Presentation March 2014
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

Saint Patrick’s Day Celebration & Irish Heritage Month

Presenters:  Coral Lindsay and Gail Brooks

Article and Pictures by Lucy Martin

For our March meeting 27 members and guests gathered at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Kars to learn a little more about St. Patrick and Ireland – most wearing some shade of green.

The traditional date to honor St. Patrick, March 17, is celebrated with more enthusiasm – often involving a drink, or three - than many statutory holidays. Before introducing the evening's speakers, Ruth Wright shared an Irish tea towel which mused in rhyme about a possible relationship between longevity and consumption of alcohol.  

Ruth Wright with an amusing tea towel

Ruth presenting her tea towel

Coral Lindsay's presentation helped us to learn more about St. Patrick's noteworthy life and sort fact from legend. It turns out St. Patrick was not even Irish, nor did he drive the snakes out of the Emerald Isle. (Post-ice age Ireland had no snakes to begin with.) Lindsay raised a few eyebrows with an assertion that Leprechauns were real people. That is, Leprechaun stories are likely based on Ireland's pre-Celtic inhabitants, a shorter group that was driven inland and westward by different groups of colonizers. With at least four such waves, it isn't surprising that stories based on other, little people with secretive ways emerged and endured.

But back to St. Patrick. According to Lindsay, he was probably born in early March (not the 17th) in the year 387 and may have died in 460 or 463 at age 75 or 78. (Accounts differ.) Various sources say his birthplace was in modern-day Scotland and his birth name was Maewyn Succat. (For simplicity's sake, this article will stick with the name Patrick.) His people were Christianized Romans, leaders in their community. Patrick's father was a deacon and a city councilor, his grandfather had been a priest.

All Patrick knew of that more-genteel life was upended at about age 15-16 when he and two sisters were captured at a family villa by coastal raiders. He never saw those sisters again. For the next six years Patrick was enslaved and endured a sparse, cold life as a shepherd - probably in a remote part of western Ireland. Difficult as all that must have been, Patrick credited the experience with awakening his spirituality.

Prompted by a vision, at about age 21 he fled captivity, making a long trek as a fugitive runaway to the shore. There he managed to join the crew of a boat going to Northern Gaul (France). The cargo was Irish wolfhounds which had to be delivered overland to Italy. Only after that was done was Patrick free to slowly make his way back to his own family in Scotland, who had not seen him for 10 years. (Note: accounts of his escape from Ireland vary, some have him going from Ireland straight back to Britain.)

It is generally agreed that Patrick then went back to Rome in hopes of becoming a missionary who could serve in Ireland. That path required more education and training as a layman, deacon and priest. By 432 he was made a bishop with the Latin name Patricius, (from which we get Patrick) a position from which he could ordain other priests and represent the church. He could finally embark on his long-held dream.

As Lindsay explained, the dominant religion in Ireland at that time was complex paganism. This was maintained by priests of both genders, called Druids, who studied for up to 20 years to be worthy of that role. Lindsay says in some respects Patrick's goal of converting that population to Christianity was made easier by the coincidence that the Irish already had  the concept of a single god and eternal life.  

As with other places, the Church had enough flexible wisdom to merge their teachings with older, deeply-held local customs. For example, the circle element of the Celtic cross popularized by Patrick and used to this day was a sacred symbol of eternity to the Druids. The three-leafed shamrock, which was also important in the pagan belief, was used by Patrick to teach and represent Christianity's Holy Trinity.

Lindsay said at the time of Patrick's return there were about 150 distinct tribes, clan and/or kingdoms in Ireland, each ruled separately. So mass conversion was bound to be a very laborious task. Undaunted, Patrick and his followers traveled widely to do their work, with few resources and at great personal risk.

For all that we think of him as having come to convert the Irish, Patrick felt his first responsibility was to minister to those there who were already Christian, either slave or free. He also preached wherever that was possible or permitted. Presented with a clash of religious offerings, many listeners ended up practicing both, just to be safe.

Patrick spent decades trying to bring Christianity to as many as possible. Those efforts included establishing the Hill of Armagh as a monastery and school, which is still recognized as the ecclesiastic capital of Ireland. Although Irish culture at this time already valued intellect and education, that was based on oral traditions. The introduction of education based on writing helped Ireland become a beacon of learning and a sanctuary for knowledge at a time when the rest of Europe underwent what we call the dark ages.

Consider the standard curriculum taught at Armagh: grammar, literature, law, history, geography, mathematics, astronomy, logic, philosophy, military science, rhetoric, music, art, metalwork, Irish Gaelic, Latin and some Hebrew and Greek. (After reeling off that impressive list Lindsay quipped “medicine was taught at home”.)

The educational milieu that resulted - of art, intellect and deep spiritual devotion – eventually gave birth to what some call Ireland's  national treasure, the Book of Kells. Which Wikipedia says is “...a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of insular illumination.”  

Because of his key contributions in Ireland, and of the role Irish immigrants played across the world, many places have been named for Patrick at home and abroad. The precise time and place of Patrick's death is unknown, though it was probably around age 75. He is reputedly buried in Downpatrick.

Here is Lindsay's summation: “His story is amazing because he went from being a wealthy son, to being a slave, where he was lonely, he suffered brutality and pain. He suffered self-doubt and sorrow and struggle. But, ultimately, he persevered with hope and faith.”

Following Lindsay's expansion on the life and times of St. Patrick, RTHS member Gail (Wallace) Brooks shared slides from a 3-week trip she and her husband Glenn Brooks took across Ireland in May of 2004. The first week was on a guided tour, the last two were undertaken independently in a rented car. “We got lost a lot” Brooks said, adding that road signs at the time left something to be desired.  

They stayed in various B&Bs, new and old. Brooks recounted that their hosts were invariably kind and helpful, the people they encountered we most welcoming and Ireland itself is quite beautiful.

Did they both kiss the Blarney Stone? Gail said that happens to be quite awkward. She was content to just take Glenn's photo as he did the necessary contortions.

The informative lecture combined with (relatively) modern photos helped convey a better feel for Ireland as a place of people and culture, an excellent topic for March.  

Coral Lindsay and Gail Brooks

Coral Lindsay and Gail Brooks provided a very enjoyable evening.  

Irish Soda Bread

As a further enhancement to the evening the refreshments after included some Irish baked goods.  This Irish Soda bread left many of us longing for more.