This morning I am writing at my kitchen table. I am not wearing a speck of green. My coffee is the deep dark brown that one expects from a cup of Joe. With any luck the Guinness down at my local pub later today will be served up in the same way, minus that sickly hue akin to the colour of someone’s front lawn. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, a day like any other that will pass away at the stroke of midnight. May it come quickly.
St Patrick’s Day has always been one of those annoying observances mostly ignored by sensible Irish people. For the rest, the non-Irish, it’s a chance to assume the mantle of the more sanguine clichés about Irish heritage, from leprechauns to shillelaghs, without worrying too much about its darker side - the trauma of 1916, the Troubles in late century, the current state of Ireland’s rapidly dissipating economy.
But this morning other remembrances cause me to champ a little more tightly at the bit. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded that it was St. Patrick, after all, who in the 3rd century banned all references to Fionn mac Cumhail’s consumption of the salmon of wisdom conferring upon him “the three qualifications of a poet.* Fionn, as Caítlin Mathews tells us, was the original Irish nationalist who in 283 CE “defended the whole of Ireland rather than one tribe.” Get thee behind me, St. Patrick.
Fionn championed another tradition, “The Cracking Open of the Poem”, placing his thumb into his mouth as legend has it and intuiting all he needed to know. Divination and poetry are wedded together. The desire for greater knowledge – about a person or object or who should sit next on the throne – quickly gives way to beauty and drama. As when the unborn child of Fedlimid’s wife cries out from the womb, traumatizing his friends assembled for a party. The ancient druid, Cathbadh, lays a hand on her belly and then explains:
It is a woman who hath given that shriek,
Golden haired, with long tresses, and tall,
For whose love chieftains shall strive…
O Deirdruí! Thou art great cause of ruin;
Though famous, and fair and pale:
Before Fedlimid’s daughter shall part from life,
All Ulster shall wail her deeds.
*The Celtic Tradition by Caitlin Matthews, Element Books Ltd, Shaftsbury, 1989