Was Saint Patrick Really Italian?

Irish is, without a doubt, the dominant immigrant culture in Massachusetts. Growing up there, in a town where Sicilians were the plurality, St. Patrick’s Day was always a little underwhelming. Instead, we celebrated St. Joseph’s day on March 19. Of course, every St. Joseph’s Day, someone would bring up the old story that St. Patrick’s day should be “our” day too — since St. Patrick was really Italian. We wanted to believe it, so we did.

Every year, articles pop up repeating the story that St. Patrick was really Italian. Even GoErie.com repeats the tale.

St. Patrick was born around 432 AD and died around 461 AD. He was Italian not Irish. Story is that St. Patrick was kidnapped at age 16 from Rome and brought to Ireland as a slave. (source)

Reviewing multiple sources finds conflicting stories of St. Patrick being born as early as 370 and dying around 460 AD. He was born Maewyn Succat. A number of sources say he was born in either Scotland or in Wales to parents Calpurnius and Conchessa, who were reportedly high status Romans.

Given the time periods in play, it is certainly likely that there would be high ranking Romans in Britain at that time. However, at that time, being “Roman” didn’t necessarily mean that one came from Rome.

For centuries before Maewyn’s birth, the concept of being a Roman expanded beyond the narrow definition it had in the early Republic. In 212 AD, Emperor Carcalla issued the Constitutio Antoniniana, which granted Roman citizenship to all free men in the Empire. Even before that, select groups of conquered peoples and powerful and important rulers of conquered lands were often granted full Roman citizenship.

So, it seems that Maewyn Succat was most likely a Roman. But, he could have been “Roman,” without possessing have a single strand of DNA originating from from the Italian peninsula.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, lets just assume that his family came from ancient Patrician blood, and that his parents were born in the shadow of the Colosseum. While this is entirely unlikely, lets say that’s how it was — and therefore, little Maewyn Succat was so Roman that he bled eagle blood and preferred his wine mixed with wolf’s milk.

Does that make him Italian?

One problem with claiming him as Italian is the difficulty of accurately defining “Italian.” What we now call “Italians” are really a mixture of a diverse ebb and flow of ethnicities made up of pre-Roman populations like the Etruscans, who later mixed with various Celts, Greeks, Germanic tribes. Sicily? Don’t even get me started. “Italy” as a nation didn’t even exist as an idea until the Risorgimento in the 1800s.

Back then, some like Austrian Prince Metternich angrily declared that Italy was nothing more than a “geographical expression.” Those who drove the Risorgimento would have found this insulting, but after Italy gained unification and independence, Massimo d’Azeglio seemed to affirm it by writing “we have made Italy; now we must make Italians.”

At the time of reunification, only about 3% of “Italians” spoke Italian. Even the King, Vittorio Emanuele, barely spoke it. Even today, much of Italy communicates in regional dialects at home, which are often mutually unintelligible.

So I suppose the answer is this: St. Patrick was likely Roman of some color or another. It is unlikely that he was Roman under the definition used by Italians who try and claim him. It is very likely that little Maewyn was actually some kind of Gaul. Even if he was as Roman as Marc Antony, most Italians trying to claim him as their very own have a somewhat loose grip on their own connection to the Romans as their ancestors.

It seems that the Irish should be permitted to maintain their claim over Maewyn Succat. Not that he was Irish either. But, if his historical significance is that he was an important missionary in Ireland, and he died there, well then they can have him.

The only thing they can’t have is the story about him banishing the snakes from Ireland. That’s not true. Glaciers did it almost 10,000 years before St. Patrick was born. (source)

So, this St. Patrick’s Day, the correct thing to shout is Erin go Bragh, and not Viva Italia.

4 Responses to Was Saint Patrick Really Italian?

  1. ballinacorriga says:

    Patrick was born to a family of the landowning aristocracy in Roman Britain, probably present-day Wales or Scotland. At age fifteen Irish pirates raiding for slaves kidnapped him “as were so many thousands of others.” This is according to Confession, the caption given by history to his letter responding to a hectoring investigation by the leaders of the British church. He spent six years “in miserable condition” as a slave in Ireland, probably present-day Mayo County in the West (my maternal ancestors’ home, the Murrays and McHales). He escaped and returned to his family. Undoubtedly to their sorrow and consternation he devined a vocation from God to return to barbaric Ireland as a missionary. That he did after years of study, possibly in Gaul. He labored in unease over the years he missed in Latin, literature, and rhetoric and had taken for granted before his degrading servitude, but he revealed the man behind the pen:

    “…Once I was a crude and ignorant exile who didn’t even know how I would take care of myself in the future. This much I know for certain — before God humbled me I was like a stone stuck deep in a mud puddle. But then God came along and with his power and compassion reached down and pulled me out, raised me up, and placed me on top of a wall. Because of this I must proclaim my good news, I must pay God back in some way for all that he has done for me here on earth and what he will do in eternity — blessings no one can even imagine.

    So listen to me well, all of you, great and small, everyone who has any fear of God — especially you wealthy landowners so pround of your education — listen and consider this carefully: God chose foolish little me from among all of you who seem so wise and so expert in the law and so powerful in your eloquence. He picked ignorant Patrick ahead of all of you — even though I am not worthy — he picked me to go forth with fear and reverence — and without any of you complaining at the time — to serve the Irish faithfully. …”

    I knew in childhood that Patrick was not Irish. He was a gift to the Irish. My parents did not encourage us to do much about his feast day. “Amatuer hour” mom called it. “You are Irish. You have nothing to prove.”

    On Saturday my husband, 100% Lithuanian, from Wilkes-Barre, joined a “pub crawl” in honor of St. Patrick sponsored by the Elks. He knew enough not to ask if I would join. Feh. St. Patrick was a holy man.

  2. Kathleen Casey says:

    You should know of my primary authority, Philip Freeman’s biography of Patrick.

  3. There’s pretty good documentation that Patrick didn’t speak Latin as his native language. He resumed his education when he escaped from slavery, but he was so far behind his classmates that his written Latin was always a subject of mockery.

  4. That’s truly interesting.

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