Down the street from us sits a quaint neighborhood pub in the Irish tradition, and by tradition, I don’t mean the pouring of green beer in March. Its name is a jumble of words from the Irish Gaelic that have been scrawled in Celtic script on a sign with paint faded by successive seasons. A fair number of Irish expats patronize the place, and the wait staff still have brogues thick enough to charm. The pub even hosts a resident theater company that will stage a Synge play in the back of the back room, against the backdrop of a velvet curtain. So it’s worth looking at the grainy chalkboard outside to see what offerings the pub has in store in addition to the stout. Each March, a coy listing goes up for the ‘High Holy Week’ that culminates in St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday which the pub rather valiantly tries to keep respectable. God love them for that.
Like many of us descended from ancient Hibernians, the pub staff recoil from the travesty that March 17th has become. When my husband asked our favorite waitress about the pub preparations for St. Patrick’s, she blanched and scrambled to change the subject, shamed by the taint of ethnic caricature. I sympathized. It’s hard to appreciate a mock holiday set aside for blackout drinking, public licentiousness, drunken brawling, alcoholic binges, and other reckless behaviors involving poor impulse control and impaired judgment. It’s none too cute, no matter how many shamrocks you sprinkle around it; it strikes me as the last sanctioned minstrel show of centuries gone by, partly because liquor companies are so glad to underwrite it. Yet it remains sickening – literally and figuratively – in spite of those vast advertising dollars spent.
Obviously, a great deal has been lost in the translation here. St. Patrick is not simply the patron saint of Ireland; he is the embodiment of a Celtic spirituality that is too often overlooked in the church and nearly lost on modernity. Theologian and expelled priest Matthew Fox calls Celtic spirituality as “a creation-centered tradition” that celebrates “original blessing” as the holy ground of all our being. When St. Patrick drove those fabled snakes out of Ireland, he symbolically undid some of the damage of that cursed serpent in Eden. He incorporated the natural reverence of the pagan faiths into a big-hearted and wide-eyed Christianity that beheld the world in wonder. In doing so, he occasioned the peaceable and communal conversion experience of an ancient civilization. We continue to marvel at that today.
Perhaps St. Patrick is best known for the legendary Breastplate Prayer attributed to him. It is an epic incantation, mystical in its aims, generous in its scope. “This day I call to me,” it begins: “God’s strength to direct me; God’s power to sustain me; God’s wisdom to guide me; God’s vision to light me; God’s ear to my hearing; God’s word to my speaking; God’s hand to uphold me; God’s pathway before me; God’s legions to save me – from snares of the demons, from evil enticements, from failings of nature, from one or many that seek to destroy me, anear or afar…” So it goes for stanza after stanza, at headlong pace.
The overall effect is undeniably intoxicating. St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer is meant to alter ordinary consciousness, without a doubt. But the prayer is in no way meant to compromise people’s capacities. People can be transported by this prayer; they cannot get drunk on it. If there’s one thing all the Irish back in Ireland and throughout the global diaspora know forward and backward, it’s the heartache brought about by the drink. A spirited gathering is all well and good, until drunkenness turns it dark and demonic. Sometimes it seems impossible to pinpoint that very moment until it is too long past. Then any prayer for protection seem altogether apt. The bitter irony of St. Patrick’s Day is that the hard-drinking habits that mark it are the same that have devastated Irish lives, families, and communities for centuries.
How does blessing become debauchery, and why? I’ve wondered that for several years now, each time March comes around. In situations where alcohol holds sway, one sage advised a strategy of “Spiritus contra spiritum”: the Spirit over and against the spirits, the singular and proper over and against the plural and lower-case. That motto has shaped the “spiritual, but not religious” program of Alcoholic Anonymous and other Twelve-Step recovery groups. I’ve started to suspect that it may be sole strategy that will allow us to rehabilitate St. Patrick’s Day for the purposes of goodness and light, beauty and blessing. My only hope is that we will not adopt it too late.
Although I live in New York, I’ve yet to make the trip to see the route of the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I probably never will. Honestly, I don’t have the stomach for it. I’ve rode the subway with my share of crowds filled with people several sheets to the wind before it even got underway, so I don’t need to stick around for what those will become later on in the day, after the parade has ended. Lately I’ve noticed that the most drunk may not be Irish themselves – they may be Dominican or Korean, instead. I refuse to speculate how grossly Paddy’s Day revelers might misunderstand Irish heritage or Celtic spirituality, although there’s a chance that most pay it no mind whatsoever.
Last night, while parade-goers were making their way home with varying degrees of success, my husband and I sat with our friends at a local performing arts center and watched various classes from the Dierdre O’Mara School of Irish Dance do their elaborate step-dancing routines. Our favorite routine featured a foursome from the 3-6 year-olds class, doing a reel similar to ones my nieces had done when they were much younger. The girls were quite young but also lightening quick and high spirited. I could only imagine what they might grow up to be. As charming as he found them, my husband was puzzled by their hair, uniform in its perfection. I explained that the dancers all wore attachments, clip-ons that affixed beautifully coiffed swirling buns and looping curls, as a standard part of their uniforms. “Can’t you see?” I asked. “It makes their bounds look bouncier and their kicks look higher.”
A hazard of High Holy Week is the risk that appearances might prove deceiving. We can more readily appreciate this in the performing arts than in the spiritual life. The aspiration to go higher gets strengthened by our feet touching ground before making that leap upwards again. Touching the zenith point requires tremendous focus, growing strength, and a certain force of will; both can be developed over a span of years or a steady course of practice. But inebriation seems a poor imitation of inspiration – some might even call it counterfeit. St. Patrick’s Day is not ultimately an excuse for throwing some back; it is an occasion for lifting spirits with utmost sincerity. Somehow the folks at our local pub understand that much better than most. They will pull a pint, true, but they will also invite musicians, celebrate writers, host poetry nights, circulate community notices, and stage plays. They work to create a place devoted to goodness and light, beauty and blessing, and not just on March 17th. God love them for that, indeed.