by Thomas O’Dwyer
“God the Father. God the Son. God the Holy Ghost. How many gods is that? You, Quinn!”
“No, you heathen pup. There’s only one God. Come up here!”
In those bygone days of paganly sadistic Irish teachers, “come up here” meant that Quinn had fallen for what we called “the strap trap.” The teacher would deliberately choose a pupil who would fall for a trick question and then take pleasure in delivering three stinging whacks each to the unfortunate’s outstretched palms. Me, I blamed St. Patrick and his cute trick of raising a shamrock on high and telling the bemused heathens, “See, three leaves on one stem; that is the holy trinity of three persons in one true God.” His folksy logic had failed to travel down the millennia to penetrate Quinn’s admittedly thick 20th-century skull.
Thursday is St. Patrick’s Day. This is a day that for long divided those who were born and raised on Patrick’s green island from those who weren’t. Those who weren’t wore green hats, drank green beer beside green-dyed rivers and said things like “begorrah and the top of the morning to yourself” in foul American-Irish accents. They all had Irish grandmothers – the apparent outer limit of Celtic heritage. Once, during a three-month slice of my life in Orlando, Florida, I noted in a diary that 122 people had told me they had Irish grandmothers – that was an average of ten a week. It was embarrassing to be Irish in certain parts of America on St. Patrick’s Day.
In New York City, the white line marking the centre of Fifth Avenue is repainted for a green parade. Ignorance abounded alongside America’s talent for Disneyfying the national cultures of its immigrants. Once in the 1950s, when Dublin’s popular Lord Mayor Bob Briscoe led the New York parade, a radio announcer proclaimed that “only in America” could a Jew lead an Irish parade. Never mind that the Jew was a native-born Irish patriot who was the honoured guest at the pseudo-Irish parade, dumbo. (Briscoe was not even Dublin’s first Jewish mayor; in 1876, half a century before independence, a huge majority of Catholic Dubliners had scorned the obstructive bigotry of the British ruling establishment and elected Lewis Harris by a landslide).
A millennium ago, Ireland was known across Europe as “the island of saints and scholars.” Today it’s awash with poets and programmers, not a bad progression at all, at all. At the turn of the current millennium, the country’s doomsayers were bemoaning the retreat of European culture before the monstrous greed of the Americanized global market and its trash media. But a national newspaper, The Sunday Business Post, proclaimed a poet, Seamus Heaney, not a businessman, to be the greatest living Irishman. Furthermore, it printed the Nobel laureate’s latest poem on its front page to mark the new millennium. It was not a passing editorial whim – to this day, endless public opinion polls and Internet votes still rate Heaney, W.B. Yeats, and James Joyce as leading national heroes. Only one political person comes close – the revolutionary leader, Michael Collins.
And then there’s Patrick, whose place in the Irish pantheon has shape-shifted down the passing years, as elusive as the mist on a Kerry mountain. To start with, Patrick was neither Irish nor Patrick. He was born Maewyn Succat around 385 and changed his name to Patricius as a priest. Many assume his story of converting Ireland to Christianity is a mixture of pious legend and Biden-like malarkey. However, two pieces of his writing have survived, the autobiographical Confessio, and a Letter to Coroticus, a Scottish warlord. In Confessio, Patrick writes: “My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae.” As one would expect of 5th-century records, precise facts of history and geography can be hard to pin down, but in the case of Patrick, despite anomalies and accretions, the broad narrative feels satisfyingly good enough.
The date of Patrick’s arrival in Ireland on a mission to convert its people to Christianity is popularly accepted as 432, a date set in 6th-century annals. There are few possible locations for Bannavem Taburniae in northern England or close to the western Scottish border. His father was decurion of an unknown Roman city in Britain – decurions were powerful local officials responsible for public contracts, keeping order, and tax collection. Irish pirates captured sixteen-year-old Patrick from his family’s villa in a raid and sold him into slavery in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Patrick’s family was nominally Christian, but he did not turn to religion until he was herding sheep on the hillsides of Antrim when prayer helped him endure the hardships and boredom of captivity.
According to his account, Patrick escaped from his enslaver after six years and headed south to Wicklow, where he found a boat to take him to England. He studied for the priesthood in England and France but one night while he was visiting his parents, he wrote:
While I was there, I saw, in a vision of the night, a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with so many letters they could not be counted. He gave me one of these, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people. While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.”
This powerful dream of the Irish people calling him back was irresistible, and in 432, Patrick followed the call back to Ireland and immortality. Legends are hard to separate from thinly sourced historical records. “He drove all snakes out of Ireland, and they never returned.” Well, no, he didn’t; there had never been snakes in Ireland because of its early geological separation from the British and European landmass. He used the native clover variant known as shamrock to explain the theology of the Trinity while preaching. Who knows – it’s been a plausible and accepted belief among Irish Christians for centuries. Modern scholarly literature on Patrick and his era is enormous in Irish, English and European languages. Like the millions of words written on the sparsely recorded life of William Shakespeare, scholars often spawn more fanciful theories and crackpot ideas than credible historical evidence. The Patrick industry has never paused and continues to evolve relentlessly into the digital age.
Neither is Patrick a wholly local saint, like Andrew of Scotland or Joan of France. As a religious figure, Patrick is venerated by Catholics and in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by Protestant Anglican and Lutheran communions. Modern parades for Saint Patrick’s Day encircle the globe, and since the 18th century, it has been a vastly greater celebration in America, for example, than in Ireland. The phenomenon has moved beyond America, Australia and Canada. Since the first success and then rebirth of the Celtic Tiger economy, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, and the export of prefabricated Irish pubs to Kazakhstan, Estonia, Tel Aviv and Omsk, it’s hard to avoid being Irish anywhere on St. Patrick’s Day. The reason for this global recognition of an obscure fifth-century priest from a remote island may seem inexplicable. It owes its origin to the significant diaspora that Ireland’s often unfortunate history under English occupation produced.
For 200 years, the Irish have emigrated in large numbers from their homeland, setting up green outposts in every corner of the globe. In Peru, you can scan pages of O’Higgins and O’Learys in the phone book. Though their ancestors left the emerald isle far behind, the exiles inherited a fair chunk of it in their genetic code, including Patrick himself. Emigrants to the United States transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a largely secular revelry and celebration of Irish culture. Cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants, who quickly gained political clout, staged the most extensive celebrations, including elaborate parades. Boston held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1737, followed by New York City in 1762. Since 1962 Chicago has coloured its river green to mark the holiday.
This colour represents a triumph of patriotism over traditional church liturgy. Blue was the colour associated with Patrick the saint. But the vivid green of its rolling landscapes is the colour of Ireland; it is the colour in which its fighters and patriots wrapped themselves in the long fight for freedom, and it is the national colour of independent Ireland. Patrick the saint has been forced to yield to Patrick the Irishman in this matter. As recently as the 1970s, St Patrick’s Day was a muted holiday in Ireland, falling as it did in the drab season of Lent in the days before church dominance evaporated. Families went to morning Mass and wore a sprig of shamrock in their lapels or collars and some item of green, a tie or scarf.
Neither was there feasting around plates of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes – another American fabrication (like green beer and the utterly stupid “custom” of pinching anyone not wearing something green). It was not a US-style meal-centric day, and even the modern Irish may have forgotten that it was a thoroughly sober day – all pubs in Ireland remained shut until the 1970s. If England and America are two nations divided by a common language, Ireland and Irish Americans are often divided by a common culture. Irish Americans have often thought that Ireland was too important to be left to the Irish. Nobody there believed that St. Patrick’s Day could be silent and sober across the drinkless land of the old country. We students in Dublin used to watch amazed the television coverage of the emigrants in America going crazy – could it be that only foreigners knew how to give our ould saint a good time?
The parades, festivities and parties of Ireland today, with silly green hats, balloons and green beer, are a reverse flow, back from America to the ancestral homeland. While most Irish join in the new secular fun of drinking, singing and partying, some quietly deplore the alien Disney misappropriation of their national holiday by the descendants of so many fake Irish grandmothers. Ireland has adopted most of these unfamiliar practices mainly for the benefit of the tourist industry – green is also for the greenback.
This week will mark the return of the St Patrick’s Day Parade to the streets of Dublin for the first time since 2019. Two years of Covid-19 pandemic brought a forced return of that silent and sober holiday of yore. To banish the national disconnection of the lockdowns, the theme of the festivities is “Connections”, and the organisers say it is the biggest and most ambitious Patrick’s Day programme ever planned – a celebration of Irish arts, culture and heritage. The day-to-night urban festival will run from March 16 to 20. Festival director Anna McGowan told Irish Radio last week: “It’s about looking at what has bound us over the last two years … but it’s also about our connection with each other as a country, and also those international connections that we have as a global family of 80 million.” (The population of Ireland is around five million). It’s a long time since Ireland was the dreamy, romantic backwater imagined by sentimental Americans recalling The Quiet Man movie and shedding tears of nostalgia into their green beer.
In the olden days (not so long ago), Irish exiles would return on national holidays to annoy stuck-at-home relatives with their tales of success and easy living in Boston or London or Perth – the exaggerations of forked tongues speaking in faked accents. Rhapsody in green. These days, the ubiquitous prosperity of the country and its fully employed stay-at-homers quietly mocks those of us who left to struggle in far-foreign fields. Most of us could no longer afford to live in Ireland. When I visited a few years ago, my young Silicon Valley relatives expressed awe at the hard core of wealth lying unobtrusively beneath the serene green hills and quiet fishing villages. “Don’t exaggerate,” I quipped, and they laughed as I stepped into the blue Mercedes my sister lent me for the duration of my vacation. Fair enough – she used to borrow my bike before I emigrated. Dublin may still win praise as one of the nicest cities in the world to live in, but it’s also one of the most expensive. “There’s no easy peace come dropping slow all over Ireland as Yeats said it did in The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the writer Maeve Binchy wrote in an essay before her death in 2012:
“There are too many mobile phones in pockets, new cars on the roads, gigantic cranes hovering over apartment block developments. Around the world, Irish singers and dancers fill stadiums, Irish poets win Nobel prizes, and bookshelves groan under the weight of the work of every second Irish man and woman who has found a voice and written in it copiously. Today, there are no leprechauns standing guard in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. But the Irish in Ireland are celebratory. There is plenty of green – shamrocks, greeting cards and even beer. The patron saint will look down today with pleasure at all the fuss that is finally being made of him in Ireland.”
Ah, yes. Patrick the Saint; Patrick the Emigrant; Patrick the Tourism Promoter. How many Patricks is that?
Just one, folks; just one.