Of course, St. Patrick’s means more to a medievalist than green beer, green clothing, green rivers, and corned beef & cabbage. It has nothing at all to do with snakes, either…but it does involve raiders.
Really, though, St. Patrick’s day serves to remind me of a few things every year, and the most powerful thing is that when America decides that a day is worthy of celebrating, they not only pour themselves into it wholeheartedly, they convince the world to do the same. This speaks volumes about our national culture, but not all in the way that one might expect. From what I gather, the Irish used to celebrate St. Patrick’s in the kind of way we celebrate Thanksgiving: a nice meal with the family. Now, they’re down with the green beer thing, too. I’m not sure how to characterize that beyond saying that we are powerful exporters of our culture, even when we have to appropriate that culture, and that makes me realize that I need to sit down when I’m done with the diss and seriously think about American culture. In the meantime, I promise I’ll get back to you when I start seeing Cinco de Mayo parties in Germany.
Another thing that I see every year is the strange balance we have between a day named for a Catholic saint (as his feast day, it’s technically the day he died) and the iconography that is filled with pre-christian imagery. Leprechauns and all the various “little people,” the pot of gold, etc…none of that has a single thing to do with St. Patrick himself beyond the fact that they’re all symbols attached to Ireland. It doesn’t take much to recognize the Celtic influence here; it’s just odd that the modern world has done so much to confuse the two.
I also spend a bit of time considering hagiography in general, and how the needs that it fulfilled as a genre have changed, or how the genres that fulfill that need have changed over the years. Considering the Diss, I think about Guthlac and Juliana the most, but there are a number of other saints that provide the kind of entertainment that we even still call “genre fiction.” A lot of them end up in the horror film area, actually, because martyrs cannot go quietly into that good night, but some even border on the Shakespearean. There’s a lot to write there if I can ever get that far.
The last thing that I usually think of is pretty personal, actually, and it has to do with identity. Growing up, I was always told that my mother’s father and his side of the family were all Irish. The evidence for that was all in the name, but there was no questioning of it. Fast forward to just a few years ago, however, and through my mother’s work poking through family records, I find out that I’m not really very Irish to begin with.
Nope. We’re Welsh. It’s kind of like Irish, except we come from the main island of Britain and the flag is better there (no offense to the Irish out there, but the Welsh flag is pretty badass by any standard).
As a result, I usually let St. Patrick’s day pass me by. I wear a green shirt or something and I think about how brave (or stupid) Patrick had to be to return to the place where he was a slave. That’s pretty crazy, and yet he did it for the people of Ireland who now celebrate him in turn. The fact that we’re still doing so 15 or so centuries after his death is pretty cool if you ask me.
…but you can keep your green beer.