I guess Saint Patrick also helped to bring Christianity to Ireland, but who cares about that? No more snakes! Everyone can wear shorts and sandals all the time! Too bad Ireland isn’t really known for its beach weather…
I bet Australia wishes Patrick had visited them.
Ireland was once a Celtic nation, full of lore and myth about great heroes, nature spirits, faerie folk, and all manner of strange monsters and giants. Figures like Cuchulainn and Finn McCool (to use their simplified anglicized names) were once the gold standard for anyone hoping to become a heroic figure. Times change, and with the coming of Christianity the warlike and more primal culture of the Celts gave way to personalities like Saint Patrick, known for his conversions, baptisms, and driving away some snakes. Many folklorists and historians don’t actually think the snake story is meant to be literal, as snakes haven’t been present in Ireland since before the last Ice Age. Instead, it has been used as a metaphor (in more recent times) for Patrick’s influence in driving out the “evils” of Celtic paganism within the Christian religion.
For those of you unfamiliar with these two badasses, I highly suggest investigating Celtic folklore and mythology. Cuchulainn is the most prominent hero of the Ulster Cycle, a rather lengthy story about the reigns of King Conor Mac Nessa and Queen Medb. Much of the story revolves around the war between these two over a rather impressive bull (hilarious, I know) and about the amazing lengths to which Cuchulainn, the Hound of Cullan, goes in order to protect his nation. While his kinsmen are incapacitated by a curse, Cuchulainn battles Queen Medb’s invading army at fords and river crossings, engaging the enemy soldiers in single combat and defeating everyone for months until the Ulstermen are finally able to fight. Cuchulainn is shown as being exceptionally clever, strong, handsome, and brave and he even did the Hulk thing before there was a Hulk! The stories tell of him suffering from “warp spasms” that would contort his body into horrible shapes and cause him to grow in size and strength. During these spasms, he was even more terrible to fight against and he was unable to distinguish friend from foe. Cuchulainn was a very popular hero that gives us a sense of the qualities the Celts found valuable at the time.
One of the later, more refined heroes of the Celts was Finn Mac Cumhaill, or Finn McCool, and totally cool he certainly was. Finn, as a young man, assists a strange old fellow named Finnegas in catching the Salmon of Knowledge, a creature that represents pure wisdom. Having tried and failed for many years, Finnegas finally lands the fish and orders Finn to cook it but the boy accidentally burns his thumb while doing so. Putting his thumb to his mouth to ease the burn, Finn feels the flood of wisdom and knowledge from it touching the fish. Folktales often feature Finn sucking his thumb when he needs to think or to gain some special insight into a matter. Finn’s adult life is given over to the leadership of the Fianna, a band of the best warriors in the land with their own moral code, not unlike King Arthur and his round table. The Fianna had many adventures and righted many wrongs in their time and it was said that one of Finn’s men lived to be old enough to meet Saint Patrick and tell the tales of their brave deeds to him, but that is undoubtedly just folklore.
Saint Patrick and Christianity finally arrived in Ireland and with them, the Celtic culture slowly died out. There is a story about a man named Tuan Mac Cairill that brings these two disparate spiritual traditions together and shows their strengths and weaknesses. Mac Cairill is one of the first men to ever come to Ireland. His people are slowly killed off by a plague and he alone survives to a very great age. After some time, he begins to change and one day wakes to find himself a deer. This sort of thing happens time and again for two thousand years and Tuan Mac Cairill witnesses each new wave of people coming into Ireland and the old groups being wiped out or replaced. Eventually, he is reborn as a man and he meets Saint Finnian of Moville with whom he converses about the Celtic traditions and history and the new culture Christianity represents. You can see, in this story, the closeness to nature but more dangerous lifestyle of the Celts in contrast to the kind of spiritual and physical safety offered by the more modern Christian culture that was coming to Ireland from Europe. In the stories, Tuan Mac Cairill supposedly talked to Saint Patrick himself and even converted to Christianity in the end.
Saint Patrick has been a folk hero in Ireland for a long time and his holiday is both a spiritual and secular one. Patrick represents Christianity’s influence in Ireland, its guiding hand on Ireland’s history. While great heroes like Finn and Cuchulainn are, without a doubt, some of the coolest and most badass figures in folklore, it’s hard to argue with the historical impact that a figure like Saint Patrick had on the country.
Still, not very impressive compared to Cuchulainn or Finn McCool, if you ask me, but I guess it’s a matter of how awesome you think Christianity is.
Anyway, I’d like to wish everyone that celebrates it an early Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Please be safe!