2009 Essay Winner
2009 Winning Essay
St. Patrick’s Day: Symbol of Freedom and Hope
South Forsyth High School
“The truth shall set you free” is a common adage that evokes memories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Although these are both names that deserve immense gratitude for their contributions to freedom, there is one other name that deserves to be on that list: St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland whose holiday is celebrated on March 17th throughout the world by people who usually have little understanding of all that he stood for and accomplished.
As a teenager Patrick was captured by Irish raiders and taken into slavery. In despair over his slavery, Patrick turned to intense prayer as a means of achieving tranquility. Six years later he escaped his captors. Although his days as a slave had ended, the suffering of Patrick left him with a desire to end the practice of slavery and to spread the truths of his religious faith. These convictions were so deep that he voluntarily returned years later to share his convictions with the Irish. Despite the fact that his letters express a concern for the victims of slavery, it is also likely that Patrick worked directly with the leaders of the slave trade so as to persuade them of the evils of their awful practice.
St. Patrick’s heroic story continues to resonate down through the ages over fifteen centuries after his death. In particular, St. Patrick’s battle to overcome slavery, oppression, and severe personal hardship serves as a moral lesson not only for the Irish global diaspora of over seventy-five million people but for freedom-loving people everywhere.
St. Patrick’s battle against slavery also serves as a necessary reminder of how much the Irish have overcome on the way to achieving political freedom and, with that, their own cultural identity. For instance, after the bloody Elizabethan Plantations of the early 17th century, a Catholic Confederation was formed to defend the Irish people against further exploitation. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland, defeated the Catholic Confederation, and put Ireland under a brutal occupation. The English Parliament was eager for a conquest of Ireland for three reasons: first many parliamentarians wished to punish the Irish for the massacre of English colonists in the rebellion of 1641; second, Cromwell’s puritan army considered all Roman Catholics to be heretics; and third, members of Parliament raised money to conquer Ireland with the understanding that they would be repaid with land confiscated from the rebels. Determined to firmly establish the conquest of Ireland, the army of Cromwell began a reign of terror that lasted over a decade. From 1641 to 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English and 300,000 were forced to live as near slaves within their own country. Eventually Cromwell’s army completed the British colonization of Ireland. Far from compromising their Irish heritage, however, the bitterness left by the Cromwellian invasion inspired a strong sense of Irish nationalism that endured for another three hundred years. Irish perseverance during the British occupation of Ireland served as a ringing declaration of fortitude in the face of suffering that would have destroyed the spirit of a lesser people.
The same fortitude and cultural cohesion also sustained the Irish during the massive emigration from their homeland that took place following the Great Irish Famine. In the mid-1840s, the potato crop that the Irish depended on as their main source of food was attacked by a terrible fungus. Two million people dependent on the crop were swept away by disease and hunger. Another two million destitute Irishmen fled the barren landscape of Ireland for the land of freedom, America. Although they came for a life of abundance, they lived in squalor. As competitors for jobs, the Irish were hated by the existing American workers. “No Irish Need Apply” was a sign that was so common it was often abbreviated to NINA. Due to the fact that jobs outside of construction were hard to find, these impoverished Gaels were forced to reside in the crowded immigrant ghettos of the northeast. Mortality rates were astoundingly high. If the agrarian roots of the Irish scarcely equipped them for economic survival in American cities, their cultural heritage instilled in them a stubborn resistance to their new foes. Hated by the Nativist Americans, the Irish relied on solidarity to help themselves survive. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a nationalist society formed in Ireland, served in America by helping the downtrodden Irish to maintain a sense of their own pride and dignity. For Irishmen in nineteenth century America, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day was not just a way to escape the horrors of their existence in the New World, but a means of holding on to who and what they really were. In fact, the holiday was celebrated with greater fervor here than in Ireland as Irish immigrants used it to boost their distinctive identity and morale.
In the multicultural times of the twenty-first century, St. Patrick’s Day not only honors the many Irish contributions to America but, in the process, celebrates the glory of American diversity. Those that are not Irish are encouraged to join in the celebration as a reminder of the battle all newcomers to this country have had to fight in ultimately finding their rightful place as Americans. Therefore St. Patrick’s Day belongs not just to the Irish but to the Italians, the English, the African Americans, the Jews, the Arabs, the Hispanics, the Germans, the Chinese and all other immigrants that have fought to win their own place in the sun. St. Patrick’s pursuit of freedom epitomizes a basic American ideal, namely that an outsider, an outcast, and even a one-time vagabond, by working hard and living responsibly, can achieve the American Dream. The true story of St. Patrick therefore carries a particularly important lesson for minority groups who have experienced discrimination and oppression in pursuit of their own versions of that dream.
In first grade, aside from an excuse to pinch your friends when they don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, the holiday inspires in American boys and girls a unique understanding of and pride in the diversity of our nation. The holiday also inspires us through the story of a selfless man who sought to improve the lives of those who had once been his enemies. For all Americans and others who celebrate the holiday throughout the world, St. Patrick’s Day is a continual symbol of the lessons of perseverance, freedom, and hope. In celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, we do nothing less than affirm the core values of our nation – multicultural values that make us proud to be citizens of the United States of America.
Chad Wisinger South Forsyth High School Cumming, Georgia