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Celebrating St. Patrick's Day

Erin go bragh! It's St. Patty's Dayon and off the water.
According to the US census, over 42 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, either wholly or in part. Doubtless, some of these people are sailors (and an unspecified number of them may actually be reading this). As these folks celebrate their special day in honor of St. Patrick—in the 9,939 Irish pubs that dot the Hibernian homeland—and the green beer flows in incalculable volumes across the US, we thought today would be a good day to take a wee look at St. Patrick’s Day, along with its namesake and this holiday’s strong ties to the tradition of sailing.

The question first and foremost in the mind of the SailNet reader will no doubt be how sailing and St. Patrick’s Day are related. Well, we might as well tell you right off the bat that we didn’t have a clue either before we considered this project. Nonetheless, that transitory reservation couldn’t keep the Irish sailor in us from having a go at it.

Ireland, as any  person knows, is surrounded by water, which qualifies it as a potential destination for those who cast their fates to the sea (sailors). Here in the US there'll be the customary parades and occasional debauchery in observance of Ireland’s patron saint, while across the Atlantic in Ireland (home of CORK Week, Captain Ernest Shackleton, and several other prominent names in sailing) all businesses—with the exception of restaurants and pubs of course, and probably a few yacht clubs—will be closed. Many Irelanders will pay their respects at mass (and a few may even go sailing).

The inshore scene at Ireland's Ford Cork Weekclasssic surroundings and a competitive fleet.  
So where did St. Patrick come from? The person who became St. Patrick was born in Wales about 385 AD. Depending upon your source, his given name was either Maewyn or Magonus (which would both be pretty cool boat names, if you were Irish, although they might make for a mouthful over the VHF), and he almost didn't get the job of Bishop of Ireland because he lacked the required scholarship. Far from being a saint, until he was 16 he considered himself a pagan (a term readily applied to pirates, who were largely sailors). At that age, he was sold into slavery (which is similar to being held captive in a boatyard) by a group of Irish marauders (that may have come by boat) who raided his village. During his captivity, he became closer to God. (The attuned reader will note that suffering, which is in ample supply in the many small spaces that sailors find themselves when conducting maintenance, eventually leads to a sense of heightened awareness once the mooring lines have been cast off.)

In any event, the legendary saint escaped from slavery after six years and went to Gaul where he studied in a monastery under St. Germain, Bishop of Auxerre for 12 years (a subtle reminder that there’s always an old salt around who can teach you a thing or two about life aboard). During his training he became aware that his calling was to convert the pagans to Christianity. His wish was to return to Ireland to convert the pagans that had overrun the country. (Every sailor eventually goes home). But in a further setback, (which all mariners encounter from time to time), his superiors instead appointed St. Palladius. Two years later, Palladius transferred to Scotland (another island, another unspecified boat). Patrick, having adopted that Christian name earlier, was then appointed as Second Bishop to Ireland.

A classic conveyance such as this one may have gotten St. Patrick around the Emerald Isle.
Patrick was quite successful at winning converts, a fact that upset the Celtic Druids (probably non-sailors). Patrick was arrested several times, but escaped each time (alas, as far as our research indicates, not by boat). He traveled throughout Ireland, establishing monasteries (although there is the remote possibility he thought briefly about setting up sailing schools) across the country. St. Patrick is most known the world over for having driven the snakes from Ireland. Varying tales tell of his standing upon a hill, using a wooden staff (similar to a mast) to drive the serpents into the sea, banishing them forever from the shores of Ireland. He also set up schools and churches that would aid him in his conversion of the Irish country to Christianity. His mission in Ireland lasted for 30 years. After that time, Patrick retired to County Down. He died on March 17 in AD 461. That day has ever since been commemorated as St. Patrick's Day.

So what does any of this have to do with sailing? Well, we’re not entirely sure either, but we have ambitious plans to meditate on that very subject—today as a matter of fact—with a nice frothy pint pressed firmly in our paws. Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the crew at SailNet.

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