Happy St. Paddy’s Day

It was confirmed yesterday that Pope Benedict XVI will be visiting the UK this September (BBC News). As I started thinking about writing a blog post about this, it occurred to me that, rather depressingly, I am sitting at my computer at 10pm on St. Patrick’s Day, instead of having a few pints of the black stuff. Then a second realisation dawned on me – St. Patrick’s Day is just as Catholic as the Pope. It would seem a bit hypocritical to complain about the Pope’s State Visit while also yearning to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day. Or would it?

St. Patrick’s Day is of course the feast of St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, who banished snakes from Ireland. I was told the story of the snakes when I was around 5 or 6, and in what must have been one of those hilarious attempts to reconcile science with religion, I was taught that he chased the snakes out of Ireland just as the tectonic plates were moving and Ireland was separating from Great Britain. In reality, there is very little evidence that snakes have ever existed in Ireland, and one explanation is that the story of St. Patrick banishing snakes is a metaphor for him spreading Christianity across the Emerald Isle, and putting an end to the Celtic Pagan beliefs. He also explained the Trinity to the Irish using a shamrock. And so we return to Guinness.

So should atheists like me really be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day? Well, for a start, St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t really have anything to do with St. Patrick any more. It’s about Ireland in general, and is nowadays a great excuse for heavy binge-drinking, and perhaps drinking enough pints of Guinness to get a novelty hat. St. Patrick’s Day is all about celebrating Ireland and drinking alcohol, and the non-Irish are more than welcome to join in. Indeed, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin is put to shame by various parades in the USA.

In that respect, St. Patrick’s Day is much like Christmas. It started out as a religious festival, but the religious significance is no longer essential and for many, completely irrelevant. Some may look at atheists or other non-Christians and feel that they are cherry-picking all the fun parts of Christianity while criticising or even mocking the other parts. Not only do I like Christmas, but I also like Christmas carols. But then, Christmas was never really about the birth of Jesus, who was most likely born in the Spring or Summer. It hijacked the old Pagan festivals of the Winter Solstice, or perhaps even hijacked the birth of Mithras, a Roman God whose life story had an awful lot in common with that of Jesus, including the Virgin Birth. Emperor Constantine chose Christianity over Mithraism, and it’s possible that a lot of Mithraism was transferred to Christianity. Even the Vatican itself is built on the site of an old Mithraism temple.

So although St. Patrick’s Day was originally the celebration of St. Patrick, I think that now it’s simply a celebration of Ireland, and everybody’s Irish on March 17th.



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