Brendan Behan, an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright, described himself as a drinker with a writing problem. He said that the Irish were a very popular race – with themselves. Possibly true.
Nevertheless, on St. Patrick’s Day, this popularity is sprinkled far and wide throughout the globe. Whether this is due to some magic bequeathed the Irish by their patron saint is questionable, but it is often said that on this day everybody is, or wants to be, Irish.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is an enchanted time – a harbinger more reliable than Groundhog Day itself of the budding arrival of spring. While parades mark the day in many cities, New York City lays claim to the longest continuously running St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world.
Some unknown seer said that in order to find his equal, an Irishman has to talk to God. Not surprising, then, that in Ireland St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day of obligation during which Catholics are obliged to attend Mass.
Much is uncertain about Patrick’s life. Many are surprised to learn that he was not Irish. In his youth, he was captured in Britain whence he was carried off and enslaved for several years in Ireland. There he worked as a shepherd. Several years later he escaped. His father, a priest, ensured Patrick’s education and priestly ordination.
Patrick was a man of vision. During his enslavement he reportedly had a dream in which he was told about a ship that would set him free. After his dream, he escaped. In later years, after his ordination, he had another dream and a vision in which he saw the people of Ireland beckoning him to come and redeem them from their pagan practices.
Returning to Ireland, Patrick had many obstacles to overcome in converting the natives. After all, the Irish never were nor are easily convinced. To quote an icon of history, Sir Winston Churchill, “They [the Irish] are a bit odd. They refuse to be English.” Nevertheless, Patrick is credited with the conversion of Ireland to Christianity.
He preached throughout Ireland, mainly in the north and down the west coast. He designed the Celtic cross in which he incorporated the Christian cross, superimposing and integrating it with the symbolic circle – representing the pagan Irish worship of the sun.
Patrick used the green three-leafed shamrock plant to successfully communicate and illustrate one of the principal mysteries of the Christian faith – the Holy Trinity. To this day, the shamrock is symbolic of St. Patrick and of Ireland itself.
He was laid to rest in the latter part of the fifth century in Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland. His epitaph might well read: Mission faithfully accomplished.
Unexpectedly, early this week I received a St. Patrick’s Day card from the Emerald Isle sent to me by an aunt of mine. Surprisingly, in her own handwriting and without explanation, she alluded to and expressed her belief in the existence of spirits. She enclosed a symbolic religious ribbon that we – as children growing up in Ireland – wore on this feast day.
This for me was an epiphanic moment. Akin to Behan, too often nowadays St. Patrick’s Day is a drinking celebration without a spiritual connotation. I believe the reverse is more appropriate.