Right now, livers and wallets are being flushed and filled respectively in order to aid the consumption of various unnaturally green brews and beverages on 17 March. This is because this day will commemorate the 1554th anniversary of the death Saint Patrick: Romano-British missionary, legendary snake-chaser, and patron saint of Ireland (and Nigeria, oddly enough). The relevance of this to a South African context seems tenuous. And that is because there is absolutely no relevance at all.
Well, maybe that is a bit harsh. South Africa has a small population of Irish descent. We try to make them feel right at home by also drinking excessively as a nation and coming close to worshipping the potato. But even the Irish don’t recognise the relevance of St Patrick’s Day as the worship of the archaic missionary any more. The religious ceremony of the Feast of St Patrick is only followed by staunch Irish Roman Catholics, and that is only because it gives them a day’s break from the 40-day fast of Lent, allowing them to pig out on all the Guinness and potato crisps they can.
There is a common misconception that St Patrick’s Day memorialises the day that St Paddy banished all snakes from Ireland’s shores, which is why there are no snakes in Ireland. However, the day actually commemorates the date of his death. In fact, the idea that he did banish all snakes from Ireland is no longer accepted, unsurprisingly, as anything but myth. Scientific research suggests that there were never any snakes in the land of the shamrock at all. If he did banish them though, he did it by turning his staff into a snake, which chased away all other snakes in Ireland, similarly to the way the prophet Moses turned his staff into a snake to do battle with the pharaohs of Egypt. The staff method for banishing snakes has been improved upon in recent history by Barry White, who used his deep bass voice to round up all the snakes of Springfield in a 1993 episode of The Simpsons.
With his greatest act being disputed by scientists and outdone by a cartoon depiction of an R&B singer, the Irish celebration of St Patrick began to wane. In the mid-1990s, the Irish government decided to rejuvenate the day as a celebration not of the patron saint himself, but rather of Irish culture on the whole. The first St Patrick’s Festival River-danced its merry way through the streets of Dublin in 1996, and now, not even 20 years later, the festival attracts close to one million visitors. The celebrations have spread across the globe, from Argentina to Malaysia, and even as far as the International Space Station, where in 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sent a video to earth of himself singing “Danny Boy” in a green bow-tie.
Around the world, St Patrick’s Day has become just this: a celebration of Irish culture on a grand scale. Why this is the only country in the world with an international day of celebration dedicated to its culture seems painstakingly obvious: booze. However, this can be said of countries across Europe that do not receive such honour. Germany comes close with Oktoberfest, but is far more a celebration of beer than of German culture itself, and most of the rest of the world fast-forward through American movies whenever 4th of July celebrations are mentioned.
Maybe it’s because the Irish are one of the few European countries that haven’t pissed anyone off in the past few hundred years. Ireland never colonised anyone, and was herself colonised by England for a very long time. The tiny island of Montserrat in the Caribbean was in fact created as a home for the many Irish slaves freed after the abolition of slavery there in 1834. The first slave revolt on the island was in fact on St Patrick’s Day in 1768, but was about as successful as the Irish accent you will try to pull off on Tuesday evening several pints in.
On that note, maybe it is just the booze that has made St Paddy’s a worldwide annual event. Regardless, wherever you lift your pint to your green-painted face to the sound of The Pogues on Tuesday, try to remember the heritage of the Irish… at least until you forget everything else about the evening.