A Reflection on Saint Patrick and the Nature of Being Irish

Through the intercession of all the Saints, Blesseds, and Venerables of Ireland, and through the Eucharist we share, bring us to a Blessed Easter.

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

There is a book which was published in 1995 entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. It is very true that the Irish did indeed save civilization . They went from a barbaric tribe, one which even the mighty Roman Empire could not conquer, to the ones who became, in many ways, the guiding light for both culture and Church, throughout Europe, and indeed, throughout America.

Where I come from, there is a friendly rivalry between Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, and, growing up, one of my teachers in grade school tried to convince her class of sixth graders that Saint Patrick was really Italian. Even as a young boy, I wasn’t buying it! He may have been a Roman Briton, but he was not Italian! (I say this jokingly as a priest who is assigned to Rome, Italy, and as someone who has ministered in Italian-American parishes in my Diocese!) We do know that Patrick was not Irish. At least not by birth!

Patrick comes to Ireland and makes these wild women and men Christian, and boy, does he do a good job. Cahill, in his book, comments: “In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life…Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination – making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.”

What does it mean to be Irish? Sigmund Freud stated: “This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”

Richard Sandhurst, an Englishman, stated: ““The [Irish] people are thus inclined: religious, frank, amorous, ireful, sufferable of infinite pains, vain-glorious, with many sorcerers, excellent horsemen, delighted with warring, great almes-givers and surpassing in hospitality. The lewder sort (both clerics and lay people alike) are sensual and loose in living. They are sharp-witted, lovers of learning, adventurous, kind-hearted and secret in displeasure.”

So, what are some Irish tendencies? Without falling into stereotypes and generalities, to be Irish means to feel  deeply and to believe dramatically. It means to think you are cool and collected, that you are tough and unflappable, but, in reality, you wear your heart on your sleeve, and, when you believe, you really, really believe. The Irish are a Catholic people; it’s ingrained into the culture and nowhere is this more apparent than in the contemporary conflict between a secular Ireland and a traditionally Catholic Ireland.

The contribution of the Irish to the Church is immense. In fact, the truth of the matter is that we would not have individual confession if not for the Irish. And this is not even to mention the fact that the U.S. Roman Catholic Church is, in fact, very Irish historically. The model of diocesan and parochial life from the Northeast historically was the model, and, by and large, it is this model that was the basis of parish life in the United States for the greater part of the 20th Century.

And the contribution of the Irish to the world was immense. Listen to Cahill’s description:

Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies' heads. Where they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Love of learning, love of books, this is a very Irish contribution to our world!

Although I have spent a great number of the years of my life downplaying the “Irishness” of my heritage, as I get older, I recognize that I am very Irish-American. I grew up, at the time, in a very Irish area of New York. Almost every kid I knew growing up was Irish-American. I recognize the fact that in many ways, I have what some would call a very Irish temperament- a bit of the melancholy, a love of the storytelling, and the tendency to hyperbole of the Irish. Describing the Irish temperament, Cahill writes: “They pursued the wondrous deed, the heroic gesture: fighting…drinking, art - poetry for intense emotion...” I pray that I use that intense emotion for my prayer life, my preaching, my celebration of the Mass, and in my studies, teaching, and writing. And yet, there are snakes present in me that need to be driven out. Perhaps you have them too, even if you do not have Irish heritage.

Patrick drove out the snakes from Ireland. He was driving out the snakes of sin, of falsehood, of hypocrisy. I need the prayers of Patrick and the grace and power of Jesus to drive out those snakes, that pusilla anima, that fearful soul, that soul that cares more for the things of this world which is passing away instead of focusing in on what truly matters- the Lord and the things of the Lord! Jesus, Our Lord, worked through this emotional, loving, sentimental, pugnacious people, these Irish, who never could be conquered by the Romans, by the British, and, I believe, cannot be conquered even by secularism and anti-Catholicism today. Drive those snakes out of all of us, those snakes of sin and selfishness, those snakes of secularity and sensuality, Patrick, and through the intercession of all the Saints, Blesseds, and Venerables of Ireland, and through the Eucharist we share, bring us to a Blessed Easter.

This article originally appeared at the Register on March 17, 2017.