St. Patrick and Ireland's History

Posted by Caitlin Joyce on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 at 9:24 AM PST

Consistently rated as one of the most popular saints of the Catholic Church, St. Patrick (387 – 461 CE) is also one of the few whose saint’s day is treated in some places (most notably the U. S. and Ireland) as a national holiday, regardless of one’s religious or ethnic identity.  What other saint could inspire the journeyman plumbers of Chicago to turn the Chicago River an emerald green every year?  A variety of details of St. Patrick’s legendary life are known by many:  that he spent much of his youth as a slave in Ireland before he escaped back to England, that he used shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity, that he supposedly drove all the snakes from Ireland, and that he converted the entire island to Christianity in 40 years.

But in all the stories about St. Patrick, what stands out is his humility and receptivity toward all he met.  Unafraid of death or martyrdom, he seems to have had no trouble welcoming even those most hostile to him.  One of my favorite collections of stories about Patrick is Acallam na Senórach (Tales of the Elders of Ireland), in which Patrick befriends the most unlikely of people:  the warrior Caílte, one of the last of the Fíanna, the warrior band led by the famous mythic hero Finn mac Cumaill.  The tales read like a collision between Greek myths and saints lives.  It is hard to imagine two more different people.  Yet somehow the physically gigantic Caílte (St. Patrick comes up to this waist) and the more diminutive St. Patrick hit it off.  They become friends; the warrior converts to Christianity; and the two continue their adventures throughout Ireland.  

Throughout their journeys, Caílte tells stories of Finn and his heroic adventures, stories of magic and the marvelous straight out of another age.  Rather than dismiss these, though, St. Patrick encourages them.  Two angels told him that he must do all he can to preserve the stories of Ireland’s past.  He approaches his task with relish.

We learn something important here from St. Patrick:  that the past is important and worth saving.  Indeed, The Tales of the Elders of Ireland reminds us of the deep layers of Irish history.  As Seamus Heaney once said of the Irish landscape, every acre seems camped on before.  The layers are readily discernible today.

This year, St. Patrick’s Day falls close to a particularly resonant date in Irish history.  2016 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, an event as important for the Irish as the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, is for an American.  On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, an armed group of militia stormed several British strongholds in Dublin in an effort to inspire a nationwide rebellion against more than four centuries of British occupation.  After several days, the uprising failed.  But the well-publicized executions of the leaders in the immediate aftermath created a public backlash that eventually resulted in revolution and Irish independence.  

Every summer for the past 12 years, former Washington State Poet Laureate Sam Green and I have led student groups in Ireland, where students see firsthand Irish literature and history and where they learn to try their own hands at writing poems and stories.  Everywhere the past can be seen in the present.  You can still see the bullet holes in the columns of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, the epicenter of the Easter Rising rebels.  And you can still see in Celtic crosses the distinctively Irish approach to Christianity that St. Patrick cultivated centuries ago.  

The Irish are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you are likely to meet.  If you haven’t been to Ireland, you should think about going.  You won’t regret it.

To learn more about the Easter Rising, visit http://www.ireland.ie/.  

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Sean H. McDowell,
Director, University Honors
Associate Professor, English