"I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful and despised in the eyes of many"
("Confessio" St Patrick)
Inescapably, yesterday was St Patrick's Day: his feast day, held on the anniversary of the date of his death. Far from being "despised" as Patrick feared, he is one of the most popular of all the saints, known and loved beyond the lands that popularised him and outside of the Catholic faith. More than any other feast day or even patron saint's day, St Patrick's Day has become not only a focus for national pride for Ireland, but also one of the most inclusive of festivals; a day of celebration and sentimentality across the globe for anyone who's ever possessed an aran knit or Dubliners CD. On the 17th March, people discover their own Irish side. I have an ostensibly non-Irish friend who shares my passion for Celtic music and Irish political history and agrees with me that everyone, somehow, has an Irish grandmother. My father was from Belgian Flanders, yet he became almost more Irish than my Antrim born and bred mother, albeit with a strong Poirot accent. I always tell enquirers that I'm half Irish and half Belgian, with no English blood running between the two: truth be told, I have always felt rather more Irish. My favourite (Irish) auntie used to say I dressed French, but that the clothes hung off Irish bones. It's a staunchly defensive and distinctive culture yet something else; Irishness is a feeling, an emotion. What makes the Irish so damned Irish?
Populated for more than 9,000 years, Ireland has been building a wonderfully storied heritage, with ancestors such as the Nemedians, Fomorlans, and Milesians. Her turbulent history unfolds with interactions with the Picts, the Scots and Welsh, the Romans, the Bretons, the Gauls, the Vikings, the Normans and Flemish; and of course the English... It's estimated that ten percent of today's global family carry Irish genes, so we may be right about the Irish grandmothers. Irishness seems to have spilled far from the jug, but the essence is remarkably undiluted and unfathomable. Sigmund Freud famously said of the Irish: "This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever." Irish dramatist Brendan Behan went slightly further, stating that while others have a nationality, the Irish have a psychosis. The Irish psyche dose seem to me to be a conundrum. Pagan superstition seems to sit round the fire with fervent Christianity. The Irish excel at both adapting and adopting, but when they react or rebel you will know about it. Portrayed as whimsical and idiosyncratic by themselves no less than others, the Irish are scholars of the ancient and modern world, masters of the written and spoken word. A love of home and kin belies the navigator's soul. Irish waters can run deeper and more still than the ocean, yet the Irish can laugh louder, cry louder and pray louder than anyone else.
On 17th March, you will find a packed Irish bar in most parts of the world; with "The Irish Rover" and "Danny Boy" being slaughtered in various accents, by people who hate the taste of Guinness but are drowning in it because they're two eightieths Irish, on their mother's side. St Patrick's Day is a public holiday, a solemnity and holy day of obligation in Ireland and a day of celebration far and beyond. The Emerald Island of the Caribbean, Montserrat, has appointed St Pat's as a public holiday. Apparently, this is due to the high volume of Irish refugees that came to the island from Nevis and St Kitts. I have no idea how they came to be in Nevis and St Kitts. In Newfoundland and Labrador, St Pat's is a public holiday in memory of a slave uprising in the 1800s. The earliest recorded description of a St Patrick's Day celebration comes from one Jonathan Swift, himself an Irishman, who mentions a 1713 celebration taking place in London. Westminster Parliament was apparently granted a holiday and some notable city buildings were decorated in green. I don't expect to see the like recur in my lifetime...
Historically, Irish emigration has been caused by famine, strife and economic divisions. Today, the Irish diaspora across the globe may be up to 80 million people, including the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Jamaica, Trinidad, France, Germany... It's been said that the first non-indigenous child born on what would become north American soil was of Irish descent on both sides. It's also been said that an Irishman sailing with Christopher Columbus, one William Ayres of Galway, was probably the first European to set foot on American land. However, legendary Irish saint, Brendan The Navigator, he of the fantastical voyages, claimed he actually discovered the continent some eleven centuries earlier, anyhow. In fact, there are now ten times more Irish in the United States of America than in Ireland herself. The annual St Patrick's Day Parade in New York, first documented in 1766, draws around 3 million spectators, with more than 150,000 participants; the parade usually stretches for one and a half miles. Every year, the Irish 165th Infantry marches at the head of the parade as the official escort. In the city of Chicago, the river is turned to green for St Patrick's Day, using forty pounds of dye. Indeed, green is now seen as a hugely favoured colour for the Irish, synonymous with the Emerald Isle and said to be the colour of the patron saint himself. He's often depicted in ornate green gowns. Yet the earliest colour associated with St Patrick was not green at all, but blue. Long ago, the military in Ireland were uniformed proudly in "St Patrick's blue". At one time, the Irish didn't wear green for luck, instead associating it with fairies and the little people: it was the colour of mythical and supernatural creatures, a scared symbol of fertility and growth. It would have been seen to be tempting fate for a mere mortal to wear it.
Prominent Irish Nationalist Thomas Davies once defined Irishness: "It is not blood which makes an Irishman but willingness to be part of the Irish nation." Certainly, most of St Patrick's devotees now accept that the man himself was not Irish at all but probably Scottish or Welsh. It's believed that he was kidnapped from the land of his birth by Irish pirates when he was about sixteen and sold into Irish slavery. Traditionally, he tended the land and livestock around the Slemish Mountain, an area better known these days by my cousins as Ballymena, County Antrim. The mountain is actually an extinct volcano, providing dramatic and weather-scarred scenery 1,500 feet above sea level. Captive in this terrain, the teenager found God. Some years later, he escaped and managed to return to his homeland, where he developed his love of the Christian faith. Some historical investigation points to his blood family being associated with the Roman nobility; his own household may well have had slaves. He became a priest, returning to Ireland on God's instruction to reconcile the land of his captivity with his faith. Under the patronage of the Bishop of Auxerre in France, he then took the name of Patricius. The ancient Annals of Ulster suggest he lived between 340 and 460AD, ministering to the peoples of the north of Ireland from around 428. It's certainly widely accepted that he was active as a pioneering missionary in the second half of the fifth century.
There are many legends surrounding St Patrick, from the land of some of the finest story tellers on earth. Did he banish all snakes from Ireland? As with New Zealand and Iceland. there are no fossils or other biological evidence that post-glacial Ireland has ever been home to snakes. Certainly no species has managed to migrate from the UK or farther afield in recent centuries. Ireland does have slow-worms; technically, very slow moving lizards. The story goes that St Patrick was troubled by snakes as he fasted on a forty day retreat on a hilltop. Summoning the snakes with his staff, he drew them to the cliffs and let them drop into the sea. Religious scholars now believe the tale could have symbolic origins: the ancient Druids in Ireland were known to favour tattoos of large snakes on their forearms. St Patrick's expulsion of serpents may be seen as part of his core mission.
The dear little green shamrock has long been associated with St Patrick, and with Ireland itself. It's said that the saint used the little plant whilst preaching to demonstrate the Holy Trinity, the three divine persons in one God. Yet the shamrock was also revered in pre-Christian days in Ireland: it's vivid green colour and distinctive shape represented rebirth and eternal life. The number three was sacred in the pagan religions and the ancient Irish worshipped a number of Triple Goddesses. The most famous of these was Brigit: unlike the Celtic pagan tradition of "maiden, mother, crone" as facets of one entity, Brigit was a set of triplets, self contained in one being and all with the same name. There was Brigit the poet, Brigit the smith, and Brigit the doctor of leechcraft. She was said to be the daughter(s) of the "Dagda", the good god of all the lands of Ireland. Tradition and history, faith and fable; all seem somehow to merge in one cauldron in Ireland. Brigid, who would become St Brigid of the Catholic Church, was born in County Louth in 453. Her father was a pagan Gaelic chieftain named Dubtach (Duffy) and her mother was a Christian slave, sold soon after Brigid’s birth. Brigid was baptised by Saint Patrick and they became good friends. Even as a child, young Brigid had a calling to care for the poor. Dubthach tried to arrange a marriage for his daughter, but she decided to dedicate her life to God. Together with seven other women she formed the first ever female monastic community in Ireland in 468 at the ripe old age of fifteen. Many believe that Patrick is buried in the Cathedral at Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St Brigid and St Columba, although this has never been verified. It's generally accepted that he had become patron saint of all Ireland by the seventh century, although never formally canonised by any pope.
Some hagiographers of the seventh century paint St Patrick as a martial figure, battling with the Druids and overthrowing pagan gods and practises. Legend holds that he was a forceful evangelist, often thumping the ground with his ash-wood walking staff to drive his sermons home. At the place now known as Aspatria ("ash of Patrick") in Cumbria, the message took so long to get through that the stick had taken root and started to leaf by the time he was ready to move on. This blend of Celtic and early Christian mysticism with beefy conviction and vigour make St Patrick a totally appealing figure to the Irish. Often depicted as a virile presence and with a fearsome intellect, he's still credited with Ireland's peaceful conversion to Christianity. For a man who traded words in Latin, Gallic and Irish Gaelic, surprisingly little of his writings survive. Accredited to St Patrick, "St Patrick's Breastplate", also known as "The Deer's Cry", is a beautiful but simply worded affirmation of faith. It's said that St Patrick wrote it while camped out on the Hill of Slane, County Meath, near to Tara, traditionally the secret seat of the ancient kings of all Ireland. Early on in his conversion campaign, possibly 433AD, St Patrick chose to light a large fire on the hill on the eve of the feast of Easter, which coincides with the Celtic pagan feast of Beltane. At the time, the law of the land stated that no fire should be lit in the vicinity of the great festival fire blazing at the royal seat of power on Tara. This has become known as the first Paschal Fire, Furious, King Laeghaire drove his chariot and army to Slane to arrest the rebel, but St Patrick bravely began to preach to him, as eloquently as only he could. Apparently. the king was not only pacified but enchanted: St Patrick and his party were left unharmed and he was allowed to preach Christianity to the pagan army. The story perfectly illustrates St Patrick's legendary fearless and even foolhardy defence of what is gentle, noble and true. Wherever he was born and whatever colour his cloak, St Patrick was Irish.
"May the grass grow long on the road to hell for the want of use"
St Patrick's Breastplate (St Patrick)
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
I arise to-day
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's eyes to look before me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
From all who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ to shield me,
Christ in the heart of every one who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me.
I arise to-day.
"St Patrick's Breastplate / The Deer's Cry" sung by Angelina