News and Views

Saint Patrick as a Mythic Figure

Image Caption: Dr Jenny Butler, Department of Study of Religions, UCC. Photo: Michael McSweeney/ Provision.

Image Caption: Dr Jenny Butler, Department of Study of Religions, UCC. Photo: Michael McSweeney/ Provision.

  • 16 Mar 2016

In the run up to St Patrick’s Day, especially in this centenary year commemorating the 1916 Rising, many people in Ireland and around the world will think of the day as a celebration of Ireland, Irish heritage, individual Irishness, national identity and pride.

St Patrick’s Day – or indeed the festival, as it now is – is a time to dress in green, adorn oneself in shamrock and set off to get very drunk, a stereotypical Irish activity. What less people think about is the mythological and folkloric associations the figure of St Patrick has.

The legendary St Patrick is one who single-handedly and independently converted the whole population of Irish people to Christianity and travelled the length and breadth of the country on his missionary endeavour. There is much emphasis on the notion that he individually converted so many people and even baptised whole tribes or clans, eventually Christianizing the whole of Ireland. As such, St Patrick is the archetypal missionary saint, whose appearance is equivalent with Christianity’s arrival: as a mythic figure, St Patrick is synonymous with Christianity.

The famous story of the saint ridding the island of Ireland of snakes can be interpreted as symbolic of the new religion of Christianity superseding the older pagan religion. Snakes and serpents are found in many indigenous cultures as symbols of ancient pagan deities, for example the Sumerian god Enki and the “feathered serpent” deity of the Mesoamerican religions, called Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs.

One of the “serpents” that St Patrick is supposed to have defeated is the Caoránach, a female creature that the saint is described as pursuing from Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo as far as Lough Derg in County Donegal where the monster entered the lake, making the water turn red.

These two locations, the mountain in Mayo and the lake in Donegal, may have been sacred in the indigenous religion and became the two biggest pilgrimage sites connected with devotions to St Patrick, which continue today. Interestingly, legends of St Patrick’s climb of Croagh Patrick or “the Reek”, contain the motif of his torment by black birds as he tried to pray. A black bird, specifically a crow, is the form taken by the shape-shifting war-goddess the Morrígan in Irish mythology. Ancient goddesses are also representative of the indigenous religion on the symbolic level.

As well as the symbolic battle between pagan deities, serpents and the Christian Patrick, there is also the local legends which place Patrick, and consequently Christian traditions, in the local landscape. This process is one of syncretism or blending of the two religious cosmologies in the geo-physical space of the land of Ireland itself. St Patrick is connected, through name and story, to various rocks, trees and weels throughout the Irish countryside.

Visual marks are said to have been left by the saint on his travels through the countryside, with impressions of his knees or footprints left in the shape of stones or as indentations in bullaun stones. The word bullaun is an anglicised version of the Irish word bollán, which refers to a large round stone or boulder. It is said that the saint kneeled down to pray and was praying so long or so devoutly that he imprinted the hollows in the stones.

Legends of the saint’s miraculous powers that are linked to the natural landscape, especially in relation to springs and wells. Holy wells and trees, perhaps with some sacred significance in the native religion of the pre-Christian Celts, were given a new religious significance in the early Christian context. Many wells and trees that already held a special significance became associated with specific saints. A prevalent explanation for the existence of holy wells is that they sprang up when the staff of a saint touched, or stuck into, the ground. This kind of legend, for example, is attached to St Patrick’s Well, County Roscommon. Again, these legends would suggest a re-contextualization of tradition; the place remains sacred but within a new religious framework.

Hawthorn (whitethorn) trees are traditionally associated with the sídhe (fairies) in Irish tradition, sometimes called “fairy thorns”, but are also commonly associated with St Patrick. There are various “Patrick’s trees” or “Patrick’s bushes”  of hawthorn located throughout the country at places with some connection to him, for example at Kilmogg, County Kilkenny and Milltown, County Carlow and Downpatrick, which is supposedly the burial place of the saint, has a St Patrick’s Well with a whitethorn bush growing beside it. Much of this fairy lore has its basis in ancient tradition and certain beliefs and practices to do with sacred trees are considered to have their origins in pre-Christian times. 

The focus of these customs of veneration on such trees is significant and the placements of offerings on a “rag tree”, where little cloths and scraps of material are tied, is done in honour of saints but also is associated with fairies. There seems to have been a merging of specific traditions to do with non-ordinary (“supernatural”) beings with traditions to do with saints. This combination of traditions means that saints, but particularly St Patrick, are related to these local special places all across the countryside.

Other features of the natural environment, too, are attributed to the saint. It is said that he cursed the rushes that pricked him as he rested, a consequence of the curse being that every green rush has a brown tip. These legends make the saint close at hand in the landscape and such a part of topographical lore that one needn’t go too far in search of a connection with the saint – there is likely a St Patrick legend connected to a local tree, well or rock. Symbolically, the saint infuses the landscape itself.

The symbolic resonance of the St Patrick figure is complex, stretching from that of Christianity’s arrival in Ireland to an identity that encompasses everything Irish. Such a multifaceted figure, with so many symbolic, emotional and cultural associations, makes it difficult to disentangle the meanings that have clustered around the saint and to decipher the facts of the saint’s life from legend and reinterpretations.

Consequently, and perhaps fortunately in terms of meaning-making processes and engagement of diverse peoples with St Patrick’s Day celebrations, St Patrick and his feast day can easily be utilised in different ways for different people. It can be a religious celebration, a children’s day out to watch the parade, an adults’ pub-crawl, a revelry in being Irish, a connection for diasporic communities with the ‘homeland’, or a time to reflect on our country’s intricate religious history. Whichever symbolic aspect means the most to you, have a very happy St Paddy’s Day!

By Dr Jenny Butler, Department of Study of Religions, UCC.

 

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