The origins of St Patrick
Sir, – Dr Elva Johnston (October 31st) categorically dismisses any alternative theory concerning St Patrick’s origins and holds fast to the traditional view that he came from Roman Britain.
In the book Rediscovering Saint Patrick – A New Theory of Origins” (Columba Press, 2013) to which Dr Johnston indirectly refers, I have argued that St Patrick’s “Britanniis” which is the name given for his homeland in the oldest surviving copy of Patrick’s Confessio, preserved in the Book of Armagh, is a reference to the region we now call Brittany and not to the island of Britain, exclusively.
I have taken this view on the basis that the name “Britannia” or “Britanniis” may have been applied to Brittany at the time of the rebellion of Magnus Maximus (who ruled as emperor of the west from 385-389 AD) as a result of a strategic settlement of the ancient Britons in that region, which was known to the Romans as Armorica.
This gives an historical context to St Patrick’s early life and captivity and perhaps sheds light on the true meaning of this key geographical reference since if he had been born in Brittany or settled in that region as a child, he would have grown up understanding “Britanniis” to be his homeland. All this pre-dates by several hundred years Dr Johnston’s so called “Cult of St Patrick” which I understand was never as significant or widespread an influence in Brittany as she claims it to be.
Contrary to what Dr Johnston claims in her letter, none of the key geographical references mentioned in the Confessio have ever been securely identified. She is right that many scholars (like herself) consider St Patrick’s origins in Britain to be an indisputable historical fact, while the evidence, in my view, suggests that it is not.
Several of the early “Lives” of St Patrick published by Fr John Colgan in 1647, contain references to a region on the continent known to the ancient Irish writers as Armoric Letha or Lethania Brittania, which they identify as the place where St Patrick was taken captive. This is clearly a reference to the coastal region which surrounded the ancient Roman port at Aleth (now St Malo) where the Legio Martenensis or Legion of Mars was stationed at the close of the fourth century.
The notion that St Patrick was taken captive from Brittany is a view shared by the majority of early Breton historians and recorded by several Irish and continental writers, ancient and modern.
I must, therefore, share with you my sense of dismay and disappointment at the tone of Dr Johnston’s letter. In my view, the extremist position she takes in refusing to countenance any alternative theory reflects a certain academic arrogance and authoritarianism which does not do justice to the complexity of the subject. M Charles de Gerville, a Breton antiquarian writing in the 1840s regarded the established theory of Britain, to be “a gross historical error” and I agree with him. Contrary to what Dr Johnston says, there is much about St Patrick that remains a mystery and it is incumbent upon her as an academic historian not to close the doors to further inquiry.
The Confessio website, hosted by the Royal Irish Academy, to which she refers, is indeed a magnificent resource for the study of Patrick although it is interesting to note that the academy has obviously given its full and unqualified support to the traditional theory of origins in its most recent publication of St Patrick’s Confessio (Pádraig McCarthy (transl.), My Name is Patrick . . . Dublin: RIA, 2011) where the name for St Patrick’s homeland “Britanniis” is again translated as Britain, removing the plural form of the original and still referring to the island of Britain, exclusively.
Dan Brown once said, “sometimes the translation or mistranslation of one single word can re-write history”. Could the experts in Dublin have possibly got it wrong? – Yours, etc,
Rev MARCUS LOSACK,
Holy Cross Church,