Patrick and a question of identity

Statue of St Patrick overlooking green fields and a rainbow
Image: starbeard /Flickr (CC BY)

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.

After Patrick’s time the term Scotti followed the Ulster men who settled in kingdoms such as Dál Riata in what is now Scotland, causing no small confusion in later centuries. In the 17th and 18th centuries mythical figures such as Oisin and historical ones such as John Duns Scotus and Johannes Scotus Eriugena were claimed for their own nations by both Irish and Scottish scholars.

In Ireland, the coming of the Normans brought Ireland theoretically under the rule of Henry II but in fact introduced new divisions between native Irish and new Norman settlers. That division was still going strong two centuries later, causing tensions that Richard Fitzralph preached against. Later, both groups were contrasted against new English settlers and the Reformation introduced further divisions.

This fractured identity as it relates to Irish philosophy was hotly debated in 1985, when Richard Kearney’s The Irish Mind was published. It was intended as something of a counter to the view of the Irish as devoted to fantasy over reason, but was criticised on two bases. The first (by Conor Cruise O’Brien) that there was no such thing as Irish thought as such, just a number of isolated  contributors to the Western intellectual tradition. The second, related, criticism was that many who were included were not Irish at all. (The debate is touched on in Berman’s Berkeley and Irish Philosophy and Kearney’s Post-Nationalist Identity.)

Thomas Duddy in A History of Irish Thought points out that this depends on an ‘imperial’ vision of tradition that presupposes “privileged identities or privileged periods of social and cultural evolution” (p. xii). Or, to put it another way, assuming that the only type of nationhood that counts is one “forged…centuries ago, mainly through travelling across the globe and stealing other peoples’ lands” (Oliver Farry).

It is tempting to try and draw hard lines, to work around the historical facts of invasion, plantation and upheaval. It’s almost impossible, however. Many Irish philosophers had to develop their work abroad, from the time of Eriugena onwards. Others will be ‘Irish by privilege’, born in Ireland and able to devote themselves to philosophy due to Irish wealth (Robert Boyle is a prime example). Then there are those who had Irishness thrust upon them; ‘accidental’ Irishmen such as Swift.

If we want to exclude Swift, or perhaps John Toland, whose ideas have been described as “not Irish”, how do we avoid excluding William Butler Yeats? Yeats saw himself as part of a tradition spinning directly from Swift and Berkeley, and his ideas of the self and on history are surely more alien than Toland’s deism/pantheism. Yeats was deeply involved in the creation of a modern Irish identity, but his was one that did not automatically exclude the free-thinkers or the Ascendency.  Nor, indeed, those Irish born abroad, as Patrick was. 

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