St. Patrick’s Day: A Primer for the Temporarily Irish

Dennis Ryan Element 79 Chicago AdvertisingIf your appreciation of March 17’s significance is limited to pulling out a well-worn “Beer Me I’m Irish” t-shirt and heading off on a pub crawl, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the fine work of Ireland’s patron saint.  Saint Patrick’s celebration has been secularized over the years with dubious efforts like green beer and ‘saving o’ the green’ drugstore sales, but the man behind this feast day truly had historical impact on his adopted Emerald Isle.

Yes, ‘adopted.’  For starters, he wasn’t Irish; the man was a Scot, most likely born on the coast of Wales.

He also wasn’t “Patrick.”  Born “Maewyn Succat” he was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland at 16—something not nearly as fun as those Carribean Johnny Depp pirate movies, particularly since it was the frigid North Sea in the mid fifth century (That era’s motto?  “Hygeine Takes a Holiday”).  He turned to religion during six years of forced labor as a shepherd and when he escaped back to Britain, he followed a vocation to the priesthood.  There, he took the name ‘Patrick.”

Like all the great saints, he felt a strong personal mission: to return and bring Christianity to those pagan shores—an act immortalized by folklore as ‘driving the snakes out of Ireland.’  The country has never been particularly overrun by serpents, but it was long on druids and pagans who no doubt resented that characterization.

Patrick’s particular genius was first converting the nobles whose example trickled down to the general population.  Beyond the spiritual, this conversion brought very real benefits to the Irish people—literacy foremost among them.  The long oral storytelling traditions could now be written down, beginning a glorious tradition of deeply expressive Irish writing, even if I still have no idea what Joyce goes on about.

After thirty years of this mission, Maewyn died on March 17th.  And about thirteen hundred years later, his Feast Day began transforming into a general holiday.  In the US, where a little over 10% of the population claims Irish ancestry, we’ve twisted this pride of heritage into such activities as holding parades (or once holding parades in Berwyn), selling Shamrock Shakes and dumping forty pounds of vivid green vegetable into the Chicago River.  Oh, and overdoing the whole boozing thing.

Should you turn up a four-leaf clover, which pops up roughly once in every ten thousand plants, know that each one of those little leaves holds a meaning: the first is for hope, the second for faith, the third for love and the fourth for luck.

May luck be with you and have a fine, fine day.  Sláinte!

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79