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Why I Honor Saint Patrick

Posted by John McDonough  March 17, 2012 06:00 PM

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In honor of this day, I offer a non-health post:

For most of my life, St. Patrick's Day was an eye-rolling, shoulder-shrugging event. Silly leprechauns, gaudy fluorescent shamrocks, bars bulging with beer-drenched braggadocios, plus fingernail scratching renditions of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" -- all reasons to race for the door.

StPatrick.jpgIt wasn't until mid-adulthood, and thanks to Thomas Cahill's little book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, that I learned a different side to the story. Patrick is a figure for the ages -- an energetic voice in early human history to speak out in opposition to human slavery.


See, around the year 401 AD, a 16-year-old middle-class and Romanized Briton boy named Patricius was kidnapped by an Irish war party from his home on the southwestern coast of Britain, taken to Northeastern Ireland and sold into slavery. For six years, Patrick, "chastened exceedingly and humbled in truth by hunger and nakedness and that daily," was the shepherd-slave of local warlord named Miliucc.

On his final night as a slave, a voice in a dream told him that a ship was ready to take him home. He found that ship after a 200-mile walk to the southeastern Irish city of Wexford, convincing a skeptical captain to take him aboard. He reunited with his family after years of wandering, and then pursued ordination as a priest after visions and dreams urged him "walk among" the Irish once more.

Some 25 years after his escape, he returned to the Irish as their Catholic bishop. Slavery and violence had not gone out of style during his absence. He wrote: " is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most -- and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure." Yet, Cahill writes:

"Within his lifetime, or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and inter tribal warfare decreased."

Or so goes the story as Patrick wrote it in his Confession. While there is little doubt of his work as a Bishop nor of his 1600 years of impact on Ireland, his early life is still wrapped in controversy and disagreement even today.

As the reporter concludes in the classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

So let's not sweat the details, shall we? Here's a proposal: let's change the meaning of St. Patrick's Day to become a new International Anti-Slavery Day. I know the anti-slavery Brits have been naming their own anti-slavery day in mid-October, but who says there can't be more than one?

Human slavery is very real in our time, involving millions of human beings around the globe who are forced into servitude. Saint Patrick is an anti-slavery role model for the ages. There are worse things to do than honor the legacy of this man in this way.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

[NOTE: Thanks to readers who pointed out contradictions in Cahill's narrative, now corrected here.  In the future, I will stick to health policy and do my best to avoid ancient history.]

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

John E. McDonough is a professor of practice at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is the author of the book “Inside National Health Reform”, published in 2011 by More »


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