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Friday, March 13, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

We invoke holy Patrick, Ireland's chief apostle.
Glorious is his wondrous name, a flame that baptized heathen;
He warred against hard hearted wizards.
He thrust down the proud with the help of our Lord of fair heaven.
He purified Ireland's meadow-lands, a mighty birth.
We pray to Patrick chief apostle; his judgment has delivered
us in doom from the malevolence of dark devils.
God be with us, together with the prayer of Patrick, chief apostle.

- Ninine (eighth century, translated from Old Irish)

Beannachtai na Feile Padraig agat!” Blessings of the feast of Patrick on you!

Don't even try to pronounce that from the text. The rule of Irish spelling is, you only pronounce the letters that aren't there.

March 17 is St. Patrick's Day, marking the date of death sometime between 461 and 496 A.D, of a man born Maewyn Succat sometime in the late fourth or early fifth century. Which ought to tell you something about how much is known for sure about the patron saint of Ireland.

Patrick was born of Romano-British stock in what is today Wales, where Romanized Celts fled from the Saxon invaders after the death of the leader known in legend as King Arthur.

He was taken by slave raiders from Ireland and set to work as a herd boy for six years.

Patrick said in his Confessio, “I, Patrick, unlearned and a sinner, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age.”

After a time, Patrick had a vision that if he made his way to the coast, he would find a ship which would take him home. After he was reunited with his family for a time, he had another vision.

“I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: 'We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and walk again among us.'”

Patrick, as he was now known, returned to Ireland as a missionary. Legend has it he commenced his activity on the pagan feast of Beltane, on May 1 when all the fires in the land were extinguished and re-lit from one sacred fire of the Druids at the hill of Tara, seat of the High Kings of Ireland.

The story goes that Patrick kindled a fire within sight of Tara, causing a Druid to prophesy, “If that fire is not put out, it will kindle a blaze that will consume all of us.”

The Druids brought Patrick to a trial, at which he acquitted himself so well he won his first converts. In fact, conversion proceeded so rapidly that Ireland was Christianized without a single martyrdom, the only Christian nation which can claim that.

Of course, the Irish have been making up for it ever since...

Various reasons have been advanced for this. It seems likely Irish paganism had become encrusted with taboos and obligations (gaesa in the Irish) and Christianity offered a much more liberal and humane set of dos and don't.

“You mean, I avoid meat on Friday, fast once a year, and I don't have to get up every sunrise and run backwards nine times around my house because I saw my mother-in-law hang her washing on the line ten years ago? Baptize me!”

Since the pagan tradition offered so little resistance, there was no reason to suppress it. Patrick himself enjoyed listening to the old tales, and specifically commanded they be written down, to the everlasting gratitude of historians, anthropologists, and folklorists.

The recorded Irish mythology is the largest collection of Celtic culture in existence, twice the volume of the next largest, the Welsh. What is known of the mythology and religion of the continental European Celts fills one very thin book.

So whether you're Irish or not, here's a toast to St. Patrick, in green beer or uisge beatha (“water of life” origin of the word “whiskey.”)

And you don't even have to get plastered and start a fight. It's not a law or anything.


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