THE WAYS THINGS ARE
Colette NiReamonn Ioannidou
March 17 was the feast of St. Patrick, the day we imagine everybody feels Irish enough, perhaps, to drink green beer or wear silly leprechaun hats. This year Ireland has another reason to celebrate. Two Irish companies, Enbio and Captec, won €3.1 million in industrial contracts to take a very significant part in the joint European Space Agency and NASA Solar Orbiter mission towards the sun.
During St Patrick’s captivity in Ireland cattle rustling was common. Little could he or his Irish flock dream that one day crushed Irish cow bones would be sailing their way towards finding answers to some of the mysteries surrounding that terrifying orb. Even today, how many people know that Ireland has a small but very successful space industry?
At 16 Patricius was dragged from a life of patrician comfort during a raid by much feared Irish marauders who landed in coracles in Britain somewhere around 401 to abduct slaves. He ended up in Antrim in the north of Ireland, ill-treated, half naked and starved, caring for animals in bleak conditions. It was probably a lonely existence and yet somehow he learned the language.
During this time he turned to prayer, enduring and surviving his deprivations for six miserable years until a voice he believed to be God’s told him he was going home; his ship was ready. He set off on a 200 mile journey with no one questioning his runaway slave identity till he found his transport. There can be no guarantee that all you hear or read about the holy man is absolute truth other than the documentation he himself left behind, but the Irish accepted and respected him, and his conversions took root in that pagan land.
Odd also to think how the wild, bawdy Irish accepted the restrictions of Christianity, considering that among the idols they worshipped were the sheela-na-gigs. These primitive fertility motifs existed into the Christian period, carved on stone in a blatant pose exposing their genitals. Sheela is no Aphrodite but rather coarse and unfeminine. But then, those who carved her were not Italian masters.
In her book The Sacred Whore, Maureen Concannon chronicles the path of the fertility goddess though time in Celtic Ireland: Palaeolithic, Neolithic, and into the Bronze connection which evolved into Saint Brigid. These images are to be found on early churches, castles and bishops’ tombs. Making the new religion palatable to those who had believed in the Celtic one that sought harmony with cosmic energy, wasn’t easy, so Christianity incorporated some of the ancient celebrations and forms into its own.
Initially, this reverence for a matriarchal fertility figure was tolerated but, eventually, the Roman patriarchy phased out the sheelas. When Roman footing was secured in Celtic Ireland, the fertility figure was replaced with the pure and modest Virgin Mary. Women who did not conform were branded as witches and whores and became scapegoats for the witch hunts that came later.
Concannon’s book says that since the advent of ‘civilisation’ there have been two classifications of religious beliefs: the official and the unofficial. The ‘official’ belonged to the dominant ruling class who may be – and almost always is – influenced by political and economic advantages. The subordinate class, the ‘unofficial’, tended towards Higher Things led by emotion and superstition. There wasn’t always agreement of views.
That Patrick was no prude was proven by Brigid, his convert, who ruled over an immense monastery, admitting both men and women. Rome would not have approved. Brigid’s successor was raped during an attack on the monastery and driven out, an end to female power in the Irish church. Gazing skywards in his mature years the saint, most likely, was not thinking of space, but God.
Patrick, the boy, hadn’t been that hot on religion. He himself had once said he didn’t really believe in God and found priests foolish, even though his grandfather Potitus had been a Catholic priest. And yet he towers over other saints in the Irish calendar as the man who held up a tiny shamrock to demonstrate there could be three beings in one entity as there were three leaves on a stalk. Irish monks spread Christianity and knowledge throughout Europe. The Irish, once regarded by some as an inferior race, are now reaching for the sun.