As I ponder on this day, I am reminded that it, like Columbus Day, can elicit a radically different response from people, based on their world-view and value system. Columbus Day for Euro-Americans was traditionally a day of celebration and commemoration of “discovery,” but for Native Americans and those who share concern for the plight of indigenous people who face the brunt of colonialist expansion, Columbus Day has become the symbol of loss. As one pundit put it, “Columbus didn’t discover America, he invaded it!”
St. Patrick’s Day, likewise, means different things based on whether a person’s interest in Celtic spirituality tends toward the Pagan or the Christian end of the continuum. For Christians, Patrick brought the new faith — hence, enlightenment — to this “island at the end of the world.” But Neopagans re-interpret Patrick not as a liberator, but as an oppressor. The arrival of Patrick’s mission marked the beginning of the end of the old ways. I remember back in the 1980s, in Nashville at a Wiccan bookstore, the first time I saw a leaflet for Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship: It said “Bring back the snakes! Ireland was better off Pagan.”
So when Patrick expelled the snakes from Ireland, was this a mythic way of saying he brought about the end of the native, druidic religion? It might be easy to interpret things that way, and I suppose many, both Christian and Pagan, would agree with this way of reading history. But I am not so sure. I think indigenous Irish spirituality did not so much vanish under Christianity as adapt and evolve. The old gods and goddesses may have retreated undergone and became the fairies of myth and lore, but many practices associated with them — from the veneration of holy wells to the Imbolc ceremonies Christianised under devotion to St. Brigid — have lived on, into the present day. Indeed, when I participated in a Brigid’s Eve Ritual in Co. Kildare in 2005, I quickly lost any sense of orientation as to whether what I was doing was primarily Catholic or Pagan in its focus.
Purists on both side of the Christian/Pagan divide will not like this very much, but I think this is the glory of Irish spirituality — and the true legacy of Patrick. Neither Pagans nor Christians are going to go away, so we can choose to hate each other — or we can decide to live together peacefully, and perhaps even joyfully. I opt for the latter. And I think the folk traditions of the Celtic lands are some of the best tools we have for learning how to be good neighbors with one another.
One other thought about St. Patrick. He first came to Ireland not as a missionary, but as a slave — and escaped several years later as a runaway. Much of the drama of his story came from his sense that he needed to return to the land of his own captivity as a spiritual emissary. Part of his legacy as the apostle to the Irish was his work against human trafficking. Now, there’s nothing within Celtic paganism that mandates the owning of slaves, and likewise we know that many Christians over the centuries have been slave owners, so it is a mistake to assume that because Pagan Ireland was a slave state, and the coming of Christianity brought also the fight against slavery, that this makes Christianity automatically morally superior to Paganism. That argument just doesn’t hold water. But what is worth considering is this: perhaps the “snakes” that Patrick expelled were not the Druids, but the slave traders and slave owners. By bringing an ethic of human dignity and respect to Ireland, Patrick brought a character that the best expressions of both Paganism and Christianity can celebrate.
Perhaps Pagans will always lament the coming of Patrick, and Christians will always celebrate it. In some ways, we will simply always be different. But if we can both agree that slavery is a bad thing and that freedom is good, perhaps we can see in this a call to freedom of religion, and the possibility of true interfaith spirituality and peaceful co-existence that will liberate us to work together for the common good. After all, human trafficking is still with us, and other problems (like the environmental crisis) exist where Neopagans and Christians can work together to achieve a common goal. In this way, everyone wins. Except for the snakes.