St. Patrick’s real home
One aspect of the myth of St. Patrick that always seemed peculiar to me was his early kidnapping and enslavement. Not the fact of it – Patrick’s Confessio is absolutely authentic, the fifth-century Irish enjoyed rich pickings in decaying Roman Britain, and they were enthusiastic slavers. What’s odd is the conflict between the general acceptance that Patrick was a Romanised Welshman and the place where he ended up herding sheep. Mount Slemish is between Ballymena and Larne, a long, long way from Wales and a fairly unnatural place for a low-value boy-slave to end up.
Norman Davies’ wonderfully batty Vanished Kingdoms, (Allen Lane, 2011), suggests an explanation. The book aims to draw attention to European states that have disappeared virtually without trace, including such places as Burgundia, the Visigothic kingdom in Spain known as Tolosa and (weirdly) “Éire”. The most interesting is the kingdom of Alt Clud, “The Rock”, centred at Dumbarton just outside Glasgow and taking in most of what are now Kilbride, Kilmarnock and northern Galloway. In Davies’ account, the kingdom lasted from roughly the fourth century to roughly the ninth, and was North British in the original cultural sense, with its people speaking Cumbric, a p-Celtic language closely related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Part of the evidence is the only surviving authentic writing of Patrick’s apart from the Confessio. His Letter to Coroticus is a severe dressing-down aimed at a ruler identified by Davies as Ceredig Gueldig, the earliest king of The Rock. Who better for a bishop to wag his finger at than his own leader?
Interpreting records from the period is notoriously problematic, akin to picking one’s way through a vast swamp using a few tiny, unstable stepping stones, but Davies’ performance is virtuoso. It is hard to resist the picture of the young Patrick on Slemish looking out across the narrowest stretch of water on the Irish Sea to his home in Alt Clud.
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]