Today is then St. Patrick’s Day. There will be a variety of events, by far the most prominent will be cultural and sporting. I had intended writing a blog on what I view as the way in which the sanitisation of the entirely legitimate nationalist culture of St. Patrick’s Day has actually become a cause of further division. When I discussed it with Mick, however, he challenged me to do something about the religious angle.
The reality is that St. Patrick’s Day seems to have become increasingly unrelated to religion. Once it was a day when Catholics all went to mass. Us Prods did not go to church (unless it was Sunday) but on the nearest appropriate day the history of and the Protestant claims about St. Patrick were often mentioned. Now, however, the day seems dominated by sporting events and parades of varying degrees of cultural relevance to Ireland / Northern Ireland – floats with Star Wars characters are not exactly a traditional feature of Irish culture but they are entirely harmless. It seems in some ways that the American version of St. Patrick’s Day once somewhat sneered at in Ireland has been adopted wholesale. A very major dynamic of the whole day, however, and one that frequently causes problems is drunkenness on an epic scale, far too often associated with antisocial behaviour which has in the past degenerated into rioting: before anyone complains I am not ignoring the drunkenness and antisocial behaviour on the 12th of July.
The religious aspect of St. Patrick’s Day does not preclude secular celebrations and things like the Rio Carvinal specifically occur immediately before Lent each year. However, the religious and cultural significance of St. Patrick seems in danger of being washed away in a river of booze on which float naff floats.
Patrick does indeed seem to have been the most important individual in bringing Christianity to this island whether it was then inhabited by (in descending order of sanity) non specific peoples oblivious to the competing claims of those who lived in the same place over a millennium later, Celts, Gaels, the Ulster Scots (hat tip to Prof McWilliams – the man to whom I am indebted for supervising my doctorate), the Cruthin, the lost tribe of Dan or anyone else anyone wants to mention. His religious legacy is profound and he is indeed claimed by all the major Christian denominations here. Furthermore from mainly the north eastern part of the island, Christianity spread to much of Scotland and Northern England which again whatever one’s views of religion has enormous cultural significance.
Whilst all of us who are religious should note the significance of St. Patrick even those without religious beliefs can celebrate Patrick. The communities he helped inspire led to significant cultural achievements here. Once this was known as the land of Saints and Scholars. The illuminated manuscripts of the Bible were pioneered here of which The Book of Kells is probably the most famous. The fact that Armoy was once the cultural and religious capital of the Kingdom of Dalriada always amuses me.
Clearly a patron saint’s day means different things to different people: the more so if ownership of him is contested by groups which contest so many other things. St. Patrick, however, was an individual of great significance and part of what became an important historical, cultural and religious society. He is in fact not the property of any of us and without wishing to be elitist maybe it is time we pointed up a bit more of the cultural and religious achievements of Patrick and focused a little less on green dyed alcohol or utterly irrelevant fancy dress.