Patrick: That savvy saint

March 17, 1994|By Christine S. Cozzens

TODAY in churches, bars and parades around the world, millions of citizens celebrate their real or feigned Irish heritage for a day. Some will do so in the certainty of chosen beliefs or allegiances, others simply will rejoice in another excuse to drink beer and be rowdy.

Shamrocks, leprechauns and strutting politicians aside, the true message of St. Patrick's Day challenges the simplistic notions of nationalism we tend to associate with the holiday.

Regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland, Patrick might also be credited with the founding of Irish tourism -- the most famous in a long line of visitors drawn to this lovely and troubled land.

It began in 441 A.D., when Patrick made a Lenten retreat to the mountain overlooking Clow Bay in the present-day County Mayo -- a site steeped in holiness and religious associations. For centuries the great mound had sheltered an altar to the Celtic god Lug, and throngs of the faithful came there annually from all over Ireland.

Before long, Patrick's pilgrimage was famous and thousands of Christians trod the same well-worn path up the barren slope to one of the most spiritually fulfilling views imaginable -- a glorious panorama of mountain, sky and ocean.

Fast forward to 1994. The pilgrims still come by the thousands -- massing in the hotels, guest houses and bars that cluster nearby -- to honor the Christian saint, whose earliest followers renamed the mountain Croagh Patrick. Religions may come and go, but the miraculous aura of the mountain remains unchanged.

Exaggerated claims seem to haunt Croagh Patrick. For example, St. Patrick -- the great symbol of Irish national identity -- was in fact a foreigner to his native land. Carried away from Scotland as a slave during his youth, Patrick returned years later to bring the light of Christianity to his former captors.

"He charmed the snakes out of Ireland" goes another interpretation of his sojourn atop Croagh Patrick. Had there been snakes in Ireland, this twice holy mountain jutting out of nowhere would have been a perfect place to lure them.

Just as Christianity appropriated the holy places and symbols of the pagan faith in Ireland, so too did successive generations of invaders make Ireland their own. The same tides that carried the eager Patrick back to Christianize Ireland later brought Cromwell's armies to expand the domain of Protestantism.

Who then has the real claim to the Emerald Isle? The Stone-Age hill dwellers? The Celts? The Vikings?

To name one group is to exclude or marginalize a dozen others, all of whom have played a scene in the drama of Irish history, often on stages far from the tiny island's shores. Every legend of Croagh Patrick has its own kind of truth. Irish identity -- like any other -- depends as much on its contradictions as on its consistencies. It grows richer and more meaningful even as its borders widen and its distinctions blur.

Christine S. Cozzens teaches at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga.

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