Everyone’s Irish on St. Pat…Wait…What?
Do you ever find yourself having the same conversation over and over again with different people? I do. It happens every year in early March. This year, I had the conversation with my dear cousin and Cheryl. It went something like this:
Cheryl: got big plans for St. Pat’s?
Me: Nope. I stopped celebrating St. Pat’s a couple years ago.
Cheryl: Why? You’re flippin’ Irish.
And then I begin an extremely long, extremely boring explanation of the onset of my St. Patrick’s Day malaise and my decision to celebrate my Irish heritage on February 1st, rather than March 17th. Since this isn’t my blog, I’ll try to keep it shorter–and hopefully less boring–than it usually is.
Like many people, my relationship to St. Patrick’s Day changed dramatically after my 21st birthday. What was once a day for wearing green lest my classmates pinch me, listening to lengthy albums of Irish folks singers, and hearing my father wax poetic about the five O’Leggett brothers who left Eire during the Great Hunger to make a better life for themselves in these United States, quickly became–in my mind at least–the best excuse ever to drink in the middle of the day and convince unsuspecting cultural appropriators that they should buy me booze simply because my name is Colleen and that is, like, so Irish. Ahh…that was fun….
Then I had to go ruin it all by actually, you know, studying the history of my forefathers.
This is generally the part of the story where I go off on a tangent about why white Americans feel the need to claim ethnic identities, completely forgetting the fact that when Jews, Germans, Italians, Scots, Swedes, and yes, the Irish, first came here they intentionally anglicized their names, clothing, and sometimes their religions to fit into American society because white America didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms. And then I would bore you with talk about how whiteness is a concept–one that wasn’t exactly applied to the Irish until they started hating on African Americans (check out the 1863 draft riots if you don’t believe me). I’d probably throw in some random facts about the discrimination the Irish faced initially and how they gained power through taking civil service jobs and working the political machines to their advantage so that now, in the present day, it’s more than just cool to feign Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day–the Irish have finally attained that fancy-pants white privilege that militant activist types like to complain about so much. Then, I’d point out that instead of following the tired old cycle where the oppressed becomes the oppressor, the Irish should take a little responsibility for that whiteness they finally earned and remember that not all ethnic minorities have been so lucky. After all, the first anti-immigrant legislation passed in the United States was written to keep those swarthy Irish from ruining the country and I’d be willing to bet that at least half the people who hold up signs reading “Go Home Wetbacks” at present-day anti-immigration rallies would proudly claim Irish heritage if they were asked.
See. I got all ranty anyway. Maybe I’m one of those militant activist types.
After all that, you might think I don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day because after studying Irish history I decided I wasn’t so proud to be descended from Irish immigrants. That would be an incorrect assumption.
You see, the history of the Irish is a tragic one. It’s a story of pain and suffering. It’s a story of a people beaten down and broken by cruel, oppressive overlords. But it’s also a story of hope, resilience, and triumph–one that transcends ethnic and cultural barriers. I get why such a wide range of people see part of their own story in Irish history and I completely understand the desire to party Irish-style, but I don’t think St. Patrick’s Day in it’s current form is much of a genuine Irish celebration.
So I don’t do it. Instead, I celebrate my cultural heritage on February 1st, also known as the Feast of St. Brigid. You see, Brigid of Kildare is Ireland’s second favorite patron saint. She’s also the patron saint of brewers–an honor she earned due to the various beer-related miracles attributed to her, like turning water into beer for some thirsty monks and supplying 18 churches with beer from 1 barrel for Holy Week. Some may not think these feats rival those of St. Patrick, but I think it certainly makes Brigid a better honoree for drunken celebrations.
She may also be more closely tied to traditional Irish culture than St. Patrick ever was. You see, although the Catholic church recognizes Brigid as a historical figure, it’s likely that most (if not all) of the stories about her were actually taken from Celtic pagan traditions. In other words, she may never have lived at all. You see, St. Brigid’s feast day falls on February 1st, the traditional first day of spring in Ireland. February 1st also happens to be the beginning of the pagan celebration of Imbolg which is the festival in honor of the Celtic goddess Brid, who is also known as…you guessed it…Brigid. During the pagan feast of Imbolg, it is customary to light candles in honor of Brid who was the goddess of the hearth (one early Christianized version of Imbolg was actually known as Candle mas…which you’ve probably heard of before if you read a lot of Victorian literature). The Christian St. Brigid is also associated with fire. In fact, nuns at her abbey in Kildare kept a fire perpetually burning for 600 years in veneration of the saint (it was eventually extinguished when clerics decided that was just a bit too much pagan symbolism for Catholics; it has since been re-lit on several occasions and still burns every now and then when St. Brigid’s devotees have special ceremonies in her honor). There are many other legends the two have in common, as well as a whole list of similar characteristics, which is really too long to get into after all the rambling I did a couple paragraphs ago: I’ll let you go digging around for information about St. Brigid on your own if you’re still interested. Basically, it’s all a big mystery. Maybe she was a real person and all these similarities are coincidental. Maybe she was a real person whose life story was embellished as people blended their oral histories. Or maybe the Catholic church made the whole thing up in order to more easily convert Celtic pagans to Christianity (much like the strategically chosen dates for Christmas and Easter). Who knows?
No matter who St. Brigid was or what you think of her, she remains an important and beloved figure in Irish history. And while I mean no offense to St. Patrick, since his day has been effectively hijacked by huge corporations, drunken frat boys, and over-sexed singletons, I’d much rather do my ethnocentric celebrating in honor of my gal, Brigid–Ireland’s second-favorite saint.