Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir

Well, it’s St Patrick’s Day, which means I’m actually taking a day off and attempting not to read work emails or do work-related things for the day. It’s a lower-key St Paddy’s Day than usual but it’s nice to take a break.

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. 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.

Or did he? This interesting piece suggests his role was of lesser importance than many think.

However it happened, 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 Church here. 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.

The traffic wasn’t entirely one-way however. A few weeks ago I saw a fascinating documentary about the Fadden More Psalter. This is a leather-bound book of Psalms found in a peat bog in 2006, which is of similar age to the Lindisfarne Gospels. It took years of painstaking restoration work to recover at least part of the text (much of which was badly degraded), but the leather binding turned out to hold a particularly fascinating secret: it was lined with papyrus. The only other books from the same period with the same structure that are known are from the Coptic Church in Egypt.

That doesn’t mean that whoever owned the Fadden More Psalter had actually been to Egypt, of course. It is much more this book made its way to Ireland via a sort of relay race. On the other hand, it does demonstrate that international connections were probably more extensive than you might have thought.

Anyway, back to St Patrick’s Day.

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 Saturday 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.

The traditional St Patrick’s Day parades etc will not take place this year because of Covid-19 restrictions, but that doesn’t mean everyone is ignoring the day. Indeed here’s a picture of the spire of St Patrick’s College lit up in celebration:

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh go léir!

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

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    He is said to have been shipwrecked on the north coast of Anglesey – perhaps in relation to his escape back to Wales? – and climbed up a chimney in the rocks which is still obvious. A church exists on the ground at the top, which I have visited.

  2. There’s a local tradition that “bannauem taburniae”, where he says in his “Confessions” the Irish raiders captured him, is Banwen in the Dulais valley, near Sarn Helen the old Roman road. Maybe.

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