The Taming of St. Patrick

Wise tyrants don’t forbid: they tame.

An oppressor with a surfeit of honesty or a deficit of cunning will proclaim that the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is to be forbidden under pain of law in the hopes that the name of Patrick and the fruits of his labor shall eventually be forgotten and the Irish culture thoroughly absorbed.

His wiser fellow does no such thing. He encourages the celebration, in fact encourages everyone to join in as a mark of solidarity with the sons of Ireland. He says “Let everyone who wants to show their affection for the Irish wear green! Let everyone partake of Irish food. Let everyone join the Irish in their celebrations.”

For with that comes three subtle poisons. First, by offering an easy means of fulfilling the celebration, he conveys the idea that there need be nothing more to it. Like a test given by a lazy school teacher, it fulfills the requirement without conveying the intended benefit. St. Patrick’s Day is ‘observed’ without anything that remotely pays honor to St. Patrick.

Second, by inviting everyone to join in the celebration, he quietly conveys an order of moderation upon the Irish. “We are come to help you celebrate. Surely you’ll want us to feel welcome, yes? You won’t be so rude or so intolerant to use this occasion to dredge up any painful subjects or foment division, will you? Not when we’re trying to be so tolerant and welcoming of you?” The national Irish Feast Day, therefore, is of necessity filed down and smoothed over, and this day when we ought to be boldest becomes the one day of all others when we must not offer any challenge to the existing order and much confine the Irish character to its most acceptable and innocuous elements.

Finally, and most insidiously, he has re-interpreted the day. It is now ‘Irish Heritage Day’, a time to make broadly superficial gestures towards those most innocuous culture trappings, to make a point of being descended from Irish parents. Not a Holy Day honoring a fearless Apostle of Jesus Christ and begging his intercession on behalf of his spiritual children, let alone a day to follow his example.

In a word, it becomes a harmless day celebrating harmless things in a harmless manner while bearing the name of a Saint’s feast day.

If you wish to render something harmless, the trick is to encourage it, but to encourage it in its most superficial and comfortable aspects. To forbid something is to encourage those who already dislike you to engage in it, and even if you are successful you create a bitter sense of resentment and injured pride. But if you moderate it, then the very same people who would have fought against you will now be your allies. From opposing you, they will turn instead on the few hardliners who see what you’re doing and are urging them to the harder and more dangerous path. These will now be the ones trying to make life difficult for them.

And while your own people might have felt sympathy for a suppressed population trying to maintain forbidden customs, they will feel none at all for people who try to make pleasant and harmless customs into disagreeable and disruptive ones. Genuine zeal or genuine piety, a desire to do as St. Patrick did would be regarded as scandalous and inappropriate: one of those unfortunate Irish types that the more sophisticated and genial of that people are embarrassed by.

Thus St. Patrick’s Day is now in no more danger of exciting Christian zeal or spreading distinctly Irish virtues in the general population than is Christmas. It has been well and thoroughly tamed.

Ugh, sorry for being a downer. Here’s some ‘Lutheran Satire’ to lighten the mood:

St. Patrick, Pray for Us


A very good video from Sensus Fidelium on St. Patrick

Also, here’s a link to St. Patrick’s Confessio and other writings:

“This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”

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