I have wandered the hills and valleys of Ireland, driven along its rocky coasts and roamed the quiet midlands. In my travels, I have stopped to explore every monument of stone and ruined churchyard to be found along my path, often altering that path considerably in the hope of encountering some new mystery to explore.
Along the way, I have taken several thousands of pictures.
While I am careful that the photography not intrude upon my more visceral experience of a place, I strive to document each location to the best of my ability. The photos are touchstones, reminders of places I fear I may never see again. And in that spirit I try to be as thorough and faithful to the place and time as possible.
I was therefore, quite surprised to learn, as I went scanning through my photos just the other day, that my collection suffered from a curious absence of saints.
I only went looking because I noticed that my next blog post, the one you are reading now, was due to publish on March 17th, and it occurred to me that I really should write something about St. Patrick’s Day.
Not feeling particularly motivated, I thought I would dig up some of the photos I’d taken of his various statues in Ireland, and use those for inspiration.
I sat back from my screen, perplexed. That couldn’t be right. I mean, I know for a fact that there is a statue of St. Patrick standing near the entrance to the Hill of Tara. I’d photographed every inch of that ancient seat of kings, as well as the little churchyard that sits next to it, during my first visit in 2005. I remembered walking past that stark white statue with the little metal fence around it, not once, but twice!
And so I checked again: hills, grass, tower, graves, passage tomb, sheep, standing stone, circling ravens…, no statue.
Okay, so then where else? I searched my memory for other encounters with Ireland’s patron saint…, a-ha! there was Saint Patrick’s Cross which stands among the mighty ruins on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. Surely I had a photo of that, and even if it’s not really a statue, it would give me something to work with…,
“How,” I wondered aloud to myself, “can this be.”
I tried to think back to all the other cathedrals, graveyards and ruins that I have visited. Surely there had to be…, I know that one had a statue…, Maybe there was a plaque…,
There are no monuments to Saint Patrick, no statues or shrines, recorded anywhere in my camera-rolls. And I think the reason for this must be because I just don’t see him.
I’ve heard his story again and again, since childhood, but it has never really made any lasting impression upon me.
I was taught that I should like St. Patrick because he was ‘the’ Irish saint.
But was he, really?
There is nothing in the mythology surrounding Pádraig that touches me or even rings true to my ears.
I have tried to see the young man, captured, bound and sold into slavery, only to give himself over to Christianity and escape his captors, led across the wilds of Ireland and back to the sea by a mysterious voice. Yet it seems as if I have heard that story before, attached to other names and places.
And then there is the great teacher, who is said to have stood upon the Hill of Tara among both the greatest kings and wisest Druids of that land, and explained to them the mystery of the Christian Trinity through the example of the wild shamrock which grew unnoticed underfoot. Strange, that they should be so easily won over, these wise men, when triplicate gods and goddesses were already known throughout the land, and the shamrock already known for both its symbolic and medicinal qualities.
Then, of course, there is the mighty “warrior for god” who appears in the later tales. No meek teacher this Patrick, he duels his enemies with holy magic, tossing them into the air like some midichlorian pumped Jedi Knight.
Let’s not even mention the thing with the snakes.
Over the years I have seen him first as a saint, then as a villain, and now he hardly seems important at all. From what little we truly do know of him, it seems clear that almost nothing which has been believed about him is true.
So why then, should we celebrate the anniversary of his death (if indeed we even have that detail correct)?
More than once, I have been told that celebrating Patrick’s Holy Day is an important part of my Irish heritage, and that, as a grandchild of the diaspora, I should do whatever I can to maintain those cultural links with my distant kin.
How much honor do I bring to my ancestors by pretending to celebrate a Catholic feast day? None, I think.
The truth is, I don’t need Saint Patrick, whoever he was, to help me celebrate my Irish heritage. I do that every day.
I think I’ll get by just fine without the silly parades and the mass inebriation, which have become the American standard in holiday celebrations.
Yeah, I’ll wear the green – but I do that once a week (at least) anyway. I like green.
And you can be sure that I’ll raise a glass, to you and to yours, and to bridging the miles that lie between myself and the one place I’ve ever known that truly feels like home.