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St Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

St Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

Like Ireland itself, St Patrick was both European and British. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17th, these days in ways that the saint himself may have found unusual. Here at the School, Fr Martin Henig—our resident Roman British historian—provides some context to the saint’s life and work.


Quite unlike George, Patron Saint of England (among other places), Patrick—Pádraigwas a Briton, probably born in the latter days of Roman authority in Britain or a decade or two afterwards in the early 5th century: his exact dates are much disputed. In his own Confessio, he tells us that his father Calpornius was a deacon who possessed an estate nearby, and that his grandfather a priest called Potitus. In other words, he came from a family which had been Christian well back into the 4th century, in the early years of the rise of Christianity’s political influence.

The place of Patrick’s origin, like his dates, is uncertain: the Confessio mentions a town or settlement called Bannavem Taberniae, but scholars are almost unanimously agreed that the manuscript tradition is corrupt—largely on the basis that it is ungrammatical Latin—and the name was most probably Bannaventa Berniae: in any case, the location of this town is now unknown. Muirchú’s 7th century Life of St Patrick mentions that it was near the sea, which is probable as Patrick’s home was raided by Irish pirates when he was sixteen, and taken as a slave. This incident also makes it likely that it was on the West coast. Quite a few candidates have been proposed, including Strathclyde in Scotland, Somerset in England, and Monmouthshire in Wales. The latter seems to me most likely—perhaps near Caerwent (Venta Silurum)—as it was a region fairly rich in villas and very close to the Severn Sea: this comports with his father owning an estate, which was raided by pirates. Furthermore, the area had a history of Christianity, if indeed Julius and Aaron—the only attested martyrs of Roman Britain apart from Alban—suffered at nearby Caerleon in the Great Persecution (late 3rd, early 4th century) as tradition has it.

Statue of St Patrick, Co. Mayo. Photo: Andreas F. Borchert | WikiCommons

Statue of St Patrick, Co. Mayo. Photo: Andreas F. Borchert | WikiCommons

 The next stage of his life began with his abduction from the family estate. Raiding from Ireland on the western coasts of Britain was endemic as early as the 4th century as is suggested by the construction of late Roman coastal forts at Cardiff, Caerleon and Holyhead.  At the same time there appear to have been trading and diplomatic contacts across the Irish sea as attested by 5th century deposits of silver bullion, coins and silver plate cut up into portions of exact weight from Balline (Co. Limerick) and Coleraine (Co. Londonderry) as well as other finds. It was during his time as a slave that his gradual conversion occurred: though from a family of Christians, Patrick describes his younger self as unbelieving. Six years later, he was prompted by a dream to escape, which he did, making his way two hundred miles across Ireland and taking ship across to Britain—or according to Muirchú, to Auxerre in Gaul—where he became a protégé of Germanus, who may have secured his return to Ireland. He also seems to have spent some time in Britain before being sent back to the Irish as a bishop, apparently by a synod of British bishops to convert the Irish, though there was opposition from some quarters to converting the barbarians.

Although later traditions would associate him with Armagh in the north-east, Patrick’s later activities seem to have been centred in the north of Ireland, probably in the north-west in the region of Killala (Co. Mayo). Patrick himself mentions silva Vocluti “near the western sea”, later known as the wood of Focluth. Patrick’s may be the best known, but it was neither the only mission to Ireland nor necessarily the first. Palladius too had been sent from Rome; his activities seem to have centred further south in Ireland. The chronology of their missions is by no means established and Palladius may have preceded Patrick: Bede certainly seems to have thought so. However it is clear that Patrick’s mission was particularly successful, winning over and converting kings and their followers including the it seems ruler of Ulster with its ancient centre at Emain Machae (Navan fort) near later Armagh. Over time Patrick seems to have been seen as the dominant figure of the conversion of Ireland, and deserving to be seen as its patron saint.

Patrick’s two surviving literary works are  a tribute to his education and scholarship, much of it imbibed from Romano-British schoolmasters at an early age. The earlier is his Epistola ad Coroticum addressed to a British king, Coroticus or Caradog, probably ruling in what is now south-west Scotland, admonishing him for his sins, which included raiding in Ireland (raiding went in two directions) and carrying off baptised Christian converts, and then selling them as slaves to the Picts and the Scotti , that is to pagan Irish settled in Britain. It is a sharp rebuke. As a pastoral letter it is to a degree modelled on the Pauline epistles.Patrick’s Confessio, probably written in his old age is a longer and far more subtle work, evidently showing an acquaintance with Augustine’s Confessions as well as a solid command of scripture. Apparently written in a simple Latin, it is in fact remarkably subtle in its language and structure, and a very important work of devotional literature.

Patrick’s gentle work of conversion bore fruit on both sides of the Irish sea. For the Irish, the conversion of  Hibernia more or less complete by the middle of the 6th century ushered in a golden age of both spirituality and art. Irish missionaries spread the faith across the sea, and from Iona brought or re-invigorated the Church in Britain and helped to convert pagan Britons and Anglo-Saxon settlers, especially in Northumbria, as well as taking their missionary activity to Continental Europe. And that faith was manifested in manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospels and in ecclesiastical plate, for example the Armagh Chalice, all in a style a later commentator would describe as “the work of angels”. Irish-British (so called ‘Celtic’) traditions would meld relatively easily with those brought directly from Rome  by the Augustinian mission (the differences were,  in truth, though deeply held, superficial) to flow into insular traditions of spirituality and art.

At the same time—perhaps especially in our current political climate—we should never forget that the patron saint of Ireland—like Ireland itself—was both European and British, a Roman citizen from this side of the Irish sea; whose first language would probably have been Brythonic, Welsh but wrote well in Latin. He is the first Roman Briton who speaks to us in our own terms. We do not know when Patrick died but everyone who lives in the British Isles—and indeed in Europe—has every reason celebrate his memory each year on 17th March,


Further Reading

de Paor, M. B. (1998). Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland. William Morrow.

Thomas, C. (1981). Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500. University of California.

 

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