Up to Patrick’s conversion of the Irish, converts to Christianity came from the countries of the old Roman Empire or countries that Rome influenced profoundly. The Armenians, the Greeks, the Georgians, the Britons, the Egyptians, were all part of the Roman Empire or from the larger Greco-Roman cultural milieu centered on the Mediterranean and its adjacent seas. However different the individual cultures might be, there were certain political and social realities they all shared, if for no other reason that not sharing them meant a Roman legion might show up on your doorstep to convince you of the error of your ways. The great non-event of Irish history, however, is this: the Romans never reached Ireland. They knew it was there, of course; to the Romans, Ireland was Hibernia or Scotia—Scotland, which you would think would be Scotia, the Romans knew as Caledonia; but for whatever reason, the Romans never made the effort to take Ireland. So, the Irish stood outside the Roman cultural orbit. Ideas and philosophies that everyone in the Mediterranean world had known for centuries were, to the Irish, completely new and unheard of; for them, Latin and Greek were completely foreign languages and so the Irish made a concerted effort to catch up with everyone else. And they did; within a century or so, Irish missionaries are spreading the Christian faith to Scotland and the rest of northern Europe, Irish monks are known throughout Europe for their intellectual achievements, and St. Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and a well-known pill, could call the heretic Pelagius “ an ignorant calumniator, stuffed with Irish porridge.”
Given that the presumed reason for the day, which is the anniversary of Patrick’s death in 493, is to celebrate the conversion of the Irish from paganism to Christianity, I am at a bit of a loss to understand just where getting drunk and obnoxious comes into the mix. It doesn’t seem like the usual way to honor a saint; no one celebrates St. Boniface’s Day, for example, by seeing how much schnapps they can drink before the day’s end, and no one honors St. Agatha’s Day by wearing silly clothes and a big Kiss Me I'm Something or Other button.
Now, for the record, I am not wearing green today. I am wearing light beige pants and a navy blue shirt and the usual black shoes, and no, my underwear isn’t green, either. This seems to disappoint any number of people who know that my father’s family comes from Ireland originally and that my mother is actually an immigrant from there. I am not wearing green nor am I going to drink green beer or eat corned beef and cabbage or get falling down drunk and I will do my best to avoid making an ass of myself today. I don’t always succeed in that last endeavor, but I don’t use the day as an excuse to do it. I don’t know why people of Irish descent feel the need to engage in stereotypical behavior on March 17th , but frankly, I find it annoying when they do, not because I have any particular prejudice against people acting like jackasses, but simply because I dislike having people assume that I should act like one as well simply by virtue of ethnicity. Maybe when I can get away with asking African Americans how come they aren’t eating fried chicken and watermelon on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday I might relent and get falling down stupid drunk like everyone else, but until then, I think I would just as soon miss the festivities.