About Saint Patrick and other things Irish…

Don’t take this image of St. Patrick literally, says feature writer Carol Galligan.

Readers before continuing would do well to note that old Irish saying — “Why ruin a good story with the truth?” Or one could quote Sean O’Casey, in his six-volume autobiography, “Sunset and Morning Star,” “To hell with so-called realism, for it leads nowhere.” Examples follow.

Who was Saint Patrick anyway? And why is he the patron saint of Ireland? Because he drove the snakes out, or so the story goes. If we look a little closer we discover that snakes were never indigenous to post-glacial Ireland; however, according to “A Meditation on the 7-Pointed Star of Druidism” by El Arseneau, the snake was indeed the symbol of the Druids. Their septagram or ouroborus is a snake swallowing its own tail, in other words a circle or the circle of life and time. And Saint Patrick did indeed drive the Druids out of pagan Ireland, which was a land of darkness, primitive beliefs and deep-seated fears of otherworldly phantasms when he returned there, preaching Christianity. But whether he actually plucked the shamrock, held it up and pronounced it the symbol of the Christian Trinity, since it had three leaves in one, we will never know. It’s hard to be exact with fifth-century quotations. And anyway, he sort of drove the snakes out of Ireland even if the snakes weren’t snakes.

Then there’s the charming book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” by Thomas Cahill, his lovely disquisition on what he calls Ireland’s “one moment of unblemished glory.” Here he asserts that it was the Irish monasteries that, during those dark ages that followed the fall of Rome, saved civilization by copying the great classics of European literature, thereby preserving them for the then-world. Well, did they? It depends on how you look at it. In Mr. Cahill’s view, there was a certain “barbaric splendor” in Ireland — the Irish were far less wild and untamed than usually depicted; he credits Saint Patrick to be “the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.” And the monks in their monasteries did indeed copy all of the then-world’s great literature, being destroyed all over Europe by the Germanic invaders, and they did indeed return it to the European capitals when the dark days lifted.

Mr. Cahill does concede that Greek literature would surely have been preserved without any help from the Irish and that the Hebrew and Greek bibles were indeed preserved elsewhere. But he sticks to his guns in asserting that “Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish who went on to forge the first great vernacular literature of Europe.” So did the Irish save civilization? Well, sort of. Almost.

“Purple Dust,” a play by Sean O’Casey, produced by Paul Shyre and Noel Behn, opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village in 1956. In the play, and the plot is not actually germane here, an old aristocratic mansion in the throes of a “renovation” is, in the end, reduced to a small pile of purple dust. One might wonder if it is not this purple dust that somehow is liberally sprinkled over much of what is Irish — after all, why ruin a good story with the truth?

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