Patrick the Party-Pooper

By Sam MacDonald on Fri 17th Mar 2017

Sam MacDonald

Say what you like about the role of religion in modern day Ireland, St Patrick’s Day has been a very successful marketing tool for the global industry of Irish Drinking Culture.

The patron saint picked a great day to die on 17 March which acts as a very convenient mid-term break from Lent, a good excuse to drink enough stout, whiskey and poitín over the course of one day to make up for the other thirty-nine days without.

Though I would doubt the man himself would approve of how his name is celebrated around the world; he was Welsh, after all, and probably had little respect for the unquenchable nature of Irish thirst. From our perspective, in fact, it is more interesting to discuss Paddy’s captors as opposed to the man himself.

Patrick was certainly not the first Christian missionary sent to Ireland but he was the most successful. Though reportedly barely literate, he was a great show-man and understood the best way to convert the pagans of Ireland was through demonstration rather than prescription. We love a good show, and Patrick had a knack for telling a story.

He first arrived in Ireland as a captive boy slave into the region of Dal Riada. When he escaped and returned on his Christian mission, also to the north-east of the island at Strangford Lough, he documented a community which was far from the ‘Scoti’ barbarians the Romans would have had you believe loitered across the Irish Sea.

Ptomely 1st Century Map of Ireland (what the Romans did for us)

Many accounts hold that distillation was brought to Ireland and Scotland by the early Christians. The first recorded accounts of distilling date back to St Colmcille, seventy years after Patrick. Therefore, it is often assumed that began with him. I now believe that this is untrue and, in fact, the early Christians arrived to a kingdom of Dal Riada which was well acquainted with the act of spirit production.

Patrick was captured at the age of 15 whilst out tending sheep in Roman Britain, probably Wales. The captors were pirates from a band of northern Irish known as the Scoti. At that time, the Scoti and others were capitalising on the weakening state of the Roman Empire. Patrick was captured along with some 1,000 others who were sold into the Irish slave market. He was brought up to the north coast where he worked as a shepherd on Slemish Mountain for a druid of Dal Riada called Miliuc Maccu Boin.

Slemish Mountain, St. Patrick’s shepherding days

Apart from the sheer scale of a raid to capture and carry off 1,000 slaves from the coast of Britain, what is most striking is that Patrick arrived in Ireland into a society that was far from rudimentary, but quite advanced in its sense of identity and industry. Whether he tended sheep or pigs is unknown. However, Patrick was an ignorant man in an already civilised society. Yet rather than a singular androgynous society, Ireland was made up of multiple kinships and the Scoti in the north formed a community that stretched across Ireland’s north Coast to Argyll and arguably as far north as Orkney.

They didn’t identify themselves as Irish, Celts or Picts; they were Dal Riada. They were well-travelled, fierce defenders of our territory from one of the world’s greatest ever tyrannies, the Roman Empire. They were advanced in their legal system, matriarchically inclined and probably well accustomed to a drop of hard liquor.

So when you raise a glass to St Patrick, remember he would probably see you as one of the Scoti trying to ignore his evangelical pronouncements over a glass of moonshine.

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