WD Fyfe

A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society

St. Patrick’s Day: A Brief History

patrick3It’s only two sleeps ‘til St. Patrick’s Day, the #1 High Holiday on the ethnic calendar.  It’s a testament to the Irish that they could turn a minor religious observance into a worldwide cultural event – the only one of its kind.  Yes, I know, more people celebrate Chinese New Year, and I’m well aware that nobody’s tipping a Guinness in Riyadh, Islamabad or Baghdad this March 17th, but generally St. Paddy’s is celebrated around the world.  Frankly, all you need to get at it is more than one Irishman (or woman, or one of each, or just a couple of guys with beer money.)  My point is St. Paddy’s is not hard to find on this planet — especially if you’re looking for it.

There are two reasons we go looking to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  One, the Irish are cool.  Unlike, their Celtic cousins the Scots, who are cranky and belligerent, the Irish like to have fun.  They dance and drink, bet on the ponies and generally carouse.  Hell, they practically wake up singing — and not those dreary dirges the Welsh trot out when they’re finished digging coal, but happy songs about drinking moonshine and shooting at Englishmen, two notable leisure activities on The Emerald Isle.

The other reason is, unlike all the other Celts, the Irish didn’t go quietly.  They’re kinda the ethnic “Little Engine that Could” – and everybody loves an underdog.  The thing is (despite glacial devolution in Scotland) the Irish are the only Celtic nation that has survived the last two millennia of wanton European imperialism.  And it took them 900 years of ferocious biting back to do that.

Here’s the “Peanut Gallery” history lesson.

Way back in the day, a couple or three centuries before Christ, the Celts were the dominant people in Europe.  They pretty much called the shots north of the Po.  Meanwhile, down south, after a major smackdown beating of Hannibal and his Carthaginian elephants, the Romans discovered that you could get a lot more respect with a kind word and a sharp sword that you could with a kind word alone.  With Italy secure and prosperous, they pointed their legions north and came marching over the Alps, swinging their swords at anything that didn’t speak Latin.  (The kind words have been lost to history.)  The Celts, who were more into poetry and playing the pipes, didn’t stand a chance, and by the time Tony Soprano’s ancestors were done, there wasn’t much left of Celtic culture.  A few brave souls retreated back into the stony outcroppings of Northern Spain, Brittany, Cornwall, and Wales.patrick7  The Scots were living on crap land that the Romans didn’t want anyway (they built a wall to keep honest Romans from even going there – just sayin’) so, it was only the Irish, isolated on their island, who survived intact.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was thrown into nearly a thousand years of survival of the fittest: life was basically dog eat dog and don’t piss off the Vikings.  Nations rose and fell, on the strength of their leader’s arm, but, still devastated by the depth of the Roman conquest, none of them was Celtic.  Things settled down eventually, around the time of the Renaissance, but the Celts remained a digested people, swallowed whole by the individual European nation states that evolved.  Except the Irish, who, as I’ve said, didn’t go quietly.

Ireland, once protected by its island isolation from Roman occupation, was in for a shock.  One sunny day in the 12th century, a bunch of Normans (William the Conqueror’s boys) tired of kicking Saxons across the Thames, showed up on the Irish horizon, ready to do battle.  For the next 900 years, it was on-again-off-again warfare as the English laid claim to what was never lawfully theirs, and the Irish told them — in no uncertain terms — to go home.  Add to the mix, frequent famine, chronic poverty and, after Henry VIII, a religious schism between English Protestants and Irish Catholic that you could sail a Coffin Ship through, and “the luck of the Irish” becomes a bit of an oxymoron.  Essentially, Irish history is a litany of armed brawls where everybody shot first and nobody bothered to ask questions afterwards.  These conflicts were interspersed with times of relative peace when the various combatants rested up and/or passed the hatchet on to their children.  As my great uncle used to say, “Never give an Irishman a reason to hate you.”

patrick8Finally, in the first part of the 20th century, the English took the hint and went home — well, kind of – Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom – and the Gaelic Celts of Ireland became a nation once again.

That’s it in a nutshell.

So on Sunday, forget about your troubles, crack out the Bushmills and go find the music.  The Irish have been doing it for centuries.  And thank God for it, because without them, we’d all be singing, “When Norwegian Eyes are Smiling” for no apparent reason.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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This entry was posted on March 15, 2013 by in History and tagged , , , , .
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