Like many newspapers, our local weekly publishes a man-on-the-street, question-and-answer column. Last week, the St. Charles Republican asked three people if they’d be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. One young man answered ‘no’ because, in his own words, he “doesn’t know anything about it.”
This is a sad commentary on Irish-Americans like me who have failed to share our stories. It’s unfortunate because Irish history contains many important and sobering lessons that challenge us to look past the leprechauns parading around on mini-bikes and the Budweiser vixens clad in green bikinis. It’s a reasonable question: Besides drinking, what is St. Patrick’s Day all about?
The first and most obvious answer is that it’s about St. Patrick. According to legend, he was a 4th-century British teenager who was captured and enslaved by Irish raiders, who escaped six years later, and who returned to convert the Irish to Christianity. At its root, St. Patrick’s story is about adversity, perseverance, and transformation. Beyond that, however, the Irish celebration of a British-born patron saint tells us that this is also a story brimming with paradox and irony.
The second answer is that St. Patrick’s Day is about Irish nationalism—the good, the bad, and the terribly beautiful. To understand this, you have to understand the history. About a thousand years after the enslavement of Patrick (give or take a century), colonial power was shifting in the other direction. In the 17th century, the Elizabethans conquered Ireland and enacted repressive Penal Laws that outlawed interfaith marriage and banned Catholics from holding public office, from voting, from serving in the legal profession or in the judiciary, from teaching, from bearing arms, from owning a horse valued at over £5, etc., etc. Under Cromwell, orphans and homeless people were seized, forced into indentured servitude, and shipped off to Barbados where many died from physical hardship. Later, there was the horror of the Great Famine. There was the misery of the coffin ships. And, there were evictions in which people, “driven to Hell or Connaught” and rendered second-class citizens by the rule of law, watched as their homes were demolished before their very eyes and were forced into exile as (illegal) immigrants.
In the decades that followed, the shame of poverty compelled many of these people to sacrifice their language and culture in order to pass into the security of mainstream America. Other people led armed rebellions and still others penned plays and poetry about the indomitable Irishry. About the Easter 1916 Uprising, W.B. Yeats wrote:
…We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
So, St. Patrick’s Day and the wearing of the green are again about adversity, perseverance, and transformation. It is about commemorating martyrs to Irish freedom. Yet again, there is a good deal of hidden paradox and irony here because Yeats was himself a member of Dublin’s Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy—the liberal elite of his day. He was not unqualified in his praise for the leaders of the Uprising. Therefore, we are still left to ponder the nature of this utter change.
I think that the meaning and significance of St. Patrick’s Day today is hidden and difficult to discern. After all, in an increasingly post-Christian, post-nationalist world, what is the relevance of a parochial feast day and old drinking songs about armed revolution? I mean, let’s just skip the piety and the patriotism and get down to drinking, right?
There’s nothing wrong with sharing a pint with friends. But, if this is all that St. Patrick’s Day is about, then it will be a great loss. There is still adversity in this world. There is still hunger and poverty and hatred and violence. There’s still a need for “change,” as politically charged as that word has become in the past year. Whatever we may believe about the various economic and political proposals flying around, one thing that I do believe sincerely is that genuine change will not, cannot arise through charismatic leaders and the dictates of government unless and until it takes root in peoples’ hearts—until they have right intent and are ready to persevere to live their dreams “bewildered by excess of love.”
St. Patrick’s Day is about friendship, which is to be understood on multiple levels. It is about compassion and social justice. It is not about being Irish for a day but, rather, about recognizing every day the bonds of mutual suffering and mutual emancipation that unite people. As the Irish saying goes: “Maireann na daoine ar scáil a chéile.”
People live in each other’s shadows.