Saint Patrick’s Day, Not Just an Excuse to Drink Beer

We asked this Irishman why we should celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. He responded by calmly telling us that he had a particular set of skills….then he broke a bottle and attacked us, yelling about how he could play Wolverine….

So many in my industry celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, but how many actually have any idea of who he was, or why he is celebrated? The average person on the street will say “Oh, we wear green and celebrate Irish stuff, and drink beer and decorate with leprechauns and shamrocks.” But if you ask them who Saint Patrick was, you are lucky if you even get the response “He is the patron saint of Ireland.” Maybe something about the snakes.

While I am part Irish, and did always love the island and want to visit (especially since I watched my favorite John Wayne movie, The Quiet Man), I really didn’t develop an appreciation for Ireland and Saint Patrick before I read the book (Curtis influenced by a book? Imagine that!) How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. Yeah, you noticed that too? An Irish name.

This book both introduced me to the reasons why Saint Patrick is great, and the reasons why Ireland is such a wonderful island.

Earliest know picture of Saint Patrick, this was painted in the thirteenth century, whereas Saint Patrick died on March 17, 461 AD. So…..only seven or eight hundred years later.

Much of what we know about Saint Patrick comes from his own autobiographical work, The Confessio, attributed to him as his writing in his last years. He was not born Saint Patrick, he was born to a wealthy Christian family in Roman England, possibly in Scotland. He was given a Briton name, however, of Maewyn Succat. The Irish were already up in arms about the Briton’s, and likely when Maewyn was captured by Irish pirates at the age of sixteen he had ample opportunity to demonstrate what his last name meant. (In welsh Maewyn means “devoted friend.”)

He spent six years as a slave, so he knew what it was to be property. To be considered less than human. He was forced to herd pigs and sheep. I’ve done a tiny bit of this work, and I can tell you….you get plenty of time alone with your thoughts. Maewyn took to prayer. One day he saw a vision (I never saw any visions…though I have seen more than my share of dead pigs and sheep). He saw himself on a boat back to England.

The Irish may have been pirates in the 400s, but since then they have become as acquainted with grief as young Maewyn was. Here we see iconic statues dedicated to the Potato Famine of the mid 1800s.

Maewyn escaped slavery, returned to England, and studied to become a priest. He saw another vision, this time of Irish people begging him for the Gospel of Christ. He received the Pope’s blessing, and was appointed a Bishop and renamed Patricius, a Latin term meaning “noble father.” And the Irish indeed have taken to thinking of him as their father. He is to the Irish what George Washington is to America.

Patrick returned to the island that enslaved him. I could not do it. Well….actually I could. With some grenade launchers and automatic weapons. Those who enslaved me would feel the wrath of vengeance. Instead he returned to share the love of God. He visited King Lóegaire, the High King of Ireland, and asked his permission to preach. When he asked, he accidently pierced the king’s feet with his staff (you can see that in the picture above). The king uttered no word or sound in pain or protest, and when Patrick saw in dismay what he had done and asked Lóegaire why he had not protested, the king replied, “I thought silent suffering was a Christian precept.”

For good or ill, that is no longer true today.

One of my favorite prayers, immortalized (to me at least) by Madeleine L’Engle. When my son was suffering heart failure in the hospital, I read this to him

He spent twenty years in Ireland, preaching the Gospel to a people who he had every reason to hate. And by the time of his death on March 17 in the faraway fifth century, Ireland was no longer a Pagan bastion of piracy. He had established churches that would later mesh with Scotland and be called Columban, after the Saint Columba who did for Scotland what Patrick did for Ireland. These churches were not quite either Catholic or Orthodox, though they celebrated Easter and Christmas based off the Orthodox calculation, and were thus mildly criticized by Bede, the English historian of the 8th century. There were organized churches and monasteries, where the Bible was being copied literally religiously, while in the rest of Europe, the Huns, the Goths, the Germans were sweeping through Rome and burning all the books they could find. In the meanwhile, the Irish were making copies of all the books they could find, and recording all the stories they could. Much of what we know about Celtic mythology, fifth century Roman history, and yes, even some of the earliest complete texts of the Bible, are to be found in Ireland.

The Book of Kells is one of the earliest complete copies of the Gospels extent. It was copied by an unknown priest in the 8th century.

Cahill has been criticized by some that say he oversimplifies and doesn’t adequately document his sources. Even my nephew with the Masters in history turned up his nose at him, decrying the man was “not a real historian.” But it is a fact, that many of the Latin works from the first five centuries would have been lost if not for these priests. Much of the New Testament would not have come down to us without these priests.

So next time you drink a toast to Saint Patrick, no matter what faith you have, say a little prayer of thanks to the All Mighty that someone was around to inspire the Irish to save the words of the Latin classics for us today.

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/saint-patrick-dies#:~:text=On%20March%2017%2C%20461%20A.D.,wrote%20during%20his%20last%20years.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick

https://blogs.mcgill.ca/hist-399-2014/2017/02/167

While the Irish have maintained their love of nature, and their passionate nature, the love of learning that once was a hallmark of Ireland was pretty much destroyed by the potato famine and English oppression in the late eighteenth and early twentieth century. Thomas Cahill recalls a haunting story about an Irish farmer teaching his boy to read Latin from a copy of Aristotle that had been in the family for hundreds of years. That spirit of learning was crushed by a world determined to conquer at any costs. So much lost just to make sure my glory is greater. Gartha to Saint Patrick, and to the spirit of learning that once ruled the Emerald Isle. Please God let it come back. From one of the exiles from the Promised Land of Ireland, Slainte Saint Patrick!

Classic song about the Irish Civil War that stared in 1916, and cost so many lives on both sides. I don’t mean to take a side, though likely my post makes it look like I solely side with the Irish. But it does break my heart that the Emerald Isle that was such a light of learning over a millennium ago should become a bloodbath.
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