St Patrick and the Gift of the Gab
St Patrick and the Power of Ancient Propaganda
Patrick must be the best known of all Patron Saints with parades, parties and craic in his name being celebrated across the globe.
St Patrick's Day is a happy occasion, a day of revelry with people who are totally unconnected to Ireland enjoying themselves, and many are the toasts raised to his memory. Stories are told, and songs are sung, but most of the tales traditionally associated with St. Patrick are false.
Why let the truth spoil fifteen hundred years of good storytelling?
History has been kind to Patrick, very kind indeed.
Patrick, the Super Hero
St Patrick gets a lot of publicity. He had an excellent theatrical agent in the old days and his slick promotional material, backed up by Roman gold, was of the very best quality.
Repeat something often enough and most of the population will believe it (just look at politicians, ancient or modern.)
History has been kind to Patrick, thanks mostly to the grim determination of the Irish to hold fast to what they see as their own, and to the full weight of the Church of Rome. His book helped too, an autobiographical confession written around the year 450, and what a wonderful record of 5th century life in the British Isles it is to be sure.
Legends of St Patrick - the Celtic Cross
Legend number one
The Christian religion was imposed lightly on the Irish.
Patrick knew the language and culture and he wove his lessons over the existing fabric of traditional ritual belief. This was the Roman way of assimilation.
You can see this clearly in the placement of the powerful Sun symbol onto the Saviour symbol to form the beautiful Celtic Cross.
Legends of St Patrick - the Shamrock
Legend number two
Popular stories tell how Patrick used the shamrock as a symbol of the Trinity
Let's be real here. No one had the need to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish whether with a shamrock or anything else.
If anyone understood the essence of three being one, of a Trinity in Unity, it was the early peoples of Ireland. The triple aspects of their Great Goddess were well understood and indeed, the shamrock was sacred to her.
More likely, the Irish explained the concept of Trinity to Patrick.
Legends of St Patrick - banishing the snakes
Legend number three
We see in these legends the systematic attempt to eradicate the old religion from Ireland.
When Patrick "drove the snakes out of Ireland", he was banishing the ancient religion. After all, Patrick was an agent of the Church of Rome, an organisation not known for its tolerance of other faiths.
The ancient religion had an even more frightening aspect. It was based on a goddess. Curiously enough, her symbol was a serpent.
With the coming of the church of Rome, much of the essence of the goddess evolved into St. Brigid, a Christianised version of Brigid.
Who was Patrick?
Irish he was not, nor was he even British.
St Patrick was a child of the wealthy patrician class, an elite group which enjoyed many privileges and a very comfortable lifestyle in what was once the island of Britannia.
In the north of Britannia, in Caledonia, was stationed a Roman Decurion named Calphurnius with his wife Conchessa. Calphurnius also held a religious post, one which exempted him from personal and agricultural taxes on his slave-worked farms. Conchessa was from a wealthy Gallic family with many distinguished members including St. Martin of Tours. You could say they had it pretty good.
To this privileged couple was born a son, Maewyn Succat, in about 387 near present day Dumbarton in Scotland.
Through misadventure, grief, all manner of tribulation and a first class publicist, Maewyn became St Patrick.
Propaganda is a mighty tool, as powerful then as it is today.
The benefits of a good marketing man
The lesson here is simple
As Christianity spread around Ireland, so too did Patrick's fame.
In 688, the Catholic Church federation in Armagh engaged a biographer for purposes of propaganda - to establish the See of Armagh as the centre of the cult of Patrick.
A skilful scribe was employed, a man named Muirch, whose talent achieved the objective. Armagh became the 'sole proprietor of the 'national apostle'.
The Book of Armagh then directed all monasteries and churches in Ireland to honour the memory of the saint by a celebration to be held over three days and three nights in mid-spring,
Propaganda is a mighty tool, as powerful then as it is today.
Hagiographers, writers who specialise in chronicling saints' lives, invented Patrick, the ancient super hero - endowing him with a magic staff which could perform miracles.
So how did he get to be the Patron Saint of Ireland?
Slemish, Co Antrim, where it is said Patrick tended sheep
Maewyn was kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was sixteen and sold to the Chieftan Milchu who set him to work as a shepherd. In one manner or another, he escaped after six years of tending flocks on the lonely slopes of Slemish and walked nearly 200 miles to the coast to finally return to Britain.
Once back home, his experiences brought about a revelation, and he told everyone who would listen that an angel had commanded him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
In time he became ordained as Patricius and packed himself into a boat back to the land where he had spent his youthful enslaved years. It's no surprise that he chose a name befitting a man of his rank, for Patrick was certainly not over endowed with humility.
* Patricius means of the patrician class,(the upper crust).
St Patrick's Day
Today, St. Patrick's Day is celebrated by people of all backgrounds in the United States, Canada, Australia and in other locations far from Ireland, including Japan, Singapore, and Russia.
Around the world, St Patrick's Day is recognised by Irish nationals, those who claim an Irish heritage, those who purport to be Irish, and further still by many non-Irish. It has to be the most universal of all national days.
St Patrick's Day has come to mean a lot more than homage to a religious figure, it now embodies a concept of "Irishness' which apparently needs to be fuelled by liberal applications of alcohol.
Why is there such a celebration for Patrick? Because it's a wonderful excuse to have a party!
The Wearing of the Green
What does it mean?
The Irish Presidential Standard, a flag used by Presidents of Ireland, officially shows a golden Clarsach with silver strings on a background of St. Patrick's Blue
As for St Patrick, blue was the colour long associated with him. Green is the colour most widely associated with Ireland, and with the Irish people.
"The wearing of the green" meant to wear a shamrock on your clothing, and to do so was a sign of Irish nationalism.
This blue and gold represents the Ancient Colours of Ireland, are the colours on the coat of arms of "the Ancient City of Dublin" and on the Flag of Munster.
"The wearing of the green" meant to wear a shamrock on your clothing, and to do so was a sign of Irish nationalism
St Patrick's Day Parade
St. Patrick's Festival Parade, Dublin, 2008
Saint Patrick, Apostle of Ireland
Exquisitely filmed on location in Ireland, and using dramatic wide-screen black and white re-creations, Saint Patrick, Apostle of Ireland visually traces the great saint's footsteps.
Patrick’s actual confessions are read in voice-over, and evocative music further carries us back in time to re-live the experience of walking side by side with Patrick.
From his birth to his death, we witness Patrick’s physical struggles and participate fully in his transformation and spiritual mission.
How about you?
Will you be celebrating St Patrick's Day?
© 2009 Susanna Duffy