Hugh Curran hugh.curran at maine.edu
Mon Mar 16 18:16:09 EDT 2020

*Stories about St. Patrick (Naomh Padraic)*

     When I was a boy in Ireland St. Patrick’s Day was given over to
religious parades and novenas. Now, years later and an ocean away from
Ireland I still have memories about St. Patrick, some hagiographic and
legendary. But one story, considered reliable, was from his “Confessions”
which included Patrick being captured by pirates in Roman Britain and sold
into slavery in Ireland. After six years as a captive he escaped by walking
across the country and found passage on a ship back to his home and then to
France where he trained as a priest. He eventually returned to the country
of his captivity, having made a vow to “save” the Irish.

    His captive days had mostly been spent in Mayo, near the mountain named
after him, Croagh Patrick, a 2500 ft conical peak. The mountain is now an
important pilgrimage site with tens of thousands of pilgrims ascending it
on March 17 as well as on the last Sunday of July, known as Reek Sunday.
Some years ago I went on my own pilgrimage up the mountain, a six hour
round trip hike in blustery and rain-soaked weather and gained much
appreciation for those who undertake such  pilgrimages. The pilgrimage is
meant to commemorate the 40 days that Patrick was said to have spent on the
mountain fasting and meditating and having dialogues with the Divinity.

     A legend attributed to Patrick was his visit to the Hill of Slane on
Easter Sunday in late March, in order to convert the high king of Ireland,
Ui Loegaire (O’Leary). To avoid the Druids who were not kindly disposed
toward him, Patrick changed himself and his followers into deer. In this
guise they passed by the guards who had been told not to allow Patrick or
his attendants to come anywhere near the castle. Here he lit the Paschal
fire for Easter and picked up a Shamrock to use as an illustration of the

      Another legend was the “Colloquy of the Ancients” (Acallam na
Senorach), an 8000 word dialogue in which St. Patrick has a discussion with
two warriors from the Heroic Age of Ireland, Cailte and Oisin. One of the
copies, from a 15th century version, is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.
Their cordial exchange dealt with the Otherworld and the Tuatha De Danann
(people of the goddess Dana) and expressed differences between the old ways
with its love of nature and the austere practices of Christianity. The
original was from the 12th century and was adapted by the poet WB Yeats in
his very first  book,written in 1889: “The Wanderings of Oisin”.

     According to another story, Patrick visited Lough Derg in Donegal in
the 5th century and fought a monstrous fish. To do so he had to strip naked
and fight only with his crozier (sharp pointed walking stick). After being
swallowed whole he was forced to do battle with the giant fish from the
inside. Using his crozier he slew the monster and re-emerged unscathed.
This story explains why the lake is referred to as Lough Derg (ie red
lake). By the 11th century Lough Derg had become pilgrimage site, known as St.
Patrick’s Purgatory. It continues to this day to be attractive as a retreat
island (Station Island) which can only be reached by way of a boat. This
demanding penitential had such a reputation for severity that college
students attended as a challenge and a penitential. Seamus Heaney, a Nobel
prize winner, while a university student, went on this pilgrimage on
several occasions. Patrick Kavanagh, in 1942, wrote a poem exploring human
nature, using Lough Derg as a setting for his poems.  My father and
numerous other relatives went on this retreat as well. So, several years
ago, during a three month bicycling tour, I took part in the retreat with
my wife and son. We did not have to strip down as St Patrick did, but we
had to strip off shoes and socks and were given only bread and water for
our meals for the next three days.

      In almost all countries, including the U.S., Canada, New Zealand,
Australia and Scotland, wherever the Irish Diaspora has taken place, St.
Patrick’s Day is associated with celebrations and parties, a departure from
the religious strictness of its past. It has also become a day to honor and
acknowledge the many contributions of Irish immigrants to the making of
America. The first official St. Patrick’s Day was commemorated by General
George Washington on March 17, 1780, to honor the many Irish soldiers in
his ranks, such as General John Sullivan, born in Berwick, Maine, whose
parents were from Cork, Ireland.

     Some years later, the American Civil War had an estimated 200,000
Irish soldiers serve. Even during the stress of battle they found
interludes to honor St. Patrick’s Day with horse racing contests.

     Descendants of the Irish continue to be a significant part of the
American population, with an estimated 33 million self-identifying as of
Irish ancestry.

*Hugh Curran was born in Donegal, Ireland and after living in Canada moved
to Surry, Maine. He teaches courses in Peace & Reconciliation Studies at
the University of Maine**.*
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