17 March 2005

The Feast of the Greatest Briton

And so it is that Lá Féile Pádraig has wheeled its merry way around again, for the fourth time since I've moved here. I think I spent the first one down in Berkshire with my sister, but for the last two I've been firmly planted here in Mancville.

There's been some manner of Irish festival on here, but I've not been attending. I dunno, I never really know what to make of Patrick's Day. When I was growing up, it was a fairly subdued affair - mass in the morning, a trip into town to watch the (decidedly underwhelming) parade, and a family dinner, with boiled potatoes, ham, and cabbage (or peas for contrary whelps like myself) being the staples of the day. It was a nice day off, a day for family more than anything else, not the alcoholic orgy it can tend to be now.

And no, that wasn't just my family, though my brother will back me up, in Kansas City's entertainment monthly, no less. Despite our stereotype, until the 1970s, Saint Patrick's Day was, along with Good Friday and Christmas Day, a day when pubs had to stay shut. Things have changed.

Mass today was fairly long, with a homily on Patrick that was at least the equal of last year's. It's striking, really, to think how influential a figure Patrick was. Unlike his near-contemporary Augustine, Patrick was no theologian; what he was, however, was almost certainly, with the exception of Paul, the most important missionary in the history of the church.

Greater than Churchill? Go on, pull the other one...
Despite what people often assume, Patrick was a real person, and though his tale has become enshrouded by the mists of myth and legend, its historic core as told in his own Confession is fascinating. A raiding party kidnapped the adolescent Patrick from his home in Roman Britain, taking him to Ireland where he was sold into slavery, spending six years tending sheep in Antrim. Eventually he escaped, and returned to his home, to train as a priest, and eventually return to Ireland.

Palladius, another bishop, was sent to minister to the Christians of Ireland in 431 -- so there must have been a few in the land -- but he was martyred within the year, and in 432 Patrick replaced him. Patrick treated the native Irish with respect, honouring their traditions while interpreting them through Christianity. His message spread like wildfire, as tribe by tribe he recruited a local clergy and converted the nobles, whose tribesmen followed their example. By 461, when he died, it seems that the greater part of the country -- certainly the northern half, where his ministry was concentrated -- had converted.

His death ushered in a new era, as, inspired by Patrick's holiness, and possessed by a thirst for knowledge, hungry for the wisdom and literature of the dying classical world, Ireland entered into her 'Golden Age', at a time when the old Roman Empire was becoming enshrouded in darkness.

I've talked before about Thomas Cahill's exaggerated but lyrical account of the enormity of Patrick's achievement, How the Irish saved Civilization, but it's worth mentioning again anyway. Think of how, following the old tribal system and inspired by the monasteries of the East, Irish monks established their own monasteries which became centres of Christian learning, as the monks gathered together what they could of Rome's wisdom...
Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe's publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland. Columcille provided that step.

Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare current
If, as Apostle to the Irish, Patrick was perhaps the first great missionary successor to Paul, Columcille was the second, a missionary pioneer whose first overseas monastery -- in Iona, off the coast of Dal Riada, the Irish kingdom in Scotland - inspired a wave of Irish missionary activity that continues to this day, everywhere in the world.

And in taking the faith to the German tribes who had conquered the Roman lands, Columcille's successors restored to the successors of Rome the Faith and the wisdom of their predecessors...
There is much we do not know about these Irish exiles. Their clay and wattle buildings have long since disappeared, and even most of their precious books have perished. But what they knew - the Bible and the literatures of Greece, Rome, and Ireland - we know, because they passed these things on to us. The Hebrew Bible would have been saved without them, transmitted to our time by scattered communities of Jews. The Greek Bible, the Greek Commentaries, and much of the literature of ancient Greece were well enough preserved at Byzantium, and might be available to us somewhere -- if we had the interest to seek them out. But Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of the Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought. And when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans - just scattered tribes of animists, ready for a new identity.
I reckon Columcille would have fair claim to the title of 'Greatest Ever Irishman', if such a term has any meaning; certainly, I'd argue that Patrick could comfortably rival Shakespeare, Chaucer, Newton, Darwin, Churchill, and any other Briton for the title of Britain's greatest child.

English friends of men should bear that in mind when they grumble half-heartedly about how people in England celebrate Saint Patrick's Day, but hardly anyone celebrates Saint George's. True enough, but then again, unlike the Romano-Syrian George, Patrick was at least British.

On the other hand, I celebrated the evening by having the stodgiest, and most gloriously English meal imaginable - Toad in the Hole followed by Treacle Pudding with Custard. Was it delicious? Absolutely. Could I walk afterwards? Not for a while, and even then with difficulty.

Magnificent. Thank you, Ro.

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