St Patrick: patron saint of the Irish and a ‘Great Briton’

St Patrick’s Day is always cause for celebration. People dress up in green attire, parade through the streets and drink themselves stupid. It has become a day celebrated not just in Ireland or in areas with a strong Irish heritage (such as Boston, Chicago and New York), but throughout much of the United Kingdom.

St Patrick's Day has become a cause for verdant celebration in much of the UK and the USA
St Patrick’s Day has become a cause for verdant celebration in much of the UK and the USA

This is perhaps appropriate, for St Patrick was born a Briton, a Celtic-speaking native thought to have been born near Carlisle, on the present-day border between England and Scotland. (Davies, 2012, p.51)

In the 5th century AD the Britons occupied most of the modern-day UK (red). Goidelic (green), Picts (blue).
In the 5th century AD the Britons occupied most of the modern-day UK (red). Goidelic (green), Picts (blue).

Born a Briton, Patrick was seized by Irish pirates as a youth and sold into slavery. He managed to escape and gained his religious education in Gaul before returning to his homeland to lead a proselytizing mission to Ireland.

Patrick was absolutely clear about his nationality, as he reveals in one of his two surviving letters:

I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop…So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God.

St Patrick supposedly used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish people
St Patrick supposedly used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the Irish people

Most of the Britons were eventually subsumed by the invading Anglo-Saxons so that by the 11th century their territories, and accompanying cultural and linguistic traditions, were confined to a few small pockets of the British Isles, particularly Wales.

As Norman Davies remarks: ‘To be absolutely clear, St Patrick, like St David, was a Welshman’. (Davies, 2012, p. 52).

St Patrick is rightfully revered for his conversion of Ireland but should also be remembered as a ‘Great Briton’, a hero of the post-Roman occupation whose people laid claim to much of what we know today as Great Britain, even before the ‘English’ ever existed.

Source:

Davies N, Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2012)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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