As you may imagine, given my first name, I have a vested interest in this holiday. Indeed, one set of great grandparents was Irish – Bridget and Patrick Curtin. They arrived in New York in the 1860’s, most likely from County Cork, although my sister, the family genealogist, has yet to find any verification of that. But whether Cork, Galway or Sligo – they were Irish.
My more immediate affinity for St. Patrick’s Day stems from my Catholic school days in Los Angeles when March 17 was a holiday. The public school kids envied us. My mom, probably at wits’ end with kids under foot on what should have been a school day, seized the opportunity to take us on outings every St. Patrick’s Day. The destinations never had anything to do with St. Pat, unless you can discover a link between the Irish saint and the La Brea Tar Pits, the Huntington Library, Knotts Berry Farm, Olvera Street or the Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax. I still have dreams about that Farmer’s Market, although I can’t think why it is so implanted in my psyche, and actually, it did have a link to St. Pat. It was one place where you could buy (and we did) little pots of three-leafed clovers to take home. What else did we buy there over the years? Grass skirts, Hawaiian moo-moos, and a mynah bird named Minnie. The Third and Fairfax Farmer’s Market was a strange and exotic place.
But back to St. Patrick. I shall tell you a story about Patrick that you may not have heard, and that has nothing to do with the Farmer’s Market, but is somewhat exotic nonetheless.
You probably know that Patrick was sent to Ireland in A.D. 431 to be the island’s first bishop and to convert the pagan Celts who lived there. He seems to have had a rough time of it. The Celts were stubborn and wanted him to prove that what he told them about the joys of heaven and the punishments of hell were true.
Lough Derg, Ireland
Patrick, perturbed, set out to pray on the matter, only first there was more pressing work to be done. He went to a lake, Lough Derg, where a massive water serpent lived that swallowed him whole, and it took him two days and nights to cut his way free. The serpent’s body turned to stone, creating two islands in the lake – Saints Island and Station Island. (Sure, and the Irish are great story tellers, are they not?)
St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg
So Patrick went into a cave on one of those islands to ask God to show him how to go about converting the stubborn Celts. God responded by taking him on a nocturnal trip to Heaven and to Hell. I assume that afterwards Patrick was so eloquent about what he’d seen that the pagan Celts must have been convinced. In the years following Patrick’s death, ecclesiastical settlements were established on both islands, and pilgrims flocked to them. By the 12th century Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island had taken precedence because it laid claim to the cave where Patrick had had his visions, and promised similar visions to the penitent and prayerful. To be admitted, pilgrims had to go through many ecclesiastical hoops, not to mention the difficulty of getting to Ireland and Lough Derg in the first place.
Basilica, St. Patrick’s Purgatory
As for Patrick, given the number of stories that have attached to him he is as much myth as real. Did he ever really go to Lough Derg? Possibly. Possibly it was a pagan holy place and Patrick went there to convert it to Christian use like so many of Ireland’s caves, wells and streams. In any case, Patrick’s Purgatory is still on Station Island, although a basilica long ago replaced the cave. You can visit if you like – not as a tourist (no cameras allowed) – but as a pilgrim in search of renewal and peace – two things you are unlikely to find at the Farmer’s Market on Third and Fairfax in L.A.
Source: Mythic Ireland by Michael Dames