It seems obvious, given the name of the holiday, that the celebration of St. Patrick’s day is at least remotely related to its namesake, St. Patrick. However, few would deny that throughout Western Civilization, St. Patrick’s day has become more a celebration of Irish culture (and Irish drinking habits) than anything else.
So if the celebration is one of Irish culture, what is to be celebrated? A cursory look at Irish history reveals that the Irish truly have little to be proud of. Save for its earliest history, Ireland has never been victorious in any military conflict, being continuously subjected to raids, pillaging, and (even today) subjugation by neighboring nations. Much like the American South, even if the Irish are beloved, their seemingly obvious failure as a cultured nation stands as their most prominent historical feature.
Similarly, if the celebration is one which honors St. Patrick, why is he honored? Patrick himself was not Irish, and upon arriving in Ireland sometime around 415 AD, he anxiously awaited his opportunity to leave.
A few moments of explanation not only explain these absurdities, but also point to the great debt owed by Western Civilization, as a whole, to St. Patrick and the Irish nation.
Sometime in the early 5th century, a 16-year old boy named Patricius lived with his parents in a modest household in Britain, somewhere near the island’s western coast. At this time, Britain remained a satellite of the failing Roman Empire, whose weakness had begun to embolden tribes of barbarians. Roman weakness translated into a growing inability of British-Roman troops to protect their settlements from raids, and it was during one of these raids (by Irish tribes) that Patricius was taken captive and brought to Ireland as a slave. Understandably, Patricius anxiously sought an opportunity to return to Britain.
This opportunity did not arrive until after Patricius had been a herdsmen for over 6 years. In the meantime, he used his humbling experience and plentiful solitary time to become better acquainted with the prayer life which his parents had tried to introduce to him. When he finally made it back to Britain, it was only a few years later that he claimed to hear “The Voice of the Irish,” begging him to return to Ireland and share his Christian faith with them. Poor boy! To escape captivity and then feel compelled to return to his old masters!
Driven by his mission, Patricius attended the island monastery at Lerins (off the Southeastern coast of France), being ordained a priest sometime before 428 AD, and raised up to bishop in 431 with his desired task set to him: to return to Ireland.
He arrived in Ireland in 432 AD, and quickly began his conversion of the people there. At the time, Druidism (marked by its worship of trees) dominated Irish religion, and Patrick quickly encountered major challenges: the native Druids, who considered their regional kings to be their religious lords as well, considered Patrick to be advocating both heresy and treason.
Patrick’s most impressive achievement was the total and complete conversion of Ireland to Christianity. According to what scarce records remain, Patrick accomplished this feat several decades before his death in 493. Because of his kind and understanding ways, the Irish quickly grew to adore the bishop, and no doubt their affection for him played a large role in the adoption of Patrick as the patron of Ireland and popular acclaim that he be called a saint.
Supposedly, Irish Christians were so zealous in their faith that they were sorrowed by the lack of opportunity to become martyrs for Christianity. Therefore, they introduced what they called a “green martyrdom,” where one would leave behind the comforts and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreating to the woods, or a mountaintop, or to a lonely island, to one of the green no-man’s lands outside tribal influences— there to study the scriptures and commune with God. Notably, the “green martyrdom” became an early hallmark of Irish Christianity, and the green mark even today endures as a symbol of that Irish idea.
A quick glance at a map of Ireland reveals the small size of the island. The popularity of the “green martyrdom,” therefore, soon made it difficult to find a secluded place for so-inclined Irishmen to practice it. Monasticism developed as a result, where Irish Christians who sought quiet reflection and study of their faith joined or helped to form one of many new monasteries. These monasteries quickly became centers of study and education, for with the quiet communion of hundreds of monks came the opportunity for the study of texts, and Irish monasteries emphasized education and book-making.
Having gone from barbarians to Christians, the only real form of governance in Ireland at this time was the monasteries, and thus as both educational and civil centers, education spread very quickly throughout all of Ireland. Notably, Irish society had gone from chaos to order just as the rest of Europe had gone from order to chaos, due to the collapse of the Roman Empire.
As the centers of learning in mainland Europe cam under barbarian threat, Irish monasteries hosted many thousands of foreign students, who were bringing back Irish learning to their places of origin. Later Irish monks themselves went to Europe bringing with them their education and book making skills to be shared with others.
Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish warriors had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.
In summation, it seems that both St. Patrick and Irish culture deserve celebration on March 17th. For while St. Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish, the Irish in turn saved much of Western Civilization.
Note on the sources: It remains difficult to retrieve reliable information on St. Patrick, especially as concerns the precise dates of the events of his life. Any assertions about St. Patrick made in this essay rely upon some agreement among scholars, even if not unanimous.