The Genocide of St. Patrick
To begin this story let me start with a little Public Service Announcement (PSA). This year, 2014, I learned that the Irish do not care much for we Americans and Canadians calling their national holiday St. Patty’s Day. But probably isn’t what you think. Which is what I thought; it’s Patrick, not Patty. Nope that’s not it. Well not entirely.
I discovered a PSA had been posted in the Dublin Airport correcting a misconception for those of us in the Americas. It’s not Patty, it’s Paddy. Seems Patty is short for Patricia and of course, Patrick was a male priest. The proper shortening of the male variation is Paddy. And St. Paddy’s Day is perfectly acceptable. So now we know.
Now on to our tale of Pagans and Paddy. First, we must start with some of the early inhabitants of Ireland. What little is known of these people come from Irish songs and poetry, oral legends and Roman writings. The Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland and Wales were populated primarily by individual or regional Clans. Small communities that were close knit and survived on nature through farming and hunting.
Signs of complex communities in these areas began around 6000 BC. Into the Iron Age and during the fifth century the main over-kingdoms of Tuisceart, Airgialla, Ulaid, Mide, Laigin, Mumhain, Cóiced Ol nEchmacht began to take hold and flourish. Most of these kingdoms shared many legends, but may have assigned various names of heroes to those tales. Relating oral stories about their own kin or their own heritage, to stories that were prominent through out the land.
These early communities were pagan and mostly Shamanistic based in their spiritual perspectives. A spiritual leader or even a group of spiritual guides who were healers, counselors and teachers of their Clan. About the time the Romans began to take an interest in the Emerald Isle, about 100 AD, the Druids were well known throughout the land. But not everyone fell to the governance of Druidy. Even at their height of popularity. But the Druids were still pagan.
One of the main goals of the Druids was to bring all the kingdoms together, sort of a “Together we stand, divided we fall” perspective against any invading army of their land. They traveled the Irish country side and attempted to join all the regional Kingdoms together to present a united and strong front that could battle back any invaders. Had their idea succeeded, the kingdoms may very well have out numbered the Romans. But to do this the kingdoms would have to give up some of their regional deities and alter their practices to fall in line with the Druidic doctrine. That was a tough sell and many of the kingdoms refused.
The last Druids disappeared voluntarily sometime about the 5th century BC or so some historians claim. There is evidence this may not have been the case. The Filidh (descendents of the Druids) and the Bards (history keepers) are claimed by some to have kept the tradition alive in every way possible. Some historians define the Filidh as the Seers of Druidy, but there are some questions about that linkage. It’s important here to point out that the Irish and many Celtic histories of this time were based on oral tradition and history. So it’s possible the Seers and Bards existed within the Druid orders and outside of it, before and after their existence.
The Bards who are credited with keeping these oral histories (Druid or not) trained for 10-12 years as an apprentice to a Bard Master. They were taught stories, poems, songs and legends and they were expected to remember them verbatim. They were constantly being tested and grilled by the Master Bard until they proved their knowledge and were initiated into the order. Set on their own they traveled the land sharing their knowledge and educating the people about their own history.
Like wise the Seers trained for 8-10 years, similarly learning from a Master as their apprentice. Some archeological research have indicated the Druids that didn’t complete their training, later became what we may call the Witches of Ireland. There is growing evidence that this may be the case, but they certainly were not the only magikal practitioners during these ancient times.
One thing for certain, the inhabitants of Ireland were pagan long before the Druids showed up. And many remained pagan even after the Christians entered Ireland.
The Christians Enter Ireland
Sometime after the Romans were ousted from Ireland and the Irish Celts weren’t paying taxes to Caesar, merchants began rebuilding their fortunes. Some of this went into ships and traveling through the known world.
Archeologists believe it was from these returning travelers that the first Christians began to enter Ireland. They may have been passengers, captured citizens from Britain who were turned to slaves or converted sailors who brought the first stories of Christianity back to their homeland.
Archeological evidence indicates missionaries were in full swing in the southern regions of the emerald Isle between 200 and 300 AD. Long before Bishop Patrick was even born.
Many contradictions exist over the historical dates of Patrick’s death. But even his birth is a little unclear. Most historians have settled on 387 for the year of his birth. Two letters generally accepted as being written by Patrick himself explain his early life. Of the two, the one known as the Declaration holds many of the known details of his early life.
According to Wikipedia the Declaration explains:
St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain at Banna Venta Berniae, a location otherwise unknown, though identified in one tradition as Glannoventa, modern Ravenglass in Cumbria. Calpornius, his father, was a deacon, his grandfather Potitus, a priest. When he was about sixteen, he was captured and carried off as a slave to Ireland. Patrick worked as a herdsman, remaining a captive for six years. He writes that his faith grew in captivity, and that he prayed daily. After six years he heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and then that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he traveled to a port, two hundred miles away, where he found a ship and, after various adventures, returned home to his family, now in his early twenties.
After becoming ordained Patrick returns to Ireland as the Bishop of Ireland. With a Christian presence already established, his mission is to convert the nobles and wealthy in order to influence the lower classes. Upon his return, this effort begins in earnest. His efforts are not without controversy of course. As a foreigner he has no legal rights in this land. Many kingdoms denounce his preaching and place him in chains.
Now think about this for a moment. The Kings during this time were seen as the spiritual priests of their kingdoms. Here comes this guy preaching against the power of the king and his court. Telling the people there is but one king known as Jehovah, the one true God.
Some of these realms were so large that their villages had their own “lower” priests or what we might know as local shamans. They not only provided spiritual knowledge and history, but healing and guidance, as well as leadership and governance. Now here comes a guy in robes, with a staff telling the citizenry that these leaders are lying to them and their stories are leading them to hell. That the One True God is where their salvation is, not with the King of their province or the Shamans of their Clan.
Patrick writes of being beaten, held in prison presumably to be executed and robbed of all his belongings on several occasions. Well, if this were your house and someone came in to tell your children that you were leading them to hell, what would you do?
But Patrick’s claims as recurring victim don’t over shadow his own atrocities. While the Christian record books record his generous deeds, other historical documents show a different side. From the sublime Patrick is accused of taking bribes, charging fees for baptisms and ordinations. He’s also accused of making bribes to kings, judges, and local Captains (sheriffs) who provide protection to their community. Patrick often made payments to the sons of chiefs to accompany him on his travels, presumably to keep him safe. But some records indicate his bribes were for these people to fraudulently appear to have been converted in order to show the “power” of Patrick’s message about “God”. Bottom line is, this message was a scam, bought and paid for.
Patrick himself writes that “He “baptized thousands of people”. He ordained hundreds of new priests to lead the new Christian communities. He converted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns in the face of family opposition. He also dealt with the sons of kings, converting them too.” Questions are raised if he truly converted these nobles or if he paid them to pretend to be converted in order to use their influence as an example to others. So who is the liar?
Irish songs are written about him driving the snakes out of Ireland, which include killing and beheading a few along the way. Since Ireland has no snakes, and there’s no evidence there ever were snakes in Ireland, many believe this reference refers to the pagans and their symbolism with the serpent. The serpent appears on coins and there are references to serpent tattoos on the arms of the remnant Druids.
Most often the serpent is a dragon, sometimes represented as a Hydra or sea eel. Keep in mind that the Romans had been here for quite some time, sharing their own knowledge and symbolism along with that of the Greeks. The Irish were not a repressed, segregated people. They traveled and had their own knowledge and understanding of the world long before their invaders entered their land. It was the Christians who turned this symbol from a serpent to a snake, presumably to coincide with the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Let’s get back to Patrick, today we know the early Christians were not squeamish about violence. The head of the church, or the local Bishop assigned to head the church in a particular region, would not be associated with violence. However we know of many who conspired with enemies of their enemies to remove unwanted adversaries. And perhaps in some cases Patrick himself wasn’t ashamed to get his hands dirty.
Some point to the story associated with Lough Derg, County Donegal (from Irish: Loch Dearg, meaning “red lake”). The legend claims that Patrick killed a large serpent on this lake and that its blood turned the water red (hence the name). Was this a poetic version of history about Patrick killing pagans at the water’s edge? We may never know the true tale. But it could be a window in the “convert or die” mentality of the early Church.
Let’s give Patrick some due. It’s not only the Christian side that alters history to support a claim. Pagans have done this as well. Today there is a perception that Patrick was a murderer who instigated the Pagan Holocaust. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, much more credit is given to Patrick than he deserves.
Sufenas Virius Lupus, a Celtic Reconstructionist scholar has extensively studied Irish myth and folklore. In March 2011 he wrote this article of Liberalia, about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland:
“Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and the hagiographies* of St. Patrick did not include this particular “miracle” until quite late, relatively speaking (his earliest hagiographies are from the 7th century, whereas this incident doesn’t turn up in any of them until the 11th century). St. Patrick’s reputation as the one who Christianized Ireland is seriously over-rated and overstated, as there were others that came before him (and after him), and the process seemed to be well on its way at least a century before the “traditional” date given as his arrival, 432 CE, because Irish colonists (yes, you read that right!) in southern Wales, Cornwall, and elsewhere in Roman and sub-Roman Britain had already come into contact with Christians and carried the religion back with them when visiting home.”
* Hagiographies are reports provided to the Church to justify the canonization of a person to a Saint. The documents must include a history, deeds of service to the church and miracles.
The Tale Of Tara
The Hill of Tara, known as Temair in gaeilge, was once the ancient seat of power in Ireland – 142 kings are said to have reigned there in prehistoric and historic times. In ancient Irish religion and mythology Temair was the sacred place of dwelling for the gods, and was the entrance to the otherworld. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site. ~ from Mythical Ireland.
The perspective of Lupus is echoed by historian Ronald Hutton in his book “Blood & Mistletoe: The History of The Druids in Britain.”
“[Saint Patrick’s] letters do, however, strongly suggest that the importance of Druids in countering his missionary work was inflated in later centuries under the influence of biblical parallels, and that Patrick’s visit to Tara was given a pivotal importance that it never possessed – if it ever occurred at all”.
The story of Tara is told this way by the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Returning to Saul, St. Patrick learned from Dichu that the chieftains of Erin had been summoned to celebrate a special feast at Tara by Leoghaire, who was the Ard-Righ, that is, the Supreme Monarch of Ireland. This was an opportunity which Patrick would not forego; he would present himself before the assembly, to strike a decisive blow against the Druidism that held the nation captive, and to secure freedom for the glad tidings of Redemption of which he was the herald. As he journeyed on he rested for some days at the house of a chieftain named Secsnen, who with his household joyfully embraced the Faith. The youthful Benen, or Benignus, son of the chief, was in a special way captivated by the Gospel doctrines and the meekness of Patrick. Whilst the saint slumbered he would gather sweet-scented flowers and scatter them over his bosom, and when Patrick was setting out, continuing his journey towards Tara, Benen clung to his feet declaring that nothing would sever him from him. “Allow him to have his way”, said St. Patrick to the chieftain, “he shall be heir to my sacred mission.” Thenceforth Benen was the inseparable companion of the saint, and the prophecy was fulfilled, for Benen is named among the “comhards” or sucessors of St. Patrick in Armagh.
Patrick was no more a conquer of Ireland than he was a conjurer that drove the pagans away from their homeland. For modern pagans to wear black on March 17th in honor of the dead holocaust victims, to denounce Patrick with vehement hatred is only carrying on the fictional legacy that has been associated with his life and deeds. It does nothing to advance the intellectual common sense that surrounds pagan belief and practice.
It makes much more sense for pagans to simply say they don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s day because the holiday was initiated by the Catholic church as a religious event to honor one of their created saints. After all, that at least is historically accurate.
In the U.S., like many of the Christian holidays, St. Patrick’s Day is less about Bishop Patrick and more about being Irish. It has become a day to honor one’s Irish heritage, wearing of the green to celebrate the Emerald Isle, singing Irish songs to remember and retell the oral history of her past. It’s more secular than Catholic.
So if you’re pagan and Irish, celebrate Irish Pride Day with excitement, find a book of old Irish folk poems, songs or stories. Re-enact the days of old with oral stories and tales of your own Irish adventures. Tell tales about the fairy folk, the leprechauns and magikal folk who still fill the land with enchantment. And perhaps you can even hoist a green beer in honor of the ancient pagans who still managed to survive and pass on their stories and beliefs to their children and their children’s children so you would know of their existence and the contributions they provided to your world.
Happy Irish Pride Day to one and all!
© 2013 Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. Springwolf Reflections / Spring’s Haven, LLC. All Rights Reserved.