Thursday, 17 March 2011

Through the Mists of Irish Myth - Lucy Coats

Today is a day of shamrocks and Guinness, leprechauns and rejoicing for Irish communities everywhere.  It is the day of St Patrick, Ireland's patron saint.  So let's take a little trip through the mists of Irish myth and legend.

Who was St Patrick?  There are a few 'facts' which are accepted as true by historians, since they come from two letters Patrick almost certainly wrote himself.  He was captured as a teenager and sent as a slave to Ireland, where he lived as a shepherd for six years before escaping and returning to his family. He was related to St Martin of Tours on his mother's side, and his parents were high-ranking Romans from either Gaul or Britain. Patrick returned to Ireland later in his life as an ordained bishop, and was given permission by the Ard-Righ (High King) to preach Christianity in the north and west of the island. Scholars think (but don't know absolutely) that he lived and worked sometime in the second half of the 5th century. 

So what has a Christian bishop to do with myth?  Of course, the most famous 'myth' about Patrick himself was that he banished the snakes from Ireland (possibly a reference to the serpent symbolism of his druid 'rivals', because there were no snakes in Ireland). I'm pretty sure he would have spoken the Celtic language of his captors (and later on, his flock).  He must also have heard all the great stories of the druidic Irish religion told around the fire when he was a young man in captivity--and probably in the Ard-Righ's great hall too.  Bards were honoured folk then, and those were the stories they told--Cuchulain, Finn MacCool, Maeve and the Tain Bo Cuailnge and so on. I would speculate that those mythical tales--and more importantly, the way in which they were told or sung, had an effect on Patrick the priest.

Look at his famous prayer 'St Patrick's Breastplate' forinstance. It has the lines:

'I bind to myself today
the power of Heaven,
the light of the sun,
the brightness of the moon,
the splendour of fire,
the flashing of lightning,
the swiftness of wind,
the depth of sea,
the stability of earth,
the compactness of rocks.'

For me that has a clearly traceable line of influence back to the ancient Celtic 'Song of Amergin', which also takes its poetic inspiration from nature:

I am a stag of seven tines
I am a flood across a plain
I am a wind on a deep lake
I am a tear the Sun lets fall
I am a hawk above the cliff
I am a thorn beneath the nail
I am a wonder among flowers

Those Celtic myths of Ireland which Patrick heard are all stories I know well myself, having sent my own bard, Coll, and his talking raven, Branwen, on a storytelling journey around the islands of Britain.  

Coll the Storyteller's Tales of Enchantment
What I found in the course of my research for that book was that many versions of the stories I was telling (most notably the stories of Brigid and the tale of the Swan Children of Lir) had elements of Christianity within them. Those elements were clearly inserted at a later date--perhaps in Patrick's time or after.  This is what I find so fascinating about myth.  It adapts itself to its circumstances, it is fluid, and yet it retains the true core essence of its story, whatever overlays or extras are added to it. 

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the influence of Christianity on those Irish stories.  After all, its pragmatic power managed to turn the pagan winter solstice into Christmas, Imbolc (or the Feast of New Ewe's Milk) into Candlemas, Eostre/Eos goddess of fertility/dawn into Easter, Lughasadh (celebrating the sun god's harvest in August) into Lammas, Samhain into All Souls/All Hallows....  But in a kind of reverse mythic swap there are stories which say that when St Patrick died, he went to the Isles of the Blest--where the glorious Celtic warrior-heroes finished up after death.  I like to think that he was enough of an honorary Irishman by the end that he wouldn't have minded a quick trip down from Heaven to mingle with the Fianna, drink from the magic cup of King Cormac and tell tales of the angels' misdemeanours.  Happy Lá Fhéile Pádraig!


Book Maven said...

What a lovely post! I'd far rather celebrate Saint Patrick with a myth and legend or two than a pint of Guinness.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post Lucy. Unfortunately St Patrick's Day still resonates with Sports Day at my Irish Convent School... my worst day in the school calender, when I was forced to run races and compete! Later I took up running and found I was quite a fast 10 kilometre runner. But St Patrick's Day still brings back memories of angst at my unco-ordinated attempts, of letting the team down and of sweaty, hairy girls and smelly games rooms not far behind the angst!

Gillian Philip said...

Fantastic post, Lucy - I've always had a soft spot for St Patrick's Breastplate (so to speak), and I love this Song of Amergin - I've never seen it before. There are definitely similarities of tone - it's beautiful.

Elaine AM Smith said...

This is a wonderfully rich blog post.
I love the story and the myths of St Patrick.
He did not allow birth or circumstances to define him.
I saw St Patrick's Breast Plate as a call to arm oneself with the wonders of the world - to fortify oneself - to become better able to sing the praises of God: a blend of nature and biblical references.

Sue Purkiss said...

What an interesting, rich and informative post, Lucy! I love all the pictures and especially the prayer and the song - beautiful! Yesterday I was looking for something in the folder of research I did for Warrior King, my book about Alfred. I came across an article about a piece of research which showed that England as well as Ireland, Wales and Scotland, is predominantly 'celtish' by origin - the Anglo Saxon and later invaders contributed to the gene pool but didn't swamp it. I thought that was interesting - and good to know that we may all have inherited some of that celtic propensity for song and story!

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks everyone--so glad you all enjoyed it.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Beautiful Lucy, wish the drunks on the tube last night would take the time to read what this day is really all about!