Brexit Stage Left: The Historical Patrick, ‘Britishness’ and Imperial Romanitas

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Image: William Warby / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I recently had the pleasure of reading an interesting article by Andrew Gardner which has just been published in the  Journal of Social Archaeology, entitled: Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities: A comparative view’ (January 17, 2017). The paper set out to explore the dynamics of imperial identity formation, both past and recent present, via the background of Brexit, Border Studies and frontier frameworks. In doing so, it draws upon several chronological examples, the most interesting to me of course being that of Insular Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

I have always been particularly interested in the creation, interplay and maintenance of multiple identities in the North Western Frontier Zone of Britain, South West Scotland and the Irish Sea during the same period – especially given the areas importance when it comes to Early Insular Christianity. Sites such as at Kirkmadrine, Whithorn, Maryport, Kirkliston et al, provide fleeting evidence for an early western regional Christian activity, commemoration and identity expression, not to mention the placing and effect of Hadrians Wall on peoples on both sides.

Indeed it is from this same area that the Historical Patrick  most likely hailed from, and within whose writings we can find a complex articulation and cognition of multiple religious and cultural identities – Irish, British, Pictish and Roman. Gardner’s interest in exploring the role and impact of ‘peripheral’ locations in the articulation, maintenance and transformation of larger imperial ‘core’ identities  is well placed and the  wider region’s geographic, political, economic and social interfaces in the 4th and 5th centuries provide an ideal vehicle for doing so.

Of course, we do not need to look very hard in the modern world to see that distinct cultural, religious and ethnic polities which border one another often result in a more visible and articulate ‘peripheral’ self expression/cognition of ‘core’ identity. Having a clearly defined and regular ‘other’ in plain sight provides ample social and political opportunities to develop cognitive and cultural distinctions of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. And it was, naturally, no different in the past. The writings of the Historical Patrick provide a rare, but valuable, window on the same.

Imagine my surprise then, to find two rather strange, almost throwaway statements by Gardner (albeit referencing others) on the very subject of the Historical Patrick’s own sense of identity – namely, that “he appears to have abandoned the idea of being Roman’ and that “he did not associate his religious identity with ‘Romaness'”.

I quote both below, in context (with my bold for emphasis).  Although I suspect the second example may not have been intended by the author as a direct reference to Patrick, I include it for clarity anyway – mainly due to it echoing the original statement and also the fact that Gardiner references the same author’s book in both cases.

More clearly, there is actually evidence for the continuation of both ‘British’ and ‘tribal’ identities after the end of Roman administration in the early 5th century, particularly from some of the small number of insular written sources, such as inscribed stones (White, 2007: 154–176, 202–207), and the 5th/6th century writings of Patrick and Gildas. It is especially notable that both of these authors appear to have abandoned the idea of being Roman (even though they write in Latin), but do identify as Britons (Higham, 2002: 39–73; Jones, 1996: 121–130).

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

Whether such patterns fully provided the resources for a ‘British’, as opposed to regional, identity is difficult to judge, partly because few artefact types survive the economic changes following on from Roman administrative withdrawal, and partly because our later ‘British’ written sources do not clearly articulate this identity in material terms, but rather in terms of Christianity vis-à-vis the pagan Saxons, and indeed the role of the church in social relations at this time is probably very significant (Higham, 2002: 59–72). However, it is ironic – but quite telling – that these Christian writers do not associate their religious identity with ‘Romanness’.

Gardner (2017), Brexit, boundaries and imperial identities

While this is no doubt true of the likes of Gildas, such a statement concerning the Historical Patrick would not, in this decade, find much support among anyone with a passing familiarity with his two surviving 5th Century documents. In fact, not only  can such a view be shown to clash considerably with Patrick’s own words, in-text allusions and inferences; it fundamentally misunderstands the very motivation behind Patrick’s lesser known document, the Epistola, or ‘Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus’ – a document  which, while promoting a somewhat idealized Christian version of Insular British Romanitas, nevertheless rests on Patrick’s own sense of his privileged background, status and entitlement as an Imperial Roman citizen.

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On Your Own, With No Direction Home: (St) Patrick’s Journey Across Ireland

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Image: Emmet Ó hInnéirghe (Used with Permission)

Introduction

It’s Thursday. It’s March 17th. If you’re a regular, you know what that means. To celebrate the day that’s in it and in keeping with time-honoured blog tradition, I hereby present my annual Patrician-themed rambling extravaganza – a forensic examination of a lesser spotted feature within the writings of the historical Patrick himself. This year, I thought I’d take a look at what appears to be a fleeting throwaway line from the Confessio concerning Patrick’s escape from captivity and subsequent two hundred mile journey across Ireland to an unknown port.

I have actually touched on it before, ever so slightly. Previously, I wrote a short audio book for Abarta Audioguides on Patrick’s six years in captivity; and towards the end of the section dealing with the young Patrick’s decision to make a break for freedom, I concluded with the following line:

If there was one thing that Patrick would have known after six years under Irish skies – it was the direction home. Towards the rising sun.

Aside the fact that it reads like an over-dramatic hollywood-esque voice-over (it sounds much better in the book, honestly!), its both over-exaggerated and simplified. For one thing, the sun doesn’t rise or set directly east/west, except for the equinoxes. In Patrick’s time as a slave in western Ireland on the shores of Killala Bay, it actually would have risen North East over the sea from his perspective during the summer months. Nevertheless, it was my little way of acknowledging a single line in the text of the Confessio and suggesting that there may be more than meets the eye to it.

The particular line centres on the youthful Patrick’s decision to leave his captor and head 200 miles across Ireland to a waiting ship/port – without knowing anybody or where he was going. Why is it important and worthy of examination? Well, I would suggest that it carries several implications. Celestial symbolism and biblical frameworks aside, Patrick did escape from captivity and he must have crossed Ireland somehow and I think a closer look hints at just how he may have done so. In addition, it opens up several other aspects:

a) its a further inference (other than his own words) to his youthful captivity being on the western Irish coast – something which continues to be questioned by certain sectors, despite modern Patrician scholarship being widely agreed on the matter

b) it forms a crucial event horizon (quite literally) in Patrick’s later theological framework and motivation for his mission

c) it potentially offers an indication of how he may have come to be there in the first place – as in, the manner in which he was transported to Ireland from Western Roman Britain.

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Patrick: Six Years A Slave

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Statue of St. Patrick, Foghill, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)

“I am a slave of a foreign people…”

Some time ago, I was kindly invited by Abarta Audio Guides to write a little something on the ‘Historical Patrick”. I jumped at the chance.

Abarta are an Irish company who specialise in audiobooks and audioguides concerning history, heritage, archaeology, culture and folklore. It also happens to be owned and run by archaeologists. There’s something special about heritage material produced by people who have researched, excavated, visited, surveyed and physically held such subject matter in their own hands. It’s comes across in their approach and work. Detail and perspective. I’d like to think it might occasionally come across in mine.

The medium of audio is something which I have been interested in exploring for a while. I’m a podcast and radio fiend who inhales historical media. Abarta gave me the absolute freedom to do what I wanted. The brief was to come up with something engaging for people interested in learning more about the Historical Patrick – something which would explore the real life person underpinning his later saintly namesake.

We wanted to give an idea of his overall background within Ireland and Britain of the time, the landscape he would have witnessed and to give a flavour of what is known about the physical, social and cultural realities. We wanted to let his own story, his own words from his own hands, take centre stage whilst also retaining a wider academic framework informing the narrative. We wanted something which would reflect the rich details, issues and complexities involved in studying Patrick and his works alongside his importance and place in the development of later Irish identity and tradition.

The resulting audiobook, ‘Patrick; Six Years A Slave’, has just been released.

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The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [3]

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Nephin dwarfs Croagh Patrick in County Mayo – Image: Mayo.Me / Flickr / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

<–Continued from Part Two

Show Me The Money

If Patrick indeed managed to establish himself in such a manner – as a publicly recognized high status figure (and related Christian ‘kindred’) within insular Irish society –  then he could have opened up an entirely different revenue stream quite apart from the previously mentioned gifts, offerings and even perhaps, any potential seed funding or external support from British Christian supporters.

As we have seen, in the later law tracts, a noble was entitled to receive his rightful portion of his clients shares and profits. As a Christian leader/Bishop Patrick would have likely expected occasional offerings from his more wealthy converts. As a ‘lord’ over ‘base clients’ however, he would have possibly been in a position to act as an initial seed funder himself – lending funds/goods/agricultural stock (on a favorable basis) to fledgling Christian clients in return for future shares/dividends/surplus. This in turn could have provided a regular ‘revenue stream’ to fund the expense of  his larger missionary efforts.

Quid pro quo – the more converts/clients brought in, the more revenue increases; the higher the increase in revenue, the higher the amounts he had to spend; the more he spent, the more  converts/clients he could bring in. Its essentially business marketing/localization 101 – early medieval Irish style. A self sustaining system, reliant on the flow of ‘funds’ from one level to the next.

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The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [2]

Continued from Part One.

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So what could have the historical Patrick meant when he said that he paid out ‘the price of fifteen men/persons’? And what could that potentially tell us about early Irish Christian communities in fifth century Ireland?

Here’s the original passage again:

Uos autem experti estis quantum ego erogaui illis qui iudicabant per omnes regiones quos ego frequentius uisitabam. Censeo enim non minimum quam pretium quindecim hominum distribui illis, ita ut me fruamini et ego uobis semper fruar in Deum. Censeo enim non minimum quam pretium quindecim hominum distribui illis, ita ut me fruamini et ego uobis semper fruar in Deum. Non me paenitet nec satis est mihi: adhuc impendo et superimpendam; potens est Dominus ut det mihi postmodum ut meipsum impendar pro animabus uestris.

“You yourselves however, are not lacking in how much I expended/paid out to those who judge in all of the regions I visited often. I reckon/assess that I truly distributed a minimum worth/price/value of fifteen men…in order that you enjoy/have the benefit from me and that I always enjoy/have the benefit from you in God. I am not sorry, nor am I satiated, moreover I will still spend  and spend more besides, as long as I am able. God is powerful  and may yet grant/let me spend myself for your souls.”

Confessio 53 (My Trans.)

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The Price of Patrick: Fifteen Men (On a Deadmans Chest) [1]

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Photo credit: Pedro Vezini / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

March 17th is almost upon us – and so time enough to indulge in another exploration of the historical (St) Patrick’s own words in honour of the man himself.  In keeping with recently established blog tradition, this year I thought that I would take a  forensic look at one particular portion of his text where he discusses issues involving payments, protections and expenditure – on his part – towards that of native authorities. In particular, at his famous referencing of his own ‘price’ of ‘fifteen men/persons’ (Confessio 53).

By doing so, I hope not only to illustrate how his mission may have come under suspicion from fifth century British Christians, but also highlight implications which may point towards his possible modi operandi within insular Irish society. If correct, these same aspects may also provide a fragmentary insight into the economic and social organisation/makeup of some of the earliest Christian communities in Late Iron Age/Early Medieval Ireland.

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On a Wing and De Paor: Saint Patrick’s World

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Cover: Jarlath Hayes/Garry Jordan (Four Courts Press)

Int. Lecture Hall – Day

It was just another wet day in a wet week (in a wetter Ireland) but I remember it well. Crowded lecture hall filling up with babbling undergraduates. Messy desks, discarded papers and empty coffee cups from the previous lecture (the type of subject that produces students with hungover frowns and disaffected scarves). The white noise of several hundred history students shoving their way in – past those exiting – talking over each other whilst looking for pens and refill pads down the bottom of soggy bags. The smell of wet canvas runners. The smell of socks just beginning to turn a dryer shade of kale.

I was one of them. It was probably my own feet.

We sat there, idly watching the lecturer set up for the class, part of a general introduction to Medieval Europe. The topic was the Conversion of Ireland. Or something. Up came a pretty awful stereotypical picture of the national saint in bright green and then a single sentence: ‘Would the real St. Patrick please stand up?’ People started to take notice. Some even wrote it down, blindly.  What followed over the next 40 minutes or so was the stuff of movies of what university should be like, but rarely is.

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Less DA Binchy Code, Please… St Patrick’s Origins: In His Own Words (2)

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Vox Hiberniae flying over Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. Image: Europeanstamps.net / Public Domain

(…continued from Part 1)

Patricks Origins: In His Own Words

Which brings us (finally!) to the matter at hand. In the light of all the above considerations – what does the historical Patrick actually say about his origins in his own writings? As previously noted, Patrick  uses the term ‘Britanniis’ a total of three times. One of those examples is not entirely specific as to his origins, although it does infer the location of his clerical background in later life, and the location where his family apparently pleaded with him not to leave – just prior to his setting off for Ireland. I include here anyway:

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Less DA Binchy Code, Please… St Patrick’s Origins: In His Own Words (1)

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Photo credit: -RobW- / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

A recent exchange in the letters page of the Irish Times concerning the historical (St) Patrick’s origins has compelled me to wade into the mire of modern-day Patriciana. Quapropter olim cogitaui scribere, sed et usque nunc haesitaui…

The exchange originated between Rev. Marcus Losack, a pilgrimage leader and spiritual guide, and Dr Elva Johnston of the School of History & Archives, UCD, Dublin. Rev. Losack, who has been promoting a book on the subject for a while now, took exception to a letter by Dr. Johnston in which she noted flaws within his recent rehashing of an old argument –  Patrick being a Breton, from Brittany – as opposed to the historically attested view of his being a Romano-Briton.

‘Ooh La La’

The response by Rev Losack is a tour de force in historical misinterpretation, misappropriation and selective ‘reasoning’.  In it, he expresses (in an impressively accomplished display of vaudevillian histrionics) a misplaced ‘sense of dismay and disappointment at the tone of Dr Johnston’s letter’ and castigates her as taking an ‘extremist position’ by ‘refusing to countenance any alternative theory’.  He asserts that such a view ‘reflects a certain academic arrogance and authoritarianism which does not do justice to the complexity of the subject’. After then implying that the Royal Irish Academy’s current rendition of a key linguistic term is influential enough to lend favour in some way towards a quasi-national (dare I suggest, illuminati inspired?) academic plot designed to hide the original meaning – he then finishes by channelling the words of that world-renowned heroic denizen of historical accuracy & wisdom, Dan Brown, towards the possibility of the ‘experts in Dublin’ being in error.

Rev Losack is, unfortunately, very much mistaken.

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Ad Solis Victi Hibernicum: To the Conquered Irish Sun

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Setting Sun, Atlantic Ocean, Ireland (Image: Author)

Seeing as today is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, I thought I’d share the earliest contemporary historical reference to pagan Irish sun-worship which is found within Patrick’s Confessio, written sometime in the fifth century AD. It occurs at the very climax of the document as Patrick is signing off and declaring his deep Christian faith and belief in his ‘children of the living God and co-heirs of Christ’…

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