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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

THE discussions in reference to this question afford a striking illustration of the erratic tendencies of the human mind when it ignores authority and trusts to its own wayward speculations. The author of Colgan’s Fourth Life is perhaps the earliest writer who makes any reference to such speculations regarding the birth-place of St. Patrick. There were, he says, even at that early date, some persons who alleged that Patrick derived his origin from the Jews, who, when expelled by the Romans from Judæa, settled down amongst the Armoric Britons, and from them Patrick’s race was derived. This opinion, however, the author rejects; yet he declares that Patrick’s parents belonged to the Armoric Britons, but, migrating thence, they came to the region of Strathclyde where Patrick was born.

The Scholiast on Fiacc, whilst expressly declaring that Nemthor, Patrick’s birth-place, was in North Britain, namely Ail Cluade, adds that young Patrick with his parents, brother, and sisters, went from the Britons of Ail Cluade over the Ictian Sea southwards to visit their relatives in Armorica, and that it was from the Letavian Armorica that Patrick was carried off a captive to Ireland. The Scholiast here confounds the Armoric Britons of the Clyde with the Armoric Britons of Gaul or Letavia, who had no existence there at so early a date. No doubt they were kindred races; but the names Britannia and Britons were not at that time given to Armorica of Gaul.

It is in modern times, however, that certain writers have given loose reins to their speculations as to the birth-place of St. Patrick. This arose chiefly from unwillingness to give the honour of the Saint’s birth to a country which had ceased to profess the faith of Patrick, and was bitterly hostile to Irish Catholics.

Philip O’Sullivan Beare, a man of learning and authority, declared in his ‘Patriciana Decas,’ that Patrick was born in Bretagne. He was the first writer of note who put forward that opinion, for no ancient writer known to us ever advanced it.

Patrick Lynch, Secretary of the Gaelic Society, held in his ‘Life of St. Patrick,’ that the ‘Nemthor’ referred to by Fiacc and others as the birth-place of St. Patrick meant ‘Holy Tours’ of Gaul; but he advanced not a single authority to support that view. Moreover, the ‘Turones’ of Gaul was altogether a different name, and still more so was the more ancient form, Caesarodunum.

Lanigan modified this view, making not the western but a northern Britannia of Gaul, the birth-place of St. Patrick. He says that the ‘Bonnavem Taberniae’ of the Confession was the same town as Boulogne-Sur-Mer in Picardy, and was the birth-place of our Saint. But the Confession does not state that Bonnavem Taberniae was Patrick’s birthplace; but that it was the place where his father had a villa from which he himself was carried off a captive, when he was some sixteen years old. Moreover, there is no similarity between the ancient name of Boulogne, that is, Gessoriacum, well known to the Romans, and Bonnavem Taberniae; and even the form Bononia, which Lanigan alleges was a later Roman name for Boulogne, is very different from the Celtic Bonnavem or Bannavem. Besides, Bononia or Gessoriacum was a flourishing sea-port all through the Roman period, and could never be described as a vicus or village, as Bonnavem Taberniae is called. Neither does Lanigan give any satisfactory explanation of Taberniae, which he attempts to identify with Tarvanna, a place some thirty miles from Boulogne. He also seeks to identify the Nentria Provincia, to which Probus asserts Bannavem belonged, with Neustria in Gaul. But this latter is a much later German name, and cannot be regarded as equivalent to Nentria of Probus.

Cashel Hoey followed Lanigan, but identified Taberniae with the modern Desvres, sometimes rendered Divernia—not Tabernia—in mediæval Latin; and he turns Nemthor of the Lives into Tournahem! By such a system of identifications one could prove anything. Besides, Divonia, not Divernia, was the ancient Latin form of Desvres.

Messrs. Handcock and O’Mahony, joint editors of the second volume of the Brehon Laws, would have Patrick born near Bristol; but they advance no argument of any weight to prove their contention. Nemthor of Fiacc, they say, is identified by the Scholiast with Ail-Cluade, but Ail Cluade was also called Caer-Britton; Bristol was likewise called Caer-Britton; therefore, Nemthor is Bristol—as if both places could not be called a Fortress of the Britons without being one and the same.

Some later writers have advanced even stranger opinions regarding the birth-place of St. Patrick, but we can only briefly allude to them here:

The Rev. S. Malone has advocated what has been called the South Wales theory of St. Patrick’s birth-place. At one time he asserted that ‘Usktown stands forth as the birth-place of St. Patrick, proof against all objections derived from a linguistic, geographical, historical, or any other source.’ But at another time he says, ‘with the evidence before us we cannot avoid connecting the particular spot of his birth with Bath on the banks of the middle Avon.’

Father Alfred Barry would make St. Patrick a native of North Wales, and asserts that the ‘Rock-of-Clwyd referred to in the early authorities, was situated, on the banks of the River Clwyd in the vale of Clwyd, near the present town of Rhyl’—a statement we believe entirely unsupported by evidence.

Dr. O’Brien, emeritus Professor of Maynooth College, goes all the way to Spain to find out where St. Patrick was born. He has certainly the merit of discovering a new theory—but hardly anything else. We cannot admit that there is any ground for identifying the places mentioned in the Confession with the Spanish localities to which Dr. O’Brien has transferred them. No solid argument can be based on fanciful similarities between the names in question, and there is no other reason adduced to prove the thesis of the learned writer.

It is unnecessary for us to go over the ground already covered by the arguments briefly adduced in our second chapter. His Eminence Cardinal Moran, in his exhaustive article, has fully discussed the whole question from every point of view; and his arguments, we think, must bring conviction to every impartial and unprejudiced mind. We shall here merely notice a few of the objections commonly brought against accepting Kilpatrick on the Clyde as the birth-place of our national Apostle.

One objection often brought is that if St. Patrick were a Briton born on the banks of the Clyde, he would hardly describe Ireland, whose hills were visible from the Scottish shores, as ‘a barbarous nation,’ ‘at the ends of the earth,’ which he certainly does more than once. But this description from the Roman imperial point of view was quite accurate. Patrick was a Brito-Roman, the son of a Roman official, dwelling in or near a Roman municipium. Ireland was beyond the bounds of the Empire, and was in very truth at the end of the earth, for there was no known land beyond it, nothing but the boundless streams of ocean. It was also entirely beyond the pale of Roman civilization, and as such was regarded as a ‘barbarous’ country without any tincture of the civilization of Imperial Rome. Such a description of Ireland was therefore quite accurate and quite natural for a citizen of Imperial Rome such as Patrick declared himself to be. We may fairly assume, too, that it was the language which the British Romans used every day with reference to Ireland in their camps and cities. The Anglo-Normans of the Irish towns used similar language at a much later period of the wild Irish in their own neighbourhood, whom they described as wild, savage, and uncivilized—because they did not speak the English tongue, and dress themselves in the English fashion.

It has been also said that there could not have been at the period of Patrick’s birth a Roman town, with a curia and decurions, using the Latin tongue, on the banks of the Clyde. People who speak thus do not know the full history of the Roman occupation of Britain.

There were many municipia at the time in Britain that might be regarded as almost Latin cities—in language, in customs, in civic life, in religion. Christianity was well known in some of them for at least 150 years, and was a ‘legitimate’ religion, with many followers favoured by the authorities for more than half a century. The Station at the Roman wall from the Firth to the Clyde was, as Skene has shown, one of their most important strongholds, garrisoned with a whole legion of troops, who had a standing camp at the western extremity of the wall, around which there naturally grew up a Roman Colony, with all the privileges of local self-government accorded to such municipal towns under the wise administration of Imperial Rome. That there was such a municipium at or near Ail-Cluade, the strongest point of the Roman frontier on the north, has been already shown, and we need not repeat the proofs here.

Then, again, it has been said that the Britain which Patrick describes in his Confession as his native country and the home of his parents might well refer to Armoric Britain, afterwards called Bretagne, or perhaps to that district around Boulogne-Sur-Mer where, according to Lanigan, a tribe called the Britanni dwelt. But the language of St. Patrick explodes these speculations. He says that he was most anxious to go to the ‘Britannias’ as to his country and his parents, and not only that, but to go as far as ‘Gallias,’ that he might visit the brethren and see the face of the saints of his Lord whom he knew. The word ‘Britanniae’ was never applied to any country but Great Britain; and it is here clearly distinguished from the ‘Gauls’ (Gallias), which included all the Roman Gaul, as Britanniae included all the five provinces of Roman Britain. The native country (patria) of St. Patrick was, therefore, some part of Roman Britain, and could not have been any part of Gaul which is so clearly distinguished from that Britain which was the Saint’s birth-place and the home of his parents (parentes) or relations. Besides, the best authorities tell us that the name Britannia (Minor) was never applied to Bretagne or any other part of Gaul before the middle of the fifth century, ‘or about the year 458,’ that is, eighty-six years after St. Patrick was born. The single sentence which we have quoted from the Confession refutes all arguments in favour of any part of Gaul as the native country of St. Patrick.

But it has been urged by Lanigan and others that Nemthor or Nemthur, which Fiacc tells us was the birth-place of Patrick, and is identified by Fiacc’s Scholiast ‘with Ail-Cluade, a city in North Britain,’ is not referred to as such by any other ancient writer. The famous Rock had, however, many names—the Roman name of Theodosia, the Celtic name of Ail-Cluade, or, as Bede calls it, Alcluith, the British name of Dunbritton, and, moreover, what we may call the Welsh name of Nevthur, which anyone can perceive is the same as Nemthur. This name is found in a poem of the Welsh bard, Taliessin, in the Black Book of Caermarthen, and clearly shows that it was applied to Ail-Cluade, as the Scholiast on Fiacc tells us. Neither Colgan, however, nor Lanigan had an opportunity of learning this most important identification. The Black Book of Caermarthen was not then published. It goes to show, too, that the name Nemthur, or Nevthur, as the Black Book has it, really means, ‘Holy Rock’ or Tower, because there was a famous Shrine on the Rock dedicated to St. Patrick from immemorial ages.

The name Nentria which Probus uses in reference to Patrick’s birth-place is also easily explained. He declares, like all our ancient writers who have touched the subject, that Patrick was born in Britain (in Britanniis natus est), and that his parents were from Bannave in the district of Tiburnia, not far from the Western Sea, ‘which village we have ascertained beyond doubt belonged to the province of Nentria, where giants are said to have dwelt of old.’

It appears to us quite clear that this form Nentria is merely an attempt to latinize the Welsh form Nevthur or Nemthur, the district or province taking its name from the capital. There were doubtless ‘giants’ graves’ of Celtic origin on the fringes of the hills around Dunbarton, just as they were in Ireland, and these graves would naturally lend countenance to the tradition that a wild race of gigantic stature once occupied the northern shores of the Clyde—which was doubtless true enough.

The Bannave of Probus is clearly a scribal error for Bannaven, or perhaps it is an attempt to give the name in the ablative case by dropping the n. This Regio Tiburnia is the Bonnavem Taberniae of the Confession, the Campus Tabernaculorum of the Latin Lives, and the Magh Tabern of the Celtic or British Scribes. It means, simply, as we have already shown, the Plain of the Tents by the River-Mouth, a most apt description of the great plain occupied by the Roman camp at the junction of the Leven and the Clyde, and there, we conclude without hesitation, St. Patrick was born in the year A.D. 372 or 373.

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