As an annual Irish holiday approaches, celebrated and beloved worldwide by people of many nationalities, I recall a few pub fests I attended over the decades, always dressed in black. There was the green river/beer bacchanal in Chicago; the ‘isn’t it still Mardi Gras’ in New Orleans; the tooting the flute hootenanny in Great Falls, Virginia; and the anti-climactic ‘where are all the party animals’ in Limerick, Ireland. Though I’m both Irish and Welsh, I’ve never been fond of Saint Patrick. His accomplishment of driving out the snakes is false in several ways—the snakes weren’t literal; it was a metaphor for pagans, people the church saw as evil. Archaeologists have found no evidence of snake fossils in Ireland. Patrick didn’t drive them all out, nor did others before and after him that shipped 1000s of pagans to the colonies or Australia or Caribbean isles. Patrick may have driven them underground.
I’m always surprised when I ask a Paddy Day reveler what they know about the man this day is named for; ‘nothing’ is the typical response. His name may have actually been Maewyn—the son of a Roman Briton named Calpurnius that lived in north Wales (or possibly Scotland or Brittany). Maewyn was captured during a coastal raid and sold as a slave to an Irish landowner. He worked as a shepherd and day laborer. Possibly suffering from malnutrition, he began having visions. A popular myth says one of his waking dreams showed him how to escape captivity. (I like to think a fairy blew in his ear.) He returned home and later studied at a monastery in France. Unfortunately, he was drawn back to Ireland, adopted the name Patricius (father of the people), and started doing missionary work. For a time, he allowed the native Irish to blend their traditions with Christianity. He is credited with incorporating a sun disc atop a cross and creating the Celtic Cross.
Patrick likely did spar with the reigning priesthood, the Druids, and with the cailleach (healing/hexing hags) and cunning folk. Differing versions of Patrick’s influence are given in scholar Ronald Hutton’s book Blood & Mistletoe: A Pagan History of Britain and The Druids, The Story of the Irish Race (Seumas MacManus); The Druids (Peter Berrsford Ellis), and Pagan Celtic Ireland: the Enigma of the Irish Iron Age. An article in the Wild Hunt blog likens Patrick’s attempted conversion of Pagans to be ‘akin to committing cultural genocide.’
He didn’t succeed, though one most look closely or be able to read Ogham to find pagan evidence. Pagan symbols of Sheela Na Gigs (erotic carvings of female figures) can still be found in old churches and manor houses. Spirals, celtic knots, and Brigid crosses have been chiseled into passage tombs and cairns, and it’s rumored Druids left messages in sacred oak groves (all of which have been destroyed). I have visited dozens of faery bushes and sacred wells throughout Ireland, and have sensed currents of energy. Even as recently as 2015, workers clearing land have refused to chop down a Sceach Gheal (thornbush).
When I observe a jumble of faces at these Paddy Day celebrations, with glasses raised, wearing ‘kiss my lucky charm’ or “erin go braless’ buttons and green and orange garb, their voices united in singing an Irish ditty, I have to be careful to not cry in my beer. My ancestors fled Ireland because of political oppression and inability to own land, because they were hungry and imagined a different quality of life… But every one of them wished they could have stayed. They brought part of the soul of Ireland with them. If you believe my Welsh grannie, they brought a few of the gentry and fay folk with them as well. A bit of Irish soil and pixie dust clung to them, and was sprinkled on later generations to ensure we would never forget. Were we deserters? Do we even have a right to call ourselves Irish Americans?
I imagine something similar happened with other people uprooted from their homelands, from places so imbued and interconnected with their DNA neither was ever the same after the parting. In the states, we celebrate Cinco de Mayo Day, the 4th of July, Octoberfest, Halloween, and Thanksgiving Day. All these holidays have ethnic connections, and like Paddy’s Day, people celebrate without remembering why. Do any of the people chugging beer and whisky shots on March 17 listen to or understand the words to The Town I Loved So Well or The Rising of the Moon? Does anyone hear a wee small voice intone ‘never again?’ Or another voice that mournfully whispers peace is a lullaby that dies on our lips? Or is the whole point to forgot our troubles for a day and imagine a Tir Na Nog world where there is always beautiful music, flowing liquor (or tea), lilting laughter (and craic), and no thoughts of the hereafter?
St. Patrick theoretically died on March 17, 490something ACE in County Down. On that day, I raise my glass to the dead: to Holocaust victims; to millions of Native Americans slaughtered in the name of greed; to witches and cunning folk burned, hung, or brutalized by witch finders, liars, and the Inquisition; to the millions killed because they knew inconvenient truths, and on and on… That’s part of the reason why I always wear black on Paddy’s Day. The other reason is not wanting to pick a side—green for Catholics and Orange for Protestants; pink for breast cancer; red for HIV… I wear the gender neutral color of mystery and magic, the color that absorbs light and causes people to pinch me because I’m not wearing green or orange. It’s a horrid American tradition from a past century. You get pinched because otherwise a leprechaun would do it. Only by wearing the day’s designated colors are you invisible to these gold hoarding munchkins that are tricksters/pagans. Or they say it’s a matter of pride—something you must do in solidarity. I pinch back—and sometimes I get to tell people what I’m toasting and honoring on March 17th. Slainte! (good health)