Thursday, 17 March 2011
St Patrick: dear, reluctant saint of our isle
Changed times. When I was a youngster, parades were fewer and more modest on St Patrick’s Day. Now they’re everywhere, usually with lepping girls and fire-eaters. The Americans, as usual, are to blame. They started it all, on 17 March, 1762. Some Irish soldiers serving in the English military were given permission to march through New York City, the idea being that this would help them reconnect to their Irish roots and link up with fellow-Irishmen serving in the English army.
It caught on, but it took a while for the St Patrick’s Day marchers to draw public affection. During much of the nineteenth century, the Irish in the US were an oppressed minority, and when they held their Paddy’s Day parades in towns and cities throughout the country, local papers liked to portray them in cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys. Contrast that with now, when American politicians vie with each other to get a place in the parade.
St Patrick himself came here from England. Some people insist he was really from Wales, just as some people get chest pains if you suggest St Patrick didn’t actually spend his six years of slavery on Slemish in Co Antrim but did his sheep-herding at Killala in Co Mayo.
The hymn calls him the ‘dear saint of our isle’ but to be honest, I’ve never found him an attractive saint. He seems to have been cranky a lot of the time and he had a terrible teaching style. Frustrated by the inability of the Irish to grasp a simple thing like the mystery of the Trinity, he plucked a shamrock and held it up. “One shamrock, three leaves” he told them. “One God, three Persons. Now do you understand?” The Irish, being polite, nodded and said “Oh yes, right, we see now” but of course they didn’t and neither do I. The parallels between a shamrock and a Godhead have always eluded me, and I’ll bet the comparison baffled more Irishmen back then than it enlightened.
The other thing about Patrick that makes me uneasy is his reluctance to actually live here. The first time he had to be brought to Ireland in chains. The second time, when he came back to preach, you get the impression that he did so only because the voices in his head – his conscience – insisted that he must.
The truth is, we have as our national saint an Englishman whose teaching method invited heresy and who if left to himself would never have set foot in our country. What’s amazing is, we forgave Patrick all that, embraced Christianity despite the shamrock and we go on celebrating Patrick’s name centuries later.
Sure there’s nobody in the world like us, is there? Where’s me flag?