St Patrick's Day 2017: A Different Story.

Green flags, gold harps and shamrocks, dancing, drinking and celebration - the whole world will go green next weekend for the bearded bishop in the green robes with his fistful of shamrock and his gleaming golden crozier.

So this is the story...

Patrick approached the High King's fort at Tara, where the Druids stood by the chair of the High Kind. And every fire in Ireland was quenched that night. Because there was a low that no fire whould burn on the eve of the festival of Bealtine, when the druids themselves lit a fire to their pagan gods.'

'But Patrick came to the Hill of Slane and lit a fire there, and prayed for the people of Ireland. The druids saw the flames of his fire from the height of the Hill of Tara, and they spoke to the king and told him that Patrick should be killed. But Patrick came to the Hill of Tara, and he praised God there and told the High King of God's goodness. And the High King fell to his knees.'

'Then Patrick plucked a shamrock. It had three leaves on a single stem. And Patrick taught them the wonder of the Holy Trinity, that three persons existed in one God, truly distinct and equal in all things, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the druids were amazed and fell to their knees and worshiped God.'

Generations of Irish children grew up with that story, passed on from generation to generation, by firesides and in schools. And, annually, it was preached from the pulpit on March 17th, when we all leapt to our feet and chanted Hail, Glorious St Patrick ( ... DEER saint OV our isle ...). Usually followed by that other hymn, Faith of Our Fathers, ('... how SWEET would be thy childrens' FAY-ate, if DEY, like dem, could die for DEE-eee?) After which, having marched through the streets wearing shamrocks, we went home to devour sweets before the resumption of Lent. He was a great saint that way, Patrick. If you were Irish he'd sneak you a bit of chocolate behind God's back.

I remember the story of St Patrick from my first picture book, in which the green-robed bishop towered above the dark-faced druids with firelight behind him and the shamrock held aloft. Behind the druids the High King knelt by his carved throne. And behind the throne a man with a gold harp, with his head bowed, was holding the palms of his hands on the harpstrings to silence its pagan music, and accept the robust authority of a new regime.

But this year we may have to find a new one.

At home in Ireland, faced with new evidence of the vicious criminality of the Catholic Church and the stranglehold that it's had on our State institutions, we'll be asked to celebrate that overt and dangerous identification of Church with State, and of Christianity with Irishness.

In The US, Irish-Americans in Boston have already seen their St Patrick's Day parade threatened by the pernicious homophobia of the Trump administration, and, on March 17th, NYC will see 'Irish Stand', a rally to assert that anyone who supports Trump's travel ban has 'forgotten the Irish story'.

And all over the world, the 'greening' of rivers, symbolic landmarks and buildings will push the message of Ireland as a great place to be altogether, and the perfect destination in which to spend your holiday money.

Though, maybe less so if you're a woman of childbearing age. Or a refugee. Or an asylum seeker. Or someone desperately trying to discover whether the Church falsified official documents, buried your sibling in an unmarked grave, or trafficked him or her to America.

Meanwhile, on the hills and in the valleys of Ireland, the earth itself is going green. And this was the wonder celebrated by the druids. Because, for our pagan ancestors, the ritual fire kindled in darkness at the feast of Bealtaine symbolised the triumph of light over darkness, the return of seedtime, and the eternal need for balance.

They too gathered to celebrate with dancing and music, parades, religious rites and wild parties. But they needed no explanation of the concept of a triple-aspect deity. Their own vision both of springtime and balance was contained in the image of a triple-aspect goddess, the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. She was memory and potential, childhood, maturity and old age.

Here in Corca Dhuibhne her name was Danú, which means Water. Elsewhere she has other names. But everywhere she brings health and balance to the universe and fertility back to the earth.

This St Patrick's Day it might be good to remember that the hallmark of authoritarianism is the desire to control and corrupt the stories of who we are and where we came from.

 Dingle And Its Hinterland: People, Places and Heritage
Out April 2017 from The Collins Press.


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