On March 17, the annual celebrations for St. Patrick’s Day will no doubt be in full swing throughout the United States. It is a day to commemorate the life of an iconic figure in Irish history who died over 1,545 years ago.
Something unfortunate happens to historical figures from long ago. Over time, we put them in box and they lose their complexity. In St. Patrick’s case, he has largely become obscured by myths and green beer.
What historians know about St. Patrick was that he was raised in a wealthy family in Britain. By his own account, his childhood was long on fun and short on academics. His life changed forever when, at the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, taken to Ireland and sold into slavery. For eight years, he lived a hard life as a slave (is there any other kind?) in which hunger and nakedness were constant companions. In his misery, he experienced a deep and profound conversion from his self-centered childhood. He eventually escaped at age 22, but committed himself to come back to Ireland, which he did as a bishop in his 40s. His ministry lasted for 29 years.
Many early missionaries of the Church – Paul and Augustine for example – never left the Ecumene, which was Roman territory. In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill points out that Ireland was outside the Ecumene, and therefore was considered a dangerous and untamed land. Even cartographers from the era marked territories outside of Roman rule with the following warning: “Here do be monsters”. It literally seemed to be the end of the world, and it was into this land – the land of his former captivity – that Patrick brought the radical message of Christianity. At great personal risk, he was vocal in his condemnation of slavery, and particularly noted that “it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most”. Patrick was among the first humans to build widespread opposition to slavery, which at the time was accepted as common practice in society. The practice of slavery ended in Ireland many centuries before other societies because of Patrick.
The world has changed considerably since the days of St. Patrick. I coincidentally write this column on a plane bound for Dublin, where I am combining business with pleasure. When I land, I’ll head up to County Derry where my grandfather grew up. He was a young man working in Belfast and watched the local shipyard build the Titanic. How he got to Ellis Island would require another column, but like millions of Irish immigrants he came with little, other than Patrick-like determination.
While at a party in Ireland recently, one of the locals told me that “if all the sons and daughters of Ireland came back for a visit the island would surely sink”. That is certainly true on St. Patrick’s Day, when people rightfully celebrate their Irish heritage or, if they’re not Irish, simply celebrate.
A friend of mine who spent a few years in a small town in Ireland as a child told me how he saw the first St. Patrick’s Day parade held in that town’s history. Why did the town decide to celebrate this way? Because some people from New York were there and, according to my friend, the New Yorkers “made the town have a parade”. I’m not sure how they did that, but the story speaks to the special enthusiasm Americans have for March 17. In Wisconsin, a town called New London changes its name to New Dublin for a day and throws a great bash.
Without losing sight of what makes St. Patrick’s Day fun, maybe this year we can cerebrate on the life that we also celebrate. In doing so, we can restore some of the depth and complexity to a man who rebelled against “business as usual” and changed the course of human history through courage and commitment to the Gospel. If we look close enough, we may even see a man who is clutching a staff on a windswept island, going bravely forward where there be monsters…..
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.
Published March 12, 2006