Years ago, in happier and more carefree times, St. Patrick’s Day was a major holiday, a festive occasion when everybody was a wee bit Irish. Wearin’ o’ the green was a big part of the fun, with pinches awaiting those who didn’t don the emerald color.
One year I made the mistake of wearing green socks to school on St. Patrick’s Day. By noon, I’d been pinched a dozen times by friends and strangers who tweaked me before I could show them my patch of green. I spent the rest of the day with my pant legs rolled up – as a matter of self-defense.
Today, the bloom is off St. Paddy’s Day – I’m sure pinching someone is now considered a “hate crime” – but not in my household. Tradition is alive there, kept as faithfully as a mother’s love.
Our family celebration starts early, listening to Bing Crosby croon “Top O’ the Morning to You,” fine and cheery as you please. Next we play Van Morrison and the Chieftain’s “Irish Heartbeat” CD, the loveliest blend of old and new Celtic music a body could find.
Then comes Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a movie that’s precious as a faerie’s gift, capturing the magic of Irish folktale as well as humanly possible. By this time, the corned beef’s boiling, and the cook’s getting mighty thirsty, which is why, I suppose, God made Guinness Stout.
With corned beef and black beer, we watch John Ford’s great The Quiet Man, the best film ever made about the Irish. Before going to bed, the wee ones hear the story of Erin’s beloved St. Patrick, a tale that warms an Irish heart quicker than a blazing hearth.
All Irish history converges on the legend of St. Patrick – where mythic past met European future, where Celtic sword met Christian cross, where heaven’s rainbow bent to kiss its earthly realm.
St. Patrick, it seems, was actually an Englishman – but he’s long since been forgiven for that. At 16, Patrick was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave.
During his captivity, he experienced a spiritual awakening, eventually escaping to Britain. After becoming a Catholic priest and then bishop, Patrick received a calling to spread Christianity and civilization back in Ireland, where his legend began.
St. Patrick is associated with many famous stories, including outperforming the druids in a tournament of miracles, thereby winning the right to preach Christianity in Ireland; his driving the snakes into the sea; and raising several people, including his father, from the dead.
Most popular, though, is the tale of the shamrock. In teaching converts about the Trinity – the Christian doctrine of three Gods in one – the great saint held up a shamrock, explaining the three leaves represented the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while the stem was the Godhead itself from which they proceeded. Thus, the shamrock, now commonly worn on St. Patrick’s Day, became the symbol of Ireland and the faith of her people.
Sadly, the holiday’s importance is fading now, too closely associated in progressive minds with the dreaded “dead, white males” of the past. In today’s testy society – our Grave New World, if you will – some spoilsports consider wearing green on March 17 to be a politically incorrect faux pas. Replacing corporate gray with a splash of green is almost a form of rebellion now.
But Ireland, land of poets and minstrels, has outlived a thousand tyrannies and will outlive this one too. For the Emerald Isle is more than just a patch of green earth in a far-off sea; she’s a country of the heart that lives in the minds and souls of her loyal sons and daughters. Wherever they go, she goes too.
Long after today’s political fads are but an unpleasant and distant memory, some will be keeping these traditions alive. Even in lands unfamiliar and cultures unfriendly, a few of us will always sing Ireland’s songs, passing on tales of her greatness and her grief. We’ll remember poet Thomas Moore’s “The Minstrel Boy”:
“Land of song!” said the warrior-bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
(To read all about St. Patrick click here.)
James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review. This article was first published in 2001.