17 March 2012

St Patrick, the Snakes and Paschal Fire

The 17th of March each year is St Patrick's Day, the so-called Irish saint who "banished" the land from snakes, and a time when people find that "mysterious" far-distant relative lurking on some forgotten branch of the family tree to justify why they've consumed far too many green dyed pints of beer and wearing some awful hat with a green clover (sorry, shamrock) on it.  I doubt that between swilling their Guiness, Beamish, Murphy's, Harp, Kilkenny, that they have given much thought about the man whose day they are allegedly celebrating.

St Patrick banishing the "snakes"
From two letters written by the saint, it is noted that Patrick was born around 360 CE to a British aristocratic family where his father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather apparently was a priest.  At the age of 16, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland and after some six years, he dreamt that the ship he was to escape on was ready.  After returning to Britain, he later became a bishop.  After dying on 17 March allegedly in the year 461 CE (although this has been disputed), St Patrick was said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down alongside St Brigid and Columba, however this has never actually been proven.

By the 7th century, he had evolved into the patron saint of Ireland, being accredited for bringing Christianity to Ireland.  Known for two short works, it is his Letter to Coroticus (written about 451 CE) where he denounced the British mistreatment of Irish Christians.

Re-enactment of the Paschal Fire
As for Patrick "driving out the snakes" from Ireland, well, there were never any snakes on the island to start with due to it being surrounded by icy ocean waters which made it too cold for the reptiles to migrate there from anywhere else.

It is common belief however that as snakes were considered to be "evil" in Christian literature (dating back to Eve and the Garden of Eden), the "snakes" which Patrick allegedly drove out were more than likely have been the "old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland [and] brought in a new age" according to Philip Freeman, the author of St Patrick of Ireland: A Biography.

Another myth associated with St Patrick is his use of the three-leafed shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).  Freeman asserts that this story, like that the snakes, were more than likely spread by "well-meaning monks" after the saint's death.

St Patrick preaching at Tara to King Laoghaire
St Patrick is also associated with the Hill of Slane in Co. Meath where, in 433 CE he lit the Paschal Fire in defiance of a law where no fire should be lit within the vicinity of Tara, the seat of the Irish High Kings, prior to King Laeghaire lighting the sacred fire of Bealtaine.  When Patrick lit a bonfire on the Hill of Slane to welcome the light of Christianity, Laeghaire drove his chariot in anger to the Hill of Slane to arrest him, however, as the story goes, the sain was so eloquent in his preaching, that the King was soon pacified and St. Patrick was allowed to preach Christianity to the Pagans.

After far as I am aware, I do not have any long forgotten Irish heritage, and am I Catholic, so I will pass on sipping any green dyed beer (regardless of my liking for Irish stout) and definitely pass on attempting to dress up as a leprechaun who, according to McAnally's Irish Wonders, is actually a "son of an 'evil spirit' and a 'degenerate fairy' and is 'not wholly good nor wholly evil".


Sources:
St Patrick biography by Tarlach O'Raifeartaigh
Snakeless in Ireland by James Owen

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