The feast day celebration of Saint Patrick outside of Ireland has morphed into a curious mix of marketing — green beer? shamrock shakes? Irish tacos? leprechaun jokes? — along with “the wearing of the green” for celebrating one’s Irish heritage.
And yet Saint Patrick was not Irish, but certainly is recognized now as one of the patron saints of that country, along with Saint Brigit of Kildare and Saint Columba. Patrick was an Anglo-Roman priest — possibly Welsh, possibly from what is now Ravenglass in Cumbria — sent to Ireland to convert the inhabitants to Christianity, long after his own capture into slavery and spiritual conversion. Nor was he the first to attempt to do so. He wasn’t even the first Bishop, as many believe. And Ireland remained pagan for at least 200 years after his death, as Christianity slowly became the dominant faith.
The “history” of Patrick was written several hundred years after his death and the various myths and legends were likely a form of public relations by the church to support the ongoing conversion of the Irish to Christianity.
For instance, legend says that Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, which is often seen simply as a metaphor for banishing the Druids, as the serpent was a strong symbol of wisdom and spirituality to the Druidic Celts. But there were no snakes in Ireland after the last ice age, and the Druids existed long after Patrick died. And we know that driving out snakes is a symbolic parable seen in many other Christian stories.
The symbol of the shamrock, associated with the threefold-way of Celtic spirituality, was allegedly used by Patrick to demonstrate the meaning of the Trinity — God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit — but we know that the number three had significance and was already a profound concept within Irish spirituality, e.g. the triskele; the cosmology of Land, Sea and Sky; and tri-form deities such as Brighid and The Morrígan or Mórrígan.
So, this day is celebrated with a mixture of many traditions, some very old and some more recent, and some possibly based in fact. As the Irish settled in many other countries, especially after the genocide known as the Potato Famine in the 1840s, many emigrants created new traditions and ways in their new home to honour their homeland.
I now choose the celebrate this day a little differently, my own way. I will forego the green commercial bevvies but I may have a green smoothie, a Thai green curry, or perhaps a traditional Irish beef or fish stew, with some soda bread or potato scones.
I will journey with my Irish Ancestors, honour the changes in their spirituality and traditions over time, and contemplate on what I value about my Irish heritage — the rich oral traditions of storytelling, the connection to the land, and the creativity of song, literature, art and music.
And, yes, when I go outside, I will wear something green.
I share with you now this traditional Irish blessing:
May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!
NOTE: I have not yet found the original attribution for the snake-pentagram image in the header (“Hey St. Patrick…”). And, of course, the image is — for me, at least — rather tongue-in-cheek, as you can’t banish what was never there!