Who Was Saint Patrick of Ireland?

Saint Patrick is the famous patron saint of Ireland, but he comes from an obscure part of history. What do we really know about him?

Feb 9, 2024By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
who was saint patrick

 

Early Medieval Ireland is a fascinating era of history. It was the setting for numerous interactions with early Post-Roman Britain, which itself was experiencing a tumultuous period. For Ireland, although it was not reeling from the end of foreign occupation like Britain, this was a period of considerable change. This period is commonly known as the Early Christian era of Ireland. It was an era of extensive proselytizing. One of the most prominent Christian preachers of that era was Patrick, commonly known as “Saint Patrick.” He became so renowned in Ireland that he eventually became the patron saint of that country. What, if anything, can we really conclude about him historically?

 

Sources About Saint Patrick

book armagh confessio st patrick folio
Folio of the Book of Armagh, containing the earliest copy of Patrick’s Confessio, Source: Trinity College Dublin Library, Ireland

 

Saint Patrick is actually one of the best-documented individuals of the Early Christian period for one key reason. Notably, two of his own writings have survived. One of them is known as the Confessio (sometimes translated as Declaration). The other is known as the Epistola (sometimes called Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus). Of these two, the first is more useful when it comes to establishing facts about Patrick’s life. It contains some very useful autobiographical material. The Epistola is also useful, in that it contains some information about his contemporaries.

 

Patrick also appears in many sources that were written in the subsequent centuries. Naturally, these are not as historically valuable as the sources written by Patrick himself. Nonetheless, many of them were written not too long after Patrick’s own time, so they surely contain some authentic traditions. One example is the Collectanea, written in the seventh century by Tírechán. Another is the Vita Sancti Patricii, by Muirchú, written in that same century. Patrick also appears in various later annals, or chronicles, written in Ireland.

 

What the Confessio Reveals

saint patrick kidnapped irish pirates
Depiction of Patrick being kidnapped by Irish pirates, from Saint Patrick, by Adriaen Collaert, 1603, Source: The National Gallery of Ireland

 

Patrick’s own Confessio reveals various important details about his life and background. It explains what happened to him in his youth and how he came to be a preacher. According to his own account, he was from a religious family, with his father Calpurnius being described as a deacon. His grandfather, Potitus, was a priest. However, Patrick himself was not a strong believer in his youth. It was only after he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and held captive for six years that he developed a strong interest in spiritual matters. He was sixteen years old when this happened.

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After this period, Patrick claims that he heard a voice telling him that he would soon return home and that his ship was ready. He fled his master, found a ship many miles away, and convinced the captain to take him back to Britain. Once in Britain again, Patrick eventually managed to return to his family. There, he continued studying Christianity.

 

saint patrick pierces foot king cashel
Depiction of Patrick preaching, from Saint Patrick, by Adriaen Collaert, 1603, Source: The National Gallery of Ireland

 

According to his own account, Patrick subsequently had a vision of a man coming from Ireland with an appeal from the people. They wanted him to come and preach Christianity to them. Patrick therefore went out as a missionary to Ireland. In his Confessio, he responds to various accusations made against him regarding his conduct. He states emphatically that he did not accept money for baptisms. He returned gifts that rich women had given him. He also paid for gifts for prominent men, and he paid for companions to accompany him on his travels.

 

The Confessio does not provide many specific details about what he did in Ireland. However, Patrick does explain that he baptized thousands of people, converting rich women and even the sons of kings. He also established a group of priests to lead the new Christian communities that he had set up. Despite these many successes, Saint Patrick was subject to harsh persecution at times.

 

Where Was Saint Patrick Born?

saint patrick banwen birthplace
Banwen, the birthplace of Saint Patrick, Source: Wales Online

 

One interesting autobiographical detail from the Confessio is the name of Patrick’s birthplace. He refers to it as Bannavem Taburniae. There is considerable debate as to where this location was. One superficially attractive location is Bannaventa, a Roman town. However, despite the similarity between the two names, this cannot be the Bannavem Taburniae mentioned by Patrick. For one thing, Bannaventa is in Northamptonshire, right in the heart of the Midlands of England. Yet, Patrick explained that he had been kidnapped by Irish pirates. Unless this was a full invasion force — which is not what Patrick describes — Bannaventa was much too far inland.

 

Furthermore, Patrick refers to the fact that his home was near the western sea. This, too, excludes Bannaventa in Northamptonshire. It requires a place much further west. It also must be close enough to the coast for Irish pirates to realistically have raided it. A site that fits these criteria is Banwen in southeast Wales. The name “Banwen” may well be an evolution of the name “Bannavem” mentioned by Patrick.

 

What the Epistola Reveals

carlow cathedral saint patrick stained glass
Stained glass depiction of Patrick preaching to kings, by Franz Mayer, 19th century, Carlow Cathedral, Ireland, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Patrick’s other surviving piece of writing, the Epistola, concerns a specific conflict that he had to deal with. This document was an open letter to a prominent leader named Coroticus. Patrick accused Coroticus of taking his men while raiding in Ireland. For this reason, Patrick excommunicated Coroticus from the church.

 

Patrick does not provide much detail about who Coroticus was. Since he had soldiers at his disposal with which to raid and kidnap others, he was evidently a leader of some kind. Perhaps he was a king. Patrick connects him with the Scots (that is, the Irish) and the Picts. In this context, the Scots in question were likely those of Dal Riada, an Irish kingdom that had been established in Scotland, just next to the territory of the Picts. On this basis, Coroticus has traditionally been identified with a king from later medieval records known as Ceretic of Alclud. Alclud was a kingdom in Scotland based around Dumbarton Castle. The association with the Picts makes this more likely than the identification with Ceredic son of Cunedda, of Wales, which has sometimes been suggested.

 

The Dates of Patrick’s Life

annals of ulster
Annals of Ulster, 16th century, Source: Medievalist.net

 

One big issue that has been the subject of much scholarly debate is when Patrick lived. The Irish annals place his mission to Ireland in 432. His death is placed around 460. Some versions place it in 457, while others place it in 461 or 462. This difference of four or five years is likely not significant and simply reflects slight mistakes that have arisen in independent traditions over the years.

 

However, more significant than this is the fact that some Irish annals also recorded his death in the year 493. This is supported by a later entry. The entry for 553 describes the event of that year as occurring sixty years after the death of Saint Patrick. This, of course, would place his death in 493.

 

There is considerable debate as to whether this 493 death date is correct, or whether Patrick died in c. 460. Some scholars have pointed out that Patrick’s contemporaries in later medieval records tend to be figures from around the end of the fifth century to the beginning of the sixth. This would mean that the later date of 493 for his death is more likely to be correct.

 

The Earlier Saint Patrick

saint palladius church Fordoun
St Palladius Church, Aberdeenshire, Ireland, Source: Geograph.net

 

With this in mind, what explains the references in c. 460 to the death of Patrick? Well, one explanation is that this is a calculation error. However, there is a simpler explanation. We know from contemporary records that Pope Celestine sent a bishop named Palladius to preach in Ireland. This was in 431, as shown by the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, of the fifth century. This is very likely the origin of the statement in the Irish annals that Patrick traveled to Ireland in 432. The difference of a single year is insignificant in medieval records. Furthermore, a comparison of later stories about Palladius and Patrick indicates that some accounts were taken from one and applied to the other. This demonstrates that there was some confusion between the two men.

 

In line with this, the entry in the Irish annals which records Patrick’s death in the year 457 specifically notes that this was the death of “the elder Patrick.” This suggests an awareness of two different men who were sometimes known by the same name.

 

What We Know About Saint Patrick

tiepolo saint patrick patrizio
Saint Patrick, Bishop of Ireland, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1746, Civic Museums of Padova, Italy, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

In summary, what we know about Saint Patrick was that he was a native of Britain living at the end of the Roman era. He came from a place called Bannavem Taburniae, which was likely Banwen in southeast Wales. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was sixteen years old and held captive for six years, before returning to Britain and becoming a Christian preacher. He traveled to Ireland and preached there for many years, converting thousands of people. He also experienced many conflicts, including accusations of wrongdoing and his own men being taken by a chieftain named Coroticus. He traditionally traveled to Ireland in the year 432, but this was likely taken from the life of Palladius. Furthermore, his traditional death date of c. 460 also probably comes from Palladius. Patrick himself was probably active in Ireland in the second half of the fifth century, dying in about 493.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.