Study history and know thyself

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St Patrick’s weekend is coming up, which means lots of giant leprechaun hats, fake red beards, parades, an abundance of green, lapels adorned with sprigs of shamrock, and a full-throttle marathon of revelry. Of course, it is all in honour of our revered patron saint.

But how much does the average celebrant actually know about St Patrick?

The standard tale is of a young boy taken to these shores as a slave, who later escapes to his homeland. He then returns to Ireland after receiving a vision in which the Irish people called out for his help and guidance. He spreads the Christian word, supplanting the prevailing pagan religion, annexes the symbol of the shamrock and – somewhat stretching credulity – banishes all serpents to the sea.

However, the research literature suggests that there were no snakes in post-glacial Ireland. Indeed, much about Patrick and his life remains unknown, and many blind spots have been overblown in order to fit the symbolic needs of the church. The general theory, originally advocated by T.F. O’Rahilly, now goes that St Patrick is in fact a convergence of two people: Palladius and Patrick.

Most students of History will know a bit about this theory, as many courses tend to dedicate some time to it as an illustration of how accepted customs and beliefs are often founded on far more complex and ambiguous realities.

What is certain is that when we celebrate St Patrick, we elevate Irish identity in hearts and minds across the globe. In doing so we also establish traditions that can help bond communities and, in a circular way, help further define who we are and where our values lie. It is a multifaceted, nebulous thing, but then again, matters of identity often are.


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