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When explaining the issues involved in uncovering the historical background, it is a most difficult task. This is for a number of reasons, but the main reason would be the lack of historical information in Patrick’s writings. Patrick felt dates were unimportant, and so didn’t include many of them in his writings. This means that his writings are a lot more useful for getting an insight into his thoughts and feelings, for hearing Patrick’s spiritual journey in his own words, and hearing about the difficulties he faced in his mission, and how he responded to them.
However, whenever it comes down to historical background, key dates, or geographical information, Patrick’s writings aren’t as useful as would be hoped, and therefore a lot of scholars draw their own conclusions, which we must take into account when trying to make our own. Kenney says that when we search for historical facts within Patrick’s writings, “we are faced with an exasperating incoherence, which leaves the meaning constantly in doubt” and suggests that Patrick may actually be a much more obscure character than we would like to admit.
Sï¿½an MacAirt refers to the fifth century as the “lost century”, because of the absence of any historical information. We are still in the era of pre-history, which the exception of Patrick’s writings, and Prosper’s reference to the arrival of Palladius. Within these two documents, which are of the utmost importance, there are only two place names given to us, and no dates, so it is very hard to gather historical fact. O’Rahilly rightly says of humble Patrick “the last thing that the saint could have imagined, would be that hundreds of years later, the document would be scrutinised again and again with a view to gleaning biographical details of the writer’s life.” The big problem is that there is a two-hundred year gap between the time Patrick actually lived, and when he was first written about, so this leaves plenty of room for false information or inaccuracy.
In Patrick’s Confessio, Patrick tells us of his birth place, Bannaven Taburniae, but he does not tell us where it is actually located. There have been many unsuccessful attempts to agree on the location of the birth of Patrick; however there has been an agreement on three basic points that must be taken into account when trying to determine the location. The first of these is that it would have to be in the West of Britain. This is to facilitate easy access to the Irish raiders. At a young age, Patrick was taken captive, and taken to Ireland, so it Is important to consider how realistic suggestions such as Gaul where, in that were the Irish raiders really going to travel all the way to Gaul and back, without being caught? Charles Thomas adds to this point, by suggesting that it would be opposite the place of Patrick’s captivity in Ireland.
The next important criterion is Patrick’s sense of Roman Identity. Patrick has a very strong sense of Roman Identity, so it is fair to say that his birth place would need to be a strongly Romanised part of Britain. Baring this in mind, Bannavem Taburniae would have to be south of Hadrian’s Wall. And the last of the three criteria, is that Patrick must have been living near a town with a civil administration centre. This is because Patrick’s father Calpurnius was a collector of taxes.
Bearing these in mind, there have been different suggestions put forward to the location of Bannavem Taburniae. In the seventh century, Muirchï¿½ tells us that Bannavem Taburniae was identified as ventre. Although that does not directly help us with our identification, Bieler did find it useful when reconstructing the name as Bannaventa Taburniae. If this is correct, there was a small roman settlement in Northamptonshire. The name of this settlement was then taken and given to a place outside Daventry.
However, this suggestion fails to meet one of the most important of the criteria- this area would not be very accessible to Irish raiders, as it is in the midlands. Charles Thomas believes that the only place to fulfil all three criteria would be the North West of Britain. He concludes that the most likely location is Carlisle, which “entirely outweighs that of Daventry, Dumbarton or elsewhere.” It is also far enough North to explain Patrick’s poor use of Latin. Dark warns us that any attempt to locate Bannavem Taburniae is based on assumptions, and cannot be taken as facts; however he believes the only place we can safely say for definite suffered from frequent raids by the Irish during the fifth and sixth century were the areas of Cotswolds and Dorset.
There has also been a great deal of debate in regards to the location of Silva Foclutti (the wood of Foclut). It arises in Patrick’s narration of the “call”, when he says “As I read the beginning of the letter, I seem to hear the voice of those who were by the wood of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they cried as with one voice, Holy Boy, we are asking you to come and walk among us again.”
Bury O’Rahilly and Hanson assume that this is referring to the place of Patrick’s captivity, and Mohrmann agrees, saying interpreting Patrick’s words seems to suggest that “they are from the mouth of people from a part of the country that Patrick seems to have known from his captivity.”Some scholars suggest that Patrick is speaking metaphorically here in that even at the furthermost point of Ireland; the people were calling to him. Bieler on the other hand believes that it could perhaps be a place that Patrick had heard of, but never been to, as he believed that Patrick’s call was from the Irish in general, and not from a specific area.
There has been a great deal of difficulty in reconciling the two suggested locations of Slemish and Mayo, which are both traditionally held as the place of Patrick’s captivity. Tï¿½rechï¿½n himself was from that area. Others however believe that as it is the earliest identification we have, we should accept it as genuine. Patrick does give us a clue in his Confessio to the location, when he says it was near the western sea. Hanson believes that Patrick does give us further clues throughout his writings, such as when he tells us that he had to travel to a ship that was perhaps two hundred miles away. If we are to accept that, he was returning to Britain, perhaps he had to make a journey from the North coast of Mayo, to the coast of Wicklow or Wexford, diagonally across Ireland.
There is also a long known tradition of Patrick tending the flocks as a boy on Mount Slemish. Hanson argues however that this does not fit the evidence of the escape story, as an escape from here would have involved only a thirty mile walk, rather than the two hundred Patrick mentions. Hanson argues that “we must accept the plain evidence of his own words, and place his captivity in County Mayo, near the border with County Sligo.”
Bury O’Rahilly and Hanson all reject the location as being Slemish, however, Slemish is a mountainous area, while the area suggested around Killala is plain. Philbin and Concannon both suggest a compromise in that both localities can be accepted because Patrick changed master. We cannot be certain of the place of his captivity, and although we shouldn’t accept something purely based on the fact it’s tradition, we also cannot dismiss a longstanding tradition
In his writings, Patrick also mentions Gaul, and a strong desire to study there. This has led to some historians assuming he spent a significant portion of his life there, most likely undergoing clerical training. Patrick says he wishes to visit Gaul to see the Brethen, which may have been a desire to visit friends he made during his training.
However, Binchy believes that this was merely a desire to visit the Holy men of God. Muirchï¿½ wrote in the seventh century, that Patrick stayed in Gaul for some thirty years, but O’Rahilly argued against this, saying that he got this account confused with Palladius’ training and ordination. The unresolved debate regarding Patrick and Gaul has led many to believe that some of the details of the life of the historical Patrick can never be resolved, and are forever lost to the historian. Others argue that the most important part of Patrick, such as his personality shall be preserved for eternity, in his own writings.
There is so little historical information about Patrick that there is even conflict regarding the dating of Patrick, even his death. Charles Thomas believes that Patrick wrote his letter to Coroticus at some time between 465-475, and that the Confessio was written sometime after 480. He says that “the annalistic dates from his death cluster around the early 490’s may reflect with some reality, the tradition that he dies before the end of the century.” In 1942, Thomas O’Rahilly suggested a later dating for Patrick’s mission, still within the fifth century. He took the evidence from the fifth and sixth century annals into account, and concluded that Patrick arrived in Ireland in 461, and died in 492/3.
In conclusion, although it is very difficult to determine historical fact in regard to Patrick, if we focus on hints within his letters, scholarly opinion, and what he says himself, we can come up with some possible dates and locations for Patrick’s birth, mission, and death, and this will hopefully in time become more conclusive.