Saturday, October 1, 2011

All Saints, All the Time...A Hagiography for Everyday of the Year

(This review was originally published in the Irish Voice on November 5, 2001)

By Dylan Foley

The Birthday Book of Saints: Your Powerful Patrons for Every Blessed Day of the Year by Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rodgers ($23.95 / 391 pages / Villard Books)

AS A teenager, I realized that I was never going to be a great Irish
Catholic novelist because I was named after a Welsh pagan deity. I lacked a personal saint's day that could have helped shape my character and fostered my sense of guilt.

Well, that may all change for me and Irish society, with the publication of "The Birthday Book of Saints." Just in time for All Saint's Day (November 1), this book brings a bit of martyrdom into our everyday lives. Written by Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rodgers, two Irish-American writers, the book is an irreverent take on the lives and hagiographies of over 500 saints, from St. Lucy's eyeballs to Matt Talbot's alcoholics. If you don't know much about your personal saint, you can find out about his or her excruciatingly painful road to sainthood, in Technicolor detail.

For Kelly and Rodgers, who are the authors of "How to Be Irish," the 2000 years' worth of saints are ripe for satire. The world of saints is populated by beautiful virgins who pray to be ugly, Ramboesque saints who punch out trees and a lot of people who are holier than thou.

The Irish saints are well represented - there are the famous ones like Patrick and Brendan (who may have been the first Irish immigrant to America without a proper visa). There are also the more obscure ones like Colman, who was hung in Austria, and Ailbhe, who was raised by wolves. Or there is St. Malachy O'More, a 12th-century bishop who prophesized that the last pope would be named Peter and would be the Anti-Christ. Ouch, I bet he was no fun at parties.

We meet the famed St. Dymphna, the daughter of an Irish chieftain. She rejected the advances of her father and was murdered by him. She became the patron saint of incest victims. Then there is Brigid, "the patron of all things lactose, with a miraculous ability to multiply butter." A sixth-century abbess, Brigid often turned her bath water into beer for her visitors. You go sister! Brigid may also have been an example of theCatholic Church co-opting local legends. St. Brigid's feast day as the festival day for a pagan goddess, also named Brigid.

Besides the wit and cynicism of the book, the authors do celebrate certain truly admirable saints. There is Oliver Plunkett, the heroic Irish bishop who built schools and churches during the oppression and slaughter of the Cromwell era. For his labors, he was drawn and quartered in 1681, and it took roughly 300 years for him to be canonized. Then there is the Italian saint Don Bosco, who fed Roman street urchins in the 19th century. And the authors have threatened bodily to anyone who criticizes Joan or Arc.

Along the way, the reader may pick up important bits of saintly trivia - St. Imelda was an 11-year-old Italian girl who expired in holy rapture when she took a flying communion wafer in her mouth. That, however, doesn't explain why so many Irishwomen are named Imelda. Christina the Astonishing is a 13th century Belgian virgin known to be a high-strung levitationist.
It is fitting that she is the patron saint of psychiatrists. Her story may finally explain the weird Nick Cave song about her. Oh, and then there is St. George. The authors detail what "riding St. George" means. I can't go into it here.

In the hagiographies, you can see where politics come into play - ruthless kings kill saints, ruthless kings become saints by donating hefty amounts to Church building societies. Like the brutal stories of the Grimms'Fairytales, the horrific saints' lives tell a lot about the times and how saints evolve.

And how a saint is killed often determines what he or she is the patron saint of - St. Stephen was stoned to death, thus he is the patron saint of stonemasons. St. Lawrence, who was martyred on a grill, is the saint for restaurateurs. During his horrific and euphoric martyrdom, Lawrence allegedly said, "Turn me over. I'm done on this side."

Now, who should you buy The Book of Saints for? Well, it is not for your grandmother, who still goes to vespers and goes up the aisle at St. Patrick's on her knees. But it should be a book you can buy for your aunt, who drinks in funeral parlor bathrooms during wakes and lives in sin with a 50-year-old MTA employee.

But I have a better idea. This book can be used to develop pick-up lines that will floor your prey. Imagine this scene in an Irish bar in Woodsideor on the West Side: "Oh, your name's Regina? D'you know, your saint was beheaded in the second century? If you go to her tomb, you can be cured of ringworm. I'm not joking, she was a good lass. How about giving us a kiss?"

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