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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

DURING the past century a great controversy for the first time arose regarding the birthplace of St. Patrick. As the question is fully discussed in an appendix to this volume, we need not now refer to it at length. It appears to us to be quite clear from the account which the Saint gives of himself, both in his Confession and in the Epistle to Coroticus, that he was a native of the Roman province of Britain, and in all probability was born on the banks of the Clyde in Scotland. He tells us that his father, Calpurnius, who was both a deacon and decurion, dwelt in the village of Bannavem (or Bonnavem) Taberniæ, and had a small farm near it, whence he himself was carried off a captive. He describes Roman Britain as his native country and the home of his parents or relations, but as a different country from Gaul, where dwelt the saints of God, his spiritual brethren. Elsewhere he says that after his escape from captivity in Ireland he lived with his parents in Britain (Britannis), who welcomed him as a son, and earnestly besought him to remain at home and leave them no more.

In the Epistle to Coroticus he implies that the soldiers of that British prince were his fellow-citizens, and fellow-citizens of the Christian Romans (of Britain), but were unworthy of the name, clearly indicating that both he and they were all citizens of Roman Britain, although Coroticus had allied himself with the Scots or Irish and the apostate Picts. It is therefore beyond doubt that St. Patrick was a native of Roman Britain and not of any part of Gaul, if we accept his own statements, as contained in his own authentic writings.

But in what part of Roman Britain was this Bannavem Taberniæ, which the Saint tells us was his father’s home? We need not pay any attention to identifications of places which are based merely on fanciful resemblances between ancient and modern proper names. It is obviously a much safer course to follow the guidance of the old authorities, some of whom flourished shortly after St. Patrick himself. It is out of the question to suppose that those ancient writers had lost all memory of the Saint’s birthplace and native country; and, as might be expected, we find that they are unanimous in their statements on these two points.

Bannavem, or Bonnavem, is an old Celtic word, which is still in frequent use as a place-name both in Ireland and Scotland. It is composed of two root words, bon or bun and avon, meaning simply the end or mouth of a river at the point where it falls into a sea or lake or larger river. In this sense we have in Ireland the forms Bunavan, Bunowen or Bunown, and Bonaveen, giving names to several townlands situated on the banks of rivers, near their mouth or their junction with another river. A similar usage is found in Scotland, especially in the Highlands, where the Celtic names are most abundant.

The curious word “Taberniæ” has given rise to much speculation, yet its meaning is quite obvious. The nominative form Tabernia is, Du Cange tells us, put for the more classical form Taberna, which means any tavern, shop, tent, or temporary habitation. In St. Patrick’s Confession the word appears to be taken in a collective sense, as if it were a proper name derived from Tabernæ, and meaning tavern-field or tent-field. Such would be a priori a natural explanation of the place-name used by St. Patrick in the Confession to designate his father’s dwelling-place, which was certainly somewhere in Roman Britain.

Now, what do we find in the Lives of the Saint? Fiacc says that Patrick was born in Nemthor, or Nempthur, and his scholiast or commentator informs us that Nemthor was a town in North Britain, namely, Ail Cluade, or the Rock of the Clyde, and he adds that the family of the Saint belonged to the Britons of Ail Cluade.

Nempthur, then, is merely another, probably a more ancient, name for Ail Cluade, which is itself another name for Dunbrittan, subsequently corrupted into Dunbarton, the Fort of the Britons on the Clyde.

The Second Life gives us further information. It states chat Patrick was born in the Plain of Taburne, or Taberne, which it interprets to mean the Plain of the Tents, and adds, “it was so called because the Roman army during the cold of winter pitched their tents in that Plain.” It is clear, then, that Taberne came to be a proper name, meaning simply Tent-field. This Second Life does not expressly state where Taberne was situated, but it clearly implies that it was in the immediate neighbourhood of Nemthor, where it tells us young Patrick was brought up.

All this leads us to conclude that the ‘Plain of the Tents’—Campus Taberne—is equivalent to ‘Bannavem Taberniae’ of the Confession, and was a plain close to Nemthor or Dunbarton Rock. The Third Life makes exactly the same statement, formally explaining the ‘Campus Taburniae’ as the Plain of the Tents, and implying that the ‘Bannavem’ of the Confession is equivalent to the ‘campus’ or plain near the river mouth.

The Fourth Life gives further interesting particulars. It states that Patrick was born in the town of Nemthor, the meaning of which (Nemthor) in Latin is ‘turris caelestis,’ or heavenly tower, (from the Gaelic nem, heaven, and tor, a tower). That town, we are then told, is situated in the Campus Taburniae, which means the Plain of the Tents, because the Roman armies once pitched their tents there; and then the author of the Life expressly adds that, in the British tongue, ‘Taberne’ is equivalent to ‘tents’—tabernacula. This statement is important, because it shows that Taburnia is merely the Latin for the British proper name Taberne; and that the place took this name from the tents of the Roman soldiers usually pitched there.

The writer also places this Plain of the Tents in the ‘region’ of Strath Clyde, in which region St. Patrick was, he tells us, conceived and born. These first four Lives, therefore, bear concurrent testimony that St. Patrick was born at or near Dunbarton, on the banks of the Clyde.

It is obvious also that the Bannavem Taberniae of the Confession is the same as the Campus Taburniae, or Campus Taberne of the Lives, and not only the testimony of those early writers, but the nature of the place and the facts of history corroborate the statements in the Lives.

A glance at the map will show that the river Leven, issuing from Loch Lomond, flows through the town of Dunbarton, and falls into the Clyde, just under the rocky brow of the ancient British fortress. The left or eastern bank is now covered with the numerous workshops of a great shipbuilding yard, but in the days of St. Patrick it was an open plain stretching away to the east under the shadow of the Kilpatrick hills, which here press close on the banks of the Clyde. At the same point the great Roman wall extending to the Firth of Forth had its western limit, which was defended by strong fortifications and a standing camp against the incursions of the turbulent Picts and Scots, who were constantly making raids on the Roman Province. This great plain would therefore naturally form the Campus Martius, where the Roman troops would encamp, for it was defended on the west by the Rock of Dunbarton, on the south by the Clyde, and and on the north by the great wall running up to the roots of the hills. This was the plain of Bannavem at the junction of the two rivers, where the Roman troops had their encampment, which caused it to be known as the Plain of the Tents, that is, the Bannavem Taberniae, to which St. Patrick himself refers in the Confession. Dunbarton, the British capital, was the citadel of this military station, and the colony which grew up around them became, in course of time, a municipium, or self-governing Roman colony, with the privilege of selecting its own municipal governors. They were called decurions, and were selected from its most wealthy and influential citizens. The father of St. Patrick was one of them. His position as a decurion of the municipium entitled him to rank as a noble, and hence the Saint describes himself as inheriting nobility from his father; but by leaving his native town he ‘sold,’ or forfeited, that nobility, in order to devote himself to the conversion of the natives of the barbarous island of Hiberio, which, though not far distant, was yet altogether beyond the pale of Roman jurisdiction and civilization. It will thus be seen that the great plain eastward of the junction of the Leven and the Clyde was, in the strictest sense of the word, a Bannavem Taberniae, a plain where the two rivers met, and then came to be known as Tabern or Tent-field, from the tents of the Roman legion usually stationed there, to protect the western extremity of the Roman wall, as well as the estuary of the Clyde, against the hostile incursions of the Picts and Scots.

In all this there is no speculation, no arbitrary identification of words, no guess-work founded on the uncertain readings of uncertain manuscripts. We merely appeal to the testimony of ancient writers, corroborated by the undoubted facts of history.

And it is not merely the authors of the first four Lives of St. Patrick who bear this testimony. The Fifth, which some regard as a very accurate Life, was written by a certain Probus, who, though apparently of Irish origin, seems to have composed his work either in France or Germany. But he, too, states in his very first paragraph that Patrick was born in Roman Britain—in Britanniis—that his father Calphurnius dwelt in a village of the district known as Bannave Tiburniae, which, he tells us, was ‘near to the western sea.’ This description also most accurately applies to Dunbarton, for there the Clyde just opens its arms to meet the advancing sea, which, from that point westward, becomes a great estuary, whose waters at the present time the coasting boats and mighty ocean steamers are ploughing with screw and paddle, both by night and day.

The Sixth Life was written by Jocelyn in the twelfth century, and he, too, tells exactly the same story, that the father of Patrick was Calpornius, a native of Britain, who dwelt in the ‘pagus,’ or village, of Taburnia, which means the Plain of the Tents, because the Roman armies had pitched their tents therein, Taburnia being, he adds, close to Nemthor, and bounding the western sea. Jocelyn thus confirms the testimony of all the writers who had gone before him.

The Seventh Life of St. Patrick is the famous Tripartite, which has been so carefully edited in the Rolls series by Dr. Whitley Stokes. As might be expected, the author of the Tripartite does not differ from the other ancient authorities. “As to Patrick,” he says, “of the Britons of Ail Cluade was he. In Nemthor, moreover, he was born. Calpurn was his father’s name, and Concess was the name of his mother.”

We thus find, on careful examination, that all the Seven Lives given by Colgan, written at different times from the sixth to the twelfth century, tell in substance the same story of Patrick’s family and of his birthplace. Their very discrepancies in minor details furnish a new proof of their authenticity and credibility, for if their authors had merely copied from each other, or from a common original, there would be no divergencies at all.

We find, too, that all the great Irish scholars of the seventeenth century held the same opinion—Usher, Colgan, Ware, O’Flaherty, and the rest whose names are given elsewhere. It was only early in the nineteenth century that Lanigan started a new hypothesis, which he certainly has not proved, that St. Patrick was born in France, near Boulogne-sur-mer; and that consequently all the ancient writers of the Saint’s Acts, as well as the great modern scholars who followed in their footsteps, were entirely mistaken in their statements.

Lanigan was a learned man, but stubborn, wrong-headed, and somewhat fond of originality. Hence, when he once took up an opinion he adhered to it at any cost, and with small regard for the views of his opponents, of whom he speaks very slightingly, even when they were, like Colgan, men far more learned than himself in Irish history and antiquities. We shall elsewhere discuss the views of Lanigan, which, in our opinion, have nothing but their novelty to recommend them. Although very ingenious, they are wholly unsustained by argument, either from history or authority. We conclude, therefore, without any reasonable doubt, that St. Patrick was born and nurtured during his early youth at or near Dunbarton, on the banks of the Clyde, in the district which was then known as the ‘Plain of the Tents,’ extending from Dunbarton to Kilpatrick.

The common opinion is that he was born at or near Kilpatrick, which is at the eastern extremity of this plain, about four miles east of Dunbarton. He was certainly taken to be baptized there; but we think his father lived at the municipium of Dunbarton or Alclyde, and that in all probability he was himself born there. The point cannot now be definitely settled, as there is no tradition fixing the site of the ‘flag-stone’ on which he was born.

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