As we approach the feast Day of the Patron Saint of Ireland, the mind reels at the immensity of Patrick's presence in the English Speaking world. No doubt it is rooted in Irish emigration, but what explains this phenomenon? How is it that a Roman Briton came to be an icon of the modern Celtic world?
Revellers who participate in St Patrick's Day celebrations are measured in the tens of millions. Based on published attendance records for Manchester, Dublin, New York City, Philadelphia, Toronto and Sydney, approaching 5 million people will either participate in or attend the parades in these cities alone. The first "official" St. Patrick’s Day Parade took place in New York City in 1848, as the Great Famine raged in Ireland (1845-1852). The first parade was organised by a consortium of Irish Aid Societies which had sprung up in New York in response to the increase in Irish immigrants to the city, many of whom were survivors of the Coffin Ships. Today New York's St. Patricks Day Parade has the distinction of being the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest such event in the United States.
So much has been written, fact and fiction, about Patrick that the wealth of material is mind numbing. The broad outlines of Patrick’s life are widely known and accepted. That he was from an upper class family in Roman Britain in the waning days of the Roman Empire. The son of a Roman citizen named Calpurnius, he was kidnapped and spent much of his early life as a slave in Ireland. That he escaped and travelled to Europe where he studied under Monastic orders as the western empire crumbled around him and that he then rose to be consecrated Bishop of Ireland. The Catholic News Agency gives us the following:
When St. Patrick returned to Ireland (after having been appointed Bishop by Pope Celestine) he was able to use his knowledge of Irish culture that he gained during his years of captivity. Using the symbols and traditions of the Celtic people, he explained Christianity in a way that made sense to the Irish and thus was very successful in converting the natives.
The appointment of Patrick was a masterful move by the church hierarchy as he was uniquely qualified with lethal rhetorical weapons. Weapons he aimed at the Druidical establishment and which he used to the benefit of Christianity and detriment of the ancient Celtic order.
About forty miles off the coast of Ulster, where Patrick was busy converting the heathen Celts in the 5th century, is situated the most diminutive of the Celtic nations. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to have visited the Isle of Man will attest to the enchantment of this favoured place nestled in the Irish Sea in the heart of the modern Celtic world. And anyone who has had the further good fortune to have visited Maughold's Head, the eastern most promontory of Man rising above the Irish Sea may not be aware of the connection to Saint Patrick. Named after Saint Maughold, this beguilingly beautiful place is named for the Patron Saint of the Isle of Man. A place of mist and wind that is, through legend and ancient storytelling, inextricably linked to the patron Saint of Ireland. It is St. Patrick himself who converted the heathen Mac Cuill who is known to us as St. Maughold.
Peter Berresford Ellis, in his 1994 work "The Druids", cites ancient manuscripts in the telling of the conversion of St. Maughold, or as he was then known "Mac Cuill". Mac Cuill was a career criminal from Ulster and said to be a murderer and vagabond:
He was converted by Patrick but had to submit to the Brehon law (Ancient Celtic Law) for judgement for his previous life of crime. His crimes must have been serious for he was cast adrift on a sea curragh without food or sail or oats. Mac Cuill after for some time was washed ashore on the "Isle of Man". Upon his arrival on Man he was helped by two Christian missionaries...when they saw Mac Cuill in his curragh, they took him from the sea and received him with a welcome and he learnt the divine rule with them until he took the Bishopric after them.
Thus the criminal Mac Cuill, converted by St. Patrick, condemned under the ancient laws of Ireland, cast into the Sea and saved by Christian monasteries rose to be Bishop of Man and Saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Whether this story is fact or fiction is addressed by Patricia Monagahan in the 2004 "Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore". Monaghan skeptically draws off ancient manuscripts and refers to Mac Cuill as a legendary figure and suggests that the story of Mac Cuill was based on pre Christian myth:
Early Christian legend on the Isle of Man tells of this man (Mac Cuill) who, after being converted by Saint Patrick, was padlocked to a small boat and put out to sea; the key was thrown overboard, where a fish ate it. Maughold was rescued, but the lock could never be opened until, many years later, a fish was caught and served to him and it proved to contain the long lost key. Unlocked at last, he rose to become Bishop of the island. Folkloric motifs in this story, as well as the celebration of Maughold's feast at the old Celtic harvest holiday of Lughnasa, suggest that a Christian legend absorbed an earlier pagan one.
It is interesting to note that Mac Cuill is also the name of an Irish God, described by Monaghan, as a "minor divinity".
Today St. Maughold's name lives on in the place name of Maughold's Head. In the nearby village of St. Maughold you will find "Kirk Maughold". As this is the 21st century, let us end our tale with a quote from Kirk Maughold's facebook page. The past speaks across the millennia and warns that St. Patrick's work is not quite done. Even today, the instinctive wariness of the Celt must be overcome. To entice new congregants, the parish promise ancient belief wrapped in the rhetoric of St. Patrick:
Come and join our active and friendly congregation for a spiritual experience in this ancient and tranquil setting which combines the best of Celtic and Viking tradition within Affirming Catholic practice...