Growing up as I did, a non-Catholic in Catholic Ireland, the stories about St. Patrick always struck me as mythical rather than religious.
The history of his childhood as a slave who’d been captured abroad by Irish pirates and brought to County Down seemed to be shrouded in a mystical fog rather than being historical fact. And the common story about his single-handed introduction into Ireland of a new religion called Christianity, when he willingly returned to Ireland as a free adult, carried all the hallmarks of a legend. Like all mythic figures, his actions were god-like and warrior-like, but not what we would have, as children, expected to hear about a Christian saint.
As an adult, this sense of St. Patrick as a non-religious figure continues. The introduction of Christianity into Ireland appears to have been a very natural development, rather than an act of a conqueror. It seems to have carried with it an energy which seeded the foundation of a golden age of peace and learning on the island, when much of Europe was experiencing anything but that.
The early Irish Church was a Celtic, rather than a Roman one with Christian and pagan elements sitting closely together. Pagan goddesses blended into new roles as Christian saints and old pagan festivals became ‘new’ Christian saint days. The monasteries that were established in Ireland in the early days of the Irish Church were inextricably linked with nature and the manuscripts that survive often carry an almost shamanic energy, which is so different to what is associated with mainstream religion now.
“Anomalies of polygamy, or the question of children born out of wedlock, continued to be the rule rather than the exception…Most significantly, however…the Irish Church became primarily a monastic church, never really properly assuming the centralized, geographically ordered network which the Roman Church, modeled on the structure of the Roman Empire, wished to impose.” ~ History of Ireland, Desmond McGuire
It is this association of St. Patrick with a country that managed to weave together the best of old and new, that had a symbiotic relationship with the land and a spirituality that went beyond religious institutions, which I would love to see celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day.
And it may be the perfect antidote to the dark belly of religion that has been surfacing in the last decades, the current recession and green beer.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel