St. Patrick’s Day is nearly upon us. Its approach recalls for me something that happened last year in Dublin involving the patron saint and the poster for a cabaret night.
But first some context. The St. Patrick’s Festival of 2022 lasted four days and was billed as a global celebration of Irish arts, culture, and heritage. A “Festival Quarter” was established in the historic Collins Barracks. The official website for the celebration promised that the grounds would be transformed into “a magical day-to-night urban Festival for all, in the heart of Dublin.” The principal funder was the government of Ireland: The department of tourism and culture alone contributed over €900,000 (i.e., close to a million dollars).
“Festival Quarter Nights” consisted of activities specifically for over-18s. One evening there was an event called “Paradise Cabaret”: “Comedy, Circus, Music, Weirdos and Queerdos.” It was time, the festival organizers declared, “to embrace the cultural revolution of colour, carnival and chaos.” It was all going to be “savage craic”—that is, tremendous fun, roughly speaking.
The poster for Paradise Cabaret was striking, fusing motifs from psychedelia, eastern religion, sci-fi, and circus. Deep but luminous tones pulsed against a background the color of night. There was also a conventional pious image of St. Patrick’s head, of the kind typically found on prayer cards. He was haloed and mitred, and his bearded face wore a solemn, careworn expression.
In each corner of the poster, this head of St. Patrick was attached to a young female body. He/she was dressed in a short skirt or frilly nightgown, garter belt, stockings, and high heels. He/she was also arranged in a variety of sexy postures: bra and breasts on show and thrust upward, skirt hitched up at the back with buttocks thrust out, or astride a pillar and holding a devil’s fork. The poster presented the patron saint of Ireland reinvented as a female stripper or a drag queen, or some fusion of the two.
The rest of the poster was populated by snakes or snake-like figures. (A stylized snake was the emblem of the whole festival.) Clearly, serpents had now returned to Ireland following their banishment by Patrick many centuries ago, and they were in the mood to party. The saint, their former nemesis, has been dragged into playing along.
Why did the organizers choose to mock so egregiously the person whom the festival is named after and whom—nominally, at least—it exists to honor? Why did the government of Ireland (led by Fianna Fáil, which was once Ireland’s most socially conservative party) choose to fund the mockery? What exactly was the point of depicting Patrick in this way? (Visitors to the St. Patrick’s Festival website learned nothing whatsoever about the man himself. The site contained not a word on who he was, what he did, or why he is important.)
Perhaps the poster was designed to cause offense and stir up controversy. My guess, though, is that many Irish people, if shown the poster, wouldn’t have been especially offended (even if, subconsciously, some of them might have been glad that their late grandmother wasn’t around to see it). Others might not even have noticed the St. Patrick figures, and just absorbed the psychedelic vibes. To the best of my knowledge, the poster did not generate an ounce of controversy.
Was the motivation commercial? Would the sight of Patrick the Stripper tempt more floating punters to shell out? Maybe there were some people who would have been titillated by a new assault on traditional piety and a new taunting of the Catholic remnant in the population. Perhaps these things might have helped in persuading some to shell out for a night at the Paradise Cabaret.
It’s hard to know for sure. In truth, the poster was unremarkable, just another part of the “savage craic” suffusing the festival and the country. The Catholic faith is of no interest or use to official Ireland—except for when there’s a need to emphasize how far the country has come, or why it mustn’t go back.
St. Patrick’s Day, then, is a new kind of “Ireland Day,” really, and the celebrations reflect the spirit of the times. As Patrick Deneen has observed of the modern West, the “only forms of shared ‘cultural liturgy’ that remain are celebrations of the liberal state and the liberal market.” Fr. Brendan Kilcoyne, in one of his barnstorming YouTube videos—entitled “Abolish St. Patrick’s Day!”—asks secular Ireland (which is to say, Ireland), “What do you need our saint for? You give us back our saint, ok? We’re losing everything else. Give us our saint and leave him alone.” The name isn't going anywhere, though: “St. Patrick’s Day” (and its slang adjunct “Paddy’s Day”) is a global mega-brand, too lucrative to drop, and the springboard for all kinds of hilarious costumery.
People hold differing views about whether, or to what degree, the banishment of the Church from Irish life is justified. But all might agree that a very interesting psycho-social experiment is now underway. What happens when, almost overnight, a society flips to trashing and trampling on its bedrock belief system? The beliefs that previous generations treasured and that sustained them through enormous hardships, that inspired the founders of the nation and consoled them in their trials, that provided the people with a collective moral compass and the soil for their culture?
There is not space to try and answer these questions here. But there is no reason to rush. The questions are not going away. And the snake is back as the emblem of St. Patrick’s Festival 2023.
John Duggan writes from Surrey, England.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.