St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Armagh, where I was born, has two St Patrick Cathedrals, and St Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the world, by the Irish, and those who have even the tiniest of links to the Irish. Patrick was of course not Irish, but where was he born?
Wales, Britannia, Roman Britain, Cumbria – the man has more possible birthplaces than William Wallace, whose birthplace is also often disputed. But did they in fact have more in common? Was St Patrick also born in Scotland. Mike Haesler, archaeologist and researcher, certainly thinks so. Patrick, says Haseler, was not in fact born in Roman Britain, but in Scotland.
“Experts say he was born in Roman Britain” explains Haseler “and this is the popular belief. But evidence only shows that he used Latin words and had a Roman grandfather. St Patrick himself admitted to being poor at Latin, so it is unlikely he was born in Roman Britain. His father was a priest and his grandfather a local councillor, and his family were Roman, but this doesn’t necessarily mean he was born in Roman Britain.”
According to Mohrmann, author The Latin of St Patrick, Patrick’s writing was, “the most difficult Latin to understand and to criticise that I have ever studied.” Writing about St Patrick and his biographer in 1962 Professor Binchy described him as the ‘simple Patrick of the Confessio’, a writer of ‘stumbling barbarous Latin’.
Haseler believes that, for whatever reason, St Patrick’s family lived in Strathclyde. Whether it was by choice or by force, the natural exit from Roman Britain would have been to go north, as opposed to leaving by sea, so Strathclyde was definitely the easier option. There is considerable evidence of Roman coins being found in the area, particularly in the 4th century when Patrick was alive. Far from being two separate kingdoms which had no contact, it appears that some trading did occur. Romans moving out of Roman Britain is another reason for Roman coins being found elsewhere.
“His father was a deacon, his grandfather was aa priest” highlights Haseler. “So Patrick and his family could have been missionaries or refugees. Many of the early slaves were Christians and we know that runaway slaves would have headed north outside the empire.”
“One of the main arguments used against Old Kilpatrick being the place of St. Patrick’s birth is to use the argument that a Latin speaker could only have been born south of Hadrian’s wall, so it’s interesting to find out that Gildas, Britain’s first historian who wrote the Latin ‘De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, was born in 500AD and came from Strathclyde.”
Wales is often cited as a possible birthplace of St Patrick, as it is claimed he spoke Welsh and some Welsh believe that Bannavem Taburniae, where his grandfather lived, could be Banwen in Neath Port Talbot. But, argues Haseler, the language spoken in Strathclyde at the time was akin to Welsh and the Picts were known to have spoken a language which we would today recognise as Welsh.
Ravenglass in Cumbria is sometimes said to be the home of Patrick’s grandfather’s villa, the argument being that the nearby Glannoventa is in fact Banna Venta, or Bannavern, the ‘g’ having been mistaken for a ‘b’, but there is no further evidence to substantiate this claim, and claims Haseler, it is very unlikely that such an obvious mistake would have been made.
“Out of the five early biographies of St Patrick three state that he was born in Strathclyde” says Haseler. “In addition, the Gaelic hymn of Fiacc (written before 800AD) says that he was born in Nemhur or Nemturi. Nemthuri, or the early name Nemthus, is a place often linked to Old Kilpatrick.”
An unknown 11th century scholar tells us that Nemthur was near Alcluid, which Bede informs us was on the Clyde (usually assumed to be Dumbarton Rock). Probus’ fifth life of St Patrick states that St Patrick was sprung from the Britons of Strathclyde, and that Nemthur was the place or district of his birth. “De Britannis Alcluidensibus originem duxit Sanctus Patricius. Nemthur, quod ex vocis etymo coelestem turrim denotat, patria, et nativitatis locus erat”. The sixth life is Jocelyn’s, assigned to the year 1183, and it agrees with the others in stating that St Patrick was born in Nemthur of Strathclyde.
“The Aberdeen Breviary gives an explicit statement for Old Kilpatrick being the birthplace in ~1500, saying he was conceived in Dumbarton and born at Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde (Dumbarton = Dunbertane. Kilpatrick = Kilpatrik).”
Turner, writing in 1872, is adamant that Saint Patrick was born in Strathclyde.
“Four of the five perfect lives explicitly state that Saint Patrick was born in Britain; three of them add, in the district of Strathclyde! It is hard to imagine how anyone could be so audacious as to reject such a weight of ancient testimonies,”
There is much evidence to support Haseler’s claim. So why has there ever been any doubt?
“I presume that because the age of a church was important in setting the seniority of churches, that it suited the new churches close by to see Old Kilpatrick cast as a “doubted” place of birth of Saint Patrick,” says Haseler.
“Archaeological evidence suggests that after the Viking raid of 871, Dumbarton Rock was largely abandoned and that Govan replaced it as the chief place of the kingdom of Strathclyde. Given the Viking behaviour on Lindisfarne in 793, there’s little doubt the Irish-based pagan Viking kings Amlaíb and Ímar ravaged the area around Dumbarton and therefore Old Kilpatrick during their four month siege to Dumbarton Rock.”
You can read more on his website http://roman-britain.co.uk/nemthur.htm which explains his research in much more detail.