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Teresa Wright

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Saint Patrick: Fables & Parables

February 28, 2017

March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day, is a merry-making holiday celebrated around the world by the Irish, the Irish diaspora, ‘a gcairde’ (Gaelic for ‘their friends’) and millions of others who simply love the occasion. It is a terrific excuse to party! Cities host parades, resplendent in Kelly green, tartan, shamrocks and pots of gold. Pubs, bars and nightclubs dial up the volume, offering up green beer, Irish treats and spirited entertainment. Did you know that each year, the one day sum of beer, stout, and lager sales, exceeds two and half million dollars? St. Paddy’s Day is to Brewers what Christmas is to Toy-makers! A typical Irish party, wherever it’s held. (Though in Toronto, ‘whenever’ also seems to apply, as this year’s parade is being held on the 19th!) Like most Irish celebrations, it involves food, drink, music, singing, and dancing. But what of the customary Irish storytelling?

Belonging, myself, to the Irish diaspora, and fancying myself a bit of a storyteller, I’d like to share the roots of Saint Patrick’s story with you. Bear in mind that this is a nearly ancient story, and few verifiable documents exist to back it up. To complicate that, a wellspring of speculation and myth have padded and punched it up like a fairy tale. Would you be surprised to know that this holiday is a millennium and a half old? Have you ever wondered who Saint Patrick was, or even if he actually lived? What’s with all the green? And, what is the story behind the shamrock? If yes, you would not be alone. So, let’s start at the beginning:

Maewyn Succat was born in Roman Briton (either Scotland or Wales) in the late fourth century. Captured by Irish pirates when he was just 16 years old, Maewyn was delivered to Ireland as a slave. There, he cared for animals and labored as a herdsman. Some would call it an apt analogy for his later mission. The few details we know of his life come from two documents: the Confessio and the Declaration. The latter being the more biographical of the two, and the former is considered a spiritual autobiography. In the Declaration, he speaks of escaping his Irish masters after six years in captivity. Returning home, he became a priest. He wrote about the “Voice of the Irish” calling him, but resisted it for years. Ultimately, his utter confidence in the Lord, gave rise to his evangelical mission.

Changing his name to Patricius, an old Irish form of the English ‘Patrick’, he gave ear to his Lord and rejoined the Irish. From 432 until his death on March 17th, 461 (presumed), he walked the emerald isles. He baptized masses, and with untiring zeal spread, far and wide, an absolute trust in Christianity. He spoke of himself as having evangelized the Irish heathens. He had phenomenal success. He established Christianity’s foothold throughout Ireland, leaving his converted followers not only with monasteries, churches and schools, but also, albeit inadvertently, with the fixings from which to fashion fable and lore.

                Following his death, the cleric Patricius was declared a saint in heaven by the local church, and celebrated liturgically, long before being added to the List of Saints. He became Ireland’s patron saint sometime in the seventh century. The observation of Saint Patrick’s Day with religious service and feast, continued to grow in popularity. Though never officially canonized by a Pope, he has nonetheless been revered.  After all, he was at least in part, responsible for Christianizing the Picts and Anglo-Saxons, for driving out the Druids and Pagans, if not the snakes, for being instrumental in bringing to God droves who “worshipped idols and unclean things.” He was, as many saints were during their lifetimes, a conquistador for Christianity. While some may debate its legitimacy, it is purported that Saint Patrick swayed the heathens with metaphorical teachings. A style that, it could be argued, would eventually recreate the secularity he struggled to vanquish.

The most famed metaphor is the proverbial shamrock. The name comes from the Gaelic ‘seamróg,’ meaning 'little clover.' It is said that Saint Patrick used it to explain the concept of the holy trinity to the godless Irish. It has clearly become the icon, linked with both the holiday and the country.  The clover was a sacred plant for the Irish Druids, who, as others whose faith is earth based, believed in the power of three it represents. Patricius, or Pádraigas (modern Irish), some think, was inspired in turning their symbol into a figure representing the crux of Christian ideology.

In good Irish tradition, legends are often born with raised glasses of stout. While the earliest Saint Patrick’s Day festivities lifted Lenton restrictions on eating and drinking, propagating the holiday’s tradition of alcohol consumption, it was later considered a strictly religious day. For the better part of the 20th century, in Ireland, this meant most of the nation’s pubs were closed for the day.  It would not be until 1970, when the day was converted to a national holiday, that the stout once again flowed freely on March 17th.

Though Ireland did its best to hold on to the holiday’s religious roots, Saint Patrick’s Day burst into modern times as a secular extravaganza. The transformation began just three centuries ago. In the 1760’s, as many, if not more Irish lived in the United States than in Ireland. Multitudes of Irish, pined for their homeland while celebrating the safety and opportunity of their new home.  In the late 18th century it was New York city that first held a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. The Irish embraced the day with fervor, allowing it to become the fullest expression of their Irish heritage.

If Patricius had an associated colour, it would have been blue, per historical documents. But today, everyone knows that the colour of Saint Patrick’s Day is green. The connection came about late in the 18th century when the Society of United Irishmen adopted green as their colour. Supporters would wear clothes, ribbons and cockades of green, at the risk of being hanged. Green came to represent Irish independence. And as the diaspora around the globe spread, so did the tradition of wearing green become enmeshed with the day that so fully proclaimed itself Irish.

Today, NYC’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade boasts a logo of noteworthy origin. In lieu of a shamrock, their symbol is a Triquetra -  the Pagan and Druid sigil representing the power of three. A sign equally epitomized in the lowly clover, more commonly known as the shamrock. One might think that beneath the green veneer, the Irish still long for their ancestral connection with the soil. But keep in mind, the history is practically ancient, the documentation is scarce and the lines between fact and legend are enduringly blurred. Fact or fiction, take what you like, but join the Irish for a toast:  Freastal sona, agus cuid sona, Ólaim dhuit le mo chroí go, meaning Merry meet, and merry part, I drink to thee with all my heart.

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