St. Patrick’s Day celebrates saint, Irish heritage

BIG RAPIDS — Shamrocks, leprechauns, corned beef and green everything, including beverages, may be the hallmarks of St. Patrick’s Day for some people, but the day itself has a deeper meaning than simple frivolity.

March 17 is the Feast Day for St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. According to EWTN Global Catholic Network’s website, Patrick was born about the year 389 to a well-to-do Christian family. When he was 16, he was kidnapped by raiders and taken to Ireland, where he was a slave for six years before escaping and returning to his family after a difficult journey.

Patrick later was ordained a priest and returned to Ireland as a missionary for the Catholic church, traveling throughout the country converting people to Christianity and setting up churches. More than just a simple missionary, however, he also had the authority to ordain people to lead the new parishes.

“During an apostolate of thirty years he is reported to have consecrated some 350 bishops, and was instrumental in bringing the faith to many thousands,” the website states.

It was his work to convert pagans to Christianity which highlights Patrick’s work, said the Rev. Fr. Michael Burt of St. Mary and St. Paul Catholic Parish in Big Rapids.

“The bishop in a diocese is the head teacher,” Burt explained. “When he was bishop of Ireland, he did a lot of teaching and a lot of people embraced the Catholic faith because of his preaching and teaching.”

Patrick used things people were familiar with to explain the concepts of the faith, such as pointing to the three leaves of a clover to explain the trinity and demonstrate how three parts could all be part of the same entity, Burt added.

“St. Patrick has really become the symbol of Christianity and Catholicism in Ireland,” said Jason Duncan, an Aquinas College professor with a doctorate in history from the University Iowa. Duncan has twice served as the co-director of Aquinas’ semester program in Ireland, where he taught Irish history.

“He was a historical figure and not just a myth, though there’s a lot of myth associated with him,” Duncan explained. “For example, he didn’t drive out the snakes in Ireland because Ireland doesn’t have snakes; that’s a metaphor about him driving out paganism.”

While in America, St. Patrick’s story is viewed as a simple tale of bringing Chrisitianity to Ireland, in that country the story is more complex.

“Some say he brought true Christianity to Ireland and Rome jumped in and co-opted it, which is debatable because he was the bishop from Rome,” Duncan said. “Others talk about how druids and pagans were displaced, calling he and his followers brutal. While in Ireland it’s not that simple, most Irish people do celebrate him.”

Originally, St. Patrick’s Day was a “quiet holiday,” Duncan noted, which people would observe by going to church, to Mass, and then going home and having a meal with their family.

The big celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day have their origins in the United States, not Ireland.

“Some of the first celebrations were in New York City as early as the 1700s,” Duncan said. “At that point, most Irishmen here were Protestants and not Catholics and it was an expression of Irishness more than just Catholicism at that point. Irish Catholics arrived in greater numbers in the 19th century and the day became more Catholic ethnic, became identified with Irish Catholics. Today, from the mid-1800s to the present, it’s very Irish Catholic in its orientation.”

As a symbol of Irish pride, the day is meaningful to Irish-Americans.

“For me, it’s who I am,” said Kevin Courtney, a third-generation Irish-American who actively works to keep his Irish heritage alive for himself and his children. “When you know who your extended family are and what they did — what they had to go through — it gives you a great sense of pride.”

St. Patrick’s Day provided an outlet for Irish immigrants to show pride in their heritage and their homeland in a new country where they often experienced discrimination for being Irish.

“The Irish took a lot of crap in the U.S.,” Courtney said, indicating a reprint of a historic help wanted sign hanging in his basement. The sign states, “Help Wanted” in large letters, with “No Irish need apply” underneath.

“The Irish were very poorly treated,” Courtney said. “There was huge prejudice because they were Catholic. But the Irish never lost sight of their Irishness. They faced starvation and wouldn’t give up the faith. In America, they began showing their pride with parades. Eventually, they went from being kicked around to seeing they could be proud of their Irish history but still be good Americans.”

For example, the 69th New York Regiment in the Battle of Gettysburg was an Irish-American unit who went into the fight under a flag saying “We who have never shrank from the clash of swords” in Gaelic.

“I’m very glad I live here in America, and I’m also proud I’m Irish,” said Courtney, who learned Gaelic to deliver a portion of his retirement speech in that language when he stepped down as Big Rapids Department of Public Safety director after 13 years. “St. Patrick’s Day is a day to stop and say, ‘I’m Irish and I’m proud of it.’

“It’s a day to remember what the Irish went through to allow me to live in luxury today. My great-grandfather left Ireland starving and persecuted. Three generations later, I’ve never been hungry a day in my life and never been stopped from going to church.”

In recent years, however, St. Patrick’s Day has become more of a “mob scene” than in the past, Duncan noted.

“The recent mob scene, with the heavy drinking, is fairly recent,” he said. “It began about the late 20th century and St. Patrick’s Day is now kind of like Mardi Gras, where the religious aspect is largely gone.

“I think it depends on the person as to what the day means, but it’s still pretty common for Irish-Americans to wear green. I usually do, I’ll wear an Irish tie or a green tie, but I personally don’t see it as a day to get drunk.”

Having lived in Ireland twice through his work at Aquinas, Duncan now has a deeper appreciation for St. Patrick’s Day, he said.

“The Aquinas Irish Studies program shows that Ireland has a unique, divided culture and while Ireland is a small place, a small country, it’s had an enormous impact on the west, especially on the U.S.,” Duncan said.

“If people want to celebrate by getting drunk, that’s their choice, but there’s more to St. Patrick’s Day, culturally and religiously.”

Courtney agrees.

“Go ahead and have some green beer, but why not spend 10 minutes on the computer and learn a little bit about Ireland before you do it,” Courtney said. “Better yet, forget the green beer — have a Guinness.”