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.

chart showing two different versions of the celtic language tree (both of which begin with proto-celtic

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

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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