Who was St. Patrick? Were there one or two Patricks, as some some religious historians have stated?
The conventional view is that St. Patrick, after spending six years in captivity, escaped his captors, walked across Ireland and convinced a merchant ship to take him to the continent.
The likelihood is that his captive days were spent in Mayo, near the 2,500-foot conical mountain named after him, Croagh Phadraig. Today, it is an important pilgrimage site with 35,000 pilgrims climbing it on the last day of July (a traditional day of celebration called Lughnasadh).
Many people climb it on March 17, as I did several years ago, although in the early spring it is an arduous climb with unpredictable weather ranging from episodes of sun, rain and snow taking place throughout the climb.
Some hagiographies of St. Patrick state that he entered the monastery of St. Martin of Tours where he undertook religious training in the first half of the 5th century. St. Martin, who was one of the earliest conscientious objectors, having become disillusioned with being a centurion in the Roman army, cut his military cloak in half, giving half to a beggar. He then traveled from Hungary to Italy and on to western France where he lived an austere life and attracted a number of followers.
Patrick entered his monastery and, after years of training, came back to Ireland. There was a legend that the druids considered him such a threat to their power that when Patrick came to Armagh to try to convert Ui Loegaire (O’Leary), the son of the high King O’Neill, he had to change himself and his followers into deer. In this guise they passed by the guards who were on the lookout and under orders from the druids to turn them away. When Patrick began to preach to O’Leary’s court he would thrust his crozier (pointed staff) into the ground for emphasis, but by mistake he kept thrusting it into O’Leary’s foot. When Patrick saw the blood he asked the king why he had not told him. O’Leary replied that he thought the crozier was being thrust into his foot as an initiation ritual.
In the 12th century a book called “Acallam na Senorach” (Colloquy of the Ancients) detailed a talk between Patrick and two warriors of ancient days, Cailte macRonain and Oisin, the son of Fionn MacCuaill (Finn MacCool). It was a cordial meeting in which there was a discussion of differences between the old ways of feasting and involvement with nature and the more austere practices of Christianity. In the end, neither Cailte nor Oisin was convinced. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats included a poetic version of this “Colloquy of the Ancients” in his early poetry.
It should be noted that St. Columba of Donegal, the founder of Iona in Scotland, is the patron saint of Ireland, along with Patrick and Bridget. He was born about 50 years after Patrick’s death and represented a monastic tradition difficult to reconcile with the hierarchy of bishops that Patrick had introduced. The ancient Irish and Highland Scots were rural dwellers and clan-oriented, so monastic settlements were more appropriate to their way of life. The head of a monastery was the abbot or abbess since Celtic spiritual tradition featured a double monastery (males and females were in different quarters of the same building with a wall dividing them). This was consistent with the Brehon legal system, which gave equal property rights to women and men.
Although St. Patrick was unlikely to have been in the many places ascribed to him, there was a legend that he fought a monster in Lough Derg, Donegal. This place became known in medieval times as St. Patrick’s Purgatory and was written about in the 12th century as one of the most rigorous pilgrimages in Europe. A number of notable laymen from Hungary, France and Spain went on pilgrimage to Lough Derg from the 12th to the 15th century in order to experience visions. After 15 days on bread and water they usually had visions of purgatory.
I went there for a retreat a couple of decades ago and was given only bread and tea and had to walk in bare feet and stay awake for three days. The curious feature attributed to the monster Patrick fought was that he felt compelled to enter its mouth stark naked. Using his crozier he killed the monster and hacked his way out, which is why the lake is referred to as Lough Derg (the red lake). Today, it is a penitential retreat to which the poets Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Devlin and, more recently, Seamus Heaney have been. Heaney wrote “Station Island” after going on retreat.
Modern celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day are far removed from the traditional Irish celebrations. As late as the 1950s in Ireland the day was dedicated not to drinking and carousing, but to religious services. It was a Holy Day of Obligation in which one went to mass and novenas and avoided pubs. The parades were meant for religious purposes only. As an altar boy in Donegal I held up a religious banner while walking behind the local priest who led a parade down the main street of the village.
In almost all countries where the Irish diaspora has taken place the St. Patrick’s Day parade has fundamentally changed from its original character. Much of this is due to Irish-American influence that led this particular day to be considered one to honor Irish nationalism. Nowadays, the color green, the shamrock, Guinness stout, corned beef and cabbage have become hallmarks of St. Patrick’s Day, even though in Ireland corned beef and cabbage were seldom eaten since beef was too expensive and generally unavailable to most Irish. However, a similar dish, pork and cabbage, was eaten on special occasions.
Today’s St. Patrick’s Day parades in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — with their marching bands, bagpipes and local dignitaries — were not traditional in Ireland. But they have, by a curious reversal, influenced St. Patrick’s Day parades in Ireland.
In the U.S., they have also become politicized to the point where contentious issues such as whether LGBT pride groups should participate in an official capacity are strongly debated. Sometimes years of heated discussions take place before decisions are made.
In recent years, the parade has become a celebration wherever large populations of Irish have immigrated. The Irish diaspora is estimated at 80 million descendants worldwide, so it is well worth celebrating this particular day, which is given over to feeling good about being Irish or a lover of things Irish.
Hugh Curran was born in Donegal, Ireland, and immigrated to Canada at a young age before moving to Maine. He teaches courses in Peace Studies at the University of Maine.