In a few days comes one of the strangest holidays in our American calendar, in which we honor a saint who actually deserves honoring or remembering, and at the same time the first major non-Protestant ethnic group to come to our shores voluntarily.
St. Patrick was not Irish, but ‘British’ [which really means Latin speaking Welsh, at a time that the people we now call Welsh controlled most of England and Scotland]. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates, eventually escaped and returned, and after he went into the ministry [there is some evidence he may have gone to seminary on an island off the French Riviera, called Lerins] he developed what we evangelicals call a ‘burden’ for the people who had kidnapped him.
So he went to Ireland for the rest of his life, and had a very successful ministry; it was said of him by Will Durant that more than any other, “one man had converted a nation.” The Irish retained a lot of their own culture and literally founded a new branch of the Church, the Irish Orthodox, that sent missionaries to England and the Continent and through its learning and saving of old documents from classical civilization, as Thomas Cahill, put it “saved civilization.” For all that the Irish have a reputation for loyalty to Rome now, they were not fully integrated into the Roman Catholic Church until after 1000 A.D. St. Patrick led no armies, and made no conquests; nor did the Irish missionaries after him.
There is an interesting contrast between the calendars of the neo-Celtic pagans and the neo-Germanic pagans of Asatru. Many of the holidays are similar, but the Asatru have added ‘days of remembrance’ for some of their martyrs that were killed by Christian kings in Scandinavia during the Scandinavian conversion process. Starting with Charlemagne’s suppression of the Saxons ending in 804 [after which his restored Roman Empire for the first time included all the West Germanic speaking peoples on the European mainland] the Christians did unfortunately start resorting to force sometimes, and so there are pagan martyrs and saints in Scandinavia. As the Jews know, they have some too. [And no, I vigorously deny that the Holocaust was in any way a Christian event. But some of the earlier pogroms were based on perversions of ‘Christian’ theology. The Holocaust was based on a racial ideology that was not Christian.]
The other feature of this holiday, for Americans and probably for Australians, is the special honor given to the first ‘different’ ethnic group to come to our shores. We don’t all pretend to be Welsh on St David’s Day, Spaniards on July 25 [Santiago], Polish on one of the Marian feasts, German on St. Boniface’s Day, and so on. [Though May 5 is taking the role of a day on which we all pretend to be Mexican.] I think the Irish are standing in as a type, or symbol, of all immigrant groups, being the first. [Their rivals, the Scotch-Irish, which is just the American name for Northern Irish Protestants, came earlier, and established what is perhaps the generic ‘American’ culture, but they were not considered ‘foreign’ in the same way.]
So, if you’re not a Christian, use the day to celebrate American diversity and unity; if you are, remember the man who ‘conquered’ Ireland with neither fire nor sword and helped to build one of the major institutions out of which our Western civilization was built.