St. Patrick: a man of the ages

Trends & Culture - March 2nd, 2001
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Boy, do we know that. (Name another nation with a patron saint so famously connected to it. Germany? Peru? Canada?) One can barely imagine the man without the country. Or vice versa.

Now we know what and where Ireland is—it’s a smallish island of poets and philosophers in the north Atlantic next to that larger island where people speak a peculiar form of English which, in turn, is next to a large continental landmass where they use an even odder form of currency called “Euro.” Easy.

But St. Patrick? His “day” is Mar. 17. (In Tokyo, however, the Irish are impetuously plan­ning celebrations early. The Emerald Ball—a superb black-tie dinner-dance and charitable fund-raiser—will be held at the Westin Hotel on Friday, Mar. 9. Then a St. Patrick’s Day Parade is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. in Harajuku on Sun­day, Mar. 11.)

Back to St. Patrick. Who was this man? We know that he was either a Roman slave, a North African Moor or a Welsh coal miner born Mar. 17 in the late 4th or early 5th century. That much is crystal clear.

He pulled himself together after many exciting adventures (including, apparently, a stint at the Vatican where he learned a lot of things) and on Mar. 17 “sailed across the sea to Ire­land.” We know that from the song he wrote about it: “Gal-way Bay.”

St. Patrick was astonished when stepping ashore to find that the Emerald Isle was ankle-deep in snakes. (Old-timers and newspaper editors had known for years that “Eire” was a Pict word for “snakes,” but with all the other troubles in that marvelous little country, the point was frequently over­looked.)

“Begorra,” muttered St. Patrick as he tightened the wrap around his legs and adopted the thighs together, below the knees only, scissor-kick stride so common for saints in flowing robes visiting places ankle-deep in snakes. “This Eire land could use a little salvation.”

Accordingly, St. Patrick set off in search of someone in charge—a daunting task as each man, woman and child he met along the way was not only a poet and philosopher, but also “in charge.”

He roamed the wilds of Connemara observing the mas­sive forest of six trees, which spawned all the tree snakes. He wandered through Kerry— where temperatures can rise to the mid-20s changing sleet to rain—examining the lush undergrowth of gorse spawning the tropical snakes.

Marching across land, St. Patrick noted the fecundity of the snakes-from-stone-walls-piled-next-to-the-road breed slithering from stone walls piled next to the road. “Whist,” the good man observed to him­self.

Finally, on Mar. 17 (the trek took a year, folks), St. Patrick took the trolley up from Dublin to Meath to meet the High King, Pagan O’Leary him­self. Walking across the H.K.’s lawn, St. Patrick couldn’t help but notice that the crawling reptiles (grass snakes being added to the mix) were approaching mid-shin in depth. “Abunai” he said.

The meeting with Pagan O’Leary at Tara went well. (Years later, Scarlet O’Hara lost the place after the Civil War in the States, but that’s another story—just waiting to be filmed.)

“The Pope? Rome? Giving up fun things for Lent?” asked the High King.

“Yes,” answered St. Patrick by way of explanation. He then reached down and plucked a shamrock from the ground. Brushing snakes from his arm and shoulder, he held up the plant with a trinity of leaves and explained a particularly thorny theological issue—why God made grass, raw apples and some grapes green.

“Aha,” observed the High King in understanding. He was hooked.

“Whooha,” confirmed St. Patrick amazed at himself. He stared at the shamrock for a moment, then went out and converted all the Irish to Catholicism. He finished on Mar. 17, somewhere around AD 434. That part was easy.

But how did he get rid of all the snakes in Ireland? It remains one of the great mys­teries of all time. Some have argued that the “snakes” were metaphors for something else—mankind’s sins, stomach cramps or Communist North Koreans. I prefer a simpler explanation.

If one believes that St. Patrick arrived on an island in the North Atlantic covered with snakes (think of that: an island in the North Atlantic covered with snakes), then believing he got rid of them by standing on the coast in his long robes and beard while sternly pointing them into the sea toward North America, that’s fine with me. The man obviously had pres­ence.

We had, however (whisper) snakes in our garden when I was a kid in Galway. Paddy missed them. A whole bunch of them. Keep that in mind as we celebrate his “day” on Mar. 17.

St. Patrick was a great man and deserves revelry and inter­minable parades for his accom­plishments. But even saints, thank God, have flaws. (Which is what I’ve just been telling my wife.)