Thursday, March 19, 2015

Saint Patrick's Day

Saint Patrick's Day was this week, a day celebrated with much more gusto in the US than in Ireland itself.  The Irish note that it is the feast day of their island's patron saint and celebrate with religious ceremonies, but you don't catch people in Dublin or Derry drinking green beer and wearing T-shirts that say, "Kiss me, I'm Irish."

Interestingly, although everybody in an American bar proudly claims to be Irish once they have a few green beers in them, and elementary schools promote the "wearing of the green," a century ago the Irish were looked down on as uncouth and probably dangerously stupid.  They were not even considered really "white."

Unfortunately, this has happened with most groups of immigrants, as people with no money came to the US looking for a better life and were looked down when they arrived because they were poor--and, not surprisingly, not sophisticated or well-educated.  But the Irish, like the Italians and the Poles (though not yet the Mexicans), have gone from a group one would cross the street to avoid to a group that one would pretend to join, at least one day a year.  (Also unfortunately, those with African ancestry, whose ancestors had no choice about coming to the Americas but were here before the ancestors of most European-Americans, can still not "pass for white.")

The real Saint Patrick (Pádraig), celebrated on March 17, was a historical figure.  He was not Irish but British, living in what is now England in the fifth century--it was not yet England, because the Anglo-Saxons had not yet arrived there.  His Britain was a Romanized, Christianized, Celtic community.  As a youth, he appears to have been captured by Irish (and pagan) pirates and taken there as a slave.  After some years, he managed to get home to Britain, where he became a priest.  But he remembered the Irish more fondly than one might have expected and worried about their souls.  Hence, he returned to Ireland, this time as a missionary, and set about converting the population to Christianity.

By the way, although it is sometimes said that he "drove the snakes out of Ireland" (because Ireland does not have the poisonous snakes of England and the Continent), in fact the snakes were killed by the glaciers a great many millennia before Patrick.  When the glaciers retreated and plants and animals returned to Ireland, snakes never made it across the Irish sea.

For me, Saint Patrick's Day will always be the day I first left home to go to Auxerre (in France) to do my dissertation research.  In many ways I have never come back.  As I was waiting for my evening flight to Europe (via Iceland in those days), I saw the mayor of Dublin, wearing a bright green top hat, who had been in town to take part in the Saint Patrick's Day parade, something they didn't have back home in Ireland.


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