Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

So it’s St Patrick’s Day, a bank holiday here in Ireland. I shall probably observe the festivities in Maynooth later on, though it is pouring down at the moment and very likely to rain on the parade, which starts at 11am. That would be disappointing, as it hardly ever rains in Ireland.

I came second in the Beard of Ireland poll, by the way. Thanks to everyone who voted for me and congratulations to the winner, Aodhan Connolly. A few people have asked for an up-to-date picture of me and my beard, so here goes:

Not many facts are known about the life of St Patrick, but it seems he was born in Britain, probably in the late 4th Century AD, probably somewhere around the Severn Estuary and probably in Wales and according to virtually all artistic depictions of him he had a fine beard. It also appears that he didn’t know any Latin. When a young man, it seems he was captured by Celtic marauders coming up the River Severn and taken as a slave to Ireland. He eventually escaped back to Britain, but returned to Ireland as a missionary and succeeded somehow in converting the Irish people to Christianity.

Ireland was the first country to be converted to Christianity that had never been part of the Roman Empire. That made a big difference to the form of the early Irish Church. The local Celtic culture was very loose and decentralized. There were no cities, large buildings, roads or other infrastructure. Life revolved around small settlements and farms. When wars were fought they were generally over livestock or grazing land. The early Irish Church that grew in this environment was quite different from that of continental Europe. It was not centralized, revolved around small churches and monasteries, and lacked the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church. Despite these differences, Ireland was quite well connected with the rest of the Christian world.

Irish monks – and the wonderful illuminated manuscripts they created – spread across the continent, starting with Scotland and Britain. Thanks to the attentions of the Vikings few of these works survive but the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from somewhere in the 8th Century were almost certainly created by Irish monks. The Book of Kells was probably created in Scotland by Irish Monks.

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, the reputed date of his death in 461 AD. Nobody really knows where St Patrick was born, though, so it would be surprising if the when were any better known.

In any case, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that Saint Patrick’s feast day was placed on the universal liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church. Indeed, St Patrick has never been formally canonized. In the thousand years that passed any memory of the actual date of his birth was probably lost, so the choice of date was probably influenced by other factors, specifically the proximity of the Spring Equinox (which is this year on Monday, March 20th).

The early Christian church in Ireland incorporated many pre-Christian traditions that survived until roughly the 12th century, including the ancient festival of Ēostre (or Ostara), the goddess of spring associated with the spring equinox after whom Easter is named. During this festival, eggs were used a symbol of rebirth and the beginning of new life and a hare or rabbit was the symbol of the goddess and fertility. In turn the Celtic people of Ireland probably adapted their own beliefs to absorb much older influences dating back to the stone age. St Patrick’s Day and Easter therefore probably both have their roots in prehistoric traditions around the Spring Equinox, although the direct connection has long been lost.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

Update. I waited until it stopped raining before leaving the house, which meant that I missed the start of the Maynooth parade but there seemed to be a very good turnout. Here are some snaps of the bit I saw:

4 Responses to “Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The timing of Easter is of course the Jewish Passover Festival in the spring, at which Jesus was crucified. I much prefer the Eastern Orthodox Christian name for it, Pascha (deriving from Passover) than the syncretist term Easter (which appears once in the King James translation of the New Testament). ‘Eostre’ is mentioned by Bede, I believe, who is the only source for the name.

    • telescoper Says:

      ‘Eostre’ (or ‘Ostara’) seems to have been a Germanic deity associated with the spring, rather than one of the Celtic pantheon. I think some authorities think Bede made the name up but it may have arrived in Britain with the Saxons. Incidentally, a large Saxon army invaded Ireland in 684 AD, an expedition led by Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria that was described by Bede. I think that was the first Saxon occupation of Ireland.

  2. The attempt to raise me as a Catholic thoroughly religion-proofed me. One factor in that was that it was just such an obvious power structure. I never imagined it as enabled by Roman roads, but it seems obvious in hindsight. Note to prospective parents: attempting to force religion on a child is likely to go spectacularly wrong.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      From the fourth century Christianity mutated into a power structure. New Testament Christianity actually had negative political power, ie it was persecuted. Some consider that the real Christians continued to be persecuted by the religious authorities in Europe after the fourth century.

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