At least one day a year everyone is Irish, St. Patrick’s Day, and some of us are lucky all year long.
It is a day that has become a cultural holiday in the U.S., especially if you live near many of the large American cities like Chicago, Boston and New York where Irish immigrants settled in huge numbers starting in the pre-Civil War era and then in several waves over the next 100 years.
The Irish brought much of their culture with them. They proved to be model immigrants and shared their survival skills with waves of new Americans who arrived starting in the 1890s. They were mostly Italians, Germans and Jews from all over Europe.
The Irish laid the groundwork for assimilation and later groups followed this model, often forging alliances with the Irish-Americans. The immigrants gradually took over many of the social and government structures and laid the groundwork for 20th century urban politics.
The key cultural construct during the era of Irish assimilation was the Catholic parishes — the center of all things Irish. The new Americans carried with them their faith and the holidays and rituals associated with that faith.
The Irish diaspora brought not only St Patrick’s Day, but a host of other holidays, including what became Halloween. It originally was called Samhain by the Celts. The religious holidays became so ubiquitous that governments eventually had to rein them in. There were so many that they disrupted businesses and schools.
But one that stayed and grew was St. Patrick’s Day, named after the Patron Saint of Ireland, St. Padraic. March 17 is a national holiday in the Republic of Ireland. Ostensibly in the U.S. it is also a day of remembrance, but in the modern era it has become an excuse to party.
St. Patrick is remembered in legend for driving the snakes from Ireland, but mainly he converted the pagan Irish to Christianity, using the shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity.
He must have been very keen of intellect because Ireland became one of the most Christian nations in the world. Yet the Irish calendar and customs remain replete with pagan holidays and rituals, all blended into modern celebrations, in part due to Patrick’s creativity.
For example, on Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day, the custom remains for kids, “wrenboys,” to go street to street with an object that represents a wren captured in the field, a pagan celebration now blended into a religious holiday. Scholars note that the shamrock originally was a pagan symbol that reflected rebirth and eternal life and the number three as a sacred number.
So who really was this wise monk who survived the wild pagan Celtic tribes of Ireland? Keep in mind that wars among tribes was commonplace, so a stranger who meddled in their cultural and spiritual beliefs was at risk.
Patrick was born in Britain – either Scotland or Wales. Apparently he was the son of Roman officials, who decided to live among the clans of Ireland sometime in the 5th century.
But his first arrival was not planned. As a teenager he was captured in England and taken to Ireland, where he spent about six years as a slave. He escaped and returned to his family, studied to become a cleric, and then returned to the north of Ireland, later to become the Bishop of Armaugh.
It’s believed that he became a devout Christian while isolated in the hills of Ireland as a slave, surrounded by people who did not share his faith.
Patrick wrote that an angel told him to return to Ireland. He returned to minister to the few Catholics there but mainly to convert the Irish.
His time as a slave proved beneficial. His knowledge of the culture allowed him to use the shamrock as a teaching tool. He also used bonfires, a traditional way to honor Celtic gods, and he blended the sun onto the Christian cross, creating what is now famously known as the Celtic Cross, making the veneration of a symbol more palatable to the Celts.
So the fabled Patron Saint of Ireland we now celebrate is a man of mystery, creativity and legend. Since Celtic history is largely oral, especially from that time, much of what we know about Padraic is likely the stuff of storytelling and exaggeration.
But the legend is all good – and this day, of all days, you just have to celebrate the man, the legends, and the country! But be careful out there and while guzzling a Guinness take a moment or two to think about the power of faith and a belief in something far greater than ourselves. Slainte’!
Dr. Ed Moore is blessed to have a hungry mind and an Irish soul. He resides in Tallahassee.