Ready: Whether you’re Irish or not, Erin go bragh
Next Tuesday, most folks will enjoy being Irish, regardless of their national heritage. I’m Scotch-Irish. So, I’m not only stingy with a dollar, I love a good fight.
For this week’s column, I’d like to share my research on St. Patrick, who is neither a canonized saint nor Irish. Yet, he is the inspiration for the wearing of the green, the parades draped in green; the dyeing of the Chicago River green; and the mass consumption of green beer. Originally the color theme for St. Patrick’s Day was not green, but orange and blue, like the University of Florida Gators. I’m telling you this trivia just in case that question comes up on some game show.
I’m more intrigued with St. Patrick himself rather than the details of his celebration. Maybe because I have so many potato-famine Irish ancestors in my maternal family tree. I am particularly interested in how the facts of his life became intertwined with folklore and legend, yet it’s that very stuff that makes his story so fascinating.
St. Patrick was born in Britain. His father and grandfather were clergymen. When he was about 16, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived six years before escaping and returning to his family. During the time of his captivity, he experienced a spiritual awakening and developed a compassion for the lost souls around him. He later returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary and converted the mostly pagan population to Christianity. Recorded accounts say he baptized thousands of people and ordained priests to lead the newly formed Christian communities. Some historians think he died in A.D. 493, presumably on March 17. He was never officially canonized by a Pope, but was given his sainthood status by the Irish church some time around the seventh century.
My favorite myth about him is that he delivered a compelling hill-top sermon so passionate that all the snakes in Ireland were immediately driven off the island. The fact that Ireland had no snakes at the time is not a problem for devoted Irishmen. Instead, it may be a figurative tale depicting his influence in ridding the land of serpent symbolism associated with the Druids. Legend also credits St. Patrick with teaching the Irish people about the trinity, using shamrocks or three-leaf clovers to illustrate the Christian belief in the three divine Persons of God. In addition, he is said to have super-imposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol from pagan days, onto the Christian cross to create what is now known as a Celtic cross. Some people believe all this. Others say it’s just fables created to enhance the reputation of a much-loved historical figure.
Somehow I doubt he instituted the practice of pinching people who aren’t dressed in green, nor did I come across any leprechaun connection to the man. I’m guessing these two bits of St. Patrick’s Day custom were invented long after he died and have nothing to do with him. The pinching is supposed retaliation for not wearing the traditional color of the “emerald isle,” but why should an Italian or a Norwegian get punished for wearing a different color on March 17? If I were not Irish, I’d cry foul.
As for the leprechaun business, the name derives from the word “shoemaker,” because they are supposedly ageless, tiny men who drink heavily but still manage to hold a hammer steady enough to turn out beautiful leather goods. They moonlight as guardians of ancient treasure left by the Danes who once pillaged through Ireland. Burying these valuables in pots, sometimes at the end of a rainbow, they are highly suspicious of humans whom they regard as foolish and greedy. If caught by a mortal, they will promise great wealth if they are allowed to go free. However, if the captor takes his eyes off a leprechaun for even an instant, he will vanish, and the ransom money will turn to leaves or ashes. While St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint, the leprechaun is regarded as Ireland’s national fairy. Again, I’m guessing, but I doubt many other countries have a national fairy.
Now aren’t you glad I went to Wikipedia and found out all this perfectly esoteric information about St. Patrick’s Day for you? And whether you’re Irish or not, I wish you a happy March 17, filled with the green of good times, good friends, and good fortune.
So, Erin go bragh (“Ireland forever”) at least for a day.
Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.