Saint Patrick: A Scholarly Search for His Birth Place and Date

    

     This is an article on the background of Saint Patrick rather than looking at his faith or his missionary work for the Irish.

     Although some of Saint Patrick’s own writings, the Confessio and the Epistola, have survived in eight documents, there is little information about his early years in these. The Confessio was written to praise God and to discuss Patrick’s repentance and faith, rather than to provide a simple chronological narrative of the events in his life. Some scholars have also seen in it a defence of himself against false accusations. To Patrick, the Confessio was not an autobiography but a repayment of all God had done for him. He may have been inspired by the Confessio of St Augustine written in 400AD. The Confessios of Saints Augustine and Patrick are the only such documents, from the earlier church at least, to survive today.

     St Columba (Columcille), 523-597 AD, was the “first to declare the miracles of Patrick”[1] and Muirchú moccu Mactheni wrote a hagiography of Saint Patrick in the 7th century. However hagiographies tend to be idealised accounts, written to burnish the reputation of the saint in question, and it is unwise to treat such accounts as historical accounts.

     Scholars do not agree on the year he was born. In his own account he says that he was captured by slavers when he was fifteen or sixteen years old (the secondary accounts differ as to his age at this point), he spent about six years as a slave in Ireland but then managed to escape to Gaul where he trained as a cleric.

     The period of his mission to Ireland may then give some indication of his birth date. He didn’t escape until he was about 21 or 22 and then spent some years training as a cleric so he was unlikely to have gone to Ireland as a missionary before his mid twenties at the very earliest. The likely years of his mission have been suggested to be either from 432 to 461 or from 457to 492/3 AD. The 493 death date was given in the Annals of the Four Masters but this account also said he was 122 years old when he died. The Annals of Ulster also claim he died “in the 120th year of his age, in the 60th year after he had come to Ireland to baptize the Irish”.[2]  Since 492/3 is 60 years after 432, the date the Annals of Ulster claim he came to Ireland, this may be an indicator that the earlier range is the correct one.

     So the dates of birth suggested include:

  • 373 ~ This is according to the Breton legend (see below) and the date given by the Annals of Ulster. But by 461, the earliest possible date of death, Patrick would have been close to 90, which seems a little old for a century when living was hard and the medical interventions available were primitive.
  • 387 ~ Ballinger
  • 390 ~ Curran

     Since the earliest range of mission years in Ireland run from 432, Patrick cannot have been born much later than about 405.

     His father was called Calpornius and his mother’s name was Conchessa. Calpornius was a deacon and decurion (an official in the Roman Empire) in the vicus (town) of Bannavem Taburniae. Calpornius’s father was Poititus who was a priest.

     However most secondary sources amend the town name to Bannaventa Berniae as Bannavem Taburniae is improbable Latin. His father had a country seat nearby. De Paor suggested that as a Roman official who owned a country estate, Calpornius was probably from Romanised British nobility.

     It is not known definitely where Bannaventa Berniae was located but it is likely to have been on, or very close to, the west/south-west coast of Britain which would allow Irish slavers to cross the Irish sea, land, do a quick raid and then escape over the sea without having to battle their way back to the waters edge. Muirchú confirms that Bannaventa Berniae was a place not far from the sea and that he had been informed (no sources given) that this place had become Ventre by the 7th century. Some scholars have identified the most likely Venta in the 7th century would have been Venta Silurum. This was the market town of the Silures tribe near the Severn estuary. This is now Caerwent in Gwent, in modern Wales.

     Two other location claims are based on the basis that Banna (root ban) is a Celtic word meaning bend, crook or peak[3]: Banwell in Somerset, a modern country in south-west England, and Banwen in modern Neath Port Talbot in Wales.

     Other claims for the location of Bannaventa Berniae include: Ail-Cluade (Nemethur)?, Dumbarton and Birdoswald on Hadrian’s wall.

     In 1879 Cardinal Moran claimed it was a long-standing tradition in Ireland and Scotland that St Patrick had been born in the valley of the Clyde. This does not mean that it was Bannaventa Berniae was in that valley as his father, being a Roman official, may have moved around.

     One unusual claim I came across was that Bannaventa was Boulogne-sur-Mer in Brittany, now in France. It was in a small book written by William Canon Fleming who was the rector of St Mary’s Moorfields in London. It had a typewriter written letter in the front but was old enough in 1948 for the British Library to do some repairs to it. Flemming said that Boulogne used to be called Bononia and claimed it was called Bonaven in Gaelic. He recounted a Breton folk tale which said that the Irish, having previously plundered Britain in 388, crossed the channel and captured Patrick from Boulogne. 

 ***

Bibliography

  1. De Paor, Máire B., 1998, Patrick the Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland: St. Patrick’s Confessio and Epistola. Veritas Publications: Dublin.
  2. Bieler, Ludwig (edited by Richard Sharpe), 1986, Studies on the Life and Legend of St. Patrick. Variorum Reprint: London.
  3. Curran, Bob, 2007, Celtic Saints. St David’s Press: Cardiff.
  4. The death and burial of St. Patrick, http://www.culturalheritageireland.ie/index.php/irish-history-from-the-annals/80-irish-history-from-the-annals/187-the-death-and-burial-of-st-patrick , Accessed 14/03/16
  5. Ballinger, Lucy (BBC Wales), 2015, Was St Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, a Welshman? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-31912199 Accessed 14/03/16.
  6. Fleming, William Canon (rector of St. Mary’s, Moorfields, London), not dated – pre 1948, A Summary of Proofs that Saint Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, was a native of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France.
  7. Jelley, Harry, not dated but post 1996, Saint Patrick’s Somerset Birthplace. Cary Valley Historical Publications: Somerset.

Footnotes:

[1] Bieler, pg 405

[2] The death and burial of St. Patrick, http://www.culturalheritageireland.ie/index.php/irish-history-from-the-annals/80-irish-history-from-the-annals/187-the-death-and-burial-of-st-patrick

[3] Jelley and Ballinger

By Patricia Deegan

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