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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The heading of the Fifth Life is as follows:—“Beati Patritii, Primi Praedicatoris et Episcopi totius Britanniae, Vita et Actus, Auctore Probo.”

If this title were given to the Life by Probus himself, it would be inconsistent with his own narrative, and with authentic history. For surely no one could truly describe St. Patrick as the ‘first preacher and bishop of all Britain.’ ‘Britanniae’ is probably a transcriber’s mistake for ‘Hiberniae,’ but it goes to show that the copy was made in Britain, or somewhere else outside Ireland, where there was not much knowledge of Erin’s history at that time.

Probus is not an Irish name; and Paulinus, at whose request Probus wrote the Life, is not an Irish name. Still there are many expressions in the text which clearly prove that Probus himself was an Irishman, and probably Paulinus also. For instance he speaks of Palladius as having been sent to convert this island to Christianity. He speaks of the port at the mouth of the Vartry river in Cualann as ‘a celebrated port of ours’—apud nos clarissimum; he describes the Irish Sea as our sea; he speaks of St. Patrick’s preaching as filling all our lands with the faith of Christ; and other similar expressions are used, which clearly show that he regarded both himself and Brother Paulinus, whom he addressed, as Irishmen.

If we could identify Paulinus, it would be easy to fix the date of the Life. The most probable conjecture is that of Colgan, who surmises that he was that Maelpoil whom the Four Masters, at A.D. 920, describe as the son of Ailell, a Bishop, Anchorite, and Scribe of Leath Cuinn, and Abbot of Indedhnen. The Chronicon Scotorum gives the last title as ‘Head of Purity,’ and the Annals of Ulster further add that he was of the race of Aedh Slaine, that is the southern Hy Niall, who dwelt chiefly in Meath. In that case his monastery would most likely be somewhere in Meath; and it would be a very probable conjecture that Probus belonged to the same community, for which he wrote this Life, at their Abbot’s request.

The chief difficulty against this theory is the strange blunders that Probus makes in his interpretation of Irish words, and his reference to Irish names of places. For instance—if it is not an error of the scribe, and it does not look like it—he described the place of St. Patrick’s captivity more than once as near Slieve Egli, or Cruachan Aigle, instead of Slieve Mis—which is a very serious error, and shows that the author had little or no knowledge of Ireland. Then, again, he foolishly interprets St. Patrick’s phrase, ‘Modebroth,’ as, ‘Your labour will not profit you’; and his attempt to translate the poetic prophecy of Laeghaire’s Druids regarding the coming of St. Patrick is simply ridiculous.

Moreover, he inverts the order of events, even inessential points, and represents St. Patrick as having been three times a captive, and as having come to Ireland even before Palladius to preach the Gospel, and having failed in his mission returning to get due authority from St. Celestine. All this goes to show that the writer was not well made up, either in the facts of St. Patrick’s life, or in the topography of his own country.

Elsewhere, too, he makes the extraordinary assertion that the angel declared to St. Patrick that he (Patrick) would baptise ‘Scotiam atque Brittaniam, Angliam et Normanniam.’ The prophecy is absurd, but it gives a clue to the date of the writer. The Normans settled in the province that bears their name about the year A.D. 906, so that, if our conjecture as to the identity of Paulinus be correct, the Life was written, say, between A.D. 910 and 920. The motive of ascribing this curious prophecy to the Angel Victor was, in all probability, a hope that it might tend to soften the ferocious Northmen of Ireland, and bring them nearer to Christianity, to which, at the time, many of them were gravitating in various parts of Ireland.

Still, this Life by Probus has its own value. It seems to be an independent authority; and although it is clear the writer had St. Patrick’s Confession before him, from which he quotes textually, he must have also had other authorities which we have no longer in our hands. But his knowledge of ancient Irish was very poor, and some of its phrases certainly puzzled him. He was unacquainted, too, with the country, for he entirely lacks the accurate descriptions of the Tripartite in portraying the labours of the Saint.

Hence, ome writers have concluded—and it is not improbable—that he was an Irishman living in England or France or Germany, who had left this country in his youth, and had almost forgotten the little he ever knew of its language and its geography. But, being an Irishman, he was requested to write a Latin Life of the great St. Patrick, which the members of the community could understand, and, doubtless, he made the best use he could of the materials at his disposal.

Some have accordingly identified him with an Irish Probus, who was a monk of St. Alban’s Monastery at Mayence, the correspondent of Lupus of Ferrières. The Annals of Fulda give the death of this Probus in 859. Others assign him an earlier date, and say that Paulinus, for whom he wrote the Life, was Patriarch of Aquilea, whose death is marked under A.D. 804. There seems to be no argument in favour of this view except the name of the Patriarch. We know, on the other hand, that there was a great exodus of Irish monks to Germany, especially in the ninth century. Fulda and Mayence were both places likely to receive them, so that if we find a Probus in St. Alban’s Monastery of Mayence at the middle of the ninth century, it is not at all unlikely that he was the author of the Vita Quinta, although it is not easy to find a ‘Normannia’ at that date.

Colgan, however, thinks it much more probable that Probus must be identified with Caeneachair, Lector of Slane, who was one of those burned in its Round Tower by the Danes in A.D. 948. The name Probus is the Latin equivalent of his Irish name. He was a professor in the College of Slane; he was a contemporary of Paulinus, and also a neighbour, so that we might fairly expect he would be the person to execute such a literary work for his venerable neighbour, Bishop Paulinus. A man might know the Middle Irish well, it is said, and still know little of the Older Irish of the ancient Lives of St. Patrick, and know little also of the topography of other parts of Ireland. To that opinion we adhere, but not without hesitation.






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