Today is March 17th.
Today we celebrate. We Irish. Today we kick off the traces and throw caution to the wind. At home here in Ireland we take the day off work to march in parades up and down the land. And it’s not just in Ireland. All around the world, wherever there are those who call themselves Irish, we celebrate the memory of Patrick, our patron saint.
And it’s not just us. The Pyramids glow green in the desert night. The Opera House reflects its emerald hue on Sidney Harbour. People of many races and tongues are happy to pay homage to Ireland’s big day, the day we call St Patrick’s day. An extraordinary phenomenon for such a small nation, a tiny island on the western fringe of Europe.
My mother called me Patrick, giving me the same name as my father and his father before him and his father before him again. Which probably explains why I’ve always had more than a passing interest in the man we credit with bringing Christianity to Ireland way back in the fifth century.
Patrick arrived on this island in the year 432 with a mission to spread the Christian message, Christianity being then the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Romans had already brought Christianity to Britain where Patrick’s father and grandfather were members of the clergy. Although scholars believe Patrick was just one of a number of Christian missionaries arriving on these shores, for some reason he is the one we remember, the one whose name is celebrated, the one credited with converting the pagan Irish. Scots and Picts he called them.
How is it we know more about Patrick than we do about Palladius or any of the other missionaries? It has to be because he’s the one who left behind a written record of his life, a manuscript known as The Confession. It contains a pretty comprehensive account, including his capture by Irish raiders on the west coast of Britain and his being sold into slavery in the north eastern part of Ireland. Some years after he’d escaped from captivity and made his way back home he decided on a career in the church and was eventually appointed a bishop. In a dream he got a letter from the Irish begging him to come back and bring with him the message of Christ. He answered that call.
Don’t think for a moment that Patrick was given a huge welcome in every corner of this island. There were rogues who made a habit of slaughtering the new converts and taking their wives and chattels for themselves. This kind of behaviour left Patrick less than happy, furious in fact, and his usual response was to fire off a caustic letter warning the culprits to return their booty or they could expect to get their comeuppance in the next life. We’ve no idea how those rough elements reacted on reading this correspondence but my guess is they were laughing up their sleeves while plotting their next anti-Christian outrage.
If you think that sort of attitude to the holy man was bad, let me assure you an even worse outrage against the saint has begun to manifest itself in modern times. It’s a recent phenomenon, something I’ve really only noticed in the past year of two. I’m talking about those, my countrymen and women, who seek to celebrate their national day by donning oversize leprechaun hats, silly green costumes and artificial red beards while thoughtlessly sloshing glasses of beer on anyone foolish enough to stand too close.
Maybe I’m a little too staid for my own good. Maybe it’s old age setting in. Maybe I should just lighten up a bit. But I still can’t help feeling a little sympathy for the man who gave up everything, family and career possibilities and crossed the sea to a land at the edge of civilisation, a land harbouring outlaws and pirates and ruled over by warring chiefs, to answer a call he’d received in a dream to bring the message of Christ to the very ones who had dragged him away from his home as a young man and sold him into slavery watching sheep on the side of a bleak mountain in County Antrim.
A truly remarkable man, our Patrick, and one whose name I feel proud to bear.