President Trump has declared March “Irish-American Heritage Month.” That is fitting, given how much Americans love to brag about their Irish heritage, whether it’s St. Patrick’s Day or not. Irish-themed bumper stickers, Celtic art tattoos, and Celtic crosses are all ubiquitous paraphernalia of Americans eager to assert pride in their ancestral homeland.
About 33 million Americans, or a little over 10 percent of the population claim Irish ancestry. As with every other March 17th, this means we’re in for the usual seas of green clothing, marketing of Irish-themed bric a brac, grocery sales of corned beef, and, of course, the drinking of Guinness. Yet the American obsession with all things Irish increasingly overlooks the one quality of the Irish people that has enabled that little island in the North Atlantic, comparable in size to the state of Indiana, to have such an outsized influence on the greater world: their Christian faith.
The Irish Preserved Christianity…
We should remember that the Emerald Isle was long a backwater of the European world — the Romans, who called it Hibernia, didn’t even bother to try and conquer it. The island was dominated by small Celtic tribal clans constantly at war with one another. Irish life was, to borrow a line from Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Patrick, a young Roman-British boy living in the crumbling Roman province of Britannia, was himself captured and sold by Irish slave traders. It was only the introduction of Christianity through the ministry of men like St. Patrick that the distant land underwent a true cultural and spiritual revolution.
Beginning in the sixth century, the island was slowly covered in monasteries, which, as Thomas Cahill recounts in his popular book How the Irish Saved Civilization,” became remarkable centers of learning and cultural preservation in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Christians across Europe traveled to Ireland to participate in the burgeoning Irish monastic tradition. Ireland in turn produced scores of missionary saints and scholars who traveled throughout Europe, facilitating scholarly and religious renewal in the courts of England, France, the Germanic lands, and beyond. Irish missionaries founded monasteries throughout western and central Europe, greatly empowering the growth of Christianity across the continent. The number of Irish saints from this period is simply astounding, and demonstrates the scope and depth of their influence.
… and Christianity Preserved the Irish
In the centuries that followed, Ireland suffered numerous invasions — first by Vikings, then Anglo-Normans. The island endured centuries of warfare and oppression at the hands of outsiders, particularly the Anglo-Norman lords who came to dominate the political landscape. During the reign of English king Henry VIII in the 16th century, a policy of English and Scottish settlement was implemented, further marginalizing the native Irish. Henry also of course broke from the Catholic Church in order to found an autonomous Anglican Church, which he also sought to foist upon the Irish people, who fought to retain their Catholic identity. The Protestant Reformation took a more violent turn under the helm of English Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, known as “Butcher Cromwell” by the Irish for his scorched earth policies that aimed to eliminate political and religious dissent on the island.
More religious and political persecution followed, particularly in the north of Ireland, where English monarchs sent Calvinist English and Scottish settlers to expand their hegemony over the Irish people. Sadly, the Irish hadn’t seen the worst of it — the introduction of the potato, a staple indigenous to the Western hemisphere, revolutionized Irish agriculture, allowing families to grow a nutritious crop on their small estates. Irish families grew exponentially, while family plots grew smaller and smaller with each generation (for centuries, Irish Catholics were forbidden to purchase or lease land). By the time of the potato blight in the 1840s, there were more than 8 million people living in Ireland (far more than there are even now!). The blight caused widespread famine, and over one million of the Irish people starved to death or perished of diseases related to malnutrition. Their English overlords did little to stem the crisis. In a ten-year period from 1845 to 1855, 1.5 million Irish immigrated to America.
Through all of these trials, the Irish sought to retain their unique cultural and religious traditions. It was their indelible faith in God that preserved them through these centuries of trials, culminating in the disaster of the potato famine. The Irish brought their deeply-rooted Christian beliefs with them to the United States, having an incalculable impact on the country’s Catholic Church in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. To this day, many of America’s Catholic priests are natives of Ireland, and Irish missionaries continue to do their work across the globe. Moreover, the Republic of Ireland, founded in 1922 after a brutal rebellion, is one of the few modern countries established with an explicit allegiance to God (and even the Holy Trinity and Jesus Christ!). It remains one of the few countries in Europe that largely prohibits abortion. The world has Irish Christians to thank for much of the good found in this world, and the Irish have their indefatigable Christian identity to thank for their outsized cultural influence.
The Banality of Contemporary Irish Pride
Despite this glorious story of faith and courage amidst great suffering and persecution, contemporary Irish-American identity often ignores its Christian heritage. St. Patrick’s Day is an occasion for cheap, ridiculous green paraphernalia, drunkenness, and debauchery. People pride themselves in their Irish heritage, yet the focus is far more on the food, drink, music, and art than it is on the religious devotion that guided their ancestors through a millennia and a half of hardships. When I studied abroad in Dublin as an undergraduate, most of the American students, like me, were of Irish lineage. Few of them came to Ireland to worship God or step foot in a church. Most came to get sh*t-faced drunk in bars all over the Emerald Isle. The Guinness, Harp, Jameson, and Paddy, among others, never stopped flowing.
I admit, Irish alcohol is a glorious, wonderful thing. Yet it too is a gift from God, to be enjoyed in moderation. Moreover, the Irish didn’t convert Europe, preserve Western civilization, or bless American society by existing in a state of perpetual inebriation. Rather, it was Irish prayers, Irish sermons, Irish rosary beads, and calloused Irish hands that built a cultural heritage known across the world. An Irishman separated from his Christian identity is no Irishman at all. Moreover, I suspect our many non-religious St. Patrick’s Day festivities would be practically unintelligible to our devoutly Christian Irish ancestors.
My admiration for my own Irish heritage runs deep. My mother’s ancestors were all Irish Catholic immigrants to America who came to this country during the famine. They ran bars in Brooklyn and farmed the land in Kansas. They had names like Fitzpatrick, McGahey, Collins, and Casey (the source of my own name). I love Gaelic music, Irish soda bread, Celtic art, and, of course, a cold pint of Guinness. I even proposed to my wife on a St. Patrick’s Day weekend following a concert of the legendary traditional Irish music group The Chieftains. Yet the foundation for all of this is my love for the faith of my fathers, that holy faith, of millions of Irish men and women who were true to God until death. That, more than anything else, is an Irish identity worthy of our pride.