Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

Patrick was a hard-bitten man who did not find his life's purpose until his life was half over. He had a temper that could flare dangerously when he perceived an injustice - not against himself but against another, particularly against someone defenseless. But he had the cheerfulness and good humor that humble people often have. He enjoyed this world and its variety of human beings-and he didn't take himself too seriously. He was, in spirit, an Irishman. "Supreme egotism and utter seriousness are necessary for the greatest accomplishment, and these the Irish find hard to sustain; at some point, the urge to see life in a comic light becomes irresistible, and ambition falls before it." This insight of William V. Shannon's, if applied to Patrick, cast a peculiar illumination on his personality, and even suggests why his real achievements have remained historically obscure. It also puts Patrick at a further remove from his fellow bishop and confessor, the self-obsessed Augustine.

The exchange between Patrick and his adopted people is marvelous to contemplate. In the overheated Irish cultural environment, mystical attitudes toward the world were taken for granted, as they had never been in the cooler, more rational Roman world. Despite its pagan darkness and shifting insubstantiality, this Irish environment was in the end a more comfortable one for the badly educated shepherd boy to whom God spoke directly. His original home in Roman Britain had become an alien place to him. But the Irish gave Patrick more than a home - they gave him a role, a meaning to his life. For only this reformer slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made new sense of all their old stories and brought them a peace they had never known before.

Patrick's gift to the Irish was his Christianity - the first de-Romanized Christianity in human history, a Christianity without the socio-political baggage of the Greco-Roman world, a Christianity that completely incultured itself into the Irish scene. Through the edict of Milan, which had legalized the new religion in 313 and made it the new emperor's pet, Christianity had been received into Rome, not Rome into Christianity! Roman culture was little altered by the exchange, and it is arguable that Christianity lost much of its distinctiveness. But in the Patrician exchange, Ireland, lacking the power and implacable traditions of Rome, had been received into Christianity, which transformed Ireland into Something New, something never seen before-a Christian culture, where slavery and human sacrifice became unthinkable, and warfare, though impossible for humans to eradicate, diminished markedly. The Irish, in any case, loved physical combat too much for inter-tribal warfare to disappear entirely. But new laws, influenced by Gospel norms, inhibited such conflicts severely by requiring that arms be taken up only for a weighty cause. Ireland would not again see a battle on the scale of Tain till Brain Boru would rout the Vikings in the eleventh century.

As these transformed warrior children of Patrick's heart lay down the swords of battle, flung away the knives of sacrifice, and cast aside the chains of slavery, they very much remained Irishmen and Irishwomen. Indeed, the survival of an Irish psychological identity is one of the marvels of the Irish story. Unlike the continental church fathers, the Irish never troubled themselves overmuch about eradicating pagan influences, which they tended to wink at and enjoy. The pagan festivals continued to be celebrated, which is why we can still celebrate the Irish feasts of May Day and Hallowe'en. To this day, there is a town in Kerry that holds a fertility festival each August, where a magnificent he-goat presides like Cernunnos for three days and nights, and bacchanalian drinking, wild dancing, and varieties of sexual indiscretion are the principal entertainments. It is this characteristically Irish melange of pagan and Christian that forms the theme of Brian Friel's magnificent play Dancing at Lughnasa-Lughnasa being the harvest feast of the god Lug, still celebrated on August 1 in parts of Ulster. Irish marriage customs remained most un-Roman. As late as the twelfth century-seven centuries after the Irish conversion to the Gospel-a husband or wife could call it quits and walk out for good on February 1, the feast of Imbolc, which meant that Irish marriages were renewable yearly, like magazine subscriptions or insurance policies. As late as the last century naked men (and, for all we know, women) raced horses bareback along Clare's beaches through the surf at high tide, looking for all the world like their prehistoric warrior ancestors. But after Patrick, the eviler gods shrank in stature and became much less troublesome, became in fact the comical gargoyles of medieval imagination, peering fearfully from undignified nooks, and the belief grew strong that the one thing the devil cannot bear is laughter.

Edmund Campion, the Elizabethan Jesuit who was martyred at Tyburn in 1581, has left us a description of the Irish that rings true to this day:

The people are thus inclined: religious, franke, amorous, irefull, sufferable of paines infinite, very glorious, many sorcerers, excellent horsemen, delighted with warres, great almes-givers, [sur]passing in hospitalitie...They are sharpe-witted, lovers of learning, capable of any studie whereunto they bend themselves, constant in travaile, adventurous, intractable, kinde-hearted, secret in displeasure.
We can still make out this Elizabethan group portrait not only of the Irish of our own day but the lively ghosts of Irishmen long past-Ailil, Medb, Cuchulainn, Derdrui, and, after a fashion, Patrick himself. Whether or not Freud was right when he muttered in exasperation that the Irish were the only people who could not be helped by psychoanalysis, there can be no doubt of one thing: the Irish will never change.

Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 147-150

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