Saint Patrick’s day approaches, and I’ve got my usual mixed feelings – or at least I did this morning. In the intervening hours, I’ve had some positive ruminations that have left me feeling better about the Saint and his holiday than I usually do. Read on, if you’d like to hear them.
To begin, however, let me state my objections.
As I see it, Patrick can be easily construed as representing the entrenchment of unnecessary hierarchies. He was a missionary from outwith the Gaelic world who introduced external knowledge and customs that are often narratively treated as superior to local ones, and who is now accorded a preeminent status by problematic institutions (e.g. the state, the Church) in his former mission field.
As such, he can represent, in the first place, the idea that things of high cultural value can only enter Gaeldom from without; and, in the second place – with his celebrated status a patron saint of Ireland – the ideological entanglement of Gaelic identity, Irish national consciousness, Catholicism, and the Irish state. Obviously, I fully reject the idea that the Gaels as a people have no cultural patrimony worth admiring unless it came from some other people. Everyone from everywhere should feel as though the places and people they belong to are worthy of esteem – both because they are, and because otherwise it’s hard for individuals or communities to arrive at the sense self-worth that allows them to live contentedly and interact confidently with others. I find that inter-cultural mission narratives – or at least the ones that frame the arrival of the foreign missionary as the break of day in a benighted land – make it harder for people to acknowledge the intrinsic worth of the places they live in as their own patrimony, as opposed to a legacy of whatever group of people dispatched the missionaries. Of course, Saint Patrick has been Hibernicised to the point that most people now have to be reminded he was a Romano-Briton instead of an Irishman, and in any case it’s hard to view him as an imperialist on behalf of that people when he was a Roman after the fall of Rome and a Briton on the eve of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of much of Britain. Even so, I find it awkward that the person regarded by many as the paramount saint of the Gaels likely did not – in his own lifetime – consider himself a Gael. Furthermore, the construct of Britain, as it would eventually be reconstructed after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, had – and arguably still has – their ethnocultural group very much at its centre. That arrangement has, historically, been disastrous for the peoples it has placed at the periphery of life in the Hiberno-Britannic archipelago, including – of course – the Gaels.
Revisiting that second point – the aforementioned entanglement of Gaelic identity, Irish national consciousness, Catholicism, and the Irish State in the Patrick mythos – Patrick’s possibly posthumous acculturation to Irish Gaelic identity, which in some ways solves the problem of his Romano-Britishness, presents its own difficulties. The emphasis on Patrick’s status as the person credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish, and as one of the three patron saints of Ireland, makes it difficult to employ him in his historical roles as a saint of the Manx and Scottish Gaels without implicitly assigning them cultural Irishness. While I approve whole-heartedly of the promotion of both Gaelic identity and Irish national consciousness, I often resent – as a Scottish Gaelic speaker – the way in which Irishness is so often seen as synonymous with Gaelicness. That formulation predisposes people to view Scottish Gaelic and Manx culture as mere derivatives of Irishness, instead of as components of equal value in the pan-Gaelic gestalt. It also ignores the fact that many – indeed most – people resident in Ireland outwith the Gaeltachtaí are not, in the linguistic sense, Gaels, and that many Irish people (whether in the sense of residing in the Island of Ireland or being citizens of the Republic of Ireland) do not subscribe to Gaelic ethnocultural identity. To summarize the above, there is not a one-on-one correspondence between Gaelicness and Irishness, and some popular formulations of Patrick obscure this fact.
This is further complicated by Patrick’s popular association with both the Irish state and the Catholic Church. Just as not all Gaels are resident in the Island of Ireland, not all Gaels (even in that Island) are administered by the Republic of Ireland, or maintain associations – whether by personal conviction or familial inheritance – with Catholicism. On a personal note, as an anarchist, I find Patrick’s church and state connections particularly problematic. This is especially true when the Church in question is highly centralised and hierarchical in its power structures, outsized in its influence, and unwilling to acknowledge or make adequate reparations for grievous injustices it is known to have visited on the innocent; and when the state in question – although born from the struggle of the Irish people against British imperialism – has shown itself to be far less effective than hoped in the promotion of the Irish language, and shamelessly devoted in recent decades to a neoliberal economic regime that continually enriches its most privileged citizens at the expense of its most vulnerable.
Admittedly, the celebration of Saint Patrick – particularly on his holiday – has in the course of the last century or so become widely regarded as an international affair. In doing so, it has largely lost – in at least some circles – its associations with Gaelicness, Catholicism, statism, and even Irishness. And yet, just as the Hiberno-Gaelicization of Patrick problematizes certain aspects of his identity even as it mitigates his potential connotations of cultural imperialism, the de-Hiberno-Gaelicization and secularization of Patrick can be problematic in their own right. In my own experience of Saint Patrick’s day – as I’ve seen it celebrated in Louisville, Kentucky; Chicago, Illinois; and Edinburgh, Scotland – the holiday represents an opportunity for Irish diasporas largely disjunct from their Irish cultural heritage to nominally celebrate Irishness. The Anglicized diasporic idea of Irishness seems, for most Americans and Lowland Scots, to consist of listening to English-language or instrumental Irish traditional music, imbibing alcoholic drinks (especially beers, particularly porters and stouts, and, above all, Guinness), speaking English in affected Irish accents that incorporate dialectal phrases not heard in Ireland since the 1800s if ever at all (e.g. ‘top o’ the mornin’ to ye’), and putting the colour green on anyone and anything that consents wear it (and some things, like the Chicago river, that clearly don’t). The diasporic Saint Patrick’s Day obsession with green is especially interesting when one considers that – historically in all Goidelic languages, and contemporarily in Scottish Gaelic – there are three words for ‘green’, and that the one associated with the Gaels, and therefore with Patrick as an important saint of the Gaels, is gorm. As it happens, this word can mean not only ‘dark green’, but also ‘dark blue’. Therefore, as I see it, we might as well wear blue on Saint Patrick’s Day!
While I don’t necessarily object to this contemporary Irish-diaspora (and, increasingly, because of tourism, urban-Irish) style of celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day – I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, be it literal or figurative, and green is an appealing colour – I do find that it introduces a further degree of disconnection between myself and the Saint. Just as the basic narrative of Saint Patrick as enlightened Romano-British missionary to the ‘savage’ Gaels introduces a cultural imperialist element, and the more recent but still technically ancient adoption of Patrick as the symbol of a Catholic, state-mediated, Irish-based Gaelicness potentially excludes or alienates many people to whom Patrick is, or could otherwise be, culturally important, recent decades’ reformulation of Patrick’s holiday as an attempt by the distant descendants of Irish people to be temporarily Irish – outwith Ireland, through the medium of non-Irish languages, and sometimes while perpetuating anti-Irish stereotypes – can be a disappointment to someone for whom temporary and largely superficial homage to a lapsed ethnocultural identity has only limited appeal.
So much for my objections to what I perceive as popular perceptions of Patrick and his holiday. How then, you may ask, do I think he ought to be conceptualized, if not as a potentially culturally-imperialistic Christian missionary, a symbol of state-based Catholic Irishness, and/or an excuse for English speakers with Irish ancestors to wear green, drink up, and sing ‘The Wild Rover’ at their local not-quite-Irish pub? My objections to these ideas of Patrick are that – in one way or another – they further the marginalization of the already marginalized. Patrick, the missionary Romano-Britain to the heathen Gaels, reinforces the idea that Gaelic culture has nothing worthwhile that it didn’t get from somewhere else. Patrick, the symbol of the Republic of Ireland and the Catholic Church, minimizes Patrick’s relatability to Manx and Scottish Gaels, as well as to people of areligious, paganistic, and even non-Catholic Christian spiritual orientations, and to anyone suspicious of the beneficence or utility of states in general. Patrick, the reason to wear green and drink, purports to connect people in Anglophone Irish diasporas with their Gaelic cultural roots, but – without being either geographically or linguistically connected to Gaeldom (be it past or present; Irish, Scottish, or Manx) – is the cultural equivalent of putting Splenda in a hummingbird feeder. To the hummingbird or the English-speaking would-be Gael, the drink tastes as sweet as expected, but – though the experience leaves them feeling sated – its only real value is in its flavour.
In order to address what I perceive as these deficiencies in current popular perceptions of Patrick, my own ideal conceptualization of him instead attempts to centre the marginalized. Put simply, my Patrick is a queer anarchist heretic. He fled the British mainland because he had faced persecution there on the basis of a heterodox theology and a sexual orientation which, by contrast, could not be prefixed ‘hetero’. Rather than stay among people who despised him, and whose religious practices he considered to be hypocritical, he sought solace among the Gaels, an ethnocultural group who had once enslaved him. It was among the lowest ranks of that society – the ones with whom he had been familiar as a slave – that he conducted his mission. He preached the Gospel of the exultation of meek and the downtrodden and the lost, because he knew what it was to be all of those things. Because he had never attained the rank of bishop while still in good standing with the Church, he couldn’t officially ordain priests – but, in defiance of his superiors, he did so anyway. Essentially, he founded his own church – one that the main body of Catholicism only acknowledged as its own when it became too powerful to ignore. Success – as they say – has many fathers. Although himself not a Gael, he was an ardent devotee of Gaelic culture, and he studied the language which was at that time mutually intelligible throughout the Gaelic world with such gusto that he came to speak it with unrivalled eloquence. He was a syncretist, honouring – albeit, as a Christian, not worshipping – any benevolent gods and godlike beings that he encountered. He tried, wherever possible, to convert even them, and he attempted to destroy or exorcise them only if they represented a material threat to the wellbeing of his followers. When he encountered Caìlte and Oisean, the last of the Fèinn, he ridded them of demons, but listened with rapt attention to the stories of their dealings with the old gods, and even took the time to record those stories for posterity. If occasionally the authoritarian streak instilled in him by the more orthodox Christianity of his earlier years reared its ugly head, as attested in folkloric descriptions of his arguments with the Fenians, or his sometimes lethal duelling with druids, such foibles were less present in the work of his spiritual descendant, Colmcille – a fully Gaelic saint to whom Patrick was, in my reckoning, a forerunner in the way that John the Baptist was to the Christ of the Gospels.
This interpretation – albeit doubtless, in the minds of some, outlandish – is arguably as well supported by historical and literary evidence as any other. In one of the two scant texts that scholarly consensus attribute to Patrick, his Confessio, he alludes to a perceived sin he committed before coming to Ireland that shamed him in the eyes of the Church. Some scholars believe this sin to have been conjugal relations with another man, although that claim can’t be proven. Furthermore, there is no compelling contemporary proof that Patrick was ever ordained as a bishop, and even some evidence – in the Letter to the Soldiers of Croticus, the other surviving text believed to have been authored by Patrick – that Christians on the British mainland viewed Patrick’s credentials as a missionary, and therefore his missionary activities in Ireland, as illegitimate. As to the disposition of Patrick toward the paganism of his Gaelic peers, the available literary portrayals – even the earliest of which date from well after the period in which he lived, and none of which, by modern standards, could be considered historical writings – are mixed. Even so, by drawing on those sources, such as the Acallam na Senórach – in modern Scottish Gaelic, Agallamh nan Seanaireach, or Interview of the Elderly – that paint his relationship with paganism in a tolerant light, it is possible to arrive at an idea of Patrick as a syncretic Christian. This ideal Patrick is one who was as appreciative of the folk-beliefs of his converts as he was of their language, and who, despite occasional moralistic outbursts or moments of ideological rigidity, was generally happy to see his flock embrace a localized form of Christianity that didn’t abandon wholesale the cherished beliefs of their ancestors. Finally, concerning the idea of Patrick as being not the pre-eminent Gaelic saint, but rather a necessary forerunner of Colmcille, this is – as far as I know – my own innovation. It’s useful, I feel, in that it prevents the unjust subordination of the Manx and Scottish Gaels to the Irish Gaels. If, among Gaelic Saints, Patrick is both preeminent and strongly symbolic of Ireland, then this creates an implicit hierarchy of Gaelic nations in which Ireland dominates. If, instead, Colmcille is given pre-eminence, then the Gaels of Ireland, Scotland, and Man and their patron saints can coexist on an equal footing. Admittedly, Colmcille is often considered the patron saint of Gaelic Scotland, but is also revered in Ireland and the Isle of Man. If he were given the headship of the Gaelic saints, then another, presently more obscure Scottish Gaelic saint – like Maol Rubha of Applecross or Mo Luagh of Lismore – could take over his role as the unofficial patron of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
Sin agaibh e! An Fhèill Phàdhruig seo, bheir mi spèis do naomh anns an robh anarcaiche, neach-neo-ghèillidh, agus eiriceach: Pàdruig fhèin! (There you have it! This Saint Patrick’s day, I’ll honour a saint who was an anarchist, a non-conformist, and a heretic: Patrick himself!)
If you prefer another version, then that one is yours to celebrate, disdain or ignore as you see fit. As for me – for the first time I can remember – I have arrived at an understanding of Patrick that I can unreservedly support.
Agus, leis a’ sin, Beannachdan Latha Fhèill Phàdruig dhuibh! (And, with that, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, y’all!)