American Culture

St. Patrick’s Day: wearing o’ the black

CATEGORY: St.-Patrick's-DayOriginally posted 3.17.08 and re-posted each St. Patrick’s Day.

I won’t be wearing green today.

Don’t get me wrong – like many Americans, I’ve got plenty of Irish blood in my veins, and I’m quite happy to celebrate that heritage.

But this St. Patrick thing… Sadly, very few people have stopped to think about exactly what they’re celebrating, or whom. Patrick is credited with leading the Christianization of Ireland and it’s said he “drove the snakes out” of the place. That, of course, is metaphorical. The serpent was an ancient druidic symbol of wisdom, and the thing that was literally driven out of (or murdered and buried in the ground of) Ireland was the vibrant, centuries-old culture of the Celts. There aren’t any snakes native to Ireland, but that’s about evolution and geological happenstance, not Patricius.

When a Christian missionary went into a new place it was with one goal – extinguish what he found and replace it with Christianity. We see an illuminating example of how the process might begin in Acts 17:23-34, where Paul stumbles upon an opportunity and seizes it like the last bottle of whiskey in Galway.

23For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

24God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

25Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

26And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

27That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

28For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

29Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.

30And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

31Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

32And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.

33So Paul departed from among them.

34Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Obviously there’s no reason at all to think that the Athenians were accidentally paying tribute to the Christian god, but understanding and accepting the essence and traditions of a culture was hardly the point.

But at least Patrick and other Christian missionaries of the time went the warm and fuzzy, let’s-all-sing-“Kumbaya” route, right? Ummm, is that what history has taught us about early Christians?

Patrick began to destroy the influence of the Druids by destroying the sacred sites of the people and building churches and monasteries where the Druids used to live and teach. Gradually, the might of the Druidic class was broken by a bitter campaign of attrition. Instead of hearing the teachings and advice of the Druids, the people began to hear the teachings of Rome. Because the Druids were the only ones who were taught to remember the history, with the Druids dead and their influence broken, the history was forgotten.

Patrick won. By killing off the teachers and the wise ones, his own religion could be taught. For this mass conversion of a culture to Christianity, and for the killing of thousands of innocent people, Patrick was made a Saint by his church. (Source)

In a very real way, the celebration of St. Patrick is a celebration of cultural genocide, and the fact that the millions of revelers parading in the streets this morning and packing every bar in America tonight don’t realize it – that they’re doing so perhaps as naïvely as the Druids might initially have welcomed Patrick – is of little comfort. Why? You tell me – would a fuller understanding of what happened put even the slightest dent in our nation’s annual green beer sales figures?

I’m not telling you to stay home or to forego a drink in remembrance of old Ireland. By all means, lift a pint tonight. But don’t do so in celebration of an inquisitor. Instead, do so in memory of the light that he helped extinguish.

To the Rose upon the Rood of Time
by William Butler Yeats

Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:
Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old
In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody.
Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate,
In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.

Come near, come near, come near – Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.


31 replies »

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  2. Doc Slammy,

    I take a backseat to no one when deploring the ravages of Christianity or, for that matter, monotheism. Having said that, I don’t really think the druids are a good example.

    If the Romans can be believed (and I think they can in this case), the druids practiced human sacrifice. Druidism was one of the few religions the Romans went after with the intent to wipe it out. Christianity was attacked, on occasion, because of Christian’s refusal to at least acknowledge the state religion, but the druids were wiped out in France and Britain because of their extreme brutality. (In fact, it’s the Roman abhorence to human sacrifice that make the slaughter of the infants in Matthew highly, highly suspect.)

    The Irish paid a dear price through much of history for embracing the Church. But losing the druids was, in my opinion, one of the things which, on balance, was a good thing.

  3. The victors write the history books, of course. The human sacrifice story is one that is both true at some level and false as propagated by the church. As best we can tell they did practice human sacrifice, but the victims were criminals, by and large, not virgins and babies and other innocents. This hardly makes the Celts different from any number of other ancient cultures, and even if the church’s stories were entirely true it hardly marks the coming of Christianity as an improvement. Consider what the Christians did to the gnostics, for instance – their treatment of their own “heretics” was apparently worse than what the Romans did to them. Then we can look further down the road at things like the Children’s Crusade and the Inquisition…

    The issue, of course, is that primitive people are primitive people, and replacing one butcher with another is hardly the sort of thing we should get too sentimental about. And gory details notwithstanding, I always tend toward skepticism when we start celebrating evangelism in any of its forms.

  4. Doc,

    Actually, I was talking about accounts from pre-Christian Rome, not Church accounts.

    Hey, like I said, you’ll not find me defending the Church. I think monotheism, in general, has been one of the history’s greatest curses. But, really, the druids weren’t nice people. And one of the Roman writers (it may have been GJ Caesar) says that they routinely sacrificed prisoners and/or tortured them to death.

    Were the Celts no different from “a number of other ancient cultures”? I suppose that, by definition, that would be true, since “a number” can be any number. But I would submit, very strongly, that human sacrifice was rare in most ancient cultures after the early Bronze Age, and that the vast majority of those cultures found the practice repugnant.

    I’m not disputing that the Church visited all sorts of horrors on the world. I just think that doing away with the druids wasn’t all that bad.

    • The accounts that came back to Rome of the “horrific practices” of the Druids were in no small part intended to boost funding for those military campaigns (good ol’ propaganda). While there is likely some truth to be found (mostly between the lines) of Caesar’s reports, they should be taken with an ample supply of salt.

  5. I have to say I do like any excuse to stand out in freezing weather and drink beer, but this year I sat out the St Pattys day parade. Not for any particular reason, except that I had shit to do around the house. Basically it’s the same every year. Back pack full of can beer, Carhart jacket, some form of green swag. Then I stand in the freezing cold for 2+ hours watching old pale people with red hair wave to the crowd, Irish dancers doing the same god damn dance move, local personalities smoozing with the “regular people”, and frat boys with those shitty green sports hats with their teams logo on it, although their teams colors aren’t green. After that I move into a packed bar where all of the above are present, but this time I’m sweating my ass off because I’m wearing a Carhart. Like I said I like going to a party, but what bothers me almost as much as that guy that’s 2% Italian, yet he knows someone who knows someone who’s in the Mafia, is the over exuberance of Irish pride on St. Patty’s Day. Here’s what I think of Irish heritage.

    Shitty Food:
    I’d rather eat dog shit then Sheppard’s pie or corn beef and cabbage.

    Ginger people:
    Red hair, pale skin, enough said.

    The inability to adapt when one vegetable won’t grow:
    I know it’s way cooler to be a bar fighting, beer drinking, Mic, but if you’re so tough how come you couldn’t steal some meat from the Brits. Your land has unbelievably fertile and was home to tons of live stock, yet millions got up and left because they couldn’t grow a potato.

    Every song sounds the same after 2 minutes:
    I love Celtic music in moderation, yet after 4 songs it gets so tiresome. The beat is always the same and after a while you start thinking “this song is in every movie” yet it’s not, it just sounds like every Celtic song in every movie where there’s a hint of Irish.

    Your nation’s symbol is a weed that no one wants in their yard:
    Having spent several seasons as a landscaper fighting this weed I understand how tough it is to get rid of. Maybe the reason it’s your national symbol is because it’s so tough, nope, it’s symbolic of how St Patrick taught the holy trinity. Too bad.

    Irish Dancing:
    I dated a chick who taught Irish Dancing and I always thought it was one of those things that was way harder than it looked, I was wrong. She said it was incredibly easy, and there was basically only a few steps. So I was right when I assumed it was the same shit over and over again. Yes it takes some skill and agility, but so does beer pong.

    I go through this every year, and come July in Buffalo when they have the Italian fest I will get fed up with all the ball grabbin, too much gel in the hair, wise guys who, you guessed it, know someone who knows someone in the Mafia.

    Next up on the list is Dyngus day.

  6. D: you apparently slept through a few days in history class. Sure, there was fertile land in Ireland but the Brits forced the natives off all the good land. Look up “potato famine” and start working your way back.

    Not that I can really argue about the standing-outside-freezing-for-the-parade part…

  7. Both of you might appreciate an op-ed in todays NYTimes: The Fungus that conquered Europe. A great line that is applicable here is the following one.

    in Ireland, a population that in 250 years had grown from one million to more than eight million, solely because of the potato’s unrivaled quality as a staple food, was threatened with starvation.

    And I, for one, love corned beef and cabbage. I can’t stand shepherd’s pie, though.

  8. Sam,

    I meant to say that the Brits forced the Irish off MOST of the good land for grazing. I was actually commenting on their lack of ingenuity or creativity. Not sure how tight security was back then, but something tells me they could have snagged a sheep or two at night. What about the fact that they are on an island and surround by some great fishing. Yes I understand that Britain set tariffs and restricted other crops from being grown, but I thought we were dealing with tough guys here.

  9. I meant to say that the Brits forced the Irish off MOST of the good land for grazing. I was actually commenting on their lack of ingenuity or creativity. Not sure how tight security was back then, but something tells me they could have snagged a sheep or two at night. What about the fact that they are on an island and surround by some great fishing. Yes I understand that Britain set tariffs and restricted other crops from being grown, but I thought we were dealing with tough guys here.

    Chances are, this is all tongue-in-cheek stuff, but JUST in case it’s not:

    No amount of fishing (given the available fishing fleet), stealing, or raising other crops would have made up for the loss of caloric content in the potato. Only importing food would have saved lives, and the British forbade that. In fact, the Brits exported cattle from Ireland during the famine.

    There was, in fact, both stealing and poaching going on, but British laws were so strict that the penalty was often death.

    Just in case you weren’t joking about a human catastrophe.

  10. If you can’t joke about human catastrophe then what’s the point of living. I can’t wait for the next Holocaust thread!

  11. I’ve gone back and forth on this one as a pagan with Irish heritage.

    St. Patrick’s Day was a *nothing* holiday in Ireland. It only became popular among Irish immigrants as a celebration of their own culture. When the Irish arrived, they were hated and vilified. They did years of work in horrid conditions and were barred from many better jobs.

    And now… “everyone” wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. The celebration of St. Patrick’s day is a testament to the way the Irish overcame harsh discrimination while maintaining a connection to their culture. I think *that* is worth celebrating, even if St. Patrick himself is not.

  12. All cultures practice human sacrifice. Notice the present tense. The Death Penalty is a modern correlate to Celtic and old Indo European customs of human sacrifice. I for one, am perfectly ok with the death penalty. By extension, I also support human sacrifice. so Im not sure as to how the Druids arent a good example? On the contrary, Id imagine them to be upright examples of Celtic Paganism.

  13. I’m Scottish. Where the frak is my holiday? I want freaking caber tossing down 17th Avenue, girls chasing boys in kilts, and entire menus designed around Scotch, meat pies, and bannocks.

    Stupid freaking Irish.

  14. Amanda hit this one on the head. St. Patrick’s Day among Irish-American Catholics hasn’t been treated primarily as a feast day in at least one generation, and it’s most likely closer to two. It’s similar to Columbus Day for the Italians. It served as a common symbol they all recognized through their heritage and could rally around.

  15. I have lots of issues with St. Patrick’s Day…

    But the big one is that i used to run a bar. St. Paddy’s day is one of the handful of calender spots that one might refer to as “Amateur Night.” Since i left the bar industry (i.e. professional drug dealing) i haven’t been out on St. Pat’s. Fuck that.


  16. Did [1%er] St. Patrick sell slaves to the Irish? [my addition]
    By staff and news services

    LONDON — St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, may well have been a tax collector for the Romans who fled to Ireland where he could have traded slaves to pay his way, according to new research by a University of Cambridge academic published on Saturday.
    The generally accepted account of the saint’s life, albeit based on scant evidence, says Patrick was abducted from western Britain as a teenager and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years during which time he developed a strong Christian faith.
    Afterwards, the account continues, he escaped his captors and went back to Britain before eventually returning to Ireland as a missionary.
    But Roy Flechner, from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, believes there are reasonable grounds to question the popular version which is based partly on Patrick’s own words.
    “The problem with this account is that he was telling this story in response to accusations leveled against him that he fled to Ireland for financial gain,” Flechner told Reuters in a telephone interview.
    “It’s an inference that has been made long before in conventional scholarship.”
    10 best St. Patrick’s Day parades for families
    According to the study, published on Saturday to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, the saint may have wanted to leave Britain in the early 400s to avoid the “onerous” duties of a “Decurion”, or Roman official responsible for collecting taxes.
    Patrick’s father was a Decurion and, when he decided to rid himself of the post by becoming a cleric, his responsibilities would have fallen to his son.
    Slaves were his ‘liquid assets’
    At a time when Roman government in Britain was in decline, collecting and underwriting taxes would have been an unwelcome task, enough to prompt Patrick to emigrate, Flechner said.
    “It is likely that at least for a while he (Patrick) held an imperial office. One way or another, I think this would have been the catalyst for him leaving for Ireland.”
    The academic also questioned Patrick’s own account of escaping slavery in Ireland.
    “Once you escaped from slavery you lacked any legal status and anyone could imprison you and kill you, and this conflicts with what he said — that he broke loose, crossed Ireland and then the Irish Sea to get back to Britain,” he explained.
    “He might not even have been acknowledged as a free man in his native Britain and could have been enslaved again there.”
    If Patrick had left Britain for Ireland of his own free will, the best way to take his wealth with him would be in the form of slaves, Flechner argued.
    Patrick himself said his family owned slaves, which was common for aristocratic families in this period.
    “Your property would have been hereditary and in the form of land, but if you had wanted to transport the value of the property, it is more likely you would have traded a more ‘liquid asset’, in this case slaves.
    “In a slightly later period where we do have more sources, slaves had become a very important social institution and quite ubiquitous in Ireland.”
    Flechner conceded that it was difficult to be sure of any theory about a period of British history covered by so little reliable material.
    But he added that his study had the advantage of being “free from the more reverential accounts of St. Patrick that have been handed down in legend through the generations.
    “In this case we are seeing Patrick through the eyes of Roman law which offers a new perspective.
    “None of this is to say that Patrick was not a bishop or that he did not engage in missionary activity, but his primary motives for moving to Ireland were most likely to escape the poisoned chalice of his inherited position in Roman Britain.”

  17. Lara Amber – you’ve got a choice – Burns night, St Andrew’s day, or as seems to be growing, Bannockburn.

  18. You’re right. But I was in Chicago and I was stunned by the number of black, Indian and Hispanic people lurching around drunkenly and stepping off curbs in front of my car. This is a holiday whose meaning has been lost. It’s Mardi Gras with potatoes.