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Was Saint Patrick Scottish?

You Ultimate Guide to Scottish and Clan Baird Holidays and Traditions: Celebrating Saint Patrick's Day with a Scottish Flair by remembering how the Scots Saved Civilization.

© 2008 The Regents of the University of California
Saint Patrick and the Oenghus, King of Cashel

Each year on March 17th, throughout Ireland, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, as well as in Glasgow, a celebration for Saint Patrick on his feast day continues to grow in popularity. The holiday has spread to Russia, Japan, Argentina, and England, where Irishness, or at least its cousin “Plastic Paddy” continue to flourish unabated. The color green becomes so ubiquitous on that day, one might think the Irish have conquered the world. Why talk about green hats and St Patrick’s day, on a Scottish and Scottish diaspora blog? Well, it’s because, Saint Patrick was a Scot and the color we should wear is blue.

Saint Patrick's Day in Coatbridge, Scotland

It comes as a bit of shock to know the man who defines Ireland is not Irish at all. Saint Patrick himself never stated that he was from Ireland. In fact, he claimed to be born and raised in Britain as the son of a Roman citizen. Saint Patrick lived along time ago and people have claimed from many places such as Wales, England, France, and Italy. The reality is he really came from Scotland .Who is Saint Patrick? What evidence do we have that he was Scottish? Should we wear blue?

Who is Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick is widely known as the patron saint of Ireland, celebrated for his role in bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle. While Saint Patrick's impact on Ireland is well-known, his influence on the rest of the world is less widely recognized.

In 1995, Thomas Cahill wrote the book on the efforts of Saint Patrick in How the Irish Saved Civilization. The book would have been better titled, How the Gaels In Scotland Saved Civilization. The book documented the rise of Gaelic missions and monasteries in Scotland and the rest of the world.

It also related how Saint Patrick was kidnapped as a teenager and taken to Ireland as a slave. This time of his life affected his later theological teaching. His emphasis on the equality of all people and the importance of education also helped to shape the development of Western culture. Patrick's teachings helped to spread Christianity throughout Europe and laid the foundation for the Christianization of the Western world.

Saint Patrick's teachings spread quickly throughout the Gaelic world, and by the time of his death, he had established hundreds of churches and monasteries. As the Roman Empire fell, Gaelic monks and scholars preserved and transmitted the knowledge and culture of the ancient world. Gaelic monasteries in Scotland became centers of learning, and Gaelic scholars made significant contributions to fields such as history, art, and literature. The famous Book of Kells was created in Scotland.

Without Saint Patrick's influence and the Christianization of Ireland, it is possible that Western civilization would have developed very differently. Saint Patrick's work helped to shape the values and beliefs that have come to define Western culture and contributed to the preservation of the knowledge and culture of the ancient world.

Evidence of A Scottish Birth

There are two works that are attributed to Saint Patrick. Those two works are the Confessio (Confession), and the Epistola (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus). In Confessio, Saint Patrick states:

Ego Patricius, peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilis sum apud plurimos, patrem habui Calpornum diaconum filium quendam Potiti, filii Odissi presbyteri, qui fuit in uico Bannauem Taberniae; uillulam enim prope habuit, ubi ego capturam dedi. Annorum eram tunc fere sedecim.
‘My name is Patrick, I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time.

Confessio, St Patrick. Translation by Padraig McCarthy, Royal Irish Academy 2011

Saint Patrick himself states he is from Bannavem Taburnaie and that his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon. (Rules were clearly different back then.) The issue is, there isn’t a place called Bannavem Tanburnaie. There is a Bannaventra in North Hamptonshire, in England, but it is not near the coast where one would expect a pirate to kidnap a sixteen year old. Historically, it eliminates England as a possible origin. We get further clues as to where he is from when he states that he couldn’t read or write in Latin:

This is why I have long thought to write, but up to now I have hesitated, because I feared what people would say. This is because I did not learn as others did, who drank in equally well both the law and the sacred writings, and never had to change their way of speaking since childhood, but always grew better and better at it. For me, however, my speech and words have been translated into a foreign language, as it can be easily seen from my writings the standard of the instruction and learning I have had.

Confessio, St Patrick. Translation by Padraig McCarthy, Royal Irish Academy 2011

It's important to remember that his words were written in Latin. He claims however that he chose not to write in Latin earlier because he couldn’t speak the language. He simply wasn’t educated. However, he never described any difficulties while imprisoned in Ireland around not understanding the local language. Quite the opposite, he communicated freely with people in Ireland. This is a possible indication that he spoke a language similar enough to understand early Gaelic and indicates he spoke a Celtic language.

In the other work attributed to him, the Epistle to the Soldiers of Coroticus, he upbraids the soldiers for capturing Christians and selling them into slavery. He points out that it was worse because of the people were sold to:

Christiani in seruitute redacti sunt, praesertim indignissimorum pessimorum apostatarumque Pictorum.
Christians reduced to slavery: slaves particularly of the lowest and worst of the apostate Picts.

Epistola, St Patrick. Translation by Padraig McCarthy, Royal Irish Academy 2011

Saint Patrick calls out a warlord named Coroticus and accuses him and his soldiers of trading slaves with the Picts. The Pictish people lived in Scotland not Ireland. This means that Coroticus and his men lived near enough to the Picts to trade and sell slaves. This places Coroticus in modern Scotland or at least with sea access to the Picts. Saint Patrick drives this home in the letter and provides strong evidence that he is speaking with people identified as Scots. He states that the soldiers cannot possibly remain Romans, or even his fellow-citizens anymore due to their action but transformed into citizens of demons because of what they have done:

Ritu hostili in morte uiuunt, socii Scottorum atque Pictorum apostatarumque.
By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts.

Epistola, St. Patrick Translation by Padraig McCarthy, Royal Irish Academy 2011

We should be quick to point out that at this time, Gaels lived in the Highlands and Ireland and labeled “Scotland in the manuscripts of that time. The people in the south and east of Scotland were considered “Pictorum” or Picts. Saint Patrick considered the southern Picts “apostate” because they converted to Christianity under St. Ninian. (St. Drostan had not yet converted the Northern Picts until the later and they couldn’t be considered apostate.) Thus he is referring to Gaelic communities that live near Picts. This occurs only in Scotland.

In that same epistle, Saint Patrick statues that his father was a Decurion, or a member of the powerful city senate. He mentions this family relationship to sway the soldiers by appealing to a common background or someone they might have known. It provides his words Gravitas. Saint Patrick mentions that This may also be the reason he could write so freely to Coroticus’s men. He implies this background while imploring the soliders to listen to him:

Et si mei me non cognoscunt, propheta in patria sua honorem non habet.
If my own people do not recognise me, still no prophet is honoured in his own country

Epistola, St. Patrick Translation by Padraig McCarthy, Royal Irish Academy 2011

Clearly, Coroticus and his men came from the same region or community as Saint Patrick. We know that Saint Patrick was not from Ireland and his family was from Britain. We get confirmation::

Et iterum post paucos annos in Brittanniis eram cum parentibus meis, qui me ut filium susceperunt et ex fide rogauerunt me ut uel modo ego post tantas tribulationes quas ego pertuli nusquam ab illis discederem,
A few years later I was again with my parents in Britain. They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again.

Confessio, St Patrick. Translation by Padraig McCarthy, Royal Irish Academy 2011

The evidence begins to pile up. Patrick’s family was from Britain, and they were Celtic-Romano people. We know this because Saint Patrick identifies his father as a Decurion, meaning the father was a Roman citizen. Saint Patrick could not speak Latin indicating a Celtic background. The area where they live is near the Scots of the Highlands and Picts of south east Scotland. His hometown was on the west coast where Saint Patrick could be kidnapped by pirates. The evidence places them in the Lowlands of Scotland and on the west coast where the Romans established a string of Forts on the Antoine Wall. Interestingly today, the city of Kirkpatrick (Patrick's Churcgh) is located in that region.

Roman Forts on the Antonine Wall. Note the fort of Old KirkPatrick

The next clue, the name Coroticus, the Britannic warlord, is the Latin name of Celtic warlord. In the 700’s, a note written in the margins linked that links Coroticus with Ceretic (Ker-etic), the King of Alt Clut or the King of Strathclyde.

Finally, in the hymn of Fiechi we see that Saint Patrick is born in Nemthur:

Geniar Patriacc in Nemthur.
Patrick was born in Nemthur.

Hvmnus S . Fiechi in Laudem S. Patricii, translated by the author.

Which has a note in the manuscript that Nemthur is an old name of Alt Clud, or the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The old capital of Strathclyde was Dunbarton or Dun Breatan, the fort of the Britons. The evidence points to Saint Patrick originating from modern-day Scotland from a mixed Roman and Celtic background.

Saint Patrick Wears Blue?

Saint Patrick Asleep

Today, Saint Patrick’s day around the world is festooned in green. Green shirts, cups, beer and hats are found in local stores throughout the world. The Green, White and Orange flag is found everywhere. The river in Chicago runs green with dye as do streets throughout the world. However, green was not the original color for Saint Patrick. Originally, Saint Patrick wore blue.

Saint Patrick on Fiacaill Phadraig

The earliest depiction for Saint Patrick is found in the on Fiacall Phadraig or the Tooth of Saint Patrick. This is a reliquary or shrine for the tooth of the saint. He is surrounded by other Gaelic saints including Saint Columba (Gaelic: Colum Cille) of Scotland and Saint Brendan, a monk who founded monasteries in Scotland and according to legend sailed to the Americas.

A 12th century manuscript depicts Saint Patrick and the King of Cashel, Oenghus (Mod. Aonghas/Angus). Robed in blue, the image stands in mockery of the common depiction of the saint today. While surprising today, prior to the 20th century, Ireland was not associated with Green and Orange, but instead with blue.

This shade was so common that is became known as St. Patrick Blue. Irish legend, the sovereignty of Ireland was represented by a woman in a blue. The order of St. Patrick, a British Knighthood established in 1783, leveraged the color of the earliest arms of Ireland found on the 13th century Armorial Wijinbergen which included a gold harp on a blue field. The The Order of Saint Patrick selected blue to differentiate from the Scottish Chivalrous order known as the Order of the Thistle.

The color was changed from Green to Blue in the 20th century with the rise of the Free Irish State in order to differentiate from the British national colors. They selected Green to represent the Catholic population and Orange to represent the Protestant population. White represented the hope for peace between them. However, this didn’t preclude the use of “St Patrick Blue”. Even into the 21st century, the Irish National football team donned the “St Patrick Blue” jersey to compete against Qatar and is found in the Irish Presidential standard and in St. Patrick’s Hall in Dublin. Saint Patrick, historically, was associated with Blue as opposed to Green.

The Flag of the President of Ireland

Celebrating Saint Patrick's Day with a Scottish Flair

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated by people throughout the world and by Irish and the Irish Diaspora. This year, as your children, grandchildren, and friends revel in the world of the Irish take a minute to remember it was not the Irish that saved the world, but a Scot. Whether you decide to wear Blue, Orange, or green, remember that Saint Patrick’s Day is the celebration of Scot who emigrated and made the world a better place.

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