« Virgin Mobile FreeFest to return to Merriweather | Main | Virgin Mobile FreeFest 2010: What bands would you like to see? »

March 16, 2010

Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays: The real St. Patrick

st. patrick as a wee baby. a wee laddy. After last week's look at Johnny Appleseed, I was ready and rearin' to read about the real St. Patrick. And Owl Meat's column didn't let me down. I think a career as a history prof. wouldn't be too far-fetched for old Owly at this point:

Did you know that Saint Patrick was Italian? It's a fact.

Well, it's a Little Italy fact. 'Tis a tall tale told by neighborhood doyens. This week in Tipsy History we explore this and other blarney surrounding the patron saint of amateur binge drinking, I mean Ireland.

The legend fed to youngsters is that St. Patrick was an Irish priest who brought Christianity to the godless Emerald Isle. As an encore he drove out all the snakes. That's nice, almost magically delicious, but quite wrong.

Hop in Mr. McGravy's Wayback Machine as we travel to the Fifth Century A.D., when Caesar was the Roman emperor, not a salad ...

Strictly speaking, Patrick could not have been Italian, since the country Italy didn't exist until 1861, but that's splitting capellini.

Patrick's parents were indeed wealthy Romans. A ha! Hold onto your scungilli, paisanos, that might not mean what you think.

Romans invaded Britain in 43 A.D. The province of Britannia was formed, which included (the future) England, Wales, and wee bits of Scotland. The Romans occupied Britannia for another four centuries until St. Patrick's time.

Patrick was born in Britannia of Briton parents. Britons were Celtic inhabitants of what is now England.

Patrick's parents were Roman by virtue of having Roman citizenship, not ethnicity. After 212 A.D., all free men in Roman provinces were Roman citizens. So, St. Patrick was not Italian, just a Brit with a good passport.

When Patrick was 14 years old, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave, where he tended sheep for six years amidst the yellow moon, orange stars, and green clovers.

A magical spirit encouraged him to escape and he did. Years later another spirit urged him to return and convert the pagans to Christianity. (Or twas it the Leprechaun?)

And now for the snakes. Scientists don't believe that post-glacial Ireland had any snakes, so that myth is busted.

Snakes are prevalent in Celtic art and Druid images. (Druids were Celtic priests said to be wizards.) But if there were no snakes in Ireland, why were they so prominent in their imagery?

Perhaps Patrick's snakes represent the worship of animal spirits in Druidism (and Beelzebub, the O.G. snakemeister of Eden). So snake eradication is a metaphor for a British conquest that crushed local culture and religion, like a British Empire beta test.

The three-leaf shamrock was supposedly used by St. Patrick to illustrate the Trinity to a pagan Irish king. Uh, sure. So why is the four-leaf clover considered lucky?

Hagiographies of St. Patrick are filled with divine visitations and compassionate intentions for Patrick's lost Irish lambs. (Was he really a shepherd? That seems symbolically convenient and now I'm hungry for lamb.) Did Christianity come to Ireland like the gentle blooming of hyacinths? Unlikely.

The Irish were stubborn in retaining Celtic religion and resisting Roman domination. St. Patrick's "missionary" work was a Roman-supported campaign, an act of political domination by Romano-Britons, probably with all the attendant brutality that comes with conversion at the point of a sword.

I envision St. Patrick's efforts as something out of Quentin Tarrantino's oeuvre. Imagine a tale of violent revenge and political terror: Harvey Keitel starring in Green Vengeance, with Uma Thurman as Sister Broadsword.

St. Patrick's Day is a beautiful tangle of contradictions and irony. People get drunk to honor a pious Catholic Saint who was not Irish, probably meted out badass Roman-style conversion, was guided by voices, and defeated imaginary snakes. Sounds perfect. Sláinte, everyone!

Follow Midnight Sun on Facebook and Twitter @midnightsunblog
Posted by Sam Sessa at 8:09 AM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays


The snake is a phallic symbol. The Brits' m.o. for subjugating the Irish was to cut off their manhood.

O blessed glorious Trinity,
Bones to philosophy, but milk to faith,
Which, as wise serpents, diversely
Most slipperiness, yet most entanglings hath,
As you distinguish'd, undistinct,
By power, love, knowledge be,
Give me a such self different instinct,
Of these let all me elemented be,
Of power, to love, to know you unnumbered three.

Just a note of caution: I am a very laid back individual and a devout Catholic. However, this blog post about St. Patrick definitely rubbed me the wrong way. Writing about "convenient symbols" and "meteing out bad-ass" poo-poos a figure who is central to the roots of Ireland's Catholic faith. I wonder if such a blog post would be written for central figures of other faith traditions.

I wonder how many central figures of other faith traditions are used to sell beer.

The one thing I learned from the Jesuits is to think for yourself, no matter where that might lead. I approached this as history not religion.

Beth, I suggest OMG tear apart every religion on earth since it is necessary and long overdue.

Enid, phallic symbol? Yes, of course. The whole snake legend seems more like English commentary on a job well done than a helpful miracle. The victors write history.

Beth, please take a trip to Ireland and report back to us on just how "central" to Irish Catholic faith St. Patrick really is. I think you might find that St. Patrick is considered as important to Irish Catholicism as Uncle Sam and the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy" are to American patriotism: nice symbols and all, but not really crucial in the big picture.

I mean, can you tell me who the Catholic patron saint of the United States is? Or Germany? Or Canada? Face it, the only reason we've heard of St. Patrick is thanks to a bunch of Hibernian-Americans looking to assert their ethnic/cultural pride publicly.

Patron saints are supposed to intercede with God on behalf of their flock. Given the history of Ireland since St. Patrick's time, I would say he should be fired.

He's also the patron saint of engineers and Nigeria. What?

In my Irish Catholic relatives homes from my grandparents generation there were two photos on the wall: Pope somebody (I forget which) and JFK. St. Patrick was less central than John Kennedy who hardly a saint, but he did a lot more for the Irish than the snake charming Brit.

I wonder how many central figures of other faith traditions are used to sell beer.

Saint Nicholas sells toys.
Saint Valentine sells cards and chocolates.
Easter Bunny sells jelly beans and baskets.
Jesus sells the Republican party.
Allah sells Homeland Security.

next thing you know you'll be telling me their are no leprechauns or pots of gold at the end of rainbows!

I believe Corona is Spanish for St. Peter.

Corona means crown in Spanish.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

I like the idea that an Irish king would be too stupid to understand something like the Trinity without visual aids. Send in Carrot Top!

Here's to a long life and a merry one,
A quick death and an easy one,
A pretty girl and an honest one,
A cold beer - and another one!
--- Old Irish Toast

@Shamus - The pretty girl and the honest're talking about two different chicks, right?

just shameful. you should be excommunicated

I keep trying, but no luck so far.

I believe that "lazania ortiz" is spanish for "joke over her head'"

@BC - It is possible to get pretty and honest in the same package.

I was just playing with SocialMention and noticed this rebuttal over at the religion blog. It represents a different view, natch.

St. Patrick's Day, celebrated on March 17, marks the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day was first observed in America in 1737 when Irish immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts decided to make their festivities a public affair.

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Please enter the letter "b" in the field below:
About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

Most Recent Comments
Recent tweets
Sign up for FREE nightlife alerts*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Photo galleries
Stay connected