Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Who was St. Patrick? And why do we still celebrate this day with such abandon? Whether that is dancing jigs, dressing up, wearing green, or getting drunk, St. Patrick's Day is a long held tradition in America and a day where nearly everyone claims to have some Irish blood.

This evening, I will be celebrating St. Patrick's Day at a bookstore--Jacobsen's Books--with other authors. We will talk about our Gaelic characters and settings and play some games of truth or lie (Blarney). It will be lighthearted and fun, and I hope that I get to meet many readers. St. Patrick's day has always been a special day for me and it has been a part of my personal heritage.

It happens that my ancestry, on my father's side, is Irish. Though my mother's side is German, I have always identified most with my Irish side. My great great paternal grandmother came from Ireland as a part of the huge migration during the potato famine as a single woman (many young women were sent to America unmarried). My great grandmother, who I knew all of my childhood and died when I was 19, traveled by wagon train as a child and settled in Idaho. I have heard many stories about her travels and travails growing up, and in many ways they mirror that sense of angst and the ability to overcome tragedy and still find the beauty in life that is a part of so many Irish ballads. I have memories of my parents singing Irish ballads around the house and always celebrating St. Patrick's Day with parades and wearing the green and going to church. My family were not drinkers so I don't have that memory. Whenever I asked about my details of my ancestors, my great grandmother would say: "You don't want to know them. They're all a bunch of drunken Irishman." This likely explains our tea-totaling ways.

What is it about St. Patrick's Day that captures the public imagination? I think it is a combination of a great story filled with a hero who overcomes adversity, has a single-minded faith/belief in his destiny, and is able to achieve it in spite of many hardships. Everyone loves the hero's journey when it ends in a happily-ever-after. And even if it doesn't end happily-ever-after, we still admire the martyr who tried and failed but still saved his/her soul. It is those stories that readers love the most--stories of hope no matter the odds are the ones that that transcend our world and present a different view of life.

Interestingly, St. Patrick was not actually born Irish. He was born around 373 A.D. in the British Isles near the modern city of Dumbarton in Scotland. His real name was Maewyn Succat. He took the name of Patrick, or Patricius, meaning "well-born" in Latin, after he became a priest. What we know of his early life is from his own writings in his Confessions which he penned late in life, along with whatever the Catholic church has taught about him and his past after his beatification. It is hard to know what is true and what is not, as all records of his life are written from the perspective of his service as a priest and the lens of someone who deeply espoused that God was in every part of his life and all that happened was part of Gods plan. Indeed, the church's need to also portray him in that way reinforced that, as I assume the oral history also did in that early time of Christendom. 

The Confessions are written with a strong belief of God being always with him, leading him even in darkest times, testing his faith, and then saving him from a life of slavery to call him to the priesthood with the sole purpose of converting the Irish--the very people who enslaved him in the first place. In any case, it is a quintessential hero's journey that captured the imagination of many in Ireland and around the world.
Maewyn's (Patrick) childhood was probably easier than most in the 4th century as his parents were well-educated for the time. Both his father and grandfather were clergy and of high social standing in the Roman empire. But in the 4th century the empire was failing and unable to support all of the areas it had conquered. Britain, being an island separated from the empire by the sea, was often beset by pirates and kidnappings. When Maewyn was 16 years old he was captured by an Irish chieftain named Niall and taken back to Ireland as a slave. He was then sold to
Milchu, a high priest of Druidism. Maewyn became a shepherd assigned to take care of his master's flocks. 

I can only imagine how difficult it was for the son of Christian clergy, used to being in a position of high-esteem, to be enslaved to a Pagan high priest. In his Confessions he writes of this time as a test of his faith and through daily prayer he grows even more assured of his beliefs. It is during his enslavement that he dreams of shepherding the Irish toward Christianity. After six years of slavery, Maewyn found an opportunity to get away and fled through the bogs, walked over mountains to the sea, and was finally able to escape by ship. The ship got lost and ended up in France. Luckily he knew something of France as that is often where clergy studied. He found his way home over about 200 more miles to finally be reunited with his family. It is not surprising then that he followed his father and grandfather into the clergy and eventually became a Bishop. He returned to Ireland late in life (late 40's/early 50's) to spend his remaining years converting the people to Christianity. 

I must admit, if I had escaped slavery the last place I would want to go is back to the land that captured me. Although being 40 years later, I imagine a lot of things had also changed and the Irish were likely more ripe for conversion. I have often wondered if this was indeed his choice or if there was some political motive for the church here. In any case, he was quite successful at converting the masses. There are many stories (again from his Confessions and the church's documentation of his miracles) that grew up around his time in Ireland as a priest. These stories have St. Patrick facing down chieftains, including the one who enslaved him, clearing all the snakes from the island, and working miracle of healing, raising the dead, and all kinds of "magic" that was much better than what the Druids could conjure. In every instance, he credits the power of God--often wielded in such a grand fashion that all would bear witness to it. It is said that St. Patrick received safe passage throughout Ireland because in a battle, set by the Druid high priest, of Druid magic vs. the Christian God of miracles, St. Patrick won every time. Though he never converted the Druid high priests, he was allowed to safely travel throughout Ireland to share his message with others.

How much of St. Patrick's actual adventures in Ireland is factual is hard to know. History and myth have always been intertwined--particularly in the early centuries when written history is reflective of the single point of view of those who are able to record it--in this case the Catholic church. For me, personally, each miracle claimed has an uncanny resemblance to other miracles in the Bible--from driving the snakes into the sea like Moses parting the water to healing the sick or raising the dead like Jesus--that I find it easy to discount it and attribute it to a combination of uneducated people not understanding how the world works and to the need for church records to present St. Patrick in a certain light. 

In any case, even myth has a basis in reality as it is an amalgamation of oral history which represents a "feeling" of events in relation to cultural beliefs at the time. It is history relayed by the people who lived it and the faithful who believe it still today. Certainly it is heavily embellished by memory and faith but, as with all myth, there is some germ of truth. I do believe St. Patrick was a good person who believed in his path and faced adversity to follow his beliefs. It is a fact that most of the Irish people left the teachings of the Druids and followed the Catholic teachings. My ancestors were all Catholic. I grew up Catholic until my parents became protestant during Vatican II (that's another story). I have a soft spot in my heart for Catholicism, its ritual and the deep faith required of priests and nuns.

For me the story of St. Patrick and what he survived and then later accomplished reflects what I have come to know as the Irish spirit. That is the ability to overcome hardship and continue with purpose based in one's beliefs. Though the current American view of the Irish is generally a group that works hard and plays even harder, I think the Irish are just as diverse and unique as individuals anywhere. Some are serious and some are not. Some are deeply religious and some are not. And many are in-between. In any case, it is a proud heritage to have or adopt.

I hope as you celebrate St. Patrick's Day, in addition to the revelry and crazy happiness of letting go, you might take a moment to consider your own path in life and what drives you forward. For some people, the path is well lit and distinguished from an early age. For others, like me, a time of wandering in the wilderness or traveling many interconnected paths is necessary before one becomes clear and accepted. 

For me it is telling stories and sharing those lives--real lives and fictional lives--that embody a hero's or heroine's journey toward a fulfilled life. Stories of overcoming difficulties and tragedy, of choosing a path that is meaningful and helps others, a path that in the end provides a happily-ever-after for the soul has always been my path. It just took me 45 years to believe it enough to follow it with abandon.

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