St. Patrick’s Day is a time-honored tradition across much of the developed world – the one day of the year when drinking to excess is almost written into law. This evening, millions of Americans will flock to local bars, proudly wearing entirely too much green, to drink green beer and flirt inappropriately until they can no longer keep it down. According to CBC, it’s the busiest day of the year for taxi companies in some areas; in others, it comes second only to New Year’s Eve.
On the surface, St. Patrick’s Day is bad enough, with cartoon leprechauns and shamrocks popping up everywhere, and revelers engaging in the worst, most stereotypical behaviors ascribed to the Irish: stereotypes that once resulted in a considerable amount of discrimination against Irish immigrants. The term “paddy wagon” for a police prisoner transport still persists in the language. It came about sometime in the 1840s or 1850s: a police wagon primarily full of Paddies – a slur for the Irish – because we’re all rowdy, drunken thieves, don’t you know.
Of course, none of this comes as a surprise in a country which celebrates Thanksgiving and Cinco De Mayo in nearly-identical ways, laden with cartoon stereotypes and, in many cases, celebrating the mass deaths of a people.
But for those who know their Irish history, St. Patrick’s Day tells a tale far more grim. The day is named for an actual man: St. Patrick, who was canonized as “the Enlightener of Ireland.” Patrick was a 5th-century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland. Now, it has to be said; the historical record is difficult to clarify – some scholars argue that, according to The Independent, St. Patrick “driving out the snakes” is a metaphor for slaughtering the Irish-Pagan druids. Certainly, it’s known that – unlike his predecessors – Patrick was an evangelizer and actively opposed the Irish-Pagans; whether or not he was actually responsible for “enlightening” the Irish is rather more difficult to determine. Others, says Patheos, contend that Patrick’s Christianizing of the island is a modern myth.
Regardless of what actually happened, Patrick was lionized by the Christian church as the man who made Ireland Christian. They praised him for driving out the Pagans and wrote blood-raising accounts of him throwing Pagan women from cliffs and performing exorcisms on Pagan deities.
I can’t tell you that I or anyone knows for sure what St. Patrick may have perpetrated on the Irish Pagans, but whatever Patrick actually did or didn’t accomplish, the church turned him into the symbol of Christianity’s triumph in Ireland – and he’s still celebrated that way today. It’s certainly not a day to be celebrated, to those of us who mourn the death of our people’s own unique culture at the hands of the Romans, and later, the British, both of whom repeatedly colonized the isle since almost time immemorial, replacing Irish culture with their own, and significantly contributing to the death toll of one of the worst famines in history.
Fighting against the modern culture of St. Patrick’s Day is certainly a losing battle, and makes me little more than a grumpy old person refusing to take part in a celebration of my own culture. I know that. But our modern St. Patrick’s Day is never going to stop making me salty, and maybe I can at least convince you to take a moment to think about the true people you’re allegedly celebrating tonight while searching for a bridge rail to vomit over.