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St. Patrick’s Day vs. the Real St. Patrick
I’m ethnically Italian but I have a devotion to St. Patrick, the real St. Patrick, not the distorted silly festival St. Patrick that is dressed in what is supposed to pass as green bishop garb. Why is it that festivals left to secular devices almost all lead to bacchanals? I remember as a college kid meeting up with other students in Manhattan for the St. Patrick’s Day parade, drinking green beer, and then sitting at an Irish pub named Molly Bloom—named after a character in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses—and talking Irish literature. I can still quote a few of Yeats’ poems! [“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer…”]
And I remember in the years after college meeting up with some of my boyhood friends—none of which were actually Irish—every St. Patrick’s Day at a local Brooklyn tavern named Pippin’s Pub, where on St. Patrick’s Day they would give out free corned beef sandwiches all night. We’d drink Guinness—our tastes had developed beyond green beer—and later in the night swing down Irish whiskies and listen to Steely Dan on the jukebox. [“They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues”] I’m not sure why Steely Dan felt appropriate for March 17, but it was hip, and I think Irish was hip back then in New York City, at least on St. Patrick’s Day. There was certainly Irish music played on the juke, but I remember Steely Dan. I can tell you the hangovers weren’t hip.
But such is New York City’s version of St. Patrick’s Day.
By the way, I discovered a wonderful podcast from Ireland called The Brendan Option, hosted by Fr. Brendan Kilcoyne who from a Catholic perspective gives his opinions on the new Ireland, and they are not very positive. Here he laments at what has happened to the St. Patrick’s Day parades in Ireland where he wants to cancel the parade altogether.
Besides agreeing with his many opinions, I just love his gift of gab that apparently so many Irish have. And I love his accent. If you don’t watch it, here’s a little quote from the episode he put on the description pages:
“I want this vulgar, drink-sodden, [BS] that is commonly called St. Patrick’s Day to stop so that the celebration of a major Catholic figure in the Irish Catholic experience is not ruined.”
Since those days attending Irish pubs, I got married and became religious. Not that marriage and developing faith necessarily follow or are connected. Still, I will attest that in marriage, God does actually call you, and whether you listen or not is up to the individual. Be that as it may, I discovered my Catholic faith, assessed it against other faiths and other versions of Christianity, and came down solidly on Catholicism.
One of the many blessings of Catholicism are the lives of the saints. They are our models and our heroes. Reading about saints’ lives can be a real pleasure to faithful Catholics, and I encourage it. Yes, some of the hagiography can be hard to believe, but the moral instruction is the critical element, and moral instruction is missing from much of our contemporary literature. Or perhaps to say it in another way, much of the moral instruction we get from contemporary literature is frankly immoral.
Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic American writer, has a great quote that shows Catholics’ admiration of saints’ lives when she says this about a character: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” I forget which novel or story that came from, but it shows that even in a satirical line that Catholics measure their lives against those of saints.
Which brings me to St. Patrick — the real St. Patrick. I don’t go to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan anymore, but one of the pleasures of this day is to read the story of St. Patrick. And every year I seem to discover something new about him. We know more of his life than people probably realize. I’m sure most have heard how as a teenager he was kidnapped from what is now England or Wales and brought to Ireland as a slave, and in time e escaped and after six years made his way back home. You probably also know he had a calling to evangelize the very people who enslaved him, and so with great risk went back to Ireland and in time converted the island to Christianity.
That’s the short version, but there is a lot in-between that has been glossed over, and it’s not just the hagiographic Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. I particularly enjoyed reading Catholic League’s Bill Donohue’s post on St. Patrick’s life. The calling to go back to Ireland came in Patrick’s sleep, and while still a young man realized he needed to be a priest to fully answer the call, so he went to France and was tutored by monks at a monastery, and after two decades was made a bishop of the diocese of Ireland. His dream of finally answering the call was realized. This probably put him in his forties, but he went on to live into his seventies or eighties (the actual length disputed), which would have given him a good thirty to forty years evangelizing in Ireland.
How do we know so much of St. Patrick’s life? Besides his being included in historical annals, two documents have been preserved that he wrote. His autobiography, Confessio, and a letter to a Roman warlord (or nobleman) named Coroticus and apparently a Christian denouncing his enslavement of Irish in Britain. The letter is referred to as the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. This is how the letter opens:
I declare that I, Patrick, – an unlearned sinner indeed – have been established a bishop in Ireland. I hold quite certainly that what I am, I have accepted from God. I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God – he is my witness that this is so. It is not that I would choose to let anything so blunt and harsh come from my mouth, but I am driven by the zeal for God. And the truth of Christ stimulates me, for love of neighbours and children: for these, I have given up my homeland and my parents, and my very life to death, if I am worthy of that. I live for my God, to teach these peoples, even if I am despised by some.
Donohue points out that no public person in history had ever publically denounced slavery. Patrick was the first. Coroticus had apparently raided, plundered, killed, and enslaved, and Patrick was furious. Paragraph 15:
I do not know what to say, or how I can say any more, about the children of God who are dead, whom the sword has touched so cruelly. All I can do is what is written: ‘Weep with those who weep’; and again: ‘If one member suffers pain, let all the members suffer the pain with it’. This is why the church mourns and weeps for its sons and daughters whom the sword has not yet slain, but who were taken away and exported to far distant lands, where grave sin openly flourishes without shame, where freeborn people have been sold off, Christians reduced to slavery: slaves particularly of the lowest and worst of the apostate Picts.
Donohue also points out that Patrick particularly identified the crime of enslaving women: “So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time” (par. 19). Donohue identifies Patrick as being ahead of his time when it came to human rights.
What makes this all the more dramatic is the way the pagan world thought about women: the idea that women were equal to men was totally foreign to them. But the women understood what Patrick was saying, and gravitated to him in large numbers. The Christian tenet that all humans possess equal dignity had taken root.
And so, when Fr. Brandan denounces the drunken debauchery that has become the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, he is upset at the besmirching of a great man and holy saint. Saint Patrick, pray for us.Published in Religion & Philosophy
Oh, what the heck…
Thanks Manny, I had never heard of much of that either. I’m glad you like the Brendan Option. His parish is only 40 minutes away from my home place. He puts an effort into his homilies too. I hope he doesn’t get discouraged though, I had a sense of that hearing him speak at an event recently.
Jeez Manny…I worked in NYC for over 30 years and I don’t remember any drunken bacchanals on St Patrick’s Day. Strangely, though there were many unexplained bouts of 24 hour ‘flu’ on the day after St Pat’s. Odd huh?
Seriously though … great post, and thanks for the tip about the Brendan Option and the link to the St Patrick post.
Yes, lol, the parade itself is for the most part orderly. It was heavily policed. It’s the partying after that was where people got out of hand.
Yes, thank you for pointing me to the Brendan Option. For everyone, it was Marjorie that originally tipped me to him. He does have a tendency to be overly negative though. He reminds me of me at a younger period in my life. Things have certainly gotten worse than then but I’ve learned to just let it be in God’s hands.
That was hilarious!! I don’t remember seeing that one before.
I did? I’d actually forgotten that😁 my current YouTube favourite is Fr Conor from Irish Dominicans so that’s how fickle I am 😁
I found this edition of the Confession of St. Patrick, and thought it would interest you:
The link didn’t work for me, HvA. I went to the root site, poked around, and found this.
It was one of the “Battle Of The Bars” episodes, where they have some kind of competition with Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern. For that one it might have been to see who could sell the most green beer on St Patrick’s Day or something, and then Gary’s people got into Cheers overnight and “walled off” the bar area with cement blocks.