Thursday, March 17, 2016

Shamrocks, Snakes, Maewyn Sucat and the Wearing of the Green: The Making of Saint Patrick

By Linda Root

The historic Saint Patrick can be hard to find:

Seeking insight into the historical figure we know as Saint Patrick, is more a lesson in historiography than biographical research. It can be a far more arduous endeavor than merely separating the man from the myth. It is every bit as much a quagmire as tracing the origin of the historical Arthur, and equally controversial. More than fifteen hundred years after his celebrated date of death, grown men and women of academic celebrity are duking it out over his origin in a style more common to the pubs of Dublin on Saint Patrick’s Day at closing time than the hallowed halls of Cambridge. One eminent historian, Cambridge Professor David Dumville, cites a remark of a colleague that ‘in Patrician studies scholars have left no stone unthrown.’[i],[ii]

When I elected to write my March post about Saint Patrick, I had no idea I had stepped into an academic brawl which still rages, in spite of Professor Dumville’s assertions to the contrary.  With that comment out of the way, there is one fact about Saint Patrick about which there is no controversy:  There is scant in common between the historical and the mythic Sanctus Patricius, or the holiday celebrating him.

Grandpa had it wrong: 

Henry C. Patterson and his granddaughter.
Every year of my early life in Cleveland, on March 17th my grandfather Henry Clay Patterson would don a top hat and march in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.   I wonder what he would say if he had known Saint Patrick was likely born a Scotsman. While there are several locations along the coast of the Irish Sea and the English Channel, which claim him, Western Scotland near Dumbarton is a current favorite, unless, of course, you are Welsh. Some modern scholars go so far as to suggest that Patrick was born in Brittany. 
A brief overview of the powerful symbolism surrounding the patron saint of Ireland uncovers more passion on the part of the various claimants to Saint Patrick’s past than those who write about his achievements.

There are some other surprising facts concerning Saint Patrick about which there is no quarrel. For example, his birth name was not Patrick. He was born Maewyn Sucat, and he was not Irish  He was more than likely British, although even that is subject to debate. There is controversy as to the proper definitions of the words  Brittania or Brittanii as they appear in early histories. At least one competent writer, Marcus Losack, makes a good argument that the saint’s ancestors fled Roman Scotland for Bretagne (Britany) when the Romans withdrew, which, of course, is on the northwest coast of France. Losack's hypothesis would explain but not resolve Maewyn Sucat’s familiarity with what linguists call Early Living Latin. There is good evidence the saint did not learn his  Latin in the Roman Catholic Church.[iii] While some historians conclude he had traveled to Gaul to prepare for his ministry, others speculate he may have been born there. Well-regarded Late Latinist scholar Christine Mohrmann finds 'There are in the language of Saint Patrick many elements of living Late Latin which cannot possibly be traced back to British Latin. Therefore, we must allow for a contact of Patrick with the Continent.’[iv] How and when that may have occurred is another topic for debate.

If not Irish, who was Maewyn Sucat?

There are as many factions struggling to construct a claim to the Irish saint as there are battling over the origin of  Arthur Pendragon. A survey of the literature suggests the Arthurians are more civilized than the Patricians. In his short biography[v], Daniel Colston says: 'The mythical Patrick was created because history was not yet discovered as a science in the 7th century and writers of history were more concerned with a good story.’ 
Even a brief survey of the literature reveals historians are not always civil when  they disagree. Although Professor Dumville declares the debate has died down with the death of the most aggressive of the combatants, he obviously has not read his colleague Barbeiri's acerbic review of Dumville's book on Amazon.

Daniel Colston, in his short biography, reminds us the traditional images of Saint Patrick, with shepherd’s cross and mitered hat, is a fiction of the Holy Roman Church. Saint Patrick lived in the 5th century, hundreds of years before Catholic bishops costumed themselves in that manner. While most historians agree Saint Patrick was a member of an early British Christian sect, he was not Catholic in the classical sense. Colston has him born on the southwestern coast of Roman Britain, to an aristocratic family. The language in his village would have been Latin. The Angles and the Saxons came much later. Other sources place his family home in Strathclyde, Scotland, and some favor Wales. Strathclyde seemed rather far north for a lad who spoke Latin.  But with evidence surfacing indicating the Romans had a garrison at or near Carlisle, the Scots are currently back in the game. Others argue in favor of Brittany. While Patrick’s own writings should be dispositive of questions concerning his vital statistics, they are not. In his Confession, he calls his birthplace Bannavem Tiburniae but does not place it geographically. His writing discusses his spiritual birth, not his mortal one.

How Maewyn Sucat got to Ireland: Blame it on the Pirates

Wherever it may have been, Maewyn Sucat’s homeland was the site of frequent raids by the Irish king ‘Niall of the Nine Hostages’. Marcus Losack, in his recent book Rediscovering Saint Patrick: A New Theory of Origins at Kindle Location 206,  is convinced the future saint lived in a family estate on the coast of Brittany and was captured when he was age sixteen by Niall’s raiders. Patrick’s writing confirms the kidnapping and his age at the time, but not the locale. A folk history of inhabitants at the location Losack pinpoints talks of a family of Scottish origin which had fled to Bretagne when Roman troops withdrew from Britain to protect Roman holdings in France. However, Losack’s explanation is only one of many that fits if you so desire. Other sources have adolescent Maewyn carried off from an area near Dumbarton, which supports a Scottish birth. One recent historian has suggested the controversy is caused by Saint Patrick’s parents hailing from Scotland but having a vacation home on the coast of France.  Except in the minds of certain partisan academics, the puzzle remains unsolved.

Wikimedea Commons-
Solway Firth north of Carlisle

Maewyn Sucat and Ireland:

All versions of Saint Patrick’s story including his own work, Confession, place his capture and abduction at or near the dawn of the fifth century, circa A.D. 400. Raids by Irish slavers were apparently common. While accounts are not specific, including the one written by Patrick himself, it seems he was sold to a sheep owner and was forced to tend flock in an inhospitable, remote location, possibly in County Mayo, which for those of you who do not know your Irish geography, is a long, long way from the spot where the Clyde flows into the Irish Sea.
At some point during the six years of his captivity, the future Saint Patrick experienced an epiphany. Not only did he abandon his name, but also his way of life. Perhaps due to the remoteness and the isolation from his friends and family, Maewyn Sucat became spiritualized. He also learned the language and some of the cultural traits of his captors. Authorities are mixed as to the nature and strength of his religion during the sixteen years before he was seized but agree he was not Catholic in the orthodox sense. This does not mean he had not been closely affiliated with a religious community in the land of his birth.  In his writings, he implies his father was a public official and perhaps a deacon in a nascent Christian church. While Maewyn Sucat may have been earmarked for the priesthood, nowhere in his early life is there evidence of the deep religious fervor that came later.

Little is known of Saint Patrick’s circumstances during his captivity. When he wrote about it later, he focused on his spiritual awakening.  He is not the first nor the last of his kind to have found his God in the wilderness and received divine revelations in the form of dreams. In one of them, voices told it was time for him to leave - a ship was waiting to take him home. According to his own account, although he was far from a seaport, he had enough confidence in the dream to walk for days. Says Saint Patrick: 
’It was not nearby, but a good two hundred miles away. I had never been to the place, nor did I know anyone there. So I ran away then, and left the man with whom I had been for six years. It was in the strength of God that I went - God who turned the direction of my life to good; I feared nothing while I was on the journey to that ship.’[Colston, Daniel, Ibid, (Kindle Locations 161-163).
When he arrived, he found a ship with a crew willing to give him passage home, wherever home may have been.  

Maewyn Sucat returns to his homeland: The Lost Years

Few facts are known of Saint Patrick’s history for the next several years. While Some writers infer his immediate family had been slain at the time of his kidnapping, Saint Patrick in  Confessions talks of his reunion with his parents, who urge him never to leave again. Apparently there were three significant religious characters named Patrick in the fifth-century timeframe. The account of the murder of his family may relate to another Patrick. In the mid-twentieth-century, there was significant support for a Two-Patricks Explanation. Nevertheless, from his own writing, the Patrick the subject of this review  was reabsorbed into the political and religious community from whence he came. Again, what we learn from the written words of our protagonist, albeit of suspect translation, has more to do with his faith than his surroundings. One fact is clear: His experience in captivity in Ireland had changed him.
In a popular rendition of Confessions, the man who became Saint Patrick speaks of joyous days with his parents. Other evidence suggests he may have traveled to Gaul to prepare for the spiritual life he had embarked upon in Ireland. He had become a Man of God and was expecting God to call him to a mission. Then came a time when his dreams came more specific.  He heard voices he identified as the collective voice of the Irish People.

‘“We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for. Another night – I do not know, God knows, whether it was within me or beside me – I heard authoritative words which I could hear but not understand, until at the end of the speech it became clear: “The one who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks in you”; and I awoke full of joy.’[vi]
There is some evidence not all of the leaders in his early church were excited to send him back. Apparently one of his lifelong friends had betrayed a childhood secret which tarnished Patrick’s image. In his writings, Patrick admits to an unspecified sin committed in his youth. But when he made it clear he intended to return to Ireland with or without the blessings of the hierarchy of his church, they reluctantly endorsed his mission to Ireland. Mayhap they wanted to be rid of him. Substantial evidence exists in Papal archives indicating Pope Leo the Great had already sent an alternative Patrick to Ireland, known to history as Palladius, who may have been Patrick’s predecessor and might have been his alter-ego. During the middle Twentieth Century, a historian questioned if the discrepancies in Patrick's history emerged because there were actually two of them. A parallel  debate still rumbles if not rages as to the extent of the Christian presence before 431, or the degree of convergence of the stories of the two bishops. Perusal of the evidence suggests the existence of a somewhat limited Christian church presence in Ireland prior to either Palladius or Patrick, and concedes the possibility of confusion between their separate missions. Late developing evidence suggests Palladius was indeed a bishop sent by Rome, but due to the expansion of Anglo-Saxon power in Britain in the latter half of the fifth century, the Roman Church abandoned the Irish mission to the British church after Pallaadius died. Rome had troubles enough without concerning itself with the Irish.

Saint Patrick preaching to an Irish King atTara

Mitered Hat, Shamrocks and other Shams:

One of Saint Patrick’s biographers has stated that Patrick’s intimate association with Jesus and the Messianic Message was precisely what the wild Irish needed to hear. Like the Jews of ancient Palestine, they were a downtrodden people badly in need of a hero—a Deliverer. By revealing Jesus in a messianic role, Saint Patrick led thousands upon thousands of the Irish to embrace Christianity. Some of his converts were kings. Christian, including Catholic, doctrine was in flux. His own beliefs were not Catholic in the classical sense. They were early Christian, centered on the existence of Jesus, and not the glory of the nascent Catholic Church. Patrick was a strict Trinitarian, and his teachings stressed the separate natures of the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. He understood and used scripture and symbolism in his ministry, which is likely where the Shamrock legend comes into the story. He may have drawn three circles in the dirt with his staff, and others might have thought it resembled a shamrock, but there is no evidence the saint used a shamrock in his teachings. The significance of the Shamrock is its exclusivity to Ireland, at least until modern times.

The origin of the legend of the snakes is evident in its simplicity. There are no snakes in Ireland: Why not give credit to Saint Patrick with eradicating them? And what about the paintings and sculptures and stained glass windows of the Irish saint? They represent an awe inspiring Catholic Saint, but certainly not Saint Patrick. Even Roman bishops did not adopt the mitre until the eleventh century. And yet, it is almost universal in depictions of Saint Patrick. Again, the answer is obvious. The Roman Church was claiming him as one of its own.

The Catholic Icon

Somehow in the midst of snakes and shamrocks and mitres, we have forgotten that Saint Patrick had learned their language during his captivity, and sustained an intense dialog with common Irishmen. He also stood toe to toe with kings. He spread the Christian doctrine as Jesus did, to the masses, not always from the pulpit.  He converted many kings and publicly chastised a British warlord king for his bloodlust and sinfulness. Yet, more is written of his origin than his acts.
Which brings us to the topic of Saint Patrick’s Day - a very secular holiday in its modern interpretation.

CONCLUSION:  Saint Patrick’s Day is a celebration of being Irish

Other than its name, Saint Patrick’s Day has little to do with the historic Saint Patrick but focuses upon our own real or feigned Irishness, which we demonstrate by wearing green or risk being pinched. We find our way to an Irish pub or a gathering of real or pseudo-Irish friends, fill up with corned beef and cabbage, after which we sing  "A Little Bit of Heaven” or “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” while lifting a pint of green beer. And some of us shed a tear.
Photo by the author.

And to us, it doesn’t matter where Maewyn Sucat was born. He died Irish. The degree to which he changed the spiritual face and the destiny of a nation of people who in diaspora, have impacted the history of the modern world is left to the quibbling of historians. Methinks it would be a worthy endeavor for them to write more about Saint Patrick’s mission, and less about his origin.

For those who are interested in Saint Patrick’s beliefs as revealed in his words, no matter how suspicious the translation, Confession is available on Amazon at the link listed in the author’s notes.  It is noteworthy that the emphasis on Patrick as a missionary is most often depicted on the covers of children’s books. Perhaps that is a good start in separating the Saint from the stained glass image of the man in the mitered hat.



Recently, my own life took a turn not so different than that of the mythic Saint Patrick: There was never any question that Henry Clay Patterson considered himself true Irish, although many who share his surname are Ulster Irish, deported from the Highlands during the 17th Century. His family was established in Maryland before the American Revolution. They were avid Episcopalians. In any event, there is good reason to believe my Patterson ancestry was Scottish.
But that is not all. My paternal grandmother’s name was Amy Jameson. You don’t get much more Irish than that unless your name is Guinness. However, last year we discovered the spelling of her surname was changed in the 1920’s when her sister became a sports executive in Cleveland—a very Irish town in those days. The surname Jameson was a career move. Alas, just like Maewyn Sucat, my grandmother Amy was a Scot, the daughter of Alexander Jamieson, of the Clan Gunn. I wonder if he was born in Strathclyde. I realized as I concluded my post that March 18th, tomorrow, is the 55th anniversary of my grandfather’s death.  He did not march in a parade that year, but on the night he died, I was present when he did a jig. 


A Kindle edition of Confession is available on Amazon for 99cents. The trade paperback is 6.99. Like most published versions of the Confession, even the earliest, questions arise as to the accuracy of the translation. St.Patrick’s Latin was not the liturgical Latin spoken by priests of the Roman Catholic church. It was a language spoken in his home and his community. Irish was his second language. We do not know what variance may exist between the Latin taught in schools and the vernacular Latin spoken in Roman Britain of the fifth century. With that caveat, here is the LINK:

Photos not otherwise attributed are from through Creative Commons. Maps courtesy of Sansculotte - German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Linda Root is the author of six historical novels set in Marie Stuart’s Scotland and the Early Jacobean years, including The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and the four books of the Legacy of the Queen of Scots Series: 1) The Midwife’s Secret-The Mystery of the Hidden Princess; 2) The Other Daughter- Midwife’s Secret II; 3) 1603: The Queen’s Revenge and 4) In the Shadow of the Gallows. The fifth in the series, The Deliverance of the Lam in coming this autumn. Root is a former prosecutor and a veteran of more than a hundred twenty jury trials. She lives in the high desert community of Yucca Valley, on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. In addition to being a regular contributor to EHFA, she is active at The Review blogspot and a Board Member of the M.m.Bennetts Award, an inactive member of the State Bar of Califoria, and a member of the Bar of the United States Supreme Court. Visit her author page on Amazon Author Page 

[i] Dumville, David, Saint Patrick A.D.493-1993, The Boydell Press, Suffolk, 1993, 1999, from the Forward contained in the front material.

[ii] It is interesting that Dumville claims the most vociferous of the combatants in the battle over Patrick’s origin to be dead at the time he published his book in 1993. His assertion is presumptuous. He should read the review his less than congenial colleague Italian historian and cartoonist F. Barbieri has posted on Amazon, calling Dumville an academic possessed of ‘an unconstructive attitude,’ who enjoys putting down the theories advanced by others.

[iii] Lossack, Marcus, Rediscovering Saint Patrick, A New Theory of Origin, Columba Press, Dublin, 2013.

[iv] Quoted from The Latin of Saint Patrick, p.50, by Dumville, op. cit. St.Patrick’s Missing Years, p 25.

[v] Colston, Daniel, SAINT PATRICK AND THE PRESENCE OF GOD: A Short Biography, North Garden Publishing Company, on Kindle

[vi] From Colston’s account and others.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Linda,
    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful and well researched article. There are enough books published about Patrick to fill a whole library! I take the view that Patrick's parents were both killed when the Irish pirates attacked his home in north east Brittany, where Chateau de Bonaban is now located. The latin word "parentes" possibly refers to his extended family or surviving family members, with whom he was reunited. According to the ancient sources, Patrick's father was from Strathclyde in "Scotland" which was a Welsh Kingdom at that time - and he mother Conchessa was "of the Franks". So no-one is excluded from the story! We have recently published a new translation of Saint Patrick's Letters in English and also in French. See Best wishes for your future writing and thanks for the article on Saint Patrick's Day. Marcus Losack


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