St Patrick tells his own story

 

Sir, – The figure of St Patrick has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout Irish history. Your recent article (Sarah McDonald, Opinion, October 29th) concerning Revd Marcus Losack’s theory on the saint’s Breton origins is one more. Far from being the man of mystery, described by Marcus Losack, Patrick’s context is broadly understood by the many scholars who have worked on the saint, his writings and his missionary activities.

These allow us to identify Patrick as a Romano-Briton (a person of British origin who was culturally influenced by Roman society) from western Britain; he is not Breton.

The place-name evidence, adduced by Marcus Losack, does not carry any historical weight. Patrick’s own writings clearly identify him as British and his earliest biographers, writing in the seventh century, follow this lead.

The idea of a Breton Patrick is nothing new, however. It features in non-Irish works from the ninth or tenth-century, at which point the cult of the saint had spread beyond Ireland leading to renewed speculation. This was facilitated by the linguistic confusion whereby Britannia could refer to Britain or Brittany, similar to the confusion which existed between Scotia as either Ireland or Scotland. However, this speculation, written several hundred years after Patrick’s writings, should not supercede the saint’s own testimony. After all, he was in the best position to know where his home was located!

Fortunately, Patrick’s work is now more accessible than ever. I would urge readers to visit the excellent Confessio website, hosted by the Royal Irish Academy. It can be found at http://www.confessio.ie. There, Patrick can be read in his own words; it is worth taking him at them. – Yours, etc,

Dr ELVA JOHNSTON,

School of History and

Archives,

UCD, Belfield,

Dublin 4.