Here's a look back at the first column I ever wrote about St. Patrick's Day
What about St. Patrick's Day? If you happen to be in New England, you may notice that small towns dye their rivers green for the day. In Memphis, you can drop by Silky Sullivan's down on Beale Street and have a green beer. (They also do something with a goat, but I've never been brave enough to ask for details!) Everyone you meet will claim to come from Ireland. And you'll need to be up-to-date on your knowledge of all things Irish, like blarney stones, leprechauns and shamrocks.
St. Patrick was real enough, although he was a pagan, came from Wales rather than Ireland, and was named Maewyn. His first trip to Ireland occurred when he was captured by Irish marauders and carried off as a slave at the age of 16. After 6 years, he escaped and made his way to Auxerre in Gaul, where he studied at a monastery and adopted Christianity. He returned to Ireland as a bishop and spent some 30 years fighting with the local Druids and converting the population to Christianity.
Legend has it that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. True enough, there are no snakes there. But, then, there never have been. The island broke away from the continent well before the last Ice Age, and snakes never managed to make the swim to re-establish themselves. My guess is that when Patrick promised to drive the snakes out of Ireland, he was actually casting an ugly slur on the Druids, who were pagan priests – "the little snakes!"
Leprechauns are also problematic. We all know what they look like – about three feet tall, old and ugly, with pointed ears and a pointed cap to match. They smoke long-stemmed pipes, make shoes, and hide pots of gold under rainbows. They are anti-social, tricksters, thieves, and creators of mayhem in the middle of the night. They like to get drunk on a homebrew called poteen and as a result usually have pink-tipped noses. There are no female leprechauns, but I'm not going to touch the problem of how they make new baby leprechauns! They are associated with St. Patrick because they are elves and therefore join the group of folks Patrick wanted to run out of the island. Patrick's connection with shamrocks is better-grounded in fact. He used the native three-leafed plant to explain the nature of the Trinity and adopted the shamrock as his badge. Despite the pictures you'll see, leprechauns probably do not hide under shamrocks.
There is a real Blarney Stone, and Irish legend says that if you kiss it, you will be rewarded with the gift of eloquence. The stone itself is located on the third story of Blarney Castle, just northwest of the village of Cork. To kiss the stone, you must sit with your back to it, lean backwards (with someone holding your feet), and lower your head down a crack between two stone walls. They tell me there are iron rails to hold onto, but I think I'd rather just remain green with envy for those who speak with honeyed tongues.
Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone.