Was St. Patrick Irish? English? Welsh? Scottish? Italian? French?

illustration of st. patrick in an Irish military uniform riding a horse

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Many theories abound as to where St. Patrick was born, yet there is little evidence available to us which would allow us to form a robust conclusion. What we do know for sure is that Patrick was not born in Ireland, as it is clear he was born in a Romanized settlement (and the Romans never made it to Ireland). Patrick himself referred to his birthplace as Bannavem Taburniae—but that only raises another question: Where was Bannavem Taburniae? As Seumas MacManus wrote:

“There is endless dispute as to where exactly was the birthplace of Patrick, which, in his Confession he appears to tell us was in ‘Bannaven of Taberniae.’ Many authorities hold that it was near Dumbarton, in the most Northern Roman province of Celtic Britain. Others hold it was in the Celtic province of Brittany in France. In his Confession are pieces of internal evidence that sustain either theory.”

source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland

MacManus, for his part, argued for a Continental origin (Brittany), noting that Patrick’s maternal uncle was St. Martin of Tours, a former Roman soldier. Patrick’s birth name, Succat, signifies “clever in war,” which was perhaps a nod to Uncle Martin.

However, the Patrick-Martin familial connection is not universally agreed upon by historians. And most believe that the Celtic Britannia from which Patrick hailed was not Brittany, but the island of Britain. To quote professor and folklorist Juilene Osborne-McKnight:

“St. Patrick is Romano/Welsh/Briton. He tells us that his grandfather’s home was at Bannavem Taburniae. No such place is referenced in any historical documents that we can find, but scholars guess that it had to be either the seacoast of Wales or of southwest Scotland. Why? Because that is where Patrick was captured as a slave.”

source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans

The idea that Patrick might somehow be Italian likely stems from the fact that he grew up in a Romanized area. What’s more, Patrick’s father, Calporn, was a decurio—a local magistrate, akin to an alderman. But here it is important to recognize that working for the Roman Empire is not the same thing as being from Rome. Like many in the area at the time, Patrick was likely descended from Celts (and assuming the Welsh origin, Brythonic Celts) who had Roman culture thrust upon them after the Roman invasion of Britain (circa 43 – 87 CE).

But even though Patrick wasn’t born in Ireland, does that mean he wasn’t Irish? After all, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland at age sixteen, lived there for six years, and then, after his miraculous escape (and subsequent religious training), returned to spend the majority of his life there. I mean, if you asked the guy, “Are you Irish?”, what do you think he’d say? We don’t have to wonder. He told us:

“Patrick, operating at the margins of European geography and of human consciousness, has traveled even further from his birthright than we might expect. He is no longer British or Roman, at all. When he cries out in his pain, ‘Is it a shameful thing… that we have been born in Ireland?’ we know that he has left the old civilization behind forever and has identified himself completely with the Irish.”

source: How the Irish Saved Civilization

Other writers and historians echo this sentiment, including McKnight (“…one has the feeling that by the end of his life, Patrick has become ‘more Irish than the Irish,’”) and MacManus (“…the Irish land which he had entered as a foreigner, he now left as an Irishman.”)

Want to learn more about Saint Patrick? Check out…

Saint Patrick in Your Pocket

Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…

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