Monday, March 17, 2014

The Twisted History of St. Patrick's Day


Appropriately enough, there’s a good deal of blarney out there about Ole St. Pat.

What is known is that he was born in 389 A.D. in Banwen, Wales.

His name wasn’t Patrick, it was Maewyn Succat. The moniker “Patrick” was given to him later in life by Pope Celestine.

At the age of 16, this not particularly religious boy, was kidnapped by Irish Raiders, brought to Ireland and enslaved. During his time on the Emerald Isle he became a devout Christian. FULL STOP! He became a devout Christian?  I thought it was Paddy who introduced Christianity to Ireland? Nope.

Legend holds – and sometimes legend is a real whopper --that Christianity was brought to England and Ireland by Joseph of Arimathea or his son Josephus.  Joe of A Sr., you might remember, was the guy who offered up his own tomb for Christ’s burial. Legend holds that somehow or another he got a hold of the cup Christ used in the Last Supper and used it to catch his blood as he died on the cross.  Then, either he or his son took the cup to England and buried it.  This cup was known in French as the “Sang Real” –the True Blood. Say “Sang Real” three times fast and you’re saying Grail –the Holy Grail – Monty Python and all that Jazz.  Point is:  Ireland had Christians before Patrick.

Eventually Maewyyn escaped back to England joined the clergy and was ordained a priest. After Bishop Palladius, the first Irish missionary croaked in 431, Pope Celestine gave Maewyyn the new name of "Patercius" (from Latin "pater civium" meaning "the father of his people" think "paternity.")

Patercius went back to the Old Sod to minister to the Christians already living there and to convert the rest of the unwashed heathen.

Did St. Patrick really drive the snakes out of Ireland? 
People who know such things say there never were snakes in Ireland.  The story is symbolic. Ireland was pagan. The snake has always been symbolic of the devil (See Adam & Eve.) So in other words, St. Patrick rid Ireland of its pagan customs and gave Da Divil a boot in tha arse ta boot.

The Shamrock
The vast majority of the Irish were pagans. Members of Ireland’s ruling class were called Druids. It was from this class that the pagan priests emerged.  They worshipped nature and considered the shamrock a sacred plant. Three was also a mystical number to the Celts. (Here’s a weird “one world” connection there is a trefoil plant in Arabia called a shamrakh. This same plant is considered sacred in Iran).
As the story goes, Patrick, knowing the shamrock’s mystical importance used it to explain the Christian concept of the Trinity: Father, Son & the Holy Ghost/Spirit.

Problem is --the first written citation of this story did not appear until the time of the Protestant Reformation, nearly a thousand years after his death. Odds are it never happened.

Irish legend also credits St. Pat with the idea of using the pagan veneration of the sun for Christian advantage. He added a sun-like disc to the Christian crucifix, creating the Celtic cross. Maybe.

St. Patrick’s Day
This holy day commemorates the anniversary of his death on March 17th 461 AD.

St. Patrick’s Day is the religious feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. No surprise then that in this very Catholic country it was merely a religious holy day. In fact, up until the 1970s, Irish laws dictated that all pubs were to remain locked tight on March 17th. It was a day to go to mass, not Bennigans. Notice the word “was”. They can thank the Yanks for that. Because it was in America that St. Patrick’s Day became what it is today.

Let me explain.

The myth of America says it was founded upon the principle of religious freedom. Truth is: no one really wanted the Jews, the Catholics, or the Quakers for that matter. (Let’s not even talk about those pesky Hindus. Kidding, I'm kidding.)

Irish Catholics began arriving in numbers just after the War of 1812.
By the height of the potato famine in 1847 it seemed as if the island of Manhattan was going to sink from the weight of Irish immigrants flooding ashore.

You can visit the Irish Famine Memorial just north of the World Financial Center. It consists of an Irish cottage that was abandoned during the famine shipped to the shores of New York and set up on a platform overlooking the Hudson River facing the Statue of Liberty.

The Paddys were quite unloved and were depicted as belligerent drunks, thieves and un-American Papists waiting for word from the Pope to take over the country. 

They were arrested so often the police vans were called paddy wagons.  They were referred to as “Blacks turned inside out”. Newspaper illustrations usually pictured the Irish as little monkeys or big apes.

An interesting book that explains all of this is called How the Irish became white by Noel Ignatiev.

Ironically, this derogatory ethnic stereotyping is kept alive today in the mascot for America’s most prestigious Irish Catholic University-- Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish symbol.

In New York, the micks settled in a sprawling neighborhood called Little Ireland. You know that neighborhood today as Chinatown, Little Italy and Nolita.  There is very little left of Little Ireland other than a Chinese Restaurant on Pell Street still calledPell’s Dinty and a street called Kenmare named after a town in County Kerry (which, Don’t ya know once won the coveted title of Tidiest Town in Ireland.)

Another McRelic is the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Nolita now called Old St. Patrick’s Church ( 264 Mulberry Street.) It was the church the community defended in the movie  “Gangs of New York.” The scene depicted in the film was an actual historic event.
We can thank Oliver Cromwell for another historic event that was later played out on the streets of New York. In 1649 Cromwell invaded Ireland, performed a few sizeable massacres confiscated 40% of the land and gave it as back pay to his Protestant soldiers. And thus began “The Troubles.” Northern Ireland became home to the Protestant Orange Order, which marched (and still marches) through Belfast's Catholic neighborhoods every July 12th.  It was a reminder that in 1690 William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James.  It’d be kinda like if Boston Red Sox Fans marched through the Bronx each October chanting: Choke! Choke! Choke!

In the 1820’s Ulster immigrants brought the Orange Order to America and in an act sure to provoke violence, they marched through New York’s Catholic neighborhood chanting “Croppies Lie Down”.  This was the historical antecedent to the present day Neo-Nazis marching through Jewish neighborhoods under police protection.

The worst of these riots occurred in 1871 at 24th Street and Eighth Ave. At that street corner soldiers guarding a small group of parading Orangemen fired volleys point blank into crowds of jeering Irish Catholics. Over 60 Irish-Catholics were killed.
(See illustration)

In addition, Anti-Catholic mobs like the Bowery Boys, (separate from the Orange Order) would march through Irish neighborhoods on St. Patrick’s Day carrying “Paddies” effigies of the Irish Patron Saint dressed in rags holding a whiskey bottle, wearing a string of potatoes or a necklace of codfish, mocking the Catholic custom of fasting.  

And thus the Irish became the Fighting Irish. They began to organize in self-defense. In 1836 they formed the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  (Hibernia is the Latin name for Ireland). The AOH would eventually field 3 thousand armed men in uniform.
The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in America was held in Boston in 1737. It seems to have been a small fund-raising dinner dance. But the Micks up in Boston love to mention it to the Paddys in New York.

The world’s first St. Patrick’s day parade was held in New York City in 1761, when a contingent of Irish soldiers in the British Army paraded up Broadway. The parade continued to be held under the auspices of military organizations until 1812.

By 1853 the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) began to play a dominant role in the parade.  Now that they had a paramilitary organization, they needed a parade to strut their stuff. So the parade became kind of like the old May Day Parades in Moscow, a way to flaunt the size of the Irish martial might, an annual “Look how many men we have --don’t mess with us” reminder to the Protestant majority. It was no coincidence that the parade was held on Fifth Avenue not only the site of the new cathedral, but also the home of the ruling class. The parade soon became an opportunity for politicians to court the “Green Machine” the oh-so-important immigrant vote.

To this day the AOH still runs NY’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
The AOH remembers well the blood spilled on the sidewalks of New York, which is why there’s a distinct martial air to its parade. As opposed to -- say in Chicago -- where the parade is led by leprechauns on rollerblades followed by costumed characters dressed as the Honey Baked Bears, Monster Trucks from Rock Stations, double-decker buses with ads for Irish bars and lovely lassies handing out samples of Irish Spring soap. In New York a military regiment, NY's own Fighting 69th, always "steps off" to lead the parade.

The 252nd St. Patty's Day Parade will be held today on Fifth Avenue.  It begins at 11:00 am, and goes along from 44th uptown and then to over Third Ave, where there happen to be a few bars. There will be a live telecast of the 11:00am on Channel 4.

Aside from the parade, New York City also may have added one other important ingredient to the holiday.  If you asked for corned beef and cabbage in Ireland most folks will scratch their noggins.  The Irish ate and still eat something called Bacon and Cabbage, corned pork that looks and tastes very much like the corned beef you have at Katz’s deli.  I’ve read that Irish New Yorkers were introduced to corned beef by their Jewish neighbors on the Lower East Side. I’m not absolutely sure of this but it seems plausible. Or it could just be blarney with a slathering of schmaltz.

The songwriters of NY’s Tin Pan Alley ( 28th Street between Broadway and 6th Ave)also added some o’tunes to the party, writing such ditties as: When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral, Mother Machree and Little Bit of Heaven, Sure they call it Ireland. These sentimental songs were played in the Music Halls of the Bowery to entertain homesick Irish immigrants.

Another American addition to the Irish story is the happy go lucky leprechaun.

The Irish "lobaircin” were tiny little pissed off men whose job it was to mend the smelly shoes of all the other fairies. Walt Disney’s 1959 film DarbyO'Gill & the Little People, pictured them as a happy little loveable green smurfs. And this view of them has become dominant ever since.

America officially won the culture war in 1995 when the Irish Government began a national campaign to use St. Patrick's Day as an opportunity to generate tourism; they happily opened the alcohol floodgates and promoted a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. You can watch the Dublin parade live at 12:30 pm GMT, go

So in the end the 34.3 million Americans who claim Irish descent wound up influencing the O.G.’s (Original Greensters) --the 3.9 million Paddys they’d descended from.

To sum up:  we’ve taken some pagan traditions --shamrocks, sun worship and fairies and added them to Ireland’s most important Saint’s feast day -- then turned that into a celebration of Green Beer, Mc Donald’s Shamrock Shakes, a good deal of Sure and Begorra, some Lucky Leprechauns and quite a few inebriated teenagers wearing Kiss me I’m Irish buttons.

An estimated 93.3 million Americans say they plan to wear green today. Me--- I think I’ll just stay home in bed. 

And if you don’t like it you can, as they so sweetly say in Gaelic: 
Pòg mo thòin (pronounced Pug Ma hone) Translation: Kiss me keester.

Donal O’Siodhachain
(Daniel Sheehan)

PS: There is a great website called Ephemeral New York and they have an article about the parade you might find interesting.  It's just beneath the story about the world's tallest building..just scroll down once you get there....

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