the cold, damp weather of Ireland even if they did make it there from the mainland. Moreover, ecologists maintain that Ireland has iced-over several times since the big Ice Age, which would kill off any residual snakes that may have been there.
In all likelihood the whole tale is some sort of allegory for “cleansing” Ireland of Druid worship (which worked well, except for the annual Druidic Wickerman festival in Ireland; the festival dates to before Patrick and attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. I guess not all the snakes are gone!)

The Leprechaun

Irish folklore tells the tale of a battle that went on for a thousand years between the “big people” (humans) and the “wee folk” including, but not limited to, leprechauns. After a thousand years, the two great kings met and decided that they needed a truce since neither side could win. They decided to split Ireland up. Not North-South or East-West, but above ground and below. The elves and leprechauns took the underground, and were not permitted to go above ground; the humans took the land above ground, and were not permitted to go underground.

Leprechauns are residents of the underground world who are breaking the treaty. (They are known to be wily and untrustworthy that way.) They are said to have riches because they live underground where they tunnel to create huge cities, and mine diamonds and gold along the way. This is one version of where the myth of the “pot of gold” comes from. (Another is that they are guarding the loot left buried by the Danes when they came through marauding, but this is essentially the same tale. Leprechauns guard things that are from the ground or are put in the ground.)

Leprechauns are not warriors. They are shoemakers by trade. They are seen as hardworking citizens of the underground world who get drunk and come up top “for a good time” once in awhile. They have absolutely nothing to do with St. Patrick, St. Patrick’s Day, or anything pertaining to the religious aspects of the holiday. They’re just the ingredients of a neat Irish folktale that the Irish decided to toss in with the drunken revelry celebrating St. Patrick.

Copyright 2003, William Hopper.