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Who was St. Patrick? Why do we celebrate him?

“You say Saint Patty’s
And I say Saint Paddy’s
Let’s call the whole thing off.”

Chances are that somewhere near you is celebrating the 17 March. From Dili to Tucúman, from Nairobi to Wasila, people celebrate the patron saint of Ireland. But do they really?

Who was this guy? No one knows whether he was from Britain or France. We do know that he was a slave in the mountains for seven years, eating what the pigs ate. A more humble life might be difficult to find. Aided by a mysterious voice he escaped the land of the Gael, but he returned years later to Christianise Pagan Ireland.

Little is known about his mission. All accounts of his doings were chronicled after his death. The only primary accounts are two letters written by Patrick, in which he declares that he “baptised thousands of people”, ordained priests to continue his work and targeted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns in the face of family opposition, and the sons of kings. [Charles-Edwards, T. M. (2000), Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]

If this was not enough to cement his mission, Patrick reputedly banished the snakes, used the natural flora to explain the Holy Trinity and even baptised one of Ireland’s greatest warriors, Oisín mac Fionn, after his return from Tír na nÓg (Land of Youth).

It does make one wonder about the steadfastness of the Irish to yield their gods so quickly, while not under the threat of arms. Although since all remaining documents are accounts kept by the early Irish Christian Church, there is room for a little scepticism. Naturally 17 March is a holy day of obligation in Irish Catholicism – a day for solemn reflection and mass going.

But what has any of this to do with Paddy’s Day? Not very much at all. The current practice of parades through towns and cities, dying rivers green and drinking enough alcohol to float an armada is a recent phenomenon.

Parades were not seen in Ireland itself until the mid twentieth century. They began, in fact, in nineteenth century America as a social and political protest against the discrimination against the immigrant Irish. The infamous sign, “No Irish need apply,” was quite in vogue at the time. In an act of political expediency, General Washington allowed his troops a holiday on 17 March 1780, “as an act of solidarity with the Irish in their fight for independence.” [source] Both colonies were battling the same empire.

Essentially, 17 March was a holy day of sober reflection in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, whereas in other parts of the world, it was a celebration of all things Irish.

In the past twenty years, the two celebrations have combined a formed a monstrous combination of drinking to excess, dressing up as a leprechaun and generally acting the plastic paddy. Plastic paddys are best described by Alex Massie in the National Review:

When I was a student in Dublin we scoffed at the American celebration of St. Patrick, finding something preposterous in the green beer, the search for any connection, no matter how tenuous, to Ireland, the misty sentiment of it all that seemed so at odds with the Ireland we knew and actually lived in. Who were these people dressed as Leprechauns and why were they dressed that way? This Hibernian Brigadoon was a sham, a mockery, a Shamrockery of real Ireland and a remarkable exhibition of plastic paddyness. But at least it was confined to the Irish abroad and those foreigners desperate to find some trace of green in their blood.

The Celtic Tiger made plastic paddies of the Irish. Myles na Gopaleen called it a “virulent eruption of paddyism.” We sent out Irishness in flat pack Irish bars to all the world.

St. Patrick’s Day has become a homage to dead gods. Leprechauns and the fairy folk, so beloved of the plastic paddy, are the Túatha de Danann, the fallen gods of ancient Ireland. We sell representations of our gods and a bastardised version of our culture.

Celebrate 17 March however you wish, but remember that if Saint Patrick was wrong, it might make sense not to anger the original gods overmuch.

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