St. Patrick’s Day: Prickly Problems, Shamrocks and Saints

March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day.

It’s a public holiday in Ireland, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Chicago plumbers celebrate by turning the city’s river green. It’s a day when folks wear something green, and I’ve heard that some even drink green beer. Why anyone would think green beer is a good idea is beyond me, and that’s another topic.

March 17 is also the date when, in 455, Petronius Maximus became Rome’s new Emperor. He insulted the Vandal’s king, who promptly sent a fleet toward Rome. Two and a half months later, someone tossed P. Max.’s body in the Tiber.

In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, March 17 is Evacuation Day; commemorating the Siege of Boston’s end. Oddly enough, Boston has had St. Patrick’s Day parades since 1876. But Evacuation Day wasn’t an official holiday until 1901.1

Global merriment, however, has its critics.


Pick a Peck of Prickly Problems

St. Patrick’s Day has been denounced as causing drunk and disorderly conduct.

And because it’s dreadfully commercialized. According, I suspect, to some folks who remember that it’s a Saint’s feast day; and maybe have lucre scruples. Or maybe chrometophobia accounts for commerce-avoidant complaints. Or absurdly good taste.

Others, addressing a more trendy set, chastise the celebrants’ cultural appropriation. They’ve got a point. Folks who are as Irish as I’m Lakota wear green.

Then there’s the leprechaun issue. Seems that today’s leprechaun looks like 19th century anti-Irish stereotypes. Maybe so. Then again, maybe not. Either way, I see no point in being upset when folks enjoy ‘being Irish’ for a day.

TDKR Chicago 101's Chicago River dyed green for the St. Patrick's Day parade, used w/o permission. (March 17, 2018)Opposing “plastic paddyness” isn’t a prospecting protestor’s only option.

The Chicago River turns green on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, or on the day itself, when it falls on Saturday.

It’s been a Chicago tradition since 1962.

It started back in the early 1960s, when folks used fluorescein dye to trace illegal pollution leaks in Chicago.

The stuff turned parts of the river green.

Doing so intentionally for St. Patrick’s Day seemed like a good idea at the time.

The EPA told Chicago to stop using fluorescein in 1966. The stuff’s not, apparently, environmentally friendly.

The Chicago river still turns green each year. But now the city’s plumbers use a secret mix of vegetable dyes. The EPA’s okay with that.

At least one advocacy group isn’t.

Again, as with the ‘cultural appropriation’ protestors, I see their point. A bright green river has an artificial look.2 But making Chicago’s waterway look natural while the city’s still there isn’t going to happen. Festive green or no festive green.

Previous Prickly Problems

Branford Clarke's cartoon, from page 21 of Alma White's 'Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty;' Zarephath, New Jersey. (1926)
(From Branford Clarke, Alma White; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Alma White’s “Guardians of Liberty” defending their country from people like me. (1926))

Before talking about the “Saint Patrick” part of St. Patrick’s Day, maybe a clarification is in order. Or maybe not. Either way, here it is.

Today’s America isn’t simple.

Neither was yesteryear’s.

I could take that 1854 “No Irish need apply” want ad and Boston’s 1876 St. Patrick’s Day parade, assume a straight-line progression into the 20th century: and express shocked horror that A. White — I’m not making that name up — published “Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty” in 1926.

I could, but I won’t.

Or I could take the “Saint Patrick’s Day in America — 1926” cartoon as proof that Christianity in general and American Christians in particular have no place in today’s world.

But that doesn’t strike me as reasonable.

A. White, her Pillar of Fire Church and the KKK’s second iteration were not mainstream in 1926. Times changed and so did the PFC.

To her credit, A White struggled long and hard in her efforts to defend America. I’ll assume that she sincerely saw Catholicism, Pentecostalism, the Irish, Jews and foreigners in general as threats to her native land.

I’ll also assume that A. White wasn’t your typical 1920s American. Or typical Protestant American, which isn’t quite the same thing.

Some of us were making speakeasies profitable and fueling her “anti-prohibition” concerns. Quite a few, judging from what I know of Minnesota 13.3 And that’s another topic.

Basically, I see people as anything but simple. America’s growing crazy quilt of people, backgrounds and beliefs? That’s even less so.


“…I am a Sinner” — St. Patrick, Shamrocks and All That

Copy of St. Patrick's Confessio, in Cotton MS Nero E I/1, British Library.
(From the British Library, used w/o permission.)
(First lines of St. Patrick’s Confessio, in a Medieval collection. (ca. 1100))

“My name is Patrick…
“I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many….”
(St. Patrick’s Confessio, English translation at confessio.ie)

Many scholars agree that St. Patrick wrote his Confessio and Epistola, Declaration and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus.

He calls himself as Pātricius in those documents. Which figures, since that’s a Latin version of Pátraic (Old Irish), Pàdraig (Scottish Gaelic), Padrig (Welsh) and Petroc (Cornish).

Or, in my language, Patrick.

Evidence in what Pātricius wrote says he lived in the 400s. Give or take a bit.

Pātricius may have been, by today’s ethnic standards, Roman, Welsh, Cornish, or Celtic. Or some combination thereof.

What’s more certain is that he was born somewhere in Britannia: an imperial borderland abandoned — or liberated — when Roman generals pulled out.

Documentation for that era is sketchy. Hardly surprising, given that folks were adjusting to life without Rome’s laws and commerce. But adjust they did. And by the seventh century, Pātricius was venerated as the patron Saint of Ireland.

There’s considerable debate over St. Patrick’s chronology.

But not, apparently, over whether or not someone named Pātricius was kidnapped, sold as a slave and then became a missionary. One scholar even said there were two Patricks.

Another debatable, and debated, point is whether Pātricius was the first Christian missionary in Ireland.

There’s a story about Saint Ciarán of Saigir that makes him the first. By a few years. Maybe that’s so, maybe not. What’s more certain is that St. Ciarán of Saigir was born in Ireland, which makes him the first Saint born in Éire.4

Shamrocks

A flowering Shamock. Photo by Accruss. (2015)St. Patrick and the shamrock are very closely linked. Even folks who aren’t Catholic know how he used the plant as a visual aid when explaining the Trinity.

It’s a good story, and may be true. But verifying it would be tricky, since its first written version pops up in 1727.

That’s when Caleb Threlkeld, a botanist and dissenting cleric, said that the shamrock is a particular sort of clover.

“…This plant is worn by the people in their hats upon the 17. Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.) It being a current tradition, that by this Three Leafed Grass, he emblematically set forth to them the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. However that be, when they wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit excess in liquor, which is not a right keeping of a day to the Lord; error generally leading to debauchery….”
(“Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum…,” p. 168, Caleb Threlkeld (1727))

I’m not sure what Threlkeld was dissenting from.

I’m also not sure how long Threlkeld’s “current tradition” about St. Patrick’s shamrock had been around. For all I know, it’s an oral tradition that goes back to folks who saw St. Patrick pick a three-leafed plant while talking about the Trinity.

Over the last several centuries, the shamrock’s been positively identified5 as:

  • Black medick
  • Lesser clover
  • Purple field clover
  • Red clover
  • Suckling clover
  • White clover
  • Wood sorrel

I figure it’s one of those. Or some other plant with three-lobed leaves.

Or maybe the legend of St. Patrick and the shamrock is one of those tales that could have been true, but isn’t. Not literally, at any rate.

Legends and a Forbidden Pit

Thomas Carve's 'Map of Station Island,' including Caverna Purgatory. (1666)St. Patrick’s driving snakes out of Ireland has a ring of truth to it, since Ireland has no native snakes.

The legend is more than a bit dubious, though, since we’ve been learning that there never were snakes in Ireland. Not since the most recent glaciers melted.

Another story has St. Patrick comparing Christianity and Ireland’s pre-Christian beliefs with Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, a couple of Irishmen from Fionn mac Cumhaill’s outfit.

On the face of it, it’s plausible.

But I gather that it’d be a bit like Billy Graham having a chat with Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. The ancient Irish heroes had been dead for some time when Pātricius was born. Besides; the Pat, Caílte and Oisín story doesn’t show up until the 12th century.

Still another story says that St. Patrick had the habit of pushing his walking stick into the ground wherever he stopped to talk to folks. The locals in one place took so long, catching on to what St. Patrick was saying, that his ash walking stick took root and became a tree.

Literally true, or hyperbole? I’m guessing the latter.

Another story isn’t so much a story as a place.

Ever since St. Patrick’s time, Lough Derg’s Station Island, in County Donegal, has been a pilgrimage destination. They go to be near a cave, pit, well or maybe sweat lodge where St. Patrick stayed for what we’d call a retreat.

The earliest record we have of the legend connected with “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” dates to the 12th century. We’re quite sure, though, that folks were making pilgrimages to the site, starting in the 5th century.

The cave’s been closed since 1632, by order of the English government. But we know where “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” is, and pilgrims still go there.6


Saints

Saint Edmund Arrowsmith; from The Arrowsmith House, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission. (1628)Some Saints, like Sts. Patrick of Ireland and Francis of Assisi, are so famous that folks who aren’t Catholic know about them.

Others, like St. Edmund Arrowsmith, are off the radar for almost everyone.

And some, like St. Christopher, are famous but not well-documented.

Which is why his feast day is still celebrated, but hasn’t been on the official calendar since 1970. That, plus our having accumulated a great many saints over the last couple millennia and our mandate to keep liturgy focused on Jesus.

Some Saints, like Edmund Arrowsmith, had messy deaths. He was convicted of being a Roman Catholic priest in 1628; then promptly hung, drawn and quartered.

Others, like Pātricius and Francesco, kept living until accident, disease or old age caught up with them.

What makes Saints special is their “heroic virtue,” and how they “lived in fidelity to God’s grace….” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828)

Like I said, martyrdom is Sainthood’s fast track. But folks who lived exceptional lives but died of natural causes were venerated as Saints at least by the fourth century.

Our process for recognizing Saints — canonization — has changed considerably. By the fifth century, public veneration of a Saint needed approval from diocese’s bishop. That worked pretty well for a half-millennium.

But by the 12th century at least a few bishops and archbishops were getting sloppy, approving veneration in at least one case for someone who died in an accident caused by the Medieval equivalent of DUI.

Authority for signing off on veneration shifted to the Pope.7

Which reminds me. About St. Patrick’s Day, beer and celebrating.

Drinking, in moderation, isn’t evil. Getting drunk is a bad idea and I shouldn’t do it. (Catechism, 2290)

Due Process

Dogbert's 'miracle of the peanut butter.' (1992)Today’s canonization process includes two miracles. Verifiable miracles. Not the oddities spoofed 1992 “Dilbert” comic strips.

The process starts with someone asking an archbishop to start looking into a possible Saint’s eligibility.

All three major steps — “Venerable,” “Blessed” and “Saint” — involve extensive background checks.8 It’s complicated, and can be frustrating. But I think due process is a good idea in general. And a really good idea in this case.


New and Improved Folklore

Triple spiral, based on prehistoric motifs found at Newgrange, Ireland.I very strongly suspect that St. Patrick’s folklore is still growing.

According to informal posts I’ve found on academic websites, his name isn’t Pātricius, it’s Maewyn Succat. It’s apparently one of those ‘well-known facts:’ so well-known that its source isn’t worth citing.

When, where and how someone dug up Patrick’s ‘true name’ — that, I don’t know.

Maybe Pātricius was Maewyn Succat in his home town, taking a more widely-acceptable name for his career. Sort of like someone I knew whose name was Bogdan: but since he was in sales, his business name was “Bob.”

A less likely, but far more juicy, story popped up in 2011. Maybe earlier.

Apparently Pātricius couldn’t have been enslaved, because he couldn’t have escaped. That almost makes sense, since going over the fence in a foreign country would be tricky, at best.

One version of the ‘no escape’ scenario casts Pātricius as a Roman slave trader!9

But nobody, as far as I can tell, has said that Pātricius wrote plays, hiding the scripts in London, where they were discovered by Christopher Marlowe. Who translated and published them as William Shakespeare.

As I’ve said before, some things may be too weird even for today’s academia:

There’s more to say about Saints, veneration and the ‘treasury of the Church,’ which isn’t cash or other material assents. But that’ll wait for another day.

Vaguely-related posts, and some that are not so much:


1 March 17:

2 Global merriment’s (alleged) dark lining:

3 The Irish menace, a perceived peril:

4 Saint Patrick and his era:

5 Regarding shamrocks:

6 Legends:

7 Recognizing heroic virtue:

8 Verifying Saints:

  • United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

9 Folklore and/or tall tales:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to St. Patrick’s Day: Prickly Problems, Shamrocks and Saints

  1. Happy St Patrick’s Day.

    God bless.

Thanks for taking time to comment!