St. Patrick’s Day is almost here, but before you take that first sip of Guinness or tuck into your corned beef and cabbage, consider this: the patron saint of Ireland — the man in whose name people around the world annually (over)indulge in green beer, march in parades, and wear leprechaun hats — wasn’t even Irish. In fact, St. Patrick was an expat, just like you and me.
Not much is certain about his life. He was born in Britain sometime in the late 4th century. His first view of the country he’s so strongly associated with came at 16, when he was abducted and sold into slavery in Ireland. Isolated and afraid, he spent six years in captivity before God, in a dream, told him to escape. Although he eventually made his way back to his family, a later vision convinced to return to Ireland, where he spent the rest of his life converting the Irish to Christianity. He died around 460 AD on what would become his feast day, March 17th.
The mythology surrounding St. Patrick took root long after his death, but by the 7th century his legend was firmly entrenched. When I was a little girl (in the 20th century, in case anyone was wondering), my Irish mother told me that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. I was thrilled by the utter awesomeness of this feat, and pored over a drawing of St. Patrick, his staff raised to the skies, chasing the little buggers into the sea. It pained me to learn (as an adult, no less) that this wasn’t true — there are no snakes in Ireland today because there never were any. The story is a metaphor, with the snakes symbolizing evil; what Patrick drove out of Ireland was paganism. Not nearly as romantic a notion, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Patrick struggled as an expat. He was understandably lonely and unhappy during his first sojourn in Ireland, and when he returned many years later, he had a hard time gaining acceptance. So how did he become so successful in his mission to bring Christianity to the Emerald Isle? He did what all smart expats do:
1. He learned the language. He never would have been able to gain the people’s trust or spread his message if he hadn’t been able to communicate easily with the Irish.
2. He lived the culture. Patrick spent the better part of four decades in Ireland. He knew what the people believed, valued, and feared. He knew how they worshipped and how they marked important events such as birth and death. His inside knowledge of the nature-based religions practiced by the people made it easier for him to convert them to the Christian faith.
3. He understood the traditions. Pre-Christian Ireland was a polytheistic land. Instead of trying to sweep away centuries of deeply rooted religious rituals and beliefs, Patrick eased the people into Christianity by incorporating many of their rituals and symbols into existing theology.
For example, Irish mythology tells us that Patrick meshed the circle, an ancient Celtic symbol representing the sun (or the moon goddess, depending on which version you prefer), with the Christian cross. Because the resulting Celtic cross was somewhat familiar to the pagans, it was more palatable to them as a religious symbol. (I suspect a little research on my part would reveal that this beautiful myth has also been debunked. I certainly won’t go looking for the evidence. I haven’t recovered from the disappointment of the snake thing yet.)
Now go ahead and enjoy that pint. Sláinte, and a Happy St. Patrick’s Day to one and all.