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