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. We poked that in the Irish kids’ eyes, as we liked to bust balls. But, not enough to ever wear Orange on March 17.
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)
Depending on who you believe, St. Patrick was born as early as 370 and died around 460 AD. At birth, his name was 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, and 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 scoffed that Italy was nothing more than a “geographical expression.” Those who drove the Risorgimento 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.”
Look at it this way: At the time of unification, 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 pretty 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.