Saturday, 19 March 2011

Happy St Patrick's Day?

(Let's pretend I published this on time.)

Happy St Patrick's Day! Beannachtaí na Fhéile Pádraig!

Now, before any of you accuse me of betraying my Pagan ancestors by supporting the religious coercion of pre-Christian Ireland, I happen to have had been celebrating St Patrick's even before I rediscovered Paganism. And I never celebrated the man himself, anyway. What I used to do was to celebrate traditional Irish culture. And it's still what I intend to do today.

First, let's get our facts straight:
  • Most of what we know of St Patrick comes from the 7th century, roughly two centuries after his death, but he did write two letters: Confessio and Epistola.
  • Patrick was not born on March 17th. As with most Christian saints, his feast day is on the date of his death.
  • St Patrick was not Irish. He was a Roman Briton. That's Patricius for you. His name in Old Irish is Cothraige (Pádraig in Modern Irish). I'm not sure if this was his original name, though, as I read something about some Celestine dude (fine, he was a Pope) who gave him the name Patricius. Previously, his name had been Maewyn Succat.
  • Patrick's first encounter with Ireland was when he was a teenager, as a kidnapped slave. There are sources that say his master Milchu was either a warrior-chieftain or a high-ranking druid. After a life of tending herds and herds of his master's sheep, he escaped and went back to Britain just in time to enter the priesthood in Gaul and become a bishop. He returned to Ireland with a vengeance. As an evangelist. Yikes!
  • Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland, nor its first bishop. And he did not completely convert Pagan Ireland, either. Several Irish kingdoms were still Pagan well after his death. We even have accounts of druids teaching well into the 7th century. The great bulk of Pagan influences that crept into Irish Christianity is proof of the gradual and unorganised christianisation of Ireland.
  • The preservation of much of Ireland's pre-Christian literature actually owes itself to the Christian monks who took down the old tales and mixed them with biblical stories. The druids were quite fond of oral tradition and so did not write anything down (that much).
  • The affair with the snakes is fictional. There were never any snakes in post-glacial Ireland. The poor things couldn't cross the sea when the sea levels rose.
  • The snake myth comes from St Hilaire of France and was merely added to the hagiography (saint-study) of Patrick c. 11th century. Those snakes weren't originally meant to symbolise pagans or druids, either. They were initially just, well, snakes. Nevertheless, the mythical snakes and their identification with Irish Paganism have become a part of popular folklore, especially amongst some Neopagans these days. ADF founder Isaac Bonewits (may he rest in peace) even wrote a song about it and renamed St Patrick's Day as "All Snakes Day".
  • Legend has it that Patrick used the shamrock (three-leaf clover) to educate the Irish on the concept of the Holy Trinity (three persons, one god). However, the shamrock (and the number 3) already had some special significance for the Irish before Christianity, so Patrick probably didn't have a hard time.
  • The original colour associated with St Patrick was blue. Green only came to popularity in the 17th century as a symbol of Ireland (not St Patrick).
  • St Patrick's Day is a holy day of obligation for Irish Catholics worldwide and has been a public holiday in Ireland since 1903. It has, however, gradually become more of a secular celebration of general Irish culture (yes, including the beer) in other parts of the world. 

I don't like him, but I don't hate him, either. He wasn't that bad, you know. Patrick was no Charlemagne. He didn't massacre whole tribes just so they could accept Christ. He didn't go chopping down sacred trees or desecrating holy wells, either. We still have lots of them in Ireland. Patrician Christianity actually sounds very Pagan. Have you seen his prayers? The bishop had his awesome moments.

I still won't be celebrating the man, though. Today is still about Ireland for me, but especially Pagan Ireland. Today, I'm going to listen to nothing but Irish music and will continue to support artists who incorporate (or play entirely just) traditional Gaelic music. I will continue practising my bódhran and whistle, and maybe even my fiddle. I will continue studying Gaeilge: I will not let it die. I will promote the Gaeltacht. I will honour the old Gael heroes, especially Great Cú Chulainn whose hero-feast is also on this day. I will honour the old Gael gods (even if only on this day): I will pour them milk and honey, as traditional, or recite a bardic poem. I will continue writing the old Ogham. I will never let anyone again spread lies about Gaelic culture, calling it outdated or uncultivated. And the Gaels will never have to leave their homeland again because of eviction or persecution, or for any other unjust reason.

May the land of Éire be a safer place to live for all Her people. May the culture of the Gaels flourish for more generations to come.

Happy Ireland Day!

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