Monday, March 17, 2014

Saint Patrick

Fig.1: Like most Irishmen, 
Saint Patrick never left the 
house without a shamrock.
Quick, name a saint and his/her official Catholic feast day! Unless you're a priest, nun, or biggest St. Bede fan on the planet (May 25; patron saint of historians, y'all!), chances are your first and only thought was Saint Patrick and March 17. That's because the spread and popularity of the Irish and their culture has allowed the holiday to take on a life of its own! Or because it's only feast day that it is acceptable to celebrate with a gratuitous amount of alcohol (although wouldn't be funny on September 28 to hear intoxicated people try to wish you a "Happy Saint Wenceslaus Day!"). Either way, not many people know too much about the man himself, who lived at some point during the 5th century Anno Doughnutty. Normally I would go on a rant about how kids these days are so unedumacated, but I will temporarily excuse them since not even the greatest of historical scholars possess that much information on Saint Patrick (c'mon, St. Bede, help us out!). So put down your drink(s) and let's delve into the life and legend of the man that give the Irish people more pride than anyone not named Arthur Guinness.

First, let me drop a bomb on you. One of the few definitive details we know about Saint Patrick is... *deep breath* ...he wasn't Irish. That's right, the posterboy of Irish culture was among the first of many Britons to meddle in the affairs of their westward neighbor (if you don't count Merlin's supposed theft of Stonehenge). The sources aren't specific as to his homeland; clues range through various sites in England, Scotland, and Wales. But get over it, folks: Saint Patrick was a Limey through and through. But how did he end up in Ireland? There are two letters believed to have been written by Patrick; the most notable is called the Confessio (short for Confessions of a Teenage Drama Missionary). In it, he says that when he was sixteen and innocent, he was walking down a path, minding his own business, when these ten-foot-tall Irish raiders with horns on their heads and fangs for teeth grabbed him and stuffed him in a burlap sack, where he went months without food or water (he always liked to exaggerate details, as burlap was unknown to Europe then). For six years he was enslaved as a shepherd, counting sheep to actually stay awake. He claimed that it was during this time that he strengthened his relationship with God, which helped, along with his "Hang in There" kitten poster (fig.2), to keep his faith alive.

Fig.2: From Julius Caesar, to Joan 
of Arc, to Abraham Lincoln, this 
image has kept up the spirits of 
many great figures in history.
Eventually he escaped Ireland by running 200 miles to a port and breathlessly convincing a captain to stow him away. Arriving home, he vowed that he would never return to that abundantly-green hellhole of an isle ever again! But of course, once you visit Ireland, a little piece of Ireland stays with you (unlike the little piece of Thailand that stays with you, it's typically not a venereal disease). A vision came to Patrick, possibly of Saint Victricius, a Gallic bishop who proselytized in Britain earlier in the 5th century, telling him that he must return to Ireland spread Christianity amongst the pagans there. Patrick whined and cried and kicked and screamed and said, "I don't wanna!" about ten million times, but he knew it was his destiny to show the Irish the miracles and deeds of Jesus Christ (which is the easy part; learning to decipher that bloody accent of theirs is the true miracle). His Confessio records his deeds, including the baptism of "thousands of people," the ordination of priests to serve in communities all over Ireland, and his step-aerobics class that he taught at the rec center on Tuesday nights. Many Irishmen disliked Patrick, especially since he was attempting to do away with the Celtic polytheist religion that was totally not made up by the ruling classes to solidify their power and keep the peasants under control. He was even put on trial by a druid king for not accepting gifts in exchange for his work (bribery was the equivalent of "please" and "thank you" in those days).

That is everything we definitively know about Saint Patrick. Everything else you've heard about the man is a myth or legend, created long after after his death (which could be anywhere between March 17, 450 AD to March 17, 500 AD depending on which myth-maker you talk to). This includes the famous story of Patrick using a shamrock both to describe the holy trinity to Irish pagans, as well as the three-times-tables to Irish pagan eight-year-olds. The whole "driving the snakes from Ireland" thing is yet another tale constructed to heighten Patrick's image. Zoologists agree that snakes never existed on Ireland to begin with, a fact consistent with other islands around the world (which is why Indiana Jones spent his retirement hopping between Ireland, Iceland, and New Zealand). It is possible that the "snakes" are meant to represent non-Christians, and that his missionary work succeeded in converting the entirety of the population into his fold (making beer and Jesus the only two things all Irishmen agree on).

Fig.3: Supposedly thanks to Saint Patrick, the Reptile House 
at the Dublin Zoo really feels like it's missing something...
Another tale combines two legends of Irish folklore: Saint Patrick, and the mythic hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Anglicized to "Finn McCool" due to his suave personality and near-deal to replace that creepy clown as McDonald's new mascot). Fionn is the main character in the Fenian Cycle, one of the greatest surviving works in Ireland's mythology, in which he eats the Salmon of Knowledge, passes the tests of the High King of Tara, kills a goblin or two, marries a deer who turns into a woman, spies on people by sucking his magical thumb, among other completely plausible details (I couldn't even make up that stuff if I tried). The narrator of the tales is Fionn's son, Oisín, who tells his father's adventures to an incredulous Saint Patrick. The relationship between the two characters sets up a symbolic conflict between the old ways of paganism and the more fashionable practices of Christianity, culminating in a show-stopping number of "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)." A classic example occurs when Patrick explains to Oisín the difference between heaven and hell; Oisín exclaims that he's glad his fellow warriors who died in battle did not repent and ended up in hell, since heaven sounds super *yawn*.

Fig.4: Things always got weird and Parent Trap-ey when 
Patrick (left) and Palladius (right) crossed paths.
Some historians claim that Patrick gets too much credit for his deeds, real and imagined. There was another missionary named Palladius from Gaul (present-day France) who was sent to Ireland as bishop possibly earlier in the 5th century than Patrick. To make matters confusing, Palladius may have taken on the name of Patrick while among the Irish, accomplished many of the same tasks, and even got the same haircut as well! It is possible that some of the achievements of Palladius were later ascribed to Patrick, just to keep it simple stupid. Patrick might have been given preference in retrospect due to his interesting backstory; you have to admit that getting kidnapped by pirates and having an angel telling him to go preach is tons more exciting than getting a letter in the mail from the Pope about a work trip. Maybe Palladius deserves a little more respect, and his memory should be honored after Saint Patrick's on March 18 instead of National Hangover Day.

Despite the authenticity of his character or deeds, Saint Patrick has had a huge impact on the Irish people and nation, and it's a small wonder why his feast day is used as an excuse to celebrate the heritage of the folks he helped during his lifetime. Through his efforts, Ireland remains one of the most staunchly Catholic places outside of the Vatican's backyard, and even Protestants on the island argue that he better represents their beliefs (seriously, what don't Catholics and Protestants in Ireland argue about?). While we don't know too much about his life, we can figure that he was a sound bloke, certainly no amadan, and always knew where the craic was. So have a drink or seventeen in praise of good old Saint Paddy, at least until you pass out and forget about everything you learned about here (I'll give it eleven minutes).

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