“Dear Librarian…” My continuing struggle against one of the oldest enemies in Los Angeles…IGNORANCE!
Felix C. of Valley Glen asks, “This weekend I plan to behave like any nice Jewish boy on Saint Patrick’s…drink green beer and Bushmill’s until I puke. Why? What did Saint Patrick ever do for me, other than getting rid of a bunch of snakes? And what’s up with that? What did they have against fucking snakes in Ireland?”
Felix, the Irish would never taint a beer with dye, nor would they drink Bushmill’s, the whiskey of my Ulster Scot ancestors, but rather imbibe in their native Jameson. My favorite Saint Patrick’s Day was spent in Dublin, 17 March 2001. I was not able to enjoy the fun because I’d broken my leg a week earlier falling on the Cruach Phádraig, the mountain in western Ireland where Patrick supposedly expelled all the snakes from the island in the 5th century, but this mishap did give me more street cred in Ireland than probably anything else I could have done. The locals became downright gregarious after seeing an American on crutches making the best of his vacation, gambled and lost upon their favorite pilgrimage site, where tens of thousands make the climb and dozens end up as I did, in the Castlebar hospital. I found myself at the receiving end of many free pints and stews, and met people who would have been merely polite had I not expressed my affection for their country in such a concrete fashion. I also learned the truth about socialized medicine, as the total cost of a mountain rescue, helicopter ride, ambulance ride, expensive crutches and two hospital visits amounted to NOTHING, even for a foreigner; I wouldn’t recommend an Irishman expect that falling off Mount Rushmore.
I didn’t miss much of Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin that year, because all the festivities had been abruptly cancelled due to the outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. I spent the afternoon in the lobby bar of the Gresham Hotel, which still has bullet holes on the exterior from the Irish Civil War, enjoying cocktails and conversation with the gay and straight Irish couples staying there for the holiday. Outside, scores of drunk American, British and German tourists in silly costumes wandered aimlessly, looking for something to do, their binge cut short by an animal disease. This festival itself is quite new; Saint Patrick’s Day only became a holiday in Ireland in 1903, and the festival started in 1996, when the Irish decided to have a parade for the thousands of tourists that show up on what was previously a minor religious celebration. Saint Patrick’s Day is an American holiday, like Cinco de Mayo, a date chosen by Irish-Americans in the late 18th century to celebrate their Irish heritage. After the famine, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York City was the largest civilian parade in the world, and you may see the Chicago River dyed green, but never the Liffey.
I tell you all this because, even though I am not the slightest bit Irish, I feel qualified to answer this question. I love the Irish: Ireland was the first country in Europe I traveled to, and I think they are the most hospitable, charming people I’ve met, with a wonderful appreciation for the language of their oppressors and a curiosity that demonstrably preserved Western culture through the Dark Ages. Those stereotypes may not be universally true, but I hope they aspire to them; the more common stereotypes are illustrated by the photo above. A “truer” portrait of the Irish is the photo below. They are not a bunch of drunks who like to fight and believe in fairies, although I’ll admit they have a lot of car accidents, which might be due to narrow roads rather than drink. But I digress.
The Irish are like any other people; but their country is rightly important compared to the size of it. Just a few million people on a island not much bigger than Southern California, they’ve promulgated a diaspora of tens of millions, like the Jews, Armenians and Chinese. Wherever I’ve traveled in the world, I can always find an Irish pub to relax and take stock of my surroundings before plunging into a completely alien culture. This huge diaspora is why we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day; it is a rare global holiday.
In Ireland itself the people are fairly homogenous, so before I broke my leg they gave me the look they give Americans and politely asked if I was looking for “connections”. I could say that I wasn’t, just travelling and enjoying their company; my connections were all in Ulster, among the transported Lowland Scots, also known as Ulster Scots or Scots-Irish. Indeed, any reference to “Irish” in America before the famine of the 1840s was usually to these Scots, who settled the South 150 years before the poor Irish could afford the trip. We also claim Saint Patrick as a hero, but much less so; his home cathedral of Saint Patrick’s in Armagh is much smaller than the grand Presbyterian church just across town. My people are the tough hillbillies of Appalachia; we fought both English and Catholic Highland Scots from time immemorial, until James had us pesky Presbyterians transported to Northern Ireland to slave for the English plantation owners and fight the native Irish, then moving to America to fight Native Americans and once again, the English with their Highlander mercenaries. On my arrival in Belfast I was curious to discover how “Catholic” and “Protestant” could tell one from the other, but realized immediately that the fight was between the gray-eyed, black-haired Irish and the blue-eyed, blond Scots. Indeed, I was better received by the Irish in Belfast than my own cousins, who are naturally suspicious of Americans; or as the Irish on the Falls Road told me, “They think you are for us,” not a necessarily true assumption but unfortunately accurate. Both Irish and Ulster Scots mock their American cousins who kept their war alive with guns and money for so many years.
Anyway, that was a very long-winded introduction to a few simple facts; first, there never were snakes in Ireland. Only one kind of lizard lives there, not including all the lizards, snakes, alligators, etc., released into the sewers of Dublin as they have been in so many cities, by neglectful pet owners. The reason for this is geology; unlike Great Britain, Ireland has been an island for most of its history, underwater for millions of years and almost completely buried by ice sheets for thousands more. Great Britain was connected to Continental Europe by a significant isthmus known as Doggerland until just about 8000 years ago, letting in three kinds of snakes. Second, there was a real Saint Patrick, and we even have two letters by him, which contain some of the first written criticisms of human slavery. He died on 17 March 461 and, for his good works in converting the Irish to Christianity, the Franciscan monk Luke Wadding wangled him a feast day in the 17th century, along with plenty of guns and soldiers for the unending fight against the Protestant English. Patrick was never officially canonized, like many regional saints.
A more interesting question is why Saint Patrick should have banished the snakes in the first place. According to the legend they were bothering him during his sojourn atop the Reek (the local name for the Croagh Patrick), but why snakes? Why did the Irish create a legend about a creature they knew was absent from their island? I have no answer for this, but all the educated guesses involve the idea the snakes represent evil, so some monk came up with the tale to scare some kids about Patrick’s motivation to cleanse Ireland of its pagan ways (which are now, thankfully, returning.) Still, it is hard to understand how the snake came to signify the old religion in Ireland; snakes are not prominent even in Celtic religion on the Continent, and Irish mythology lacks the kind of phallic symbolism you find with the Druids, preferring the more feminine wiles of Queen Medb or the Sheela-na-gig.
Another mystery is why Patrick become the patron saint of Ireland, instead of Saint Brigid or Saint Colm Cille, both of whom built more substantial contemporary followings in Ireland, and have more folklore and holy sites attached to them in Ireland. Yet Saint Patrick was honored by the first parades of the Irish in America, perhaps because his saint’s day fell so close to the old New Year’s and the vernal equinoxe, both of which were ancient and important holidays. It may also be that Patrick, unlike Brigid or Colm Cille, was more of a global saint because of his opposition to slavery, and the diaspora recognized this mythological aspect of his biography.
Finally, did Patrick actually die on 17 March 461? It seems unlikely, considering how long ago this was, to fix any kind of certain date. For many years Patrick was confused with Palladius, the first Bishop of Ireland, and there are conflicting dates about him in the oldest source, the Annals of Ulster. But whether he died on 17 March or not, this was the date chosen for his saint’s day, and the strength of the Irish diaspora along with the proximity to spring have made it an unofficial global holiday.
I hope that answers your question, and tonight I will raise a glass to you and all the kind people I met in Ireland…because silly as it may be, this day should really be dedicated to them. Sláinte!