March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Patrick’s Day is an occasion it has taken me a long while to appreciate.  To start with, I dislike corned beef, and my Mom served corned beef and cabbage every March 17 while I was growing up.  I despise drunkenness, and public celebrations of the saint’s feast in America seem to focus on little else.  And I have from time to time encountered what can only be described as Irish triumphalism, a sense that the Catholic Church in America is entirely an Irish creation, the same sort of attitude that caused many Ruthenian immigrants to leave the Byzantine Catholic Church and become Eastern Orthodox, that caused some Polish immigrants to leave the Catholic Church and form the Polish National Catholic Church, and that caused Evelyn Waugh to remark, after his visit to America, that Irish-Americans should not regard the Church as their own preserve.

But my attitude has softened over the years.  One of the pleasures of St. Patrick’s Day is that some television station is bound to show The Quiet Man, the film for which the greatest American director, John Ford, won the last of his four Oscars as Best Director, a delightful movie starring a stoic John Wayne and stunning Maureen O’Hara, together with some of the great actors who regularly appeared in Ford’s films, including Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields.  The Ireland Ford romanticized has vanished, as has the America that made Ford’s film a hit in 1952, but that fact perhaps only enhances the appeal of Ford’s classic.

I have also come to appreciate that, however overbearing certain Irish bishops might have been in dealing with immigrants from places where people have last names like mine, what the many Irish priests and nuns who toiled in America achieved was nothing short of remarkable.  In addition to building churches in every corner of the country, they were instrumental in creating the largest private educational system in the world, a system that helped preserve Catholicism in an atmosphere that was initially suspicious and sometimes even hostile.

But most importantly, I have come to appreciate what a great man Saint Patrick was, thanks to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book I began with skepticism but finished with admiration.  Cahill tells the story of how Irish monks in the early Middle Ages established monasteries throughout the British Isles and Western Europe, both helping to preserve much of the learning of Rome and spreading the Christian faith.  As Cahill makes clear, this legacy was made possible by one man, Patrick, a former slave in Ireland who convinced the Irish to abandon a way of life that was marked by constant bloodshed and undergirded by widespread slavery for one thoroughly shaped by Christianity.  Seldom has one man so completely transformed a society.  The Irish are right to celebrate Patrick, even though I still wish that Patrick had managed to drive the makers of green beer from these shores, rather than the snakes he is apocryphally said to have driven from Ireland.

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