Did St. Patrick Speak Irish?

illustration of St Patrick holding scroll

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Yes, St. Patrick spoke Irish, likely learning it—or at least the basics of it—during his six years as a shepherd-slave. Irish was certainly his de facto language during his ministry in Ireland, as he reserved Latin for communication with Church officials and other Romanized individuals. But from his own admission, we know that Patrick’s Latin was not very good, as, having been kidnapped as a teenager, he never completed his formal education. To quote Patrick’s Confession:

“…I have long been thinking of writing, but up to the present I hesitated; for I feared lest I should transgress against the tongue of men, seeing that I am not learned like others, who in the best style therefore have drunk in both laws and sacred letters in equal perfection; and who from their infancy never changed their mother tongue; but were rather making it always more perfect. My speech, however, and my style were changed into the tongue of the stranger, as can easily be perceived in the flavour of my writings how I am trained and instructed in languages…”

source: The Confession of St. Patrick

Assuming the Welsh origin for St. Patrick, we can also assume that he spoke Welsh, which is from the Brythonic branch of Celtic languages. Irish, on the other hand, is from the Goidelic, or Gaelic, branch. For someone living in the fifth century, before the dawn of language-learning apps—or even printed translation dictionaries, for that matter—being trilingual must have been challenging. As Thomas Cahill explains:

“One sometimes wonders, reading his Confession…if the poor man even has a language of his own. His mother tongue was possibly an early form of Welsh, though it is just as likely that…the ‘native’ tongue was for the servants and only Latin was spoken by the family. He missed all but elementary Latin schooling—and then was plunged into a new language: Irish, similar in certain ways to Welsh, but even at this period markedly different.”

source: How the Irish Saved Civilization

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

The Letters of Saint Patrick: An Historic New Translation

by John Luce and Marcus Losack

Per the publisher: “Written in the Fifth Century, Saint Patrick’s Letters have continued to be a source of inspiration and intrigue for so many people. A reflection of his ideals and faith, previous translations have already uncovered the deep personality at the heart of the Saint, inspiring many with his own words. Historical documents that they are though, scholars have striven to deliver the closest interpretation possible to attain a straight translation of the Letters, as even the smallest updates to perceived prior errors can award new insight into Saint Patrick’s holy message. Learn more…


The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus

by John Skinner

Per the publisher: “Beyond being recognized as the patron saint of Ireland (perhaps for having chased some nonexistent snakes off the Emerald Isle), little else is popularly known about Saint Patrick.  And yet, Patrick left behind a unique document, his Confession, which tells us much about both his life and his beliefs.  This autobiography, originally written in the fifth century, and short by modern standards, is nonetheless a work that fascinates with its glimpse into the life of an intriguing man, and inspires with its testament of faith.” 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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