Imagine living at a time when the whole year was decorated with different feasts and bright with various holy stories, even if many were a little odd and possibly slightly painful? Once the old church calendar offered a religious tale for almost every day of the year so that - regardless of many less beneficial aspects of the past - there was a rich public pattern that seven-day shopping & the return of the Apprentice may not quite replicate.
Today, the 17th March, is the Feast Day of St Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland. The web offered images of shamrocked Guinness, stylised leprechauns, fancy dress parades and even – may the man himself help us! - bright green dye for ponds and city pools and waterways. The horror!
To greet Bishop Pat in proper style, one should surely climb up the great hill of Croagh Patrick, barefoot or upon one’s knees.
However, having just read Michelle Lovric’s The Book of Human Skin, I have met this year’s share of penitents. Today's post comes from a warm, comfortable chair. (Do read that wonderful novel, by the way!)
Briefly, Patrick was captured as a boy in Wales, taken as a slave to Ireland, escaped back home, trained as a priest and then, in his dreams, heard Irish voices begging him to return.
So he did, standing up to the druids who opposed his new faith, baptising many with the extreme vigour of an upstart and ignoring complaints from other clergy that he was enticing too many rich young maidens into his convents, and presumably not theirs.
Patrick had such mystic powers that he cleared Ireland of all wicked snakes, even removing all biological evidence that serpents had ever existed there too. Amazing! Christianity with strong, added magic. But what was he like?
St Patrick appears in a story that I had partly heard before, one of the great legends of Ireland and this, again briefly, is it:
Oisin, the son of the great ruler Finn MaCumhail, fell in love with the beautiful Niamh of the Golden Hair and rode away with her to the Land of the Ever Young. After years of great happiness, Oisin remembered his family and friends, and longed to visit his old home, just once. At last Niamh set Oisin off on a white horse, tearfully warning him never to set his foot on the ground during his travels.
Alas! Hundreds of years had passed. Oisin found grass growing where the walls of the royal palace once stood and nothing was left in the land to show what had once been. Turning his horse, he saw three men struggling to lift a large and heavy rock. Beneath this stone, they told him, lay the Three Treasures of the Kingdom.
Without thinking, Oisin dismounted to help. As his foot touched the ground, all his strength and beauty faded, the years fell on him and he became an old, old man.
Well, the version I’d originally read, or heard, ended there. I’d imagined a quick crumbling into sorrowful dust with a funeral to see the story off. But no - there was someone who would not leave the weak, wrinkled old man in peace.
As recorded by Lady Gregory - who sadly was not there at the exact time - along comes St Patrick, insisting on taking Oisin into his house and hearing the whole of Oisin’s story, maybe as a holy version of a reminiscence workshop, although Patrick doesn’t seem to treat him very kindly.
Our pagan hero is unable to withstand the holy fellow but he does not give in gracefully. Oisin laments the glories of the past and is unimpressed by Patrick’s continual questioning, debating and chiding.
Here's Oisin’s almost final comment on the mighty man in the big green frock:
Oisin: “O Patrick, it is a pity the way I am now, a spent old man without sway, without quickness, without strength, going to Mass at the altar.
Without the great deer of Slieve Luchra; without the hares of Slieve Cuilinn; without going into fights with Finn; without listening to the poets.
Without battles, without taking of spoils; without playing at nimble feats; without going courting or hunting, two trades that were my delight."
Patrick. "Leave off, old man, leave your foolishness; let what you have done be enough for you from this out. Think on the pains that are before you; the Fianna are gone, and you yourself will be going."
Oisin. "If I go, may yourself not be left after me, Patrick of the hindering heart; if Conan, the least of the Fianna, were living, your buzzing would not be left long to you.”
Too much care in the community, eh?
All of you, Irish or not, enjoy the day, and may St Patrick and all the saints preserve you from any tiresome buzzing!