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A Saint Patrick's Day Lesson

Today is the Feast of Saint Patrick, the day the Irish dedicate to their foremost patron saint, Patrick. Among other things, he was credited with driving snakes out of Ireland. While the country’s paucity of reptiles like snakes are probably related to climate, it is also said that Saint Patrick helped drive pagan religions out of Ireland: no mean feat in 5th century Britain. He was a missionary who worked hard to convert the Irish, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons to Christianity at a time and place where Christ was considered an enemy, not a savior.

I’m Scottish, not Irish, but I grew up next door to a large Irish Catholic family and considered Saint Patrick a friend if not my leader. Decades later, in fact, a week ago - while making a Saint Patrick’s Day greeting card for a friend, I began to think about my own Celtic heritage, and the history of MacMillans.

One of the reasons I kept the surname McMillan (an alternate spelling of MacMillan) when I married was because I was proud to be a McMillan. Keeping my own surname is not as odd as it may sound. There is more patrilineal/matrilineal variation in the world’s naming than you might think. In some cultures, children do not take their father’s family name at all, or they use it as a name secondary to their mother’s. In the Anglo and Celtic traditions children take their father’s name – or in the case of Scottish clans, their clan’s name. A clan is like a tribe: a collection of families descending from one ancestor. In the Bible, the "twelve tribes" of the Hebrews were the twelve collections of families that sprang from the sons of Jacob. Even in modern times, tribes exist all over the world, so it’s not accurate to call tribes or clans an old-fashioned custom. Family collections are important to the survival and integrity of indigenous peoples whether they live in South America, North America, Africa, Asia…well, anywhere.

In my view, caring about your family and its origins is supported by the Biblical commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. There is much to be learned from your family, be it religious, cultural, societal, political, educational, though family pride that scorns people and traditions outside one’s own family is never a good thing. I speak from experience because my paternal grandmother bequeathed me with outsized pride, and from my father I inherited a quick temper: a tricky combination.

Having justified or at least explained (I hope) my pride in my lineage, and before you fall asleep, I’ll move on. My father, Edward McMillan, was fascinated by genealogy, and I was privileged (so he claimed) to be entrusted with typing up the notes he scribbled while studying our ancestry. I freely admit that a lot of it, like the Biblical begats in the book of Genesis, however important, made my eyes cross, but some of it made my eyes sparkle. Learning that I was descended (down a very, very long ancestral trail) from King MacBeth, a fellow so grievously vilified by Shakespeare in the 17th century play The Tragedy of MacBeth, inspired me to write an English literature term paper vindicating MacBeth, much to my teacher’s astonishment. Really, who would expect such a thing from a short, stumpy 15 year-old girl wearing braces on her teeth and white patent leather go-go boots on her feet? My father offered to defend my position while my mother advised him to let me fight my own battles. I did receive a passing grade if not much praise for that paper.

Unsurprisingly, my father was founder of the Clan MacMillan Society of North America, and as I’ve written before, long ago I lived with and worked in Scotland for the Chief of the Clan MacMillan. Our clan is proud (there’s that word again) of our crest, pictured here:

MacMillan Crest

A crest is sort of visual trademark (like a logo or icon, in today’s terms). In Medieval battles, you knew who you were fighting by the crest that decorated other soldiers’ shields.  

Scholars of MacMillan ancestry and heraldry can (and will, like it or not) debate the meaning of our crest for hours (…zzzzzz…), but the short version is this. The Clan’s motto is MISERIS SUCCERRERE DISCO, or “I learn to succour the unfortunate” and the double-handed sword at the top represents the Clan’s willingness to do battle in order to defend and fulfill this motto. It derives from the Aeneid, an epic poem penned by the ancient Latin poet Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, which prefaces the motto with, “Not being myself unacquainted with difficulty, I learn to succour the distressed.” 

In other words, MacMillans are saying: "We have been there, done that, and we wield our swords in order to help and protect you who are suffering as we have." To my mind, that motto is a clear marching order for this particular McMillan, in this particular world, which is so full of unfortunate and distressed people. I’ll admit that I don’t think of my family crest or motto on a regular basis, but I do believe my family’s motto is an important one, and I do swear loyalty to it.

To succour the unfortunate. It may not be your own family’s motto, but do you think it’s a worthwhile one, one that you can, and will, follow? Does it speak to you, even if you’re not a MacMillan? Perhaps you’re a Jones, Kwasnik, Giancola, Chung, Lee, Bonkole, Santos, Schmidt, Swenson…well, you get the idea. We are a big and stupendously varied world, but we are all God’s people, no matter what our surnames or other affiliations.

To succour the unfortunate. To run to the aid of the needy, hurt, distressed. To help, guide, and comfort them. You don’t have to be their hero, just their helper. You don’t need shining armor or a crest emblazoned with your family’s crest. To borrow from the The Beatles, all you need is love.

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