Don't Know Much About History

Michael Metzger

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says he won’t march in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade because of its policy of prohibiting gay groups from marching openly. “St. Patrick’s is all about inclusion.” De Blasio doesn’t know much about history.

The story of Patrick has been told in these columns before. It was on this day, March 17, in AD461, that Patrick passed away at Downpatrick, Ireland. He had been abducted from northern Britain by Irish slave raiders around 420. “In his exile,” writes historian Peter Brown, “he turned to the ascetic brand of Christianity to which he had given no thought when as a young man from a clerical family in Britain.”1 Patrick would eventually escape, return to Britain and, after being ordained by the church, head back to Ireland, launching his mission to the Irish. His timing was fortuitous.

The 400s were dark days. The great texts of classical Western civilization had largely been destroyed by the hordes of barbarians that had breached Rome’s borders. For almost a hundred years, the works of Plato, Thucydides and the Bible survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast. As Patrick introduced the gospel to Ireland, and the Irish came to faith, they in turn literally saved civilization.2

The Irish enthusiastically embraced the gospel as well as written language (they previously had none). Over 120,000 Irishmen were eventually baptized as well as at least 300 churches were established. Irish monks became zealous scribes of not only the Scriptures but of other classical texts that were at risk of being lost. Brown writes that by the mid-500s, Christianity had “become the exclusive faith of powerful royal clans.” By AD700, Ireland could be declared to be a Christian country. Irish missionaries then scooped up these sacred texts and set sail to turn the lights back on in Britain and Europe. This is a story that De Blasio seems unfamiliar with.

Patrick’s mission improved health, commerce, and education. It also introduced the Irish to beer. This story is told in Stephen Mansfield’s The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer That Changed the World. In the Christian faith, loving God and neighbor includes promoting good health. Water was generally not good to drink, so St. Arnou said good health came “from man’s sweat and God’s love” and why “beer came into the world.” It’s why St. Brigid, the Irish saint who labored in a leper colony, asked God to turn bathwater into beer so that her lepers could also enjoy the taste of beer.

Patrick kept his personal brewmaster, Mescan, at his side while introducing the gospel to Ireland. This rich history is why, centuries later, after Dublin had declined, that Arthur Guinness, a Christian, founded a brewery in Dublin. In 1759 he signed a lease for the famous property at St. James’s Gate. “What Guinness founded was a venture propelled by faith, yes – but by a kind of faith that inspires men to make their work in this world an offering to God… to serve others for the glory of God,” writes Mansfield. “Accordingly, the Guinness brewery routinely paid wages that were 10 to 20 percent higher than average, had the reputation as the best place to work in Ireland, and… allowed workers two pints a day of their famous dark stout.”3

Guinness founded the first Sunday Schools in Ireland. He founded and chaired the board of a hospital that provided free medical care to the poor and indigent. A Guinness chief medical officer, Dr. John Lumsden, personally visited thousands of Dublin homes in 1900 and used what he learned to help the company fight disease, squalor, and ignorance. These efforts also led to the establishment of the Irish version of the Red Cross.

During WW1, Guinness guaranteed all of its employees who served in uniform that their jobs would be waiting for them when they came home. They also continued to pay half salaries to the family of each man who served. In the 1920’s a Guinness worker enjoyed full medical and dental care, reading rooms, subsidized meals, a company-funded pension, subsidies for funeral expenses, and educational benefits.

From what I understand about Mayor De Blasio, he seems to promote many of the things that Patrick – and later, Guinness – did in Ireland. That’s why it’s a shame to see him politicize the parade. Patrick wasn’t “all about inclusion.” He was all about promoting the well-being of all. Whether you agree or disagree with who is and is not allowed to carry banners, let’s at least get Patrick’s history right.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Malden: Blackwell, 1996), p. 82.
2 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall or Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Doubleday, 1995)
3 Stephen Mansfield, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer That Changed the World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), xix.


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  1. Interesting. Really depends on whose story is being paraded
    That of
    Celtic Christianity
    Roman Catholicism
    The Irish protestant experience rooted in the pilgrim fathers
    The Irish Nation
    The Irish experience
    Or ST Patrick himself

    Connections and disconnections with varying perceptions.
    The disconnect you highlight is not new

    The danger is when one focus and its story is being parade, it is often open to interpretation.

    By the way St Patrick was apparently known to use the shamrock as a lesson in the Trinity.
    My understanding that Skellig enclave was a Celtic Christianity line, whereas Patrick’s father was from the Roman church line. I am sure the family tree have enjoyed discussing the Synod at Whitby.

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