How St. Patrick Drove the Snakes to Our Shore


The East Nashville St. Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl is a smashing success—meaning you can’t move through the bar at more than 3 steps per minute because the place is packed with aspiring alpha males wearing green t-shirts that read: “Fuck Me, I’m Irish” and “I’m a Keeper.”  There are booty-grinding girls with green plastic barf-buckets perched on their heads and glowing shamrock necklaces hanging between their breasts. My face is pelted by furry shamrock antennaes worn on wobbling crania. Outside I see rows of green-striped Sheriff cars to contain this drunken St. Patranalia.

Why is the Death Day of Ireland’s patron saint now celebrated by all of Crackerkind?  What is it about the dawning of Spring that inspires young and old alike to cram into pubs and spend more green than they’re wearing?   

Many ancient cultures in the Northern Hemisphere—particularly the Romans—celebrated the New Year on or around the Vernal Equinox (occurring on March 20 this year).    

Though the Roman New Year was officially changed to January under Caesar in 46 B.C.E., plenty of the more provincial or “barbaric” people—who couldn’t be bothered to change their ways on account of Roman city-folk—continued to celebrate the New Year at the beginning of Spring. The ambience of newness would have surely seemed more appropriate than during the dead of winter.   

This seasonal transition was a time of hope and promise. Having endured the long frozen nights huddled around the hearth—stricken with the anxiety of possessing a limited store of food and by grief over the deaths of family members overcome by the cold—the Vernal Equinox signaled a coming respite from the harsh winter. The more festive and foolhardy would empty their stores of meats and liquor in the hopes that more would be accumulated in the Spring.   

Though the Druids of Ireland held their most important Spring Rites on Beltane (May 1st), it is certainly possible that the ancient Celts also shared the tradition of celebrating the Vernal Equinox. After all, it is hard to imagine that days and nights of equal length would be unimportant to a people that constructed numerous circular magaliths to track the annual path of the Sun. It is therefore plausible that St. Patrick’s Death Day was imposed upon this ancient solar celebration by a Celtic Church willing to embrace certain aspects of pagan culture.

According to Catholic history, Patrick was born in Britain to parents of wealthy Roman heritage. He was kidnapped by Irish marauders as a teenager and sold into slavery.  After years of shepherding for his tribal masters, he was visited by visions of God, who instructed him to run away to the coast.  He was promptly rescued by sailors and whisked off to France, where he became a disciple of St. Germanus of Auxerre. Patrick remained abroad for many years, eventually becoming a bishop.

It was another heavenly visitation—as well as Patrick’s unswerving love of the Irish people—that compelled him to return to Ireland circa 433.  The saint’s affection for the people who had enslaved him is looked upon as a shining example of Christian forgiveness. Upon his arrival, the bishop proceeded to convert the heathen people, deposing the reigning Druid priests and building churches in their sacred groves. It is St. Patrick who is credited with Ireland’s transition from Celtic Paganism to Roman Catholicism—mythologized by the tale of him driving every last snake from the Dark Island. His deeds are celebrated a few days before the Vernal Equinox—on the day of his death—commemorating Ireland’s new beginning.   

It was surely the promise of new beginnings—tempered with weepy nostalgia for their home country—which inspired Irish Americans to embrace St. Patrick’s Day with such fervor. The old greeting cards from the early 1900s feature watercolors of castle ruins nestled into the green countryside, mischievous leprechauns, or placid island bays—perhaps the last memory that some immigrants had of home.  Many of these cards read: “Erin Go Bragh.”  This is a popular Anglicized form of the Gaelic phrase “Eiraenn Go Brach”, meaning “Ireland Forever!”  
St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally been used by Irish Catholics as a short break from the abstinence of Lent, hence the accepted practice of drunken revelry. The holiday’s popularity in America grew around jubilant New York City parades, the dyed green rivers of Chicago and Savannah, and more recently, advertisements extolling the virtues of Guiness Stout.
I imagine that observing their Irish countrymen having so much fun—as well as the general American tendency to shamelessly jump on any bandwagon—must have moved non-Irish Americans to join in for the sake of a good drink.  After all, there isn’t a Chex Mix laddie alive who doesn’t crave a neat Jameson when the band breaks into a Celtic jig.  That’s just genetics, man!
So it is that today we see bars across America breaking sales records on March 17. On this fine day we can look upon functional alcoholism, withered livers, socially sanctioned anti-social behavior, and broken blood-vessels beneath pasty flesh with mirth rather than self-righteous disdain.  Drunk tanks are filled with green-clad college kids and the coming year is seeded with a new generation of bastard sons, while the streets of Savannah and Boston flow with rivers of barf and broken teeth.  St. Patrick drove the snakes of pagan revelry to our shores, where we welcome their venom with jubilant toasts.
It’s called a good time on the town.
So raise a glass to a re-contextualized tradition, Lads and Lassies, and forget your winter woes!

Eireann Go Brach!!




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