Saint Patrick’s Day

Ireland – photo from NASA

I freely admit to some mixed feelings on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Saint Patrick is credited with converting Ireland to Christianity. As someone who wonders what the Western world would look like if monotheism hadn’t taken it over completely, I don’t see this as a good thing. Some have said that Pagans celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day would be like Native Americans celebrating Columbus Day.

Except, as usual, our legends don’t exactly match up with the facts. Jason at the Wild Hunt has a very good piece on this, with lots of links to historical sources. The “snakes” Saint Patrick supposedly drove out of Ireland weren’t the Druids, it was a legend created (or stolen) to explain the fact that there simply aren’t any snakes on the island.

More importantly, Saint Patrick doesn’t deserve all the credit (or blame) for the conversion of the Irish. Christianity had already taken hold in Ireland before Patrick and paganism wasn’t gone till long after his death. The Irish conversion was gradual, peaceful, and not exactly complete. Elements of the old ways were retained in Celtic Christianity and not eliminated under Catholicism. Our CUUPS elder Dolores (who was taught by Irish nuns in the 1940s) likes to say “scratch an Irish Catholic and you’ll find a pagan underneath.”

Try reading this piece from 1893 by William Butler Yeats, titled “A Remonstrance with Scotsmen for Having Soured the Disposition of their Ghosts and Faeries.” Here’s a short excerpt:

You have discovered the faeries to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all up before the magistrate. In Ireland warlike mortals have gone amongst them, and helped them in their battles, and they in turn have taught men great skill with herbs, and permitted some few to hear their tunes.

In Scotland you have denounced them from the pulpit. In Ireland they have been permitted by the priests to consult them on the state of their souls. Unhappily the priests have decided that they have no souls, that they will dry up like so much bright vapour at the last day; but more in sadness than in anger they have said it. The Catholic religion likes to keep on good terms with its neighbours.

In this country, Saint Patrick’s Day is primarily a celebration of Irish heritage. I’m proud of my Irish heritage – my family traces our ancestry from James Beckett, who immigrated to North Carolina from Ireland around 1800.

And what good Pagan can resist a day for celebrating with massive amounts of Irish beer? Saint Patrick’s Day is much like Cinco de Mayo, which my Mexican friends remind me has very little to do with Mexican history and a lot to do with giving Americans an excuse for drinking a lot of Corona and Dos Equis.

I won’t drink to Saint Patrick, but I’ll gladly raise a glass to my ancestors and to the land, people, and spirits of Ireland.

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