Green Day

SaintOnly four states or provinces observe Saint Patrick’s Day as an official holiday. Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Newfoundland & Labrador, and Montserrat. Although I’m not sure if there’s much to celebrate in Montserrat now, with half the island uninhabitable after the volcanic eruption of 1995. The island does have an Irish heritage, although the majority of people with Irish surnames are in fact the descendants of freed slaves who took the names of their former owners. St. Patrick’s Day also happens to commemorate a slave rebellion in 1798.

(Other facts about Montserrat: it is the home of Maizie Williams from Boney M; and Elton John recorded three albums at George Martin’s AIR Studio before it was blown away by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I call that divine justice.)

There’s a lot of misinformation about the Saint himself, in spite of his being one of the few figures from the Dark Ages to leave an autobiography, or at least a bit of a life story in two surviving documents. He says that he was from Bannavem Taberniae, but doesn’t say exactly where that is. (Somewhere in mainland Britain.) He was captured and enslaved by Irish raiders at the age of sixteen, but doesn’t say where in Ireland he was taken to. The tradition of him herding sheep on Slemish Mountain in Antrim, sadly, has no first-hand evidence.

Patrick escaped back to his homeland, and decided to continue his education. It used to be thought that he must have gone to a college in civilized Gaul in order to learn good Latin and modern Christian theology, but scholars now recognize that his Latin is very provincial (he actually says that himself) and influenced by the Celtic language; and the details of his religious practices were only written down after the suppression of Celtic Christianity, and so may have been sanitised. It also seems that stories have confused Patrick with Palladius, appointed Bishop in Ireland by the Pope some decades before Patrick’s mission.

That’s another misconception about Patrick, that he was the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. In fact, there’s evidence of Christianity for at least two hundred years before his time, and the appointment of Palladius would most likely have been in response to a request from the Christian community in Ireland to Rome for an official Bishop. Patrick himself says that he sought out pagan areas of Ireland to preach in, implying that there were also Christian areas.

One of the two surviving examples of Patrick’s own writing is the Confessio (“Declaration”, not “Confession”). It contains first-hand facts about his life and beliefs, but was actually written as a defence against legal charges made against him. He doesn’t explictly say what the accusations were, but his denial makes them fairly clear. He says that he returned the gifts which wealthy women gave him, did not accept payment for baptisms, nor for ordaining priests, and went to personal expense to give gifts to chieftains and judges. So it seems that Patrick was accused of using his position to make money. No smoke without fire, I say.

Patrick is thought to have died in 493, in a great coincidence, on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not known where he was buried, although the Annals of Ulster record that Columcille raided his grave sixty years later, removed precious items, and re-interred the remains in a “shrine”. Since Columcille was an O’Neill prince before becoming a saint himself, that would suggest an Ulster location. But the “grave” of St. Patrick in Downpatrick is a bogus, Nineteenth-Century artefact, with “Patric” carved in fake oldie-worldie script.

Patrick didn’t banish the snakes from Ireland, since there weren’t any. He didn’t go around in green Bishop’s robes. The course of the Shannon wasn’t really cut by a dragon fleeing from Patrick. He never drank a pint of Guinness in his life.

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