Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lá Fhéile Pádraig

St. Patrick escapes from servitude as a pig herder in Ireland back to his native Britain (from where he had been kidnapped) with the help of sailors who agree to take him aboard. Patrick, or Patricius, says in his Confessio that “on that day, I refused to suck the breasts of these men from fear of God, but nevertheless I had hopes that they would come to faith in Jesus Christ, because they were barbarians.” The breast-sucking appears to have been a custom of ancient Irish society.

Later Patrick comes back, competes with the druids in contests of magic, and lights his fire on the Hill of Slane to trump the traditional druidic fire on the Hill of Tara. (It seems the Irish government is planning to build a highway near/over Tara soon. There’s presently a campaign to stop it, which any right-thinking person should support.)

James Joyce writes about the Archdruid Berkeley’s religious disputations with Patrick in Finnegans Wake. Peter D. Fitz-Hugh examines this section in an interesting article:

Why then should King Leary as the Archdruid’s chosen example of his way of ‘seeing’ the world appear all green? Because the fundamental point about Leary is his Irishness, a true native Irish king, the embodiment of Ireland free and unoppressed, who must therefore be seen as green, Ireland’s national colour, through and through to the Archdruids ‘throughsighty’ (FW611.32). Joyce is also saying that the Wake is a thoroughly Irish work.


St. Patrick represents a major cultural shift in Irish society. Although, of course Ireland didn’t become Christian in one fell swoop, as if in 432 the country was suddenly converted en masse. The original religion existed for probably many centuries more, and numerous pagan sites and practices were preserved almost wholesale in an ostensibly Christian guise.

It has been suggested that poems on the 7th-century figure Mongán in ancient texts such the Imram Brain maic Febaill represent a native pagan resistance to the imported religion, and that “Mongán was a chief [flaith] sympathetic to pagan beliefs…and poets viewed him as their champion and a source of hope as they attempted to hold the line against Christianity” (my translation, from J.E. Caerwyn Williams & Máirín Ní Mhuiríosa, Traidisiún Liteartha na nGael, BÁC: An Clóchomhar, 1979, p. 30).

Many also point out that on another level Christianity was eventually accepted into Ireland with a striking lack of violence or force, with a lot of tolerance for the earlier belief, even subsuming some of it and molding itself to pre-existing customs (though rejecting many others). St. Patrick therefore has a strange double meaning for Ireland.

2 comments:

Liammac said...

This wonderful post reminds me of Malachy McCourt's rejoinder to a caller to his radio show ( Malachy had a weekend show back on WMCA in the 70's ) who tried to rag on him by saying that Saint Patrick was Italian. Malachy fired back: '' We were a happy lot of heathens before he showed up.''

Che Elias said...

I had a saint patricks date this year, since then i keep thinking about it
this is a good post Bye all means
will You wont you wont you come to the bower (speakin of the irish)
I wonder what shane did that day!