“La fheile Padraig sona dhuit!” (Happy St. Patrick’s Day) is a commonly used expression in Ireland, as is “Beannachtai na feile Padraig dhuit!” (Blessings to you on the feast of Patrick)
Bangor is a city with an ancient history rooted, at least by name, in early Irish history. Bangor was known in the sixth century as a training monastery for such saints as Columba, who founded the famous monastery in Iona, Scotland and Columbanus, who founded a monastery in Bobbio, Italy. Bangor was the quintessential Irish monastic city, and it was known in Gaelic as “Beannchor” (circular hill). The famous “Bangor” hymnal helped influence the Rev. Seth Noble to adopt the name for Bangor, Maine.
Although not native to Ireland, St. Patrick’s birthplace was thought to be in Wales, where he was captured by slave traders. But after six years he managed to escape and eventually arrived in France, where he underwent monastic training in St. Martin’s monastery. It is said that his captive days were spent in Mayo, near the mountain named after him, Croagh Phadraig (Patrick’s Mountain), which is still climbed by 35,000 pilgrims, many of whom undertake it — as I did — on March 17, but mostly on Aug. 1.
After returning to Ireland, the druids considered Patrick such a threat that when he came to Armagh to try to convert King O’Leary, 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.
There are three patron saints in Ireland. One of them is St. Columba of Donegal. Another patron saint is Bridget, who absorbed some of the qualities of her predecessor, the goddess Brigid, who in turn, was associated with poetic inspiration, as well as midwifery.
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 in Donegal. This place became known in medieval times as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and it was written about in the 11th century as one of the most rigorous pilgrimages in Europe. I went there for a three day retreat, as did my father and my grandfather and on back for many generations. This is still the most demanding retreat in Europe, with only bread and water served and a requirement that pilgrims walk in bare feet during the retreat. Over 30,000 pilgrims each year have attended since the 12th century, and probably far earlier. Even in the 20th century this penitential has drawn its share of literary luminaries such as the poets Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney.
As late as the 1950s in Ireland the day was dedicated to religious services in which I participated as a young boy. But nowadays the color green, the shamrock, Guinness stout and partaking in corned beef and cabbage have become associated with St. Patrick’s Day, even though in Ireland bacon and cabbage were considered more traditional. Celtic music and Irish dancing have grown in popularity and share a similar history in Scotland. Geographically not far away from Maine is Cape Breton Island, where a large Celtic festival takes place every October. And, of course, there are places in Bangor, such as Paddy Murphy’s, where traditional Celtic music is played by MacLir’s Ceile Band each Tuesday evening.
In the present day, parades are held on March 17 throughout the world, including all over America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, France, Mexico, Russia and Chile (whose first president was Bernard O’Higgins). The Irish diaspora is estimated at 70 million worldwide, and this is a day to celebrate being Irish or feeling oneself associated with things Irish.
Hugh Curran was born in Donegal, Ireland, and he immigrated to Canada at a young age before moving to Maine. He teaches courses in Peace Studies at the University of Maine in Orono.