Tuesday, 18 March 2014

St Patrick's Day, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth

As the sound of much internet anguish and wailing and gnashing of teeth over St Patrick's Day recedes, we ease into Sheelah's Day...

I wrote a bit about it last year and put together some pointers to the references I'd found about it, and that's about as much as there is to go on, I think; I've found some additional references to it, but it's only ever a passing mention of the day that doesn't really add to anything. Just like Là na Cailliche – which is what I tend to focus on at this time of year – Sheelah's Day seems to mark an official end to the winter storms, and thus marks the official beginning of Spring.

For many, according to the sources, it's also traditionally a day of nursing a hangover or partaking in a hair of the dog after yesterday's celebrations and revelry. For some of us today, it's pretty much a similar feeling, but instead of the after-effects of overdosing on alcohol, there's a hangover of frustration, of having had our fill of the ignorance and "alternative history" that abounds at this time of year. As much as anyone might write about how the snakes-don't-equal-druids, and that Patrick isn't responsible for mass genocide of the druids, pagans, or anyone else... there's always a depressing amount of wailing about it anyway. Here's the first one I saw yesterday:

Which... Since when has "driving out" meant "mass murder"? I mean, really.

But anyway, here's (arguably) an even better one:

To be honest, this one's so condensed with bullshit (and an impressively immediate Godwin, to boot) that I have to point to Poe's law here... But I'm pretty sure the snake tattoo thing comes from Marian Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, right? It's been a while since I read it, but I'm pretty sure the male druids wore serpent tattoos in that. Although it's not the first time Mists has been held up as a factual story, is it?

The problem with this kind of thing is that – aside from the fact that it's so painfully inaccurate on just about every level that I almost want to cry – it's nigh impossible to counter. Saying "That never actually happened" prompts replies of "Prove it," but it's very difficult to prove the absence of something because by it's nature, there's nothing there to show as evidence. It's difficult to point to the absence of mass graves in the archaeological record. It's difficult to point out the absence of documentation on the matter, but pointing that out usually garners the kind of response that there was a conspiracy to cover that kind of thing up, because hey, "History is written by the victors," or variations along those lines.

We can disagree any amount. We can point to more accurate resources that show that the snake story is nothing more than that: A story. It's really nothing more than a stock motif, a miracle of a kind that many saints, heroes, and even gods before them are said to have performed. So we can even muse on the fact that stories of this type have their roots in paganism, and isn't that kind of ironic considering the fact that so many pagans are keen to believe that it's evidence of paganism's oppression?

But it often falls on wilfully deaf ears because the fact remains that some people want the illusion, the fantasy of oppression. People seem to want to believe that Patrick is responsible for the genocide of the druids and pagans. In spite of the fact that Christianity came to Ireland before Patrick did, and pre-Christian beliefs persisted well beyond Patrick's mission, people just want to believe their own narrative. There's no amount of evidence that can convince those people otherwise because they don't want to hear it in the first place, and it's embarrassing and cringeworthy to see memes like the ones above fly around at this time of year that perpetuate this kind of thing. Even worse, I think, are the people who recognise that there's no real truth to these claims, but choose to observe it as a day of "mourning" anyway. Mostly, it seems, because Christianity happened at all, And That's Bad. 

Really, it's insulting. And offensive.

The reality is, Christianity happened. It arrived and spread peacefully in Ireland, and our Irish ancestors adopted it willingly – certainly not at the edge of a sword. There were no horrendous massacres of pagans who refused to convert, and the pagan Irish didn't find Christianity to be such a threat that they persecuted early Christians, either. So peaceful was the whole process that – as Gorm pointed out last week – Ireland's Christians had to come up with other ways to martyr themselves to the cause.

But it's always Patrick that's the focus of all this misplaced outrage, in spite of the fact that those same people who are so angry about him don't really know anything about him in the first place. Nowhere in the works of the saint himself, or in the later myths, legends and hagiographies (saint's lives) is he shown as a perpetrator of mass genocide. If he was that successful as a genocidal maniac, there would hardly be so many stories of him having miracle smack-downs with druids, would there? He's hardly the kind of guy who was all about sunshine and rainbows, either, but still. Anything he does – especially in the later sources – has more to do with showing Patrick in a way the writers wanted him to look, framing him in a way that people would understand, or that would get the message the writers wanted to convey across. It has very little to do with anything Patrick actually did during his life; the way the later stories portray him – as a warrior priest, a no-bullshit-purveyor-of-miracles-against-druids kind of guy – is at odds with the way Patrick portrays himself in his own words. Sure, Patrick wants to make himself look good, but the later sources are more concerned with making Patrick look powerful, to justify the authority of Armagh as the ecclesiastical centre of Ireland. Kildare did the same with Brigid.

But regardless of the things that Patrick did or didn't do, no one ever points the finger of outrage at those ancestors who converted, though, do they? Is the thought that they chose their own way – as we've done today, as pagans and polytheists of one stripe or another – so hard to reconcile that we need an imaginary scapegoat instead? If that's the case, then it's a weird kind of fundamentalism when people, many of whom claim to venerate those same ancestors, choose to accept a fantasy rather than come to terms with the fact that times changed in a way they don't want to fathom. It's hardly respectful to those ancestors, and it's hypocritical to demand respect for one's own beliefs when one fails to respect others. Clinging to a fantasy does nobody any favours.

Reliable resources on Patrick and Ireland's conversion:

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín: Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200
John Koch: Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia
Bernhard Maier: The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present
Alexander Krappe: St Patrick and the Snakes