Myth, Malarky and St. Pat

dublin st. patrick parade
Commentary by's Gary Paul Gates:

Anyone who has dared to mingle with the raucous mobs that swarm through the streets of Manhattan on St. Patrick's Day is well aware that the experience is not for the faint of heart.

The gaudy parade up Fifth Avenue, with all its pretentious bombast and God-bless-the-Irish blarney, is just part of the ordeal.

Far more unsettling are the scenes in bars all over town where the dubious joys of inebriation are pursued with wretched excess, especially by young loutish types who, to judge from their antics, have not learned how to drink adult beverages without getting sick or starting fights. Their misbehavior is no sight for the squeamish.

Which is one reason why St. Patrick's Day ranks with New Year's Eve as the two days of the year when so many serious and civilized drinkers - those who enjoy a good tipple on a regular basis - make a point of staying stone sober. They simply don't want to be associated with the thuggish amateurs who give boozing a bad name.

All but lost (or at least overlooked) in this boisterous revelry is the saint whose feast day it is. Insofar as St. Patrick is known at all to most of these rowdy celebrants, he is known as the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland.

Which is, of course, utter nonsense. Snakes were never indigenous to the Emerald Isle, and with good reason. No self-respecting serpent would choose to live in a climate that is notorious for its bleak skies and torrential rains. Even in summer, there is almost always a sharp, damp chill in the air.

Another old wives' tale would have us believe that St. Patrick used a shamrock - with its triple leaf and single stem - to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity to his Irish converts. And that, too, smacks of malarkey.

But behind all the sentimental myths there lurks a truly heroic figure. For there is no doubt that the real St. Patrick was a great and deeply influential missionary who, in the 5th Century, brought Christianity to Ireland, then a remote and primitive backwater on the northwestern edge of Europe.

Moreover, Patrick's missionary work came at a time when the rest of Europe was in turmoil. Barbarians from the East had conquered and destroyed most of the Roman Empire, the classical world in which Christianity first took root and flourished.

But thanks to Patrick, Ireland now became a new and vital center of Christendom. Among his many legacies were the Irish monasteries that were established by his disciples and their successors.

It was in these monasteries that scholarly monks laboriously copied and translated the literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, thereby preserving the great works of classical culture through the centuries that would come to be known as the Dark Ages.

That is the theme of Thomas Cahill's provocative 1995 book, How The Irish Saved Civilization. Although casual in tone, his brief history is utterly serious in intent, and n it Cahill amply demonstrates that when the lights went out all over the rest of Europe, the candles of learning still burned in Ireland. And those candles were lit by St. Patrick.

Now, I find this more compelling than most history lessons, and yet the story of Ireland's patron saint and his profound impact on history rarely intrudes on the annual bacchanalia that defines St. Patrick's Day in New York and other centers of Christian culture.

But in Ireland at least, there was a time when March 17 was strictly a religious holiday. Among those who remember those days most vividly (but without much enthusiasm) is Frank McCourt, the justly celebrated author of two best-selling memoirs: Angela's Ashes, the heartbreaking story of his dirt-poor childhood in Limerick, and 'Tis, an account of his adventures as a young immigrant in New York.

McCourt recalled when I phoned the other day to ask him what St. Patrick's Day was like when he was growing up in Limerick.

"All the pubs were closed because it was a Holy Day. We had to get all dressed up, wear a shamrock and go to Mass. Then we went back home and ate some eggs - that is, if your family was fortunate enough to be able to afford eggs.

"There was usually no meat, even if you could afford it, because it was also Lent. And that made everything even more somber."

McCourt then explained that it all began to change about 15 or 20 years ago. "At first gradually," he said, "but more and more each year until now, I'm happy to say, St. Patrick's Day in Ireland has become completely Americanized."

I asked him if I could then assume that the pubs are now open on March 17.

"Oh yes," he replied, "Open and roaring with laughter and song all day and night. Just as it should be."

We went on to talk about how the New York version of St. Patrick's Day had spread to other countries as well, yet another example of the American-driven trend toward globalization. I told him about a recent trip I had made to the colonial region of Mexico where, even in February, they were making plans for a lavish St. Patrick's Day celebration.

"Well," McCourt noted, "at least that's a Catholic country. So it makes some sense there. But I was reading the other day in the Irish Times that they're going to have a St. Patrick's Day parade in Tokyo. In Tokyo! Just imagine that."

I suggested that perhaps Tokyo had decided to honor St. Patrick because he drove the snakes out of Japan.

"Yes, I'm sure that must be it," McCourt agreed. "And isn't this a grand world we've got for ourselves now?"

"Ah, 'tis," I replied. "'Tis."

And of course I was rewarded with an appreciative chuckle from the man who chose that terse rejoinder as the title for his second volume of memoirs.