Of leprechauns and shamrocks

March 12, 2011

Sweetwater has the reputation of turning red in the fall; Thursday, with the rest of the nation, it is likely to turn green. March 17 has been celebrated as Saint Patrick’s Day for thousands of years; in the relatively recent past, it has become a day of celebration for people whose connection with the Emerald Isle is tenuous at best!
The date was set on the Catholic calendar as a feast day to honor the individual known as the patron saint of Ireland. Born British (wouldn’t you know!) in 387 AD to Christian parents, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders at about the age of sixteen. The next several years were spent in captivity, working outdoors caring for the flocks of his captor, a Druid high priest. Lonely and afraid, he turned inward, and to the religion he had learned as a child. In time, Patrick escaped, walked roughly 200 miles to the coast, and returned to Britain. Shortly after his return, however, he saw a vision in which an angel directed him to return to Ireland as a missionary. He took religious training for nearly fifteen years, was ordained a priest, and sent by his order to Ireland for the dual purpose of serving the Christians who were there and converting others to the faith. Most of the people of Ireland at that time practiced a native based religion, centered on oral tradition and myth. Thanks to his involuntary time spent immersed in their culture, Patrick knew how to reach them. It is believed that he died peacefully on March 17, 460.
It is generally accepted that many of the traditions of Christianity were “borrowed” from other religions by missionaries in their efforts at conversion. Patrick was not different; the cross known as the “Celtic Cross” has at its center a stylized sun, a carryover from the older beliefs. Bonfires were important to the Irish people as part of their celebrations, and these became incorporated into Easter festivities. He was, apparently, quite successful in his mission, as Ireland was completely Christianized in 200 years. From earliest history, the Irish have loved a good tale, honoring their seanchais (pronounced shanachies) and bards throughout time. The ability to spin a good tale on a long night being more valued than accuracy, the love of yarns has led to many myths – including the one about the snakes – about the good St. Patrick.
The symbols of St. Patrick’s day have their basis more in legend than reality. There is no evidence to indicate that there were ever snakes on the Emerald Isle…which would make it challenging to chase them out. More than likely, the “snakes” of the legend are a symbol for the religions which were practiced by the Irish people prior to accepting Christianity. The shamrock, or seamroy, was long honored among the ancient Celts as a symbol of spring and rebirth. As the people of Ireland struggled against the British monarchy, it became a symbol of the rebirth of the Irish nation; as such, by the 17th century it was considered the unofficial symbol of Ireland. The leprechaun of tomorrow’s celebration is largely a Walt Disney (Darby O’Gill & the Little People) creation. Celts of Patrick’s day believed in ”lobaircin” or “small boned fellows”, who were kin to fairies and had magical powers. Leprechauns were pretty low on the fairy totem pole, as their position in life was to mend the shoes of the other fairy types, a profession which left them quite cranky and difficult. It was believed that they had vast stores of treasure, and always believed mortals to be in search of it. They were minor figures in Irish folklore, and had nothing at all to do with Saint Patrick!
Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland was, until very recent history, a religious day. Pubs were closed; families attended church in the morning, then would celebrate in the afternoon. Since the day always falls during the fasting season of Lent, the ban on meat would be waived for that day, leading to the celebratory meal of Irish bacon and cabbage becoming traditional food for the day. The Irish have observed the day for thousands of years; Americans discovered it in 1762, and it has now gone global. At a time when signs stating “no Irish need apply” adorned many businesses, the celebration was a way to connect with the homeland left behind, and, to use modern terms, to network together. As the Irish came to realize the political power associated with numbers, they became a powerful voting block, and Saint Patrick’s Day parades a place for ambitious politicians to be seen. Green beer is an American invention.
At this point, it is hard to find persons in the US who, at least on this one day, will not claim to have a “bit of the Irish”, if only to have an excuse to join the celebration. Cards, goofy hats, pins, and the like abound, and, if only for a day, our nation goes from about 12% Irish ancestry to at least 75%! So – slainte ((good) health)!

Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to editor@sweetwaterreporter.com.

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