St Patrick may have been from Brittany, not Britain
Rev Marcus Losack claims have to identified a Roman settlement near St Malo where the saint was captured as a teenager
A statue of St Patrick at the base of Croagh Patrick. Rev Marcus Losack’s book challenges our traditional understanding of where the saint came from and the truth about who he was.
‘I am Patrick, a sinner” is a disarmingly straightforward admission from the man credited with Christianising the Irish. Little else concerning our patron saint is straightforward. Some scholars refer to him as the “Unknown Apostle”.
Patrick’s origins remain hazy. The fifth century is sometimes referred to as “the lost century” because there is so little in the historical records for the period. In his own writings, Patrick provides very little information about his family background or homeland. Many of the places he does refer to have never been securely identified.
The theory of St Patrick’s origins to which most scholars subscribe is that he was taken captive as a teenager from somewhere in Roman Britain and brought to Ireland. There is disagreement over where exactly in Britain he was seized; some say a Roman settlement in Strathclyde, others say Wales and most of the rest suggest southwest England. But there has never been enough evidence to support any of these conclusively.
A new book, launched last week by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson, may create ripples in scholarly and ecclesiastical circles over its claim that Patrick was in fact a native of what we now know as Brittany, not Britain.
Rediscovering Saint Patrick: A New Theory of Origins, published by Columba Press, has been researched and written by a Co Wicklow-based Church of Ireland clergyman, Rev Marcus Losack. He is an experienced pilgrimage leader and spiritual guide, as well as a lecturer at St George’s College in Jerusalem.
His historical sleuthing began when he visited the Château de Bonaban near St Malo in Brittany more than four years ago and was told of a local tradition that claims an earlier building on the site belonged to the late Roman period and was owned by St Patrick’s father, Calpurnius.
That spurred Marcus Losack to undertake a Grail-like quest to disentangle the threads of legend, tradition and history in a bid to determine St Patrick’s provenance.
In his Confession, St Patrick wrote that his father Calpurnius owned an estate which in Latin he called Bannavem Tiburniae, from where he was taken captive when he was about 16. The location of Bannavem Tiburniae was lost to historical memory in the years after Patrick’s death.
Marcus Losack argues that Château de Bonaban in Brittany is Bannavem Tiburniae. It is not a completely new theory, as almost 200 years ago another Irish scholar also proposed Patrick came from Brittany. But Rev Losack has located a specific settlement and, in doing so, integrated a whole swathe of new research.
Involved is linguistics expert Christine Mohrmann, who, from a detailed study of Patrick’s Latin, suggested that there are definite Gaulish influences in his writings; influences that in her opinion could not have come from Scotland, Wales or anywhere else in Britain.
The site on which Château de Bonaban was built reportedly contains remains that date from the Roman era. These remains were discovered in the basement of the château in the 1870s but unfortunately they have since been lost through renovations. Rev Losack hopes an archaeological dig can take place that may reveal other evidence of a Roman settlement and possibly provide confirmation for his theory of St Patrick’s origins.
He is currently in negotiation with the new owners of the château to see if this
If he is right, then his book fundamentally challenges our traditional image and understanding of St Patrick and suggests we are misguided in that view of our patron saint.
It also challenges our traditional understanding of where he came from and the truth about who he was, which in turn challenges our view of the origins of the Irish church and our understanding of our own religious heritage and culture.
“There is a lot about St Patrick that we haven’t been told,” Rev Losack has said. His book touches fleetingly on another theory of the origins of Patrick, which concerns his family’s descent from royalty and the possibility that his ancestors were Jewish.
But that, as they say, is another story . . . or book, as the case may be.
Sarah MacDonald is a journalist who specialises
in religious affairs