More people claiming to be Irish live in the United States than live in Ireland. Eight times as many. St. Patrick’s Day is more boisterously celebrated in the States than it is even in Ireland. Or Russia, Japan, or Singapore, where—believe it or not—it is also celebrated. In fact, up until the 1970’s, to keep the festival religious, Irish law mandated that all pubs be CLOSED on St. Patrick’s Day.
You think I’m making this up, don’t you? Here in the States, among us party-crazy savages, more than 100 St. Patrick’s Day parades are held, with New York and Boston having the largest. In New York City, more than 150,000 people swarm into the streets. And while the rest of us are guzzling green beer, those hoodlums in Chicago are dumping green food dye into the great Chicago River. I mean to tell you. St. Patrick’s Day is like a pagan orgy in this country.
And that’s interesting because St. Patrick, who converted the pagans in Ireland to Christianity, would most certainly not have approved. It would appear, at least on St. Patrick’s Day, that the conversion was a failure.
It is also interesting to note that St. Patrick, the patron saint of the people who have the least love of any people on earth for the English, was a Brit.
Patrick was born at the end of the fourth century (late 300s) to a wealthy, landed British family when Britain was part of the Roman Empire. (Romans again. They got around, didn’t they?) Anyway, the heathen Irish used to raid Britain, looting and pillaging and whatnot, and then they’d hotfoot it back to the beach, toss their ill-gotten gains into their boats and shove out to sea, laughing and making obscene gestures at the Brits who were chasing them. On one of these raids, they captured sixteen-year-old Patrick and took him as a slave back to the gloomy forests of Ireland where, in terror, the boy witnessed the fiery, brutal and heathenish rituals so dear to the Irish heart. (They were really bad.)
Patrick was put to work tending sheep. He spent the next six years virtually alone on the windswept, rocky hillsides of Ireland among the continuous bleating of sheep, grieving for the family and the world that had been violently taken from him. In his loneliness, he turned to God, his only friend and comfort. He became a Christian. Christians were present in Ireland (though they probably kept pretty quiet about it), and perhaps a Christian befriended the boy. It seemed to Patrick that God had brought him to Ireland to bring him to Christianity, and that it was his Christian duty not only to love his enemies (captors), but to bring them also to Christ. He also knew that somehow, in order to receive the religious training he would need to fulfill his destiny, he would have to get back to Britain. So, at the age of 22, he simply started walking. He walked 200 miles to the sea, got aboard a vessel sailing east, and went home.
At the age of 37, Patrick returned to Ireland as an ordained priest and began his life’s work. Now, anybody who tries to talk the Irish into or out of anything has to be a saint. The following statement, therefore, is a gross understatement. Patrick knew it would not be easy to convert the riotous Irish to a pacifist Christian theology. But he was smart. Instead of trying to talk them out of their great bonfires to honor the gods, he made bonfires a part of the Easter celebration. (Jesus who? What Resurrection? Oh, we get to have bonfires? Well, all right, then.)
Now this is really ingenious. Father Patrick also knew that the sun was a powerful religious icon for the Celts, so he put it in the center of the cross so that when he lifted the “Celtic” cross, their eyes lifted worshipfully to the symbol of the sun in the center of it. Wonder how long it took them to realize that the cross wasn’t just carpentry—crossbeams to support the sun in the center?
It is believed that Father Patrick died on March 17, around 460. Four or five hundred years after his death, the Roman Catholic Church established the feast day of St. Patrick on March 17. But the stories began at once. The Irish love to tell stories and to embellish them with imaginative and charming creatures,
out of which supernatural mythology they create their “histories.” They are great exaggerators.
For instance, they have Father Patrick banishing snakes from an island which has never been known to have any, probably since the last glacial age of 12,000 BC.
Later, the Irish have him holding up a three leaf clover (the “seamróg” or “shamrock”) to explain the Holy Trinity to the thoroughly confused pagans, a symbol that was not conceived until two hundred or more years after Father Patrick’s death.
Corned beef and cabbage, as a traditional St. Patrick’s Day dish, is an Irish-American invention (though the traditional dish of Ireland is bacon and cabbage). Not only that, but the first St. Patty’s Day parade in the history of the world occurred in America, specifically in lower Manhattan.
It was March 17, 1762, 14 years before the Declaration of Independence. At that time, Manhattan was an island of rolling, wooded hills and streams you could kneel down and drink from. The borough of lower Manhattan was a collection of brick and wood buildings. Some streets were cobbled, others mud. Pigs rooted in the mud or ran squealing from the boots of bad-tempered colonials. Cows wandered around, crossing the main thoroughfare to get at the greener grass on the other side. The British army, guys stationed far from their homes in England and Scotland and Ireland, were always homesick. (Pulling duty in America was not anybody’s first choice of assignment) So when March 17 rolled around that year, the Irish started thinking along the lines of Irishmen everywhere on St. Patty’s Day, but this time they decided to do something about it. So they formed up and marched down the street, playing Irish music, to the nearest inn for beer. First St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Today the parade takes five hours and nearly 3 million people come out to watch it, but the festivities still end in hangovers.
Funny, how we keep turning religious holidays back into their pagan antecedents. Despite our proper upbringings, we still revert to riotous self-indulgence of our animal appetites. However, we employ large numbers of policemen to protect us from one another during the festivities (the fact that most of the police in Boston and New York are Irish, may be problematical). We also have designated drivers to take us safely home. And the next morning we shower and dress nicely and go back to work and act responsibly (generally).
I would say, wouldn’t you, that (generally) the world is getting better all the time?
Have fun on St. Patrick’s Day.
Dear St. Patrick…
…best look the other way.