It’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. 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.”
Finally, 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!
Stuck between The Ides of March and St. Patrick’s Day, March 16th is probably the most neglected day on the calendar. It shouldn’t be: after all, The Ides of March was really just a minor Roman festival before Brutus and Cassius decided that power came out of the pointy end of a dagger. Frankly, if Julius Caesar had been feeling a bit frisky that morning and gone over to Cleopatra’s instead of to the Senate, we wouldn’t remember The Ides of March, at all. Plutarch wouldn’t have written about it, and Shakespeare wouldn’t have borrowed it to add a little spooky to his play Julius Caesar. As Katherine Hepburn once said, about an unrelated matter, “Such is the role of sex in history.”
This minor change (given the tenor of the times Caesar was going to get his one way or the other) would have made March 16th a bigger day: Saint Patrick’s Eve, perhaps; just as Hallowe’en is All Hallows’ Eve and December 24th is Christmas Eve. Unlike the Ides of March, which needed an assassination to put it on the map, St. Patrick’s Day is one of the big boy holidays. It is so connected to Ireland that even if Saint Patrick hadn’t become the kick-ass saint he was destined to be, the Irish would have made him up – which, for the most part, they probably did.
There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Saint Patrick was a real guy. His life is actually pretty well documented (for the time.) At least two letters he wrote are considered authentic, which doesn’t seem like much but when you consider most everybody in the 5th century was an illiterate peasant, it’s a lot. However, that’s where it ends. Most of the juicier details of his life are actually just high-end speculation. There are no snakes in Ireland and there are a lot of shamrocks but we have no documented proof that either had anything to do with Saint Patrick. In fact, there is actually no record in the Vatican of his ever even being canonized. He is the patron saint of Ireland by tradition alone. Likewise, the stories of his exploits were probably just good press for a church that was fighting tooth and nail against some long-established pagan gods.
The early Christians weren’t stupid. They knew that a single God was a hard sell to superstitious people who had always worshipped a pantheon of pagan deities. So they turned a bunch of ordinary people — who had led virtuous lives — into saints. These saints weren’t gods, but they were already in heaven. Thus, they were able to perform miracles in aid of the living and could be invoked in prayer, just like the old gods of the forest that the people were accustomed to. Then, the Christian church went one step further and made it all personal. They invented the patron saint, who had a personal interest in you. Whether through your occupation, your birthday, where you lived or some other circumstance, a number of saints were available just for you, to handle your earthly problems. The local river nymphs didn’t stand a chance against that kind of firepower, and Christianity came to dominate Europe. Interestingly enough, though, these days, even ahead of Saint Patrick, the universally accepted symbol of Ireland is the leprechaun.
For centuries, St. Patrick lounged around in the same secular/celestial neighbourhood as St. Andrew, St. David and St. George, first among equals in the regions they represented but not that well-known beyond the borders. (For example, most non Scots get St. Andrews Day and Robbie Burns Day hopelessly confused.) But then, in the 1840s, the potato crop failed and Ireland began to starve. First, the old people died and then the children. Mothers abandoned their babies rather the watch the inevitable. Whole villages turned their backs on their homes and roamed the countryside, looking for anything to eat — including the grass that grew in the ditches. Without hope and forsaken by the future, the Irish left Ireland by the thousands to go anywhere beyond this despair. In the 19th century the Irish Diaspora was huge: an army of homesick exiles, driven from their land. Isolated in their adopted countries, by their speech, their customs and their religion, they clung together, keeping their traditions alive. It was here — in the Irish ghettos of New York and Boston, Melbourne and Montreal — that St. Patrick’s Day was born. It had always been a religious holiday in the old country, but far from home, St. Patrick’s Day became a time to drink a toast, sing the old songs and try to remember that which had once been. A day of Irish pride far from the graves of their families, it was the slender thread that could take their hearts home.
Today is March 16th, the most neglected day on the calendar, but tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, the party where everyone is Irish. So, at some point in the festivities, pause for a moment, and raise your glass to St. Patrick, a virtuous man, good enough to be turned into a legend by the early Christian spin doctors. Then, raise it once more to all those nameless Irish immigrants who carried him with them, around the world.
May yer neighbours respect ya
Troubles neglect ya
The angels protect ya
And heaven accept ya*
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
*(Did you just read that in an Irish accent?)