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.