Kind of like Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day is one of those occasions when everybody gets excited, yet few people are sure why.
As best anybody can tell, through the fog of intoxication and the endless choruses of “Danny Boy,” the yearly party is a celebration of the life of Ireland’s most eminent churchman. Like many of the ancient feasts of the church, the story of Patrick, plucked from oral traditions and passed through the filter of piety, has morphed into a celebration that has tenuous connections with its original facts.
Born in 387 in what is now Great Britain, Patrick was kidnapped by Celts from Ireland and forced into slavery. After escaping his captors he later returned to Ireland as a bishop and brought the gospel to those who had imprisoned him.
A cult of personality grew around Patrick and even before the church had a universal canonization process he was widely revered among Medieval Christians. March 17, the date of his death, was officially recognized as a feast day in the Western liturgical traditions in the early 17th century, although, oddly enough, he’s never been officially canonized.
People usually assume that ground-zero for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is Dublin, but the religious feast didn’t become a public holiday there until 1903 and the first parade wasn’t until 1931.
According to Patti O’Sullivan, an instructor in the department of religious studies at the University of Mississippi, the large, public celebrations that people today are used to actually started on American shores.
“St. Patrick’s Day is distinctly Irish-American in character,” said O’Sullivan. The holiday was embraced by Irish living in the New England colonies in the early 18th century. At that time Ireland, like the U.S. colonies, was under British rule and expressions of the native culture, including the Catholic faith, were suppressed.
The Rev. Tom Lalor, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, said growing up in Ireland he was well aware of how others had suffered for the faith.
“Freedom of religion wasn’t granted until 1829,” he said. He recalled, as a boy, trekking through the forests of his homeland, looking for the large stones and clearings where the Mass was once celebrated in secret.
The Irish immigrants to America took advantage of the geographical distance from Britain and transformed St. Patrick’s Day into a celebration of their heritage.
O’Sullivan said it’s curious that the holiday has taken root so firmly in the United States. The Catholic faith, usually associated with monarchy and European models, has always had a tentative foothold in America where the dominant ethos is shaped by democracy and the Protestant ethic. O’Sullivan said that, unlike St. Valentine’s Day, which lost its “saint” moniker, St. Patrick’s Day has retained its distinctly Catholic character. She said the holiday’s popularity is a testament to the way immigrants can shape and mold a culture.
“Something similar might be happening with Hispanics, today,” she said. “As they did with the Irish of the 18th century, some people hold this negative view of Hispanics as hordes of dirty, uneducated, Catholic people flooding into the country, bringing with them customs and celebrations, like Cinco de Mayo and Our Lady of Guadeloupe.”
She said although the holiday is a popular success, the underlying tension between Catholicism and American culture is still there. “As recently as when John F. Kennedy was elected president, there was a real concern that his Catholic faith would compromise his ability to be objective,” said O’Sullivan.
Today the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day looks like a Notre Dame tailgate party: Bowler hats, leprechaun costumes, shamrocks, a swirling vortex of symbols and slogans that tends more toward Mardi Gras bacchanalia than religious observance. The biggest parades are in the cities where the most Irish settled, including New York, Chicago and Savannah. Although, it’s not only Irish Catholics that whoop it up.
Northeast Mississippi is not a predominantly Catholic area, but you don’t have to be Irish Catholic to enjoy the celebrations.
According to O’Sullivan, the Mardi Gras comparison is more than just coincidence. When the newly arrived Irish-Americans held their first celebrations they strongly emphasized the symbols and traditions of their homeland. Many of those are the ones that pop up in bars and block parties today.
“They were out from under that oppression so they wore green, they spoke Gaelic, they sang songs of revolution,” said O’Sullivan. That sense of momentary relief also pervades Mardi Gras.
“St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, which is a season of self-denial. It’s a little oppressive,” said O’Sullivan. “St. Patrick’s Day is considered a day of respite, when Irish Catholics can take a break from fasting. It’s the same with Mardi Gras, a last indulgence before the fast of Lent.”
Though the average reveler might not fully understand the origin of the symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, green still strikes a deep chord in the Irish psyche, at least it does for Lalor. He said St. Patrick’s Day always reminds him of plowing and planting and of tending the animals on his parents’ farm.
“The East wind was still very cold that time of year, and the new lambs were being born,” said Lalor. “It’s probably no mistake that Patrick is often pictured with a lamb.”
When Lalor was a boy, St. Patrick’s Day was a holy day of obligation in Ireland, when all Catholics were obliged to attend Mass, though it’s not anymore. He said he and his siblings would eat great meals of beef, chicken and homegrown vegetables, but no corned beef and cabbage – that’s mostly a myth.
The children also picked heaps of clover, a plant St. Patrick supposedly used in his missionary efforts to symbolize the Trinity. Lalor likened the eternal green of Ireland to that of Mississippi’s verdant landscape. “There’s something quite mystical about it,” he said.
Lalor lifted a figurine of St. Patrick off the mantle in his office and said the eternal green of Ireland and the ancient pedigree of the Catholic Church have something in common. “St. Patrick’s Day is very much about pining for the homeland, and about deep love of the faith for which others suffered,” he said. “The more it was cut down, the more it grew.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/Daily Journal