Saint Patrick in his own words


Today is Saint Patrick’s day. And yet for a long time, all I had associated with this saint was his holiday, drunken green-clad revellers, the Irish, leprechauns, and a story about snakes. He was more of a cartoon figure than a man, a cheesy one-dimensional character not really much more credible than Santa Claus.

But then some months ago I stumbled across his Confession, a fifth century work in Latin. (Here’s a free English translation, and here’s a Latin version.) I didn’t know any of his writings had actually survived. The Patrick of the Confession was a refreshing change from the Patrick of legend. It was a window into a world I had barely glimpsed before – the life of an early British missionary in Ireland.

Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the fifth century, in a small town called Bannavem Taberniae (possibly Bannaventa). When he was about sixteen years old, Irish raiders took him captive along with thousands of other people and set him to work herding pigs in Ireland. After six years of forced labour he escaped and was eventually reunited with his family in Britain. Later in Britain he experienced a vision which called him to spread the gospel to Ireland, and so there he returned, preaching and baptising in spite of hostility from some of the Scotti (the people who lived in Ireland, who later populated what is now known as “Scotland”). He was not the absolute first Christian missionary in Ireland, but he must have made quite an impression among the locals there with his humility and passion to spread God’s love, as he is now the most celebrated of all the Irish saints.

In Latin, Patrick’s Confession begins,

Ego Patricius, peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilis sum apud plurimos
I, Patrick, am a sinner, the most country-bumpkin-like person, the least of all the faithful and contemptible among many. (Patrick, Confession, 1)

One of the striking features of Patrick’s Confession, like the other Confessions written by Christians at the time, is how real he is about himself. He does not mince words or try to sugar-coat his condition. It’s a portrait of Patrick, warts-and-all. There aren’t any cheesy green hats or tales of snakes. This is Patrick as a person, spilling his blemishes onto the page. ‘I am a sinner,’ he says, ‘and contemptible among many.’

He continues, and tells you he was the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest:

patrem habui Calpornium diaconum filium quendam Potiti filii Odissi presbyteri, qui fuit in uico Bannauem Taberniae.
I have as a father Calpornius, a deacon, who is the son of Potitus, a priest, the son of Odissus, who was in the district of Bannavem Taberniae. (1)

He had a lot of clergy in his immediate ancestry. His father Calpornius was a deacon, while his grandfather Potitus was a priest. These days, it is quite hard to picture Catholic clergy getting lawfully married and having children. But not all priests and deacons were celibate in Patrick’s time. The custom of Catholic priests remaining celibate grew especially after the writings of the great Augustine, a former sex-addict who turned celibate, who was active at around the same time as Patrick in the middle of the fifth century. There were some rare examples of married Popes (generally, married before they were elected Popes) up to as late as Pope Clement IV in the 13th century (1265-1268). Even to this day Eastern Orthodox Christianity still has married priests. Patrick’s Confession thus gives us a less often seen picture of married priests in the early centuries of Church history, particularly in the history of the West.

Patrick’s rather unsophisticated command of Latin is also very interesting. There are some Latin authors I admire from this period, like Augustine, who wrote with clarity and good style. Patrick’s writing is different. He frequently misspells words, substituting ae with e and vice versa. He writes hessitavi instead of haesitavi (section 9), aeuanguelio instead of evangelio (20), aepistolis instead of epistulis (23). Sometimes he uses the wrong case, as when he says that he was led to Ireland in captivity, he puts Ireland into the ablative instead of the accusative (Hyberione, 1). You can almost imagine him smudging the ink as he writes.

He has a good excuse for not being so flash at Latin, though. At his own admission, he hadn’t spent much of his life studying Latin and was more used to speaking the old Irish language (implied in the “foreign tongue” he mentions):

Quapropter ollim cogitaui scribere, sed et usque nunc hessitaui. Timui enim ne incederem in linguam hominum, quia non dedici sicut et caeteri qui optime itaque iure et sacras literas utroque pari modo combiberunt, et sermones illorum ex infantia numquam motarunt; sed magis ad perfectum semper addiderunt. Nam sermo et loquela mea translata est in linguam alienam, sicut facile potest probari ex saliua scripturae meae […]
For this reason I once thought to write, but until now I have hesitated. For I feared that I would offend against the language of men, since I have not dedicated myself as others who have wonderfully assimilated both the law and the scriptures equally well and have never changed their ways of speech since infancy, but always perfected their speech. For my speech and language have been translated into a foreign tongue, as can easily be proven from the taste of my writing […] (9)

Between the ages of 16 and 23, he had been herding livestock in Ireland; that wouldn’t have given him much time to study Latin. And when he later returned to Ireland for missionary work, he would have most commonly been speaking and preaching to them in the old Irish language. He’s not a stylish Latin writer, but his inelegance is a charming reflection of his life as a preacher to the people.

Saint Patrick on a stained glass window in Saint Patrick Church, PA (Source)
Saint Patrick Church, PA (Source)

The converts Patrick mentions in his Confessions are also extremely fascinating. Too often, the image of the “Christian missionary” is tainted with the narrative of European Colonialism and equated with racism and intolerance.  People push aside the accounts of successful, peaceful Christian missions in any part of the world because they don’t conform to the stereotype.  Rarely does anyone acknowledge that converts can actually be genuinely thankful for Christian missionaries, as so many generations of Irish were thankful for Patrick’s work.

Patrick recounts people of all stages of life choosing to come to the Christian faith even though it cost them dearly. He mentions in particular an Irish noblewoman who, bizarrely to modern preconceptions of the placid medieval female, said to Patrick she had received a divine calling and wished to become a celibate, a “virgin of Christ”, despite her parents’ considerable hostility to the idea:

Et etiam una Scotta benedicta, Scotta genitiua, nobilis, pulcherrima, adulta erat, quam ego baptizaui: et post paucos dies una causa uenit ad nos: insinuauit namque nobis responsum accepisse a nutu Dei, et monuit eam ut esset uirgo Christi, et ipsa Deo proximaret. Deo gratias, sexta ab hac die optime et auidissime arripuit illud, quod etiam omnes uirgines Dei ita hoc faciunt; non sponte patrum earum; sed persecutionem patiantur et inproperia falsa a parentibus suis.
And there was, besides, a most beautiful, blessed, native-born noble Irish [Scotta] woman of adult age whom I baptized; and a few days later she had reason to come to us to intimate that she had received a prophecy from a divine messenger [who] advised her that she should become a virgin of Christ and she would draw nearer to God. Thanks be to God, six days from then, opportunely and most eagerly, she took the course that all virgins of God take, not with their fathers’ consent but enduring the persecutions and deceitful hindrances of their parents. (42)

Patrick celebrates the everyday heroes, great and small, including the slaves and slave-girls who came to Christ despite strong opposition from their masters. (42) This is an account of the groundswell of Christianity in Ireland, written in fairly rudimentary Latin by a person who was there on the floor while it happened. It has many unconventional features, a tale of a kidnapped British boy, son of a deacon, humble and not particularly sophisticated. In diverse ways, the Confession brings out a side of the story that would otherwise have never been heard, which challenges the modern reader’s preconceptions of missionary activity at the edges of the faltering Roman Empire.


2 responses to “Saint Patrick in his own words”

  1. […] The move to substitute e for the ae diphthong may have been motivated in part by the change in pronunciation. In Vergil’s day, ae probalby had an “ai” sound like the English word “eye”, whereas by the early Middle Ages the diphthong was scarcely distinguishable from the sound of the letter e, as evidenced from misspellings in works such as the Confession of Saint Patrick. […]

  2. If you want more Latin from Patrick there’s also the Letter to Coroticus. Sadly it seems that all other supposed information about Patrick is of much later origin and dubious at best. Meanwhile, most early Irish Latin apparently has a very different character to Patrick’s: .

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