Whither St. Patrick?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day for all you wanna be Irish out there.  Of course, as the New Yorkers say, everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, usually right before they upchuck green beer into (hopefully) the gutter.  Lesson:  do not drink green beer.  Ever.

In America, St. Patrick’s Day  started out as an affirmation of an Irish minority pinioned in an Anglo culture that denigrated the Irish as shanty – backward Catholics who had lots of children they couldn’t support and who drank a lot.  The Italians got the same treatment.  Loud, bold cultures, both; nothing to lose immigrants who worked hard, sometimes at the all the wrong things. It took a presidential election (1960) to blur that line; now they’re just white people. Go figure.

My family used to think we were Irish.  Now we think we’re Welsh and Scottish.  St. Patrick, according to the New English (aka BBC), was a Welsh missionary.  Or perhaps Cornish, or something like that.  As an American with a foggy geographic knowledge  of Great Britain (where the heck is Midsomer anyway?), I am easily confused by the whereabouts of traditional Celtic minorities in what is now Britain.  I note that my family all immigrated before 1850, so they weren’t all that attached to wherever they were in the old country.  People didn’t immigrate at the drop of a hat, considering the difficulties of 17th, 18th and 19th Century travel, not to mention the effort involved in taming a savage wilderness.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I come from a long line of Protestants so St. Patrick was not high on the list of celebratory occasions, all the more so because no one in the family moved off the farm until about 1920 or so.  Nearest I can figure, celebratory occasions were almost non-existent.  The work load was too heavy and even if there was a church nearby, it certainly wasn’t the Catholic sort; not that my ancestors would have been caught dead in such a place.  As my great-grandmother said to my father when he was sent to help out on their southern Kentucky farm, no one  had time for “sech foolishness.”

The fact that my Scottish grandfather’s people regarded his marriage to my shanty Welsh grandmother (about 1922 or so) as a mixed marriage tells you something about the prejudices of the day.  My grandmother never had much respect for the Scottish side of the family, which evidently regarded her as an interloper.  Thing is, the Scottish side was gone by about the late ’20’s.  Only the Welsh side of the family lived on, casting a long, southern Kentucky Celtic shadow over my childhood, albeit a fiercely Protestant one, but then, they were all fiercely Protestant; my grandparents would never have married otherwise.

This has absolutely nothing to do with current St. Patrick’s Day, aka All Things Irish, celebrations.  These have  more to do with greeting card/cookie merchandising and early spring pub crawls than anything else.  It’s amateur hour as a Boston Irish friend used to say; an excuse to get drunk at lunch and ditch work for the rest of the day.  It’s a cubicle dweller’s slacker excuse, an American Civil Religion holiday of the highest order.

So, raise your glass. I will ignore the green beer, just this once.  Here’s to St. Patrick, who brought Christianity to the heathen Irish and drove out the snakes, as celebrated by churches in both Irelands and perhaps, some in the Northeastern United States (where we still have snakes).  Meanwhile, the amateurs will head for the bars which are decked out for the occasion in green, grinning leprechauns, those malevolent representatives of Fairie.

Great grandmother Roberts, had she ever sighted such a far-fetched thing as a leprechaun, would have put it to work making lye soap without so much as a by your leave.  No time for chasing rainbows on the farm. That would have been foolishness indeed.




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