St. Patrick’s Day, like the man it honors and the remembrance it serves, is complex. Patrick is Patron of Ireland and is both a Feast of Precept and a Solemnity — Catholics must attend Mass and avoid toil and all else that might hinder worship of God. But St. Patrick’s Day is much more than this.

Who was Saint Patrick?

Called Naomh Pádraig in Modern Irish, Patrick is thought to have been a Welshman or Scot brought to Ireland as a slave. He escaped six years later and eventually returned as a bishop dedicated to the evangelization of the pagan Irish.

His 7th century biographers emphasize that Patrick won many female converts from among the royal and noble clans and converts from among the enslaved and the poor. They also claim that he contested with druids, overthrew pagan idols and cursed kings and kingdoms — Moses, Rob Roy and James Bond rolled into an epitome of Christian virtue. Patrick embodied the Irish character.

Irish Outlaws in Their Own Land.

Ireland became the first colonial possession of the English crown in 1172 and its best shot at emancipation until 1921 was fought at The Battle of the Boyne. The Irish lost. English oppression increased with the implementation of Na Péindlíthe, the Penal Laws (1691-1778), according to which Catholics could not vote, bear arms, attend university domestically or abroad, adopt children, own land, serve as officers of the law, hold office, or practice their religion.

St. Patrick’s Day: A Testament to the Endurance of the Irish People.

By the time reforms began to be enacted, Irish culture had suffered profound harm. The clans had been reduced to memory, Irish had vanished as a written language (Modern Irish is a reconstruction), and the Irish themselves were so deeply impoverished that most subsisted on a diet of potatoes alone. After enduring a century of famine, St. Patrick’s Day in the 20th century came to stand as a testament to endurance and survival, and the most important reminder that the Irish were yet a people.

The Irish, albeit slowly at first, thrived in exile. For example, while 35 million Americans can claim Irish ancestry, the population of Ireland has not exceeded 6.2 million since 1850.

An American or Irish Holiday?

The St. Patrick’s Day we think of as traditional—a joyous celebration of life, a Celtic Mardi Gras interruption of the Lenten discipline, an “Irish Day” less Catholic than political—is actually a product of the Irish in exile. Its first celebration occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1737. Its rituals and codes have much less to do with the 5th century saint than with rebellion and having never again to apologize for Irish blood.

In Ireland St. Patrick’s Day was Deeply Devotional.

Americans visiting Ireland before 1996 discovered a very unfamiliar St. Patrick’s Day. Except at the hotels and pubs that cater to tourism, celebrations were exclusively religious events and not the drunken revels and parades of bands, dancers, horses, dogs, firefighters and police one might have come to expect. Then in 1996, as Yeats might say, all changed, changed utterly, Saint Patrick’s Festival is born. (That movement you feel is the poet turning in his grave.)

The Celtic Tiger.

I lived in Ireland from 1986-1993. Ireland had never been wealthy; most Irish people older than 75 today grew up without electricity at home. But the economy was improving, in part because most Irish people 17-35 were working abroad and sending money home. Then in 1990, the internet arrived and provided Ireland with an economy that saw emigration cease, a significant portion of the earlier exodus return and unemployment drop 20 percent in five years.

It was called the Celtic Tiger and it brought riches where none had been for almost a thousand years. With it came immigrants, mostly but not all, from Eastern Europe and Asia. Ireland became a multicultural society practically overnight. The effects were not contentious, but they were certainly enormously secularizing and not backward-looking. Much of the Ireland I knew is now gone.

St. Patrick’s Festival.

Americans visiting Dublin today encounter Saint Patrick’s Festival — a three-day cultural festival devoid of (overt) politics and devotional purpose and dedicated to projecting a contemporary multicultural national identity that can be at odds with traditional religious or ethnic allegiances.

Imagine a music and arts festival, with a fireworks show and a parade thrown in for good measure, fueled by alcohol and general permissiveness. It’s the Austin City Limits Music Festival meets the Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Celebration in New Orleans on July 4th – and everyone is either Irish, Slavic or Chinese and drunk or hungover but in a really good mood. Anyone who has sat through Denver’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade (in full disclosure, my daughter is marching this year) would find Dublin’s perfectly recognizable.

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