Today is St. Patrick’s Day bringing the wearing of the green, parades, and corned beef and cabbage. Around the world, people will lift steins of green beer as they celebrate the self-proclaimed patron saint of Ireland. Self-proclaimed? Shur and begorra ’tis so, according to the powers-that-be in the Roman Catholic Church. They never bestowed sainthood on him. Some people even disagree on whether he embraced Catholic doctrine.
Those are two details I learned on a recent trip to the British Isles to go along with the myths and legends we all know. I will elaborate on only one—snakes—but first a few words about the man. I was so intrigued with the conflicting information our guide gave that I researched St. Patrick on the internet after I got home.
Fact and legend about him are so intertwined that it’s difficult to distinguish between them. My research produced more questions than answers. For instance, it’s amazing how many places claim him as a native son. Was he born in Wales in AD 385, or was it Scotland in 387? Or England in 388? Was his birth name Patrick, or was it Maewyn? Was he abducted by Irish marauders and sold into slavery at the age of 14, or was he 16? Was he an ordinary human being or was he a mystic? During his six (or was it eight?) years of slavery, he became fluent in the Irish language before he escaped to the continent. After studying in France—was it in Tour or in Lérins or in Auxerre?—he was ordained as a deacon, then as a priest and finally as a bishop after which Pope Celestine sent him back to Ireland. He was not the first Christian missionary there, but he receives credit for converting the once pagan island and establishing the Celtic church.
He died in AD 461, or was it 493? There is as much controversy over his burial site as his birthplace. Do his remains grace northern Wales, or Kirkpatrick, Scotland, or Downpatrick, Ireland? Buried in Downpatrick or not, there’s a gravestone carrying his name at a cathedral there. I saw it, for what that’s worth.
There is agreement that he used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. Or is the shamrock story only a figment of someone’s imagination? Whatever, it is to the shamrock that we owe the wearing of green on St. Patrick’s Day. Or maybe not. Protestants wear orange on that day to commemorate the triumph of Protestant William of Orange over the army of Catholic King James II in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Catholics wear green to commemorate him. So, what does that have to do with the shamrock?
Now that I have you thoroughly confused, I’ll tell you my favorite story about St. Patrick, be it fact or legend.
He is well known for having driven the snakes from Ireland. Various stories exist of how he accomplished this amazing feat. My choice is a view of an older gentleman, sporting a long, white, flowing beard, standing on a hill, using a wooden rod to drive those slithery creatures into the sea. Supposedly, one old serpent refused to take a swim whereupon Patrick built a box and invited the defiant reptile to enter. An argument ensued, which Patrick won when the snake entered the box to prove it was too small for such a magnificent creature. Patrick then slung the box, snake and all, into the Irish Sea.
Our ferry rocked and rolled crossed this particular body of water twice, and I wonder if that old snake is still raising a fuss. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
Of course, some people are too unromantic to share my vision. They choose to believe there are no snakes in Ireland only because it became an island at the end of the Ice Age and the sea prevents their migration.
Serpent symbols were common in many pagan religions, and possibly worshiped. So, driving the snakes from Ireland could be symbolic of putting an end to such practices—if there were snakes there in the first place.
Some people have tried to introduce grass snakes into that snakeless haven, much to the distress of its human inhabitants. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful. Those same unromantic people I mentioned earlier attribute that failure to the cool, wet climate and the topography, which is flat. They refuse to consider that St. Patrick’s banishment lives on in perpetuity.
Feel free to believe whatever you choose. However, I know where I stand—on the hill with that magical old gentleman.