Beasts and Behaving Beastly

March 16, 2018

This weekend is the feast of St. Patrick, and as we are inclined to do, we went digging beyond the novelty green beer and leprechaun hats in an effort to reconcile childhood stories of a pied piper figure with modern drunken shenanigans. We can start with the beastly behaviour and move on to beasts proper.

The day is a traditional Christian feast day, dedicated to the death anniversary of St. Patrick, who was something of an evangelical figure and effective in converting the indigenous Irish tribes to Roman Catholicism. Catholicism became a cardinal part of the Irish identity in the centuries that followed and St. Patrick, as Patron Saint of Ireland, become something of a symbol for that identity.

How did it transition to a beer festival? Well, the date of the death of St. Patrick normally falls within the Lenten period of fasting. (For non-Catholics, Lent is a 40 day run into Easter, characterised by fasting and abstinence, including from alcohol). As a holy feast day, the normal restrictions were lifted for the day and in the days of strict adherence to alcohol abstinence, it was a great day to let loose. So there you have it, the link between alcohol excess and St. Paddy’s day.

We are not sure how it deteriorated into a festival of green novelty plastic goods, BUT, according to The Washington Times, that is not how one should mark either the feast of St. Patrick or their Irish-ness. The Times reported that in 2014, The Ancient Order of Hibernians (people who take being Irish very seriously,) won an action to have Irish novelty items removed from sale in department stores on the grounds that they perpetuated negative cultural stereotypes. Irish people are not drunken leprechauns, they just had a legal loophole for drinking a lot on St. Patricks Day. Oasis in a desert, so to speak.

OK. Now to the snakes. According to the mythology of St. Patrick, he drove a swarm of snakes into the sea and is responsible for Ireland’s snake free status. So, according to the experts at National Geographic, there was never any snakes in Ireland. At the time snakes migrated to the British Island, it was both too cold for the snakes to survive in Ireland and too warm for the planet to have sustained a land bridge between Ireland and Britain – there was still a land bridge between Britain and the European continent. Hence snakes in the UK – no snakes in Ireland.

There are, however, legless lizards in Ireland, and maybe there was a degree of zoological ignorance, but not likely. The lizards are blind and slow-moving; they are also called the slow worm. We don’t know whether it was a swarm of bling legless lizards driven into the sea…or if the snakes were some kind of metaphor for non-Christians (much more likely,) but St. Patrick certainly had an impact on what it means to be Irish for the centuries that followed his death.

(Important note for those still reading: The comedic irony between excessive alcohol consumption and legless lizards has not been lost on us. – Ed.)

One final “Did you know?” before we sign off. The traditional colour of St Patrick is actually Blue. It was adopted by the order of St. Patrick in 1783 as the official colour of the Saint, and was the foundation colour of the 1930s Blueshirts group, a quasi-fascist faction of the Irish republican movement. Green later became the colour of Irish nationalism and so the blue of St. Patrick slowly became Irish green.


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