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 No such place is referenced in any historical documents that we can find, but scholars guess that it had to be either the seacoast of Wales or of southwest Scotland.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.”)


Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from “20 Questions With St. Patrick: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the ‘Apostle of Ireland’”


Further Reading

How the Irish Saved Civilization

by Thomas Cahill

Per the publisher: “Every year millions of Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but they may not be aware of how great an influence St. Patrick was on the subsequent history of civilization. Not only did he bring Christianity to Ireland, he instilled a sense of literacy and learning that would create the conditions that allowed Ireland to become ‘the isle of saints and scholars’ — and thus preserve Western culture while Europe was being overrun by barbarians.” Learn more…


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

by Juilene Osborne-McKnight

Per the publisher: “Many Irish-Americans today know little about Ireland and their ancestry. Historian Juilene Osborne-McKnight presents Irish-American history in a compelling narrative form, accented with photographs, illustrations, and original, literary interludes. Osborne-McKnight pays homage to her ancestry in this chronicle of the Irish from ancient times to contemporary America.” Learn more…


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

by Seumas MacManus

Per the publisher: “A classic history of the Irish people from their prehistoric origins to their fight for independence in twentieth century. It provides fascinating insight into the origins of their culture, religion, laws, arts, antiquities, folklore, trade, literature, heroes, and more. MacManus sketches brilliant overviews of a number of the most famous figures from the country’s past, some of whom, like St. Patrick, allowed the Irish to flourish, whilst others, like Oliver Cromwell, persecuted them. ” Learn more…


St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography

by Philip Freeman

Per the publisher: “Ireland’s patron saint has long been shrouded in legend, but the true story of St. Patrick is far more inspiring than the myths. In St. Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman brings the historic Patrick and his world vividly to life. Patrick speaks in his own voice in two remarkable letters he wrote about himself and his beliefs, new translations of which are included here and which are still astonishing for their passion and eloquence.” Learn more…


Patrick

by Stephen Lawhead

Per the publisher: “Set in an era of brutal conflict and turmoil, this epic adventure is the first novel to tell the full story of the slave who became a saint, of the man who rose to the challenge of his time and changed the course of history. In the summer of 405AD, Irish raiders attack the western coast of Wales, carving a fiery swathe through the peaceful countryside. Among the survivors who are rounded up and taken back to Ireland is Succat: an impulsive sixteen-year-old son of a powerful Roman family.” Learn more…


Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

by Tomie dePaola

Per the publisher: “An illustrated tribute to the Irish patron saint from the best-selling author of Quiet, Strega Nona, and many others. This timeless picture book, available in large-format paperback or as the board book Saint Patrick, is a perfect introduction to important Irish legends and an ideal St. Patrick’s day gift. Beloved children’s book author-illustrator Tomie dePaola recounts the life of Saint Patrick—from his noble birth in Britain, to his captivity in Ireland, to the visions which led him to return and found the first Christian church in Ireland.” Learn more…


Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

by multiple authors

A collection of 17 short stories, NEON DRUID mixes urban fantasy and Celtic mythology, creating a universe where lecherous leprechauns and debaucherous druids inhabit the local pubs, and where shapeshifting water spirits from Scotland and sword-wielding warriors from Ireland lurk in the alleyways. Stories range from tales of supernatural horror, to street-level fantasy adventures, to farcical, whiskey-drenched fairytales. Learn more…


More book ideas:


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