1902 Encyclopedia > St. Patrick

St Patrick
Christian missionary and patron saint of Ireland
(c. 390 – 460)

ST. PATRICK. In one of the incursions of the Scots and Picts upon the neighbouring Roman province south of the wall of Severus, probably that of 411 A.D., the year after Honorius had refused aid to the Britons, a youth of about fifteen was carried off with many others from the district in the neighbourhood of the wall at the head of the Solway, and sold as a slave on the opposite coast of Ireland in the territory of the Irish Picts called Dal Araide. This youth was the future apostle of the Irish. As his name implies, he was of noble birth, and he tells us so himself. He was the son of the deacon Calpurnius, who was the son of Potitus, a priest. His father was a decurio or magistrate, and, as Patrick according to tradi-tion was born at Nemthur, he must have exercised his functions of magistrate at that place, but on the withdrawal of the Roman garrisons from Britain probably retired for safety south of the wall of Severus, where, as Patrick tells us, he had a small country place (villula) near the town (vicus) of Bannavem Tabernias, whence Patrick was carried off. The country along the south of the wall, especially near the Solway, was a region of camps or military posts to which the designation Tabernia would be appropriate. Bannavem seems to be a Romanized form of a British name signifying "river foot," and most probably was the Banna of the Chorography of Ravenas, and of the inscription on an altar said to have been found at Birdoswald (the Romano-British Amboglanna), and now at Lanercost Priory. The name also occurs on the well-known bronze cup found about two hundred years ago at Rudge in Wiltshire, which dates from about 350. Banna must have been near Petriana, the former being probably the vicus or town, and the latter the military station proper. Towards the end of the 4th century, before the withdrawal of the Roman garrisons, there were along the wall 10,300 foot and 1500 horse according to the Notitia Imperii, so that Bannavem Tabernia?, or Bannavem of the military posts or encampments, was descriptive of the district, and the office of decurio in such a place one of considerable dignity.

The youth Succat or Patrick remained in hard slavery for six years, tending cattle, probably on Slemish Mountain in the county Antrim. He seems to have been of an enthusiastic temperament, and much given to prayer and meditation. Learning of a means of escape, it so filled his mind as to give rise to visions. The bays and creeks of the west and north-west of Ireland, especially Killala Bay, were much frequented in ancient times, for they afforded secure retreats to sea-rovers when they crept round the coast of Ireland and swooped down on that of Roman Britain. Ptolemy's town of Nagnata was probably on the bay just named; it is celebrated in the stories of Fomorians, Norsemen, and other sea-rovers. The kindred of the Ard Ri or paramount king of Ireland of the time, Dathi or rather Athi, one of the greatest leaders among the invading Scots, dwelt there; it was consequently a place which offered facilities for going to Britain, and from that place most probably Patrick succeeded in escaping. After his escape he appears to have conceived the noble idea of devoting himself to the conversion of the Irish, and to have gone somewhere for a few years to prepare himself for the priesthood. His biographers take him to Tours to St Martin, who was then dead several years, afterwards to the island of Lerins in the Mediterranean, and lastly to Rome, where he received a mission from Pope Celestine. For all this there is no evidence whatever, the whole story being the result of the confusion of Palladius with the real Patrick. The tradition of some connexion between the Irish apostle and St Martin of Tours, the monastic type of the earliest Irish Church, the doubts as to Patrick's fitness for the work which led to his writing his Confession, and indeed all the difficulties that beset the question of the origin of the Irish Church, receive a simple and satisfactory explanation upon the hypothesis of Patrick having pre-pared himself for the priesthood at Candida Casa, the monastic institution founded by St NINIAN (q.v.).

Patrick tells us that after a few years (i.e., after his escape) he was among the Britons with his kindred, who received him as a son. He was evidently bent upon his mission, for they besought him after such tribulations not to part from them again. Full of it, he dreams that a man whose name was Victorious came to him bearing innumerable epistles, one of which he received and read; the beginning of it contained the words, " The voice of the Irish"; whilst repeating these words he says, "I imagined that I heard in my mind (in mente) the voice of those who were near the wood of Pochlad, which is near the western sea, and thus they cried: We pray thee, holy youth, to come and henceforward walk amongst us," The wood here referred to, which was in the neighbourhood of Killala Bay, was most probably the place where he remained concealed when waiting for a boat to make his escape from slavery. This dream was followed by others, wrhich shows how completely his mission occupied his mind. Patrick was about twenty-two years of age when he escaped from slavery, and, if we allow seven or eight years for the " few years'" preparation, he probably was not more than thirty years of age when he entered on his mission about 425. There is a passage in his Confession which shows that he was still a young man when he commenced his work : " You know and God knows how I have lived among you from my youth up." Probus, the author of the fifth life published by Colgan, who has many claims upon our confidence, supports this view that Patrick began his mission while still a priest. We see in Patrick's own authentic acts that he must have sought among his friends in Britain to be made a bishop, for he complains in his Confession that a friend to whom he had communicated some fault he had committed when about fifteen years old had urged this thirty years after as a reason against his being consecrated to the higher office. This proves that he was only about forty-five years old when made bishop. If we assume that 411 was the year he was carried off as a slave, his consecration as bishop would fall in about 441, the fifteenth year of his mission, a date which corresponds with the results of Dr Todd's speculations based on a close analysis of all available chronological data. Compare in general on the conversion of Ireland what has been said in vol. xiii. p. 247 sq.

The date of St Patrick's death is as uncertain as that of every other event connected with him. The Annals of the Four Masters give 493, with which Ussher agrees; Tirechan's Annotations, on the other hand, state that Loegaire, son of Niall, king of Ireland, lived from two to five years after St Patrick. According to this account the death of St Patrick took place in 469, and that of Loegaire in 471 or 474, after a reign of thirty-six years, so that Loegaire's reign began either in 435 or 438. The Annals of the Four Masters record the death in 457 of Senn Patraicc, or Old Patrick, and of Loegaire in the following year, 458. The Patrick who died in 493 is a fiction due to the fusion of the acts of the two real Patricks, Palladius Patrick and Senn Patraicc, doubtless so called because he was the Patrick known as a priest before the arrival of the Boman bishop. Assuming Tirechan's statement as correct, and that St Patrick died in 469, his mission as priest and bishop lasted about forty-four years.

The materials for a life of the apostle of Ireland are very scanty; they consist indeed of only two Latin pieces—one the so-called Confession and the other an Epistle about a certain Coroticus. Some persons, apparently in Britain or Gaul, seem to have accused Patrick of presumption in having undertaken so great a work as the Christianizing of Ireland, and of incapacity for the task; the Confession is a defence of himself against these charges, and is a kind of autobiographical sketch. The Epistle is a denunciation of a British chief called Coroticus, supposed to be Caredig or Ceredig, son of Cynedda, conqueror of North Wales, who had ravaged the coast of Ireland, killed a number of Christian neophytes on the very day of their baptism wdiile still clad in white garments, carried off others into slavery, and scoffed at a deputation of clergy Patrick had sent to ask their release. There is a copy of the Confession in the MS. called the " Book of Armagh," written about the year 807, and apparently made from Patrick's autograph, which the scribe several times complains of being then obscure. There are copies in other MSS. which contain nearly as much additional matter not in the " Book of Armagh " as would, if put together, be nearly equal to the text of the MS. just named. Are these additions part of the original work of Patrick omitted by the scribe because they were illegible, or for some other reason, or are they interpolations ? Judging by many examples in other Irish MSS., the former appears to be the better interpretation, for they are written in the same rude and archaic style, exhibit the same peculiarity of grammatical construction somewhat like Irish, and are not inconsistent with the rest. He modestly tells us himself that he is unlearned (indoctus) and very rustic (rusticissimus). The Epistle is not in the "Book of Armagh," but both pieces possess all the characteristics of the time and place, and may be regarded as genuine documents, and have been so regarded by nearly all scholars who have written on the subject.

There are also several old lives of the saint, seven of which have been published by Colgan in his ______, the last of which, known as the Tripartite life, is the most copious. These lives are based upon the two genuine documents above mentioned, and are a tissue of legends and miracles, and, though no doubt containing a few genuine traditions, are only of value for manners and customs, and even for this purpose require much care in their use.

The place, time, and circumstances of Patrick's labours have largely contributed to the obscurity which surrounds him. His very name has helped to increase it. Patricius, like Augustus, seems to have been commonly used, even down to the 7th century, in the sense of nobleman or gentleman ; thus Dynamius, who lived in the beginning of the century just referred to, is described as "Vir illustris ac patricius Galliarum." Patrick's real name, according to tradition, was Succat, but in his own writings he calls himself Patrick. There was, however, another Patrick who under the name of Palladius was unquestionably sent as bishop to Ireland by Pope Celestine in the year 431, that is, the year before the other Patrick commenced his mission according to the generally received accounts. Irish writers also mention a third Patrick, Senn Patraicc, or Old Patrick, the head of St Patrick's community (caput sapientum seniorum ejus) according to one account, and his tutor according to another. The three Patricks have sorely puzzled hagiologists, and created so much confusion and conjecture in the history of the early church that some have doubted the existence of such a personage as St Patrick at all. The absence of any con- temporary reference to him, or of any mention of him by Colum- banus, Bede, and indeed with very few exceptions by any writers outside of Ireland before the 9th century, adds very much to the uncertainty and obscurity of the subject. (W. K. S.)



The province of Valentia, reorganized by Theodosius I., was com-prised between the wall of Antoninus, which extended from the Clyde to the Firth of Forth, and the wall of Severus, which extended from the Solway to Tynemouth. Although the destruction of the pagan temples was decreed in 381, and the pagan religion prohibited in 390, that is, a few years after the restoration of Roman power in Britain and the reorganization of this province by Theodosius, the greater part of the Romanized population of Britain seems to have been pagan at the end of the 4th century, and especially in Valentia, where Patrick was born about 396. Amidst the many evidences of Roman occupa-tion that have been found there not a relic of Roman Christianity has, so far as we know, been yet discovered. In the south-west part of Valentia, along the north shore of the Solway Firth from the Nith to the Irish Channel, Ptolemy placed the tribe of the Novantfe, its principal dim or oppidum being on the west side of Wigtown Bay, and called by him Leukopibia, a name still preserved in Whithorn. During the great displacements of tribes consequent upon the Roman conquests and the inroads of the Scots and Picts, the British Novantaj disappear, and in their place we find at the end of the 4th century Goidelic Cruithni or Picts. Their position in the midst of a British population, and their contiguity to the part of Ulster occupied by the Irish Cruithni or Picts, clearly indicate that the Picts of Galloway were part of the Ulidian or Irish Picts pressed out of Ireland by the intru-sion of the Scots. This settlement of the Irish Picts in Galloway afforded an excellent vantage-ground for such attacks as that spoken of in the text.
There can be no doubt that Nemthur was situated at the Clyde end of the wall of Antoninus, where Dumbarton now is. It is called Nevtur in the Old Welsh MS. known as the "Black Book of Car-marthen."

The above article was written by: William K. Sullivan, Ph.D., D.Sc., President, Queen's College, Cork.

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