who was St. Patrick?

and why is his “day” one big drunk?

I grew up in New England, 2 hours north of Boston, a city I have always thought of as divided equally among Irish, Italians and blue blood brahmans (the old Beacon Hill aristocracy).

Once a year, on the Feast Day of St. Patrick, March 17th, everyone in New England “was Irish.” Not just Boston. All of us. It was like some form of patriotism to wear green on March 17. Boston and New York had parades, and all the restaurants served corned beef and cabbage. Even the Italians.

Fine.

But nothing prepared me for Savannah’s St. Patrick’s celebration — something they call St. Patrick’s “Week” and which, this year, is 5 days.

A five day drunk.

Seriously. That is what it is and all it is. People come from all over the country to get drunk in Savannah during St. Patrick’s Week.

How did this happen and why? Is it just Savannah, or do the Irish everywhere spend the days surrounding St. Patrick’s in a drunken haze? Don’t they eat the corned beef and cabbage anymore? Because that would help!

I’m really not exaggerating this, and it is such a spectacle that the “leaders” of Savannah — and don’t even get me started on that bunch over the years — spend serious time every year discussing how to handle it.

In years past it has grown exponentially, until the virus. Then it was shut down, for two years. This year they needed to bring it back in a big way — BUSINESS & $$$s! — but, like everyone else post-pandemic, they saw the opportunity to “make important changes.”

Let’s back up a little. Savannah is an historic city with a rich heritage all by itself. It is unlike a lot of American cities, like Boston, which grew up randomly around ports and commercial centers and many of which, like Boston, had little prior planning.

Savannah was planned before it was founded, drawn out in a grid by Sir James Ogelthorpe, before he left England. It is centered around a series of parks, laid out in a line parallel to the river. The commercial center is mostly between the parks and the river, along Bay Street and in the market area, especially the end nearest the bridge that crosses the Savannah River.

But these days, and probably always, all the “fun stuff” happens on River Street, below the bluffs (there are 300 year old stairs), along the docks.

There isn’t much commercial shipping out of downtown, any more. The container port is one of the biggest on the east coast; but it is up the river past the bridge. It’s easy to picture the colonial era, though, if only from the historic buildings that remain, and the cobblestones on River Street.

It’s a little reminiscent of old Boston, because of its levels and multi-story brick buildings. More like Charleston, in its laid back southern manner, it’s less gentile. Savannah boosters won’t agree, but Savannah has always been rougher around the edges than Charleston.

But, back to St. Patrick.

What I have been trying to figure out is how a Catholic saint from the 5th century, a man who overcame slavery in Ireland and went back there to promote Christianity among the Druids and others — became the patron saint of drunkenness.

Anyone?

By the way, there is no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that St. Pat did anything with snakes.

Here’s a good summation of his life.

By all accounts, he was a remarkable man for his time, or any other. And by most accounts he is responsible for making Christianity more popular than paganism in Ireland. But there is no record of his being a drunk. And there doesn’t seem to be any history of his encouraging drinking among the Irish. Just saying.

I’m not even sure why there are parades here at all, but since there are, why does the whole thing devolve into a sodden debauchery? At least in Savannah.

Perhaps not in New York and Boston, though I wonder why it wouldn’t be the same. Even Charleston news this morning cautioned against drinking and driving on St. Patrick’s Day. So…..

It gets so bad in Savannah, that for the last 7 years that we have watched (from 45 minutes up the road, thankfully, across the bridge and in the next state LOL), every year is a discussion of how to mitigate the random problems associated with it. They love the money and they don’t want to kill the golden goose, but it is a huge, amorphous mess.

This year they’ve stopped allowing “outside venders” — only Savannah businesses can set up on the streets to sell food and booze. They’ve also ceased permits for buses to bring groups “from away.” There are shuttles from Richmond Hill and Port Wentworth, and a new ferry service from HHI, but no busloads of wild-eyed tourons from, say, I don’t know, Atlanta? Unless you book a room in Savannah or someplace nearby that offers a shuttle, no green beer for you.

But, the one thing they will never prohibit is carry out cups. It seems to be a big part of the allure. You can drink all over town, right on the street, as long as it is in a carry out cup.

I doubt that contributes to the problems, though. Just saying.

Have I mentioned the green river, green fountains, green industrial smokestacks? (There are undoubtedly T-shirts that say “I survived St. Patrick’s Day Savannah 2022. And if there aren’t, there should be.)

It starts the night before, with something called “Shamrocks and Shenanigans,” so they are not unaware.

Then today is a mass, and the parade. The parade is over 3 hours long. People set up tents and chairs at 5:30 AM. I love parades. To a degree. This one is almost as crazy as carnival parades. The people on the sidelines get looser as the morning progresses, and by noon (which the parade almost always eclipses) there is no more excuse not to drink.

This year they have asked the girls not to run out and kiss the soldiers and sailors in the parade. That has always been a thing here. But, pandemic, you know. And for some unknown reason, the NAVY added Savannah to “Navy Week,” the week of St. Patrick’s !!! I know, right?! So there would be lots of sailors to kiss.

It will be interesting to see how this year’s event stacks up to past bacchanals. We don’t go. The couch crew watches on TV and critiques.

No. 11 (C) Carol Joy Shannon 2014

I’ve always avoided these sorts of things. Even when I was a professional drinker myself. 50,000 sloppy drunks, dressed in green and spewing green is not my idea of a good time. It’s like we used to say about New Year’s Eve: amateur night.

I have the feeling the 2 years of no St. Pat’s Day celebrations in Savannah may bring out the worst, but I’d love to be wrong and find out that St. John’s Cathedral was full for the mass, that no one was arrested, and no one was killed going home.

I bet St. Patrick would pray for it to be like that, too.

Wouldn’t it be fun to be able to ask him what he thinks of all the hooplah?

The World History Encyclopedia says the shamrock association comes from a legend that St. Patrick used the three leafed plant to illustrate the Holy Trinity. There’s no proof but I like the story.

The early saints are fascinating because they were real disciples. The 5th century was within rock-throwing distance of Jesus’ life. He was crucified in 33 A.D., or whatever they call it now. The word was still getting around about who Jesus was, and what His life meant. Don’t think that people weren’t searching for “something bigger than us” in the 400s, just like they are now.

Ireland was probably a lot like Scandinavia and other areas of northern Europe, tribes of agrarians and hunters, seeking patterns from which to find the best way to live. Almost all of them had gods, and most of them were associated with the elements. They used the gods to explain natural phenomena, and to attempt to appease it.

The Christian belief was entirely different. Christianity was much simpler. You admitted to sin, asked forgiveness and tried to live within the parameters of civilized behavior. No physical sacrifice was required (well, except when the priests started charging for stuff, but that, presumably came much later, when there were actually trade systems, and money.)

Nothing in Christianity gets in the way of a good time, by the way. You can practice sex with wild abandon, for example, as long as it is with your legal partner and not just everyone who crosses your path. You can enjoy good food and drink, as much as you can afford, but drunkenness and overindulgence are frowned upon. Those are pretty basic rules.

You can’t steal or murder. But you are not prohibited from protecting yourself and your family from those who would harm you. You can certainly own a gun and early Christians had to be warriors. It seems the ones who ended up in Roman arenas getting eaten by lions were taking the whole “turn the other cheek” thing to the extreme, like a lot of Christians these days.

But other than that, what Christianity brought to early tribal life in the northern hemisphere of Europe was pretty basic common sense, and a savior who had died for your sins, giving the hope for eternal life in heaven.

Of course Jesus, and the priests and monks who spread his story, weren’t as exciting as some of the more primitive gods. But the overall prize was much better. We’ll get in to that another time, but suffice it to say that I do not disparage St. Patrick in the least.

St. Patrick lived his faith and risked his life to share it with the very heathens who had enslaved him as a young man. He helped to create a unified Ireland, at least for awhile. And whether or not there were snakes there before he cursed them doesn’t really matter. He is worth remembering and worth celebrating.

Perhaps just not with green beer.

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