“What Patrick gave the Irish was a faith that took the best of traditional pagan beliefs and redefined those in Christian terms.”
— Steve Rabey, In the House of Memory
My birthday is St. Patrick’s Day, but I’ve never made much of the fact. Initially, that might appear to be a puzzle, because my father was Catholic, I was baptized in that faith, and I have two saint names — Nicholas and Francis.
Even though she never made it a crusade, my Scotch-Irish mother made sure that my brother and I enrolled in public schools. We were also sent to Methodist Sunday School, where one Sunday the teacher hit me over the head with the Bible. The next week we found ourselves in the pacifist Friend’s Church just down the road.
I have two lame excuses for not celebrating St. Patrick’s Day: even though I love beer (though not as much as Justice Kavanaugh), I do not like Stout, and, furthermore, I’m red-green color blind. Every time I chose what I thought was green for my outfit, it usually turned out to be brown.
One would think that as a religion scholar I would have learned something about St. Patrick, but I found myself cramming for this column. What I discovered was that he was not Irish but British, he wasn’t the first to convert the Irish, he was never canonized and he did not rid Ireland of snakes.
Early Irish Christianity integrated and preserved indigenous beliefs far longer and deeper than other transplanted forms of the faith, especially Roman Christianity in Britain. Most significant was the toleration (at least initially) of Celtic polygamy, the preservation of indigenous burial practices (huge mounds, not cemeteries), the incorporation of Celtic legends in Irish Christian epics and a rich integration of the ancient sacred landscape.
The most striking example of this syncretism, as religion scholars use the term, is St. Brigid of Kildare. She was raised by a Druid and took on the attributes of the Celtic goddess Brigit who was worshipped at Kildare. She was famous for providing food in times of need and turning water to beer — an obvious toast to an indigenous drinking preference.
Initially, Christian missionaries portrayed the Druids, as Nathan Elawa describes it, “as dangerous and to be avoided. But as Christianity gained control and the Druids were no longer a threat to the power of the church, their representation in later texts was more favorable; and in some cases they were even sentimentalized as kindly figures.”
There were already Christians in Ireland before Patrick arrived in A.D. 432, but he evangelized in the North where there were none. Following an indigenous spring practice of lighting bonfires, Patrick celebrated Easter in the Celtic way. Honoring the local worship of the sun, he also designed the Celtic Cross with a symbol of the sun in the center.
Instead of destroying indigenous holy sites, early Irish Christians took them over. Celtic wells and springs were honored for their healing properties and they were used for baptisms. St. Patrick fasted for 40 days on a mountain sacred to the Druids.
There was no violence towards the Druids and no martyrs on either side. St. Patrick won a contest with the Druids not by destroying them but by showing the superior power of the Christian God. As Thomas Cahill states: “Ireland is unique in religious history for being the only land into which Christianity was introduced without bloodshed.”
Steve Rabey continues: “The Celtic Christians didn’t tear down and destroy the stone circles and monuments that had been around for ages, as some zealous preachers would do centuries later. Instead, they merely inscribed crosses on them alongside the pagan symbols.”
Even first century Christianity was not free from syncretism, because Jesus as a dying and rising God is modeled on Near Eastern saviors. Furthermore, Greek philosophy had profound influence from the very beginning. The concept of an immortal soul is Greek (certainly not Hebrew), and the Logos (=Word) Hymn of John 1:1 is beautiful Greek theology.
Nick Gier, University of Idaho professor emeritus, was coordinator of religious studies for 23 years. Email him at email@example.com.