Volume 92, Issue 89
Wednesday, March 17, 1999
It ain't easy being green
©Photo by Dipesh Mistry/Gazette
By Jessica Spodek
Shamrocks, carnivals, parades, Irish pubs, green beer these are all common images associated with St. Patrick's Day. But aside from all of the drinking and partying, what is St. Patrick's Day really about? Who was St. Patrick and why is he being celebrated?
Ninian Mellamphy, an English professor at Western and a native of Ireland, explains St. Patrick is a historical character. "He is the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick is the figure head for the Christianization of the Celtic church in Ireland. St. Patrick's Day is about the celebration of the Celtic church and culture, Celtic Christianity. It is a feast day celebrated by Irish in Ireland and in the diaspora."
Mellamphy explains St. Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432 AD as a priest. He had spent many years as a slave who looked after pigs under the authority of a farmer who did not treat him well. He eventually escaped to France where he received an education and later returned to Ireland as a reaction to a dream. In this dream the people of Ireland appeared to him and called for him to walk once more among them.
"Patrick means 'gentle man' in Latin," Mellamphy says, commenting on the connotations of the saint's name which help to explain his character.
Aiden Bruen, a professor at the University of Vermont, says little is known about St. Patrick's origins. "There are many theories about where he came from. Even whether he died in Ireland is unsure. People don't agree on where he was born and where he came from."
What Bruen can be sure of, however, is St. Patrick is responsible for introducing Christianity to Ireland. "'He lit the Pascal flame' is often said about St. Patrick. It is both symbolic and literal. Whether he converted them over a bonfire I don't know."
St. Patrick is also associated with the shamrock. According to Bruen, when St. Patrick was converting the pagan Irish to Christianity he explained it in terms of the shamrock. Each of the three leaves represent the three guises or aspects of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and the fourth represents the union of the three.
Patrick Heffernan, a native of Ireland and a member of the Irish Benevolence Society in London, says there are many myths associated with St. Patrick. "There is a myth that Ireland was once full of snakes. St. Patrick endeavoured to banish all evil and badness. If you read the Old Testament, the snake is a symbol of evil. In banishing evil from Ireland, St. Patrick banished all the snakes," Heffernan explains.
"We like to say, as Irish people, that he sent them over to England."
Heffernan also tells the story of St. Patrick's well in Limerick, Ireland. According to the legend, St. Patrick stopped off one day in order to refresh himself, drinking from the well water. Since he was revered as a holy man, people believed if those with illness and disease also drank from the well, they would be cured.
Ireland is a very Catholic country, but compared to previous Irish generations, the practices of today are more liberal. The country has gone from a strict Catholic country to being a country where people are still Catholic but the church is not like it used to be. "It has gone from being a country with no religion, to being 93 per cent Catholic and now it has loosened for this generation," Heffernan says.
The traditional practices on St. Patrick's Day have also changed with the times. Mellamphy says he remembers celebrating St. Patrick's Day as a child. "It was primarily a religious feast. The first St. Patrick's parade I saw was in Dublin. There were 10 floats and three West Indian students playing Irish music on drums."
Today, the parades are festive and imitative of an American idea of St. Patrick's Day and the European carnival processions, Heffernan says. "In Ireland [St. Patrick's Day] is more so religious than in North America," he says. "Toronto has a parade, it's decent I'm told, but it doesn't have the same significance it does in Ireland. In North America it's a fleeting momentand it's celebrated as a reason to party."
Mellamphy explains the celebration of St. Patrick's day today is very important. As immigrant communities in various nations, Irish people become conscious of their origins. The day is celebrated as an act of memory and as a celebration of Irish success in their adopted community.
Croagh Patrick is a mountain in the west of Ireland where many people make a pilgrimage each year, climbing the mountain in honour of St. Patrick, Bruen says.
"There is a chapel at the top of the mountain. It is magnificent and [the view] is breathtaking. It is said that St. Patrick had mass up there. It takes several hours to get to the top and you get very wet, but people pray there. For the tourist who wants to climb, they are quite welcome. It's an exhilarating place to be," Heffernan says.
St. Patrick's Day never used to be a drinking day, Mellamphy says. "I don't know where that came from. The idea of green beer is absolutely foreign. Traditional dark ales are so dark that you can't colour them."
Green beer is a particularly North American phenomenon which doesn't exist in Ireland, Heffernan says.
Bruen explains the main events aside from mass in Ireland during St. Patrick's Day are football and hurling games. Only recently did the parades become popularized.
"In Ireland the whole country comes to a standstill," Heffernan concludes. "It is a national and religious holiday. It is almost as big as Christmas and many tourists go to Ireland for St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick's is part of the Irish psyche."
Copyright © The Gazette 1999