I come from pagan people, but today being St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll say this to you: “May the road rise to meet you/ May the wind be always at your back/ May the sun shine warm upon your face/ The rains fall soft upon your fields/ And until we meet again/ May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
It is the blessing often used on this day, although it is highly unlikely that Patrick himself uttered such words. The tales spun about the man are as crazy as some of the activities that will unfold today. And today’s epistle in this space is devoted to matters Irish, the mad and comical.
Patrick, Pagans and Party Animals (Vision TV, 10 p.m.) is an excellent, highly informative and often fun documentary about St. Patrick. It’s about the legends and the truth, as best the latter can be extrapolated from what we know.
It opens with the obligatory footage of green beer being poured. Then it’s into the legend, though it dwells somewhat on what it calls the “global desire to be Irish” on this one day of the year. The bare bones of the legend involve the belief that, 1,600 or so years ago, Patrick brought religion to Ireland and he was a fabulous man, a fella with such magical or mystic powers that he drove the snakes from the island.
He didn’t, though. Not possible, we’re told.
A parade of academics, historians and folklorists appear in the program and tell us how far-fetched the legends are. The truth, as much as can be determined, is that he was British, kidnapped and brought to Ireland to take care of animals. Lonely and desperate, he had visions. Then, it appears, he escaped Ireland, became ordained in the Christian church and legged it back to Ireland to establish Christianity there. At that task he was very talented. He was charismatic, forceful, a natural leader and good at persuading the pagans to convert.
However, we’re also told that the mythological Patrick has taken over completely – his saintliness is forgotten. How this happened is fascinating. Monks who later told his story turned him into a superhero, a man of extraordinary powers. This was myth-making on an epic scale. There are lessons here about the shaping of image and establishment of personality traits that endear leaders to their followers.
The program spends some time on the shaping of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as we know them now – the partying and tomfoolery that has, in truth, a melancholy aspect beneath the surface, rooted in the need of the Irish diaspora to dispel loneliness and gloom.
This brings us “by a commodius vicus of recirculation,” as Joyce put it in Finnegans Wake, to the peculiarities of Irish comedy.
Moone Boy (Bite TV, Fridays, 10 p.m.) is as Irish as all get-out, which means it rather beggars description. Let’s say it’s surreal and warm, and take note that it’s the winner of an International Emmy for Best Comedy.
The creation of actor Chris O’Dowd with writer Nick Vincent Murphy, it features O’Dowd as Sean, the imaginary friend of 12-year-old Martin Moone (David Rawle), a young fella living in the dreary town of Boyle. Thanks to the near-constant presence of this wisecracking, imaginary friend, Martin has a droll attitude to family, friends and school. Wacky things happen. Sometimes the screen is filled with childish drawings. Very much in the tradition of Father Ted, it is simultaneously childish and cheekily subversive.
Mrs. Brown’s Boys (returns to Showcase March 24, 10 p.m.) is another Irish production that defies definition. Made for the BBC and Irish public broadcaster RTE, it is essentially this: Irish actor Brendan O’Carroll, the creator, puts on a dress and a wig and plays Agnes Brown, a loud, swearing, annoying matriarch who has a fruit stall in a Dublin market. Sarcastic and scornful of everyone but her hopeless brood, she talks mile-a-minute nonsense and engages in pranks. This, you should know, is a hit of phenomenal proportions in the U.K. and Ireland. Although the series initially met with disdain in the press, it has since become something to study and puzzle over.
Part of its appeal is the fact that the viewer is always aware that this is a TV show – you get to see the studio audience, and the larks that unfold are self-consciously over-the-top. Somehow it works.
What unites Moone Boy and Mrs. Brown’s Boys are tone and attitude – the heathen delight in rough humour. And it’s a pagan wantonness that is at the core of both. Never mind St. Patrick’s saintliness. It’s the pagan in the Irish that still makes us mad, and blessed.
Enjoy the day, and these shows.