Vox Hiberionacum: Patrick and the Voicing of Early Irish Identity [Part 1]

irishOne of many interesting facets of Patrician history and hagiography is the role that the saint has played in the creation and maintenance of both religious and cultural identities throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. Due to the enigmatic nature of his writings and the wholesale absence of ‘fixed’ historical & geographical points within them; Patrick has always been seen as an everyman figure for anyone who wishes to claim him.

Various religious identities in Ireland and Scotland have, at one stage or another, claimed legitimacy and descent from a church allegedly founded by him (Some still do!). Irish emigration in the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries used him as a vehicle for the expression of both ethnic and martial identity abroad. Irish independence in the twentieth century and more recently, increasing devolution within the United Kingdom has resulted in even more cultural avenues that occasionally seek to reach out and connect with him across the centuries.

Allowing for over-simplification, its easy to see why: Patrick was a (fifth century) Briton, most likely from an area bordering modern-day Scotland; who grew up speaking a form of early Welsh (Brythonic); who then spent considerable time in Ireland, speaking Irish, and writing to fellow Christians elsewhere in Latin. To any modern-day audiences seeking to view him in such a light; the historical Patrick offers up the very epitome of an early medieval multicultural mongrel.

Whatever you will be doing this coming March 17th; if it involves any reference to, or celebration of the festival; a likely underlying factor will be some connection to modern-day Irish identity at home or abroad. Indeed, as everyone surely knows by now; you’d don’t even have to be Irish to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. What is perhaps less known, is that, amidst the drink, dancing and dirges involved in the celebration of modern Irishness; the earliest insular expression of an Irish cultural identity to be articulated within Ireland, is in fact to be found within the writings of the historical Patrick.


Ptolemy’s World Map (c.150 AD) (redrawn in the 15th century). British Library Harley MS 7182, ff 58v-59 / Wiki Commons

‘Ireland’ and the ‘Irish’ in Late Prehistory 

Fleeting references to Ireland  (Ierne, Iuverna, Ivernia, Hibernia) and its inhabitants (Hierni, Iuerni) are known from several classical Greek and Roman sources. They mostly take the form of second and third hand reports of the peoples of the island, along with agricultural and maritime information. Rendered in Latinised Greek form, sometimes long after being initially gathered (and possibly mediated through secondary Brythonic channels); such labels attached to Ireland and the peoples within, nevertheless indicate a possible relationship (separated by a very long gap!) between that which was transmitted by outsiders in prehistory; with that of later indigenous Irish terms of Íriu/Ériu/Erainn. However, it must be remembered that any given name or term for the peoples inhabiting Ireland at the time exists in a linguistic vacuum, as an external handle applied by non-indigenous speakers. We have no clear idea on whether the peoples of the island, either used the same, or even considered themselves in such light.

What does comes across from such sources are paradoxical portrayals of a cold and inhospitable people & climate on the one hand; yet also, a marvellously  mild and fertile climate for livestock on the other. Such stories would seem to indicate that traders from Britain and Europe were regular visitors to Irish coastal locations throughout late prehistory (evidence of which is increasingly turning up in Irish archaeology); in addition to underlining the common perceptions of classical authors regarding identities of those beyond the mediterranean world. For all such authors, the island of Ireland was a mysterious and barbarian entity; existing at the very edge of the known world beyond Britain, Spain, and close to Ultima Thule. The peoples of such a land, were therefore couched in a similar conceptual framework amid standard classical ethnographic dispersion:

“an island, rich in turf among the waves, thickly populated by the Hierni…”

Avienus, Ora Maritima

“Concerning the island I have nothing to report, except that the people living there are more savage than the Britons, being cannibals as well as gluttons. Further, they consider it honourable to eat their dead fathers and to openly have intercourse, not only with unrelated women, but with their mothers and sisters as well. I say these things not having trustworthy witnesses…”

Strabo, Geography 2.1.13

“The inhabitants of this island are unrefined, ignorant of all virtues more than any other people, and totally lack all sence of duty”.

Isidorus, De Chorographia 3.6.53

“The latter (Hibernia) is inhumane in the savage rituals of its inhabitants…an unfriendly and warlike people…they treat right and wrong as the same thing…”

Solinus Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium 22.2-5 (after Koch & Carey, 2003)


‘Keeping it tribal’ – Image: DecoByDesign / CC Licence / Flickr Commons

The Lesser Spotted Scotti

From the start of the fourth century AD however, an apparently different term for ‘Irish’ seems to surface within classical sources; that of the Scotti (variants, Scoti, Attacotti, Σκόττοι). Linguistically, the term is mysterious, having no discernible trace or development within either Latin or proto-insular languages of the day. Scholars are unsure as to why it seems to have displaced the previously cited greek cognates; after all, the island/territory seems to have remained known as Hibernia/Hivernia. It’s earliest attestation is in a text known as Laterculus Veronensis; which lists forty ‘barbarian peoples’ which seem to have been causing a major headache within Roman provinces. The Scotti appear near the top of the list, alongside the Picti and Calidoni. It seems that whatever was meant by the term, is was certainly intended as denoting something distinctly Irish, or originally coming from Ireland; as opposed to Caledonians or Picts.

Whatever its derivation, the occurrence of this new name in the Laterculus Veronensis implies a change in Roman relations with or at least perceptions of the inhabitants of Ireland. From a Roman perspective Scot(t)i possibly originated as a generic descriptive designation, perhaps signifying raiders and pirates, later misconceived as an ethnonym.

(Rance, 2012, 229)


Grand Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus depicting Romans conquering Barbarians.  (Image: Mary Marrsch – Wiki Commons)

All this occurs against the depicted backdrop of increased barbarian incursions in Roman Britain in late fourth century sources which, despite the usual inflated aspects, nevertheless imply that Scotti/Irish were perceived as being capable of/or predisposed to such activity. As previously; the generic characteristics of the peoples are portrayed in a standard ‘barbarian’ light:

…the warlike nation of the Attacotti and the Scotti as well, were roaming far and wide, ravaging many lands…             

Ammianus Marcellinus History 27.8.5

Shall I speak of the Scotti driven back to their own bogs?

Pacatus, Panegyric on Theodosius 5.2

I myself, as a young man in Gaul saw Atticoti/Scotti, a British people, feeding on human flesh… The nation of the Scotti do not have individual wives, but as if they had read Plato’s Republic or followed the example of Cato, no wife belongs to a particular man, but as each desires, they indulge themselves as beasts…

Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum 2.7

Stilicho also defended me when I was perishing from neighbouring tribes, when the Scottus roused all Hiverne and Tethys foamed with hostile oars… 

Claudian On Stilicho’s Consulship 2.247-255 (after Koch & Carey, 2003)

Perhaps the most appropriate example is that of St. Jerome. Writing against an apparently British opponent Pelagius in the early fifth century, he found it most suitable to insult him using scotti subtext; stolidissimus et scotorum pultibus proagravatus, ‘most stupid and heavily weighed down/pregnant with Irish porridge‘ (Jerome CCL 74 Praef. in Jerem., Lib. I and III). Not only was he engaging in the late antiquity equivalent of calling him fat and stupid (‘Yes, Pelagius, your bum DOES look big in that…’) he also found room for a double insult by labelling the bodily excess as tainted with Irish origins/characteristics.

Such was the immediate background and environment into which Patrick was likely born into at some stage in the late fourth century. The term Scotti (in a classical context) seems to have carried disparaging connotations at the least; and likely, a general association with wild, barbarian, uncultivation. In addition its attested use and transmission within the sources of the period suggests a growing, or heightened awareness of an unfavourable escalation of Irish misadventures on the fringes of the Roman Empire. Patrick of course, was to undergo first hand experience of those deemed to be Scotti; being kidnapped, enslaved and transported to the far reaches of Ireland (from a Roman standpoint) as a teen.

As before, however, the term Scotti should be regarded as  an external label, representing the designation of a certain strata of Irish peoples from outsiders; yet also a term which may not have been used or recognised by the very same. If anything, it could perhaps be seen as a highlighting of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ conceptual identity from within a fixed Roman viewpoint. One originating from a need or desire to underline and express an emerging altered relationship and conceptual identity of peoples from, and possibly in, late prehistoric Ireland.

(To Be Continued…)


orcid_16x16  http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2895-3949

6 thoughts on “Vox Hiberionacum: Patrick and the Voicing of Early Irish Identity [Part 1]

  1. Why on Earth did our ancestors adopt it as the common name for all the nations of Ireland, if it had such connatations? Had the understanding of the original term been forgotten?


  2. A matter of Latin linguistic usage and dominance, I’d imagine. Before vernacular Irish could be developed as a written language (using latin characters) the Irish had to learn Latin as a foreign language, first. By then, the term, along with others had long been in use. I don’t think any connotation involved in its original derivation survived long after the end of the empire in the west though; it just became one of the standard terms, by virtue of use.


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  4. Pingback: Patrick and a question of identity | Irish Philosophy

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