Patrick wrote two texts that we can still read today. The first is his Confessio, giving the story of his life and his mission in Ireland. The other, less well-known text is his Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, in which Patrick roundly condemns their murder and capture of baptised Irish. He repudiates them as countrymen and calls for others to do likewise, and tells them what they can expect as Christians: “Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach. The angel of death will drag such a one away, to be crushed by the anger of dragons.”1
At some point today somewhere on Irish radio, “Hail Glorious St Patrick” will be played. A traditional staple for St Patrick’s day written by a woman, Sr Agnes, this hymn not only praises Patrick and asks for his help for the “poor children” of Ireland, but also praises Ireland itself. Written in the early 19th century, it closes with the assertion that “And our hearts shall yet burn, wherever we roam, For God and Saint Patrick, and our native home.”1
The interaction between nationalism, patriotism and love of country is a complex one. They are not synonymous.
In 2017 the Russian Orthodox Church added Patrick to their calendar of saints1 A saint from before the Great Schism and the Reformation, Patrick is venerated by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Indeed, many have attempted to claim Patrick as particularly their own.
Patrick has also been invoked in bringing different groups together. While Ireland had a recognisable identity from early times, but like ancient Greece or contemporary Germany, that did not suggest a unitary state. The warring of petty states led to a influx of Normans. Henry II’s assertion of his dominance over those Norman lords led to a separation of the inhabitants into “mere Irish” and “Old English.”
The line between “the king’s English subjects” and “the king’s Irish subjects” was, counter-intuitively, a matter of choice. Those adhering to the native customs outlawed by the Statutes of Kilkenny were declaring themselves outlaws, those adopting an English lifestyle were English regardless of background. For “Old English” Norman families outside the Pale, who intermarried and interacted with Irish Gaelic families, a certain amount of fancy footwork must have been required to balance Irish customs with English laws. The borders of the Pale saw constant aggression that Richard Fitzralph’s admonishing sermons gives witness to2.
There are two myths about early medieval Ireland. One is that it was an ignorant, isolated place. The other is that without Ireland, civilisation would have been lost.
Pollen evidence suggests a growing population in the Ireland of the third and fourth centuries, with agricultural expansion and forest clearance taking place after a previous decline. The landscape was dominated by pastureland, intermingled with scrubby woodland and mixed farming, with few large areas of forest1.
This was a rural society, broken up into túatha and kingdoms. However it was not isolated from the world. Tacitus tells us in the first century AD Roman traders knew the major routes to, and harbours in, Ireland. Imports included wine and fine cloth. There were also Roman-Irish contacts via Romano-British slaves in Ireland and Irish settlements in Wales2. In Wales as well as in Ireland itself we find evidence of the first Irish writing, Ogham.
The very oldest texts in any language written in Ireland that have survived relate to St Patrick. One, the Confessio, outlines his own account of his life. To the modern reader, it may seem sparse. There is no mention of Pascal fires, of shamrock or of snakes.
The tale of St Patrick developed over time, and to fulfil different purposes. Muirchú’s Latin Life of Saint Patrick, compiled around the year 680 which includes tales of wonders, was written to confirm Armagh’s pre-eminent place in the Irish Church. Patrick was said to have arrived in Ireland in 432AD to undermine the earlier Palladius who was documented to have arrived in 431AD. The development of the myth continued into the 15th century, with examples to be found in the Book of Lismore and the Leabhar Breac. This tradition emphasised St Patrick as a wonder worker and a prophet. At the same time secular writings such as the 12th century Acallamh na Senorach include stories of Patrick meeting the Fianna.
The Norman invasion saw a parallel tradition emerge, starting with Gerald of Wales’ outline of Patrick’s life in Topographia Hibernica, which included a debunking of the legend of the banaishment of the snakes. Jocelin of Furness’ account, based on resources some of which are now lost, was written as part of the Anglo-Norman attempt to appropriate the saint. Written at the same time as the shrine in Downpatrick was established, it portrays Patrick as a miracle-working prophet, whose mother was related to St. Martin of Tours.
Last year Vox Hiberionacum published two posts on the historical Patrick and the voicing of early Irish identity: one relating to classical and early medieval terms used by outsiders and a sequel on terms used in Patrick’s own writings. In brief, Patrick used the term Scotti, which had with negative connotations, but mainly to refer to the pagan Irish. The converts he referred to as Irish/Hibernae, including in the famous account of his dream where ‘the voice of the (not yet converted) Irish’ calls on him to return to Ireland, and in contexts referring to existing converts. Vox Hiberionacum points out the complexity of identity involved in both terms – the people referred to in both were of multiple backgrounds, classes and tribes. Some were not even born in Ireland. In his Letter to Coroticus protesting the killing and enslavement of Irish converts to Christianity by a British chieftain, Patrick writes
Indignum est illis Hiberionaci sumus
‘For them, it is a disgrace/shameful that we are from Ireland‘.
Whether this is a slip or a rhetorical device, it is the first insular expression of an Irish ‘we’, and it includes not only the Irish born in Ireland but Patrick himself.
This complexity inherent in the term “Irish” brought to mind two of Ireland’s greatest philosophers. Johannes Scotus Eriugena adopted two names denoting his Irishness, plausibly because even by his time being an Irishman (Scotus) did not automatically mean born in Ireland (Eriugena). George Berkeley in several places in his Philosophical Commentaries writes, “we Irish” (“we Irish do not hold with this”, “We Irish think otherwise”). Yet he is often claimed as English. Both philosophers are enmeshed in the complexities of Irish identity.
When philosophy and the name Augustine are mentioned, one immediately thinks of the North African bishop, reluctant convert and writer of classic works like the Confessions and The City of God.
At about the same time a man who shared Augustine’s fathers’ name was on a mission to Christianise Ireland. While not in the same literary or philosophical league Patrick’s Confessions mark the start of a long Christian tradition and his Letter is a very early statement of a belief that slavery (of Christians at least) is wrong.
The collapse of the Roman Empire (Augustine died in a city under siege) left turmoil. The works of the ancients were preserved in the East, in the Arab world, and in Ireland.
The monks not only preserved works but also created their own commentaries and treatises. In the 7th century an Irish monk later known as Augustinus Hibernicus (the Irish Augustine) produced a Latin treatise De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae (in English: On the miraculous things in sacred scripture). This treatise was widely circulated (76 copies at least extant) though possibly because they thought it was by the better know Augustine.
The treatise is called a “rationalisation” of the Bible, but this is slightly misleading. To put it in modern terms Augustinus Hibernicus argues that God does not break the rules of nature he has created to perform a miracle. Instead miracles are performed using the natural possibilities within the object. This applied to both Old Testament and New Testament miracles. Both the water turned to blood in Egypt and the water turned to wine in Cana are to Augustinus Hibernicus the performing of a natural process, only greatly accelerated. Water becoming wine (in a vine) or blood (in an animal) is part of nature.