Thursday, March 17, 2011

No praise for St Patrick?

How do today's Irish pagans react to March 17th? If Native Americans lament Oct. 12th as a day of cultural genocide, might a post-Catholic nation and Celtic diaspora resent celebrating the legendary arrival of its first missionary? As the Irish increasingly opt out of ritual "faith of our fathers," is the hymn's wish for "All praise to St. Patrick" replaced by a less dogmatic feast (as with the solstice at Imbolc instead of the Sun God's birth moved to Dec. 25th or thereabouts)? Does my once-axiomatically Catholic tribe, as we disperse, still treat the day as a clannish rally against the Crown and for Rome? Craic, fun, indifference, resignation: do folks care one way or the other as long as a pint's raised and toast shouted?

Didactic palaver ahead. I wonder how the 1600th anniversary in 2032 of Patrick's supposed insular triumph will compare with the massive Eucharistic Congress convened for the 1500th celebration of Patrick in 1932. That was one of the island's biggest gatherings ever-- until the Pope's children assembled at Drogheda in '79. This seems like a last gasp rather than second wind for my generation, raised in a barely post-Vatican II mindset still inheriting pre-conciliar submission despite guitar masses and godawful "Godspell."

Or, might revelers of whatever persuasion or denomination or lack thereof simply drink up? Goths party at Halloween, even if they may sleep in for All Souls Day. What's the use of doctrine in an Ireland, as Malachi O'Doherty surveys in "Empty Pulpits," pivoting from church or chapel to mall and football? Witness the media blitz by Guinness, Jameson, Bushmills to fill Oirish pubs in tourist traps and shopping "destinations" from Derry to Dubai. Even in Ireland, where departed Yanks were long derided as plastic paddies full of green beer doing what the natives back home disdained-- parades and pubs perpetuate a marketing myth: that Patrick was the first Christian to arrive in Erin. How many holidays these days remain holy days?

I wondered about all this blather when corresponding with Irish colleagues who've personally distanced themselves from Catholic identity. I keep their names apart from my entry, for even now, some suspect their allegiances. My correspondents possess excellent educations and deep immersion in academic and popular treatments of this theme. They also grew up resisting the long pull from Rome and the close tug at Maynooth. They managed to distance themselves it seems far earlier and more successfully than I did from Irish Catholic guilt, mine transmitted by nurture as well as nature-- somehow exerted six thousand miles westward. One professor about my rumination that for some now, March 17th celebrates "intolerance," remarked in terms of a Buddhist gathering, wisely: "Some people love what they grew up with and have a hole shaped exactly like that, others absolutely reject anything which looks even remotely similar. Perhaps." 

The professor continued: "What we tend to see mostly in teaching (and I would imagine this is fairly
universal) is the effects of pre-1990s Irish upbringing on people's relationship to their own bodies. Again, how they deal with that and what their agenda for change is varies - but very few Irish people (of whatever nominal background) my age or older are unaffected by how they were taught to inhabit their bodies, and we need a very particular sensitivity when teaching bodyscans etc."

This resonated with a conversation I had last autumn with an Irish writer who works in art therapy. Both therapist and professor tilt a bit younger than me, so given the time-lag between when the liberal reactions to (and massive rejections of) Irish Catholicism increased in the early 1990s vs. when I supposed they began to gather momentum in my homeland, the slight gap between us may even out the transatlantic comparison.

I recall walking the ghostly corridors of Maynooth at Samhain '09 during a conference at which alternative spiritualities were discussed at the university next to the site of the national seminary. As I commented at that time at the Maynooth link here, the dwindling annual photos of ordinands marked a tidal ebb after 1500 years. Yet, unlike America, Ireland's clerical aspirants dwindled dramatically as shown by classes after 1990. Before then, more priests (taking into account ratios of Catholics here vs. there) were ordained than had been the case for at least fifteen years or so back in my city each spring. This chronological slippage appeared to align with the decline in piety amidst the sexual scandals and institutional abuses which began to be exposed fully later in Ireland, whereas the most of the West had seen dramatic drops in vocations as early as the late '60s. Slumps hit Ireland later, as the counterculture itself had appeared in but small numbers well into the '70s.

Well, this writer observed a similar disassociation between the body and the spirit in terms of comfort. In that writer's work, emphasis on overcoming this breakdown within the energies of the soul and their expression via the senses means that healing remains difficult for many in Ireland today, raised under such a regimen. For her own generation, a much freer engagement with social, avocational, sexual, and aesthetic possibilities draws in those in the cities today, the past twenty-odd years. These changes have rapidly entered Irish popular culture.

I reviewed Diarmaid Ferriter's "Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland" last year, and it documents well the shifts from strictures in place figuratively if not realistically imposed (if not from Patrick on so much as from the post-Famine "devotional revolution" and moral crackdowns by the curates and prelates) upon most of the Irish. And upon, I may add, those of us who grew up imprinted by its severity far away from the island. Those who emigrated as priests and parishioners carried the distrust of the body and the elevation of the soul. I grew up still under the transmitted habits and dogmatic proscriptions of its clergy, our families, and our once-removed but not quite distanced psychic impact amidst a doggedly taught regimen.

Bad Ass Bard holds that Lá Fhéile Pádraig represents "the anniversary of the death of an English-born, French-educated* former slave turned Catholic zealot that led a campaign of Xian conversion  throughout Ireland in the late fifth century." II2aTee at myLot weighs in, if with the disregard for grammatical niceties all too common on this medium: "So, as Irish as I am, I wear black on 'Saint' Patricks day, to mourne the loss uncounted druids and  mystics... whos homes, lives, and knowledge were lost forever to the crucible of Christianity."

Danu's Daughter at her own blog earnestly notes that the wearing of green, the date of March 17th (supposedly his death date in 460, but note how Patrick beat the Druids back in 433 near this spring equinox to light his own Paschal Fire on Tara's summit instead of the usual bonfire), shamrocks, leprechauns, banshees, that damned elusive pot o'gold at the end of the rainbow: all derive from paganism. And, until 16, Patrick himself was a pagan, likely a
romanized Briton from the west coast of what was then still Celtic turf. Which may explain of course as with many converts his missionary zeal. 

I admit that Christianity did free Patrick's fellow slaves, eventually, and I don't romanticize any civilization ("What did the Romans ever do for us?"). Still, the aversion to the body as the spirit was elevated marked a severe shift for Irish mentalities. For all the era's innovations which incite my medievalist imagination, I've always longed for what preceded rather than followed that Latin hegemony, however Celticized and appropriated. The period which fascinates me most is the linguistic and social breakdown in Britain at this same period, as the imperium faded; for Ireland, concurrently, Rome neared rather than receded.

Another expert I asked, a participant-observer in Irish neo-Druidry, told me that "my feeling is that they just ignore it." I figure they may drink up along with everyone else, "offering it up" if for different intentions? "The Snakes' Farewell to the Emerald Isle" (a title I love, speaking of a counterculture mixing up the modern with the fabled, depicted cleverly on Horslips' cover art for "The Unfortunate Cup of Tea"--even if 1974 track and disc languish among their weaker moments) endures as far more fake than fact. 

Speaking of mixing it up, Sarra Barton at Yahoo responds to her question: Should Pagans Celebrate St Patrick's Day?
Today, St. Patrick's Day is mostly a celebration of Irish folklore and Irish beer, rather than the honoring of a Catholic Saint. Many pagans do observe the March 17th holiday. Some pagans celebrate out of spite; afterall, it is a celebration of St. Patrick's death. Other pagans choose to honor the Druid Celts by reliving the long-lost traditions of the Bards. Telling stories, playing music, and wearing early Celtic costumes are an excellent way to honor pre-Christian Ireland. Should pagans celebrate St. Patrick's Day? Every pagan must decide according to his or her own beliefs. Considering most of the Christian holidays were stolen from the Pagans, shouldn't pagans feel free to steal this Christian holiday?
Finally, the "modern pagan perspective" of Jason (a blogger at "The Wild Hunt") forgives Patrick. He reminds his readers that paganism persisted, that good cheer should reign, and he repeats a popular conception among neo-pagans that the snakes driven out are but a metaphor for the Druids as no serpents survived the Ice Age on the island of saints and scholars. Certainly a hideous statue erected of the island's croziered patron mars one ancient gathering place. The professor I cited earlier reminded me that when among confreres visiting the Hill of Tara-- perhaps on another Samhain than the All Saints Day  I climbed under considerable gustiness-- a snakeskin was planted within that holy ground.


Bo said...

Oh God...a very amusing, rich piece! If there's one thing I hate, it's Pagans who can't tell the difference between 'British' and 'English', and indeed 'Gaulish' and 'French' (as in Bad Ass Bard's half-witted, anachronistic comment), and this ridiculous idea about the serpents as symbols of the druids which is another ahistorical bit of neo-pagan flummery.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Verily, Bo, I amended my piece after your remark to note this "popular conception"-- I found that the Gundestrup Cauldron's "yogic" figure with the pesky reptiles gets trundled in as visual collaboration. We await your Tuatha book to set that serpentine surmise straight. And those national cognomens.

shane said...

Fionnchú you may be interested in Mary Kenny's review of Ferriter's book:

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Shane, thanks for this, which I didn't know of. I like her parenthetical aside: (My own research in the field is that the unlettered country lad is not necessarily inferior in the erotic arts to intellectuals, or even academic professors.)

In my review last year of Ferriter, I noted he never cited Kenny's book. Kenny's kind in not pointing this lacuna out herself. I reviewed her book's US edition, before I began blogging, a few years ago at Amazon US.

shane said...

Fionnchu, I also found Kenny's book to be enjoyable. /I actually have some of the Irish Messenger Question Box pamphlets on my blog, which may be of interest:

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Shane, I had a bound version of this somewhere salvaged myself, some pamphlets I assume combined, also titled "Question Box" but lacking Irish-specific material, published overseas. I had not connected it with the "Irish Messenger" until I saw those pdf's. Intriguing that pamphlet one has a taped-in insert for (not) listening to the wireless in lieu of Mass attendance! The checks by certain entries make you wonder about that particular, scrupulous, reader. This reminds me of the type of material that I spent hours poring over, half-believing, half-skeptical, finding it in my parish vestibules as a teenager.

The rapid erosion of this mindset intrigues me. Especially as it persisted in my own community as I came of age-- just too young for Vatican II. For an American memoir about right-wing Catholicism in California at exactly the same time I grew up: "Waiting for the Apocalypse" review. As I noted, this reminded me of Hugo Hamilton's recollections of domestic insularity in 1960s/70s.

Thanks for alerting me to "Lux Occulta" (well titled) which I'm adding to my blogroll. As my doctoral diss. was on the idea of purgatory (albeit in ME lit., but drawing on Irish contexts), I have a "cradle Catholic" fascination with that concept--and with Irish culture. My stay while tellingly at an "Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland" conference (I write about this on my blog) at Maynooth at Samhain '09 proved quite memorable, for its own representations of the impacts-- as the ordinands' yearly photos dwindled down to now along the long halls.