Vox Hiberionacum: Patrick and the Voicing of Early Irish Identity [Part 2]

(Continued from Part One…)

‘The Britains’ and the ‘Britons’ in Patricks Writings

In his writings Patrick makes it clear that as someone whose homeland was in ‘the Britains’, he not only considered himself a foreigner in Ireland, but also that the people he  lived among were, in turn, considered foreigners/strangers from a Roman perspective: inter barbaras itaque gentes habito proselitus et profuga, ‘I live among barbarian foreigners, as a stranger and exile’ (Epist 1); ubi nunc paruitas mea esse uidetur inter alienigenas, ‘It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was’ (Conf 1); denique seruus sum in Christo genti exterae, ‘Now, in Christ, I am a slave of a foreign people’ (Epist 10).

Elsewhere, he refers to second generation Britons within Ireland in a manner which implies the maintenance of a distinct identity: et de genere nostro qui ibi nati sunt nescimus numerum eorum, ‘We do not know the number of our own people who were born there’ (Conf 42).  Taken in conjunction to his references to Roman Christian Gauls and pagan Franks, along with his stated desire to visit ecclesiastical brethren in ‘the Gauls’; it seems that Patrick conceived of both territories and peoples around him, at home and abroad, within a cognitive framework of multiple insular pluralities. For Patrick, cultural and territorial identities seem to have both co-existed with and contrasted against, certain religious identities under an umbrella of an idealised Christian version of Romanitas.


Image: Abby Flat-coat (Flickr Commons/ CC Licence)

‘Ireland’ and the ‘the Irish’ in Patricks Writings

Such a plurality can also be glimpsed in his various references to peoples and identities in Ireland.  As an island, he refers to Ireland as Hiberione a total of nine separate times (Conf 1, 16, 23, 28, 41, 62; Epist 1, 5, 10); a term which matches that previously used in later classical sources. Yet for his depiction of the peoples within, he uses varying terms that, as with the above, imply a certain cognitive distinction between insular types. If there is any one generic, unqualified term that he uses, it is that of gente/genti; a term which he seems to have used to denote ‘clans, tribes, peoples, or nations’ (with ‘nations’, being a reference to relevant biblical passages). As one who was bringing knowledge of God to gentiles at the farthest extremities of the earth; he saw himself as echoing similar imagery with Old Testament and Pauline frameworks.

It is an interesting aspect as it perhaps reflects an awareness of insular  local, tribal identities as opposed to a wider regional or dynastic; something which is reflected in later early medieval literature, laws and language (i.e. túath: ‘people, tribe, nation’). The fact that he seems to have conceived of them on both a local and plural scale is suggested by Conf. 34: ‘This is how I come to praise and magnify your name among the nations, all the time, wherever I am’ – ubicumque loco fuero. In Patricks eyes, such peoples/nations seem to have existed in various locations; and did not form a coherent whole, but rather, a fragmented overall association.

Patricks use of Irish/Scotti

In terms of referencing certain ‘Irish’ identities, Patrick at times utilises the previously mentioned Roman standard term of Scotti; and the manner in which he does so seems to share a certain derisory association with it:

et filii Scottorum et filiae regulorum monachi et uirgines Christi, ‘even sons of the Irish and daughters of kings are now monks and virgins of Christ’ (Conf 41; Epist 12);

benedicta scotta genetiua nobilis, ‘a blessed Irish woman of noble birth’ (Conf 42);

ritu hostili in morte uiuunt, socii Scottorum atque Pictorum apostatarumque, ‘hostile habits they live in death, allies/in league with the Irish and even Apostate Picts’ (Epist 2);

Longe est a caritate Dei traditor Christianorum in manus Scottorum atque Pictorum, ‘Far from the dearness of God, is he who hands over/betrays Christians into the hands of Scots and Picts’ (Epist 12)

A closer examination of the examples within their textual narrative context reveals an underlying association with negative portrayals of pagan Irish identities. Even with those examples where he is depicting eventual Christian converts, he seems to be utilising the term in order to emphasize their previous background/identity as pagan Scotti. Writing and defending his actions and mission to a British Christian audience, he seeks to illustrate certain successes in his activities: ‘Look, who would have ever thought anyone could make Christians out of THAT lot…’)

Patricks use of Irish/Hibernae

Such implications are not as apparent when we consider his use of alternate terms when portraying an Irish identity condusive to Christianity. When referencing those to whom he was converting, we see the first shift to the use of Irish/Hibernae …ut ego ueneram ad Hibernas gentes euangelium praedicare, ‘…so I could come to the Irish people and evangelise…’ (Conf 37). This is made all the more obvious in perhaps the most famous excerpt from his writings; the portion dealing with his dream of being called back to Ireland:

A few years later I was again with my parents in Britain. They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again. It was while I was there that I saw, in a vision in the night, a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with so many letters they could not be counted. He gave me one of these, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people. While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, <  > boy, to come and walk again among us…

Patricius, Confessio 23

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‘Vox Hiberionacum’; Liber Ardmachanus, TCD 52, Fol. 23v

The ‘Voice of the Irish’, vox hiberionacum, is not only expressed in writing, but also  vocally articulated in his dream in tandem with the accompanying text. Leaving aside the common practice of reading aloud within Late Antiquity; such imagery serves to firmly underline the metaphorical significance of the passage. Patrick cannot read any further, yet still hears the voice of those people from his youth, calling him back. The ‘Voice of the Irish’ is a voice from the past, urging a return in the future, through the medium of a textual present. In giving that voice an Irish identity, and in particular, one involving both a Pagan past and Christian future; Patrick saw fit to utilise Hiberionacum, over Scotti in orderto represent ‘Irishness’. In doing so, he can perhaps be seen to be attempting to articulate an Irish identity, at once related, yet removed from the cultural baggage attached to the former term.

The Earliest Irish Pluralis Maiestatis

The previous passage may well enjoy one of the higher Patrician profiles within popular culture; but it is one of the lesser known extracts from his Letter to Coroticus that perhaps provides the most crucial example of Patrician articulation of Irish identity. The letter, which was written by Patrick in deep anguish and anger because of the killing and capture of some of his converts by a British pirate/chieftain, is an incredibly personal attempt by him to affect social change. After castigating British Christians for their lack of support and apparent silence on the matter; Patrick turns his attention to address an Irish audience of fellow Christians:

Praeualuit iniquitas iniquorum super nos. Quasi extranei facti sumus. Forte non credunt unum baptismum percepimus uel unum Deum patrem habemus. Indignum est illis Hiberionaci sumu.

‘We have been made as if we were complete outsiders. Can it be they do not believe that we have received one and the same Baptism, or that we have one and the same God as father. For them, it is a disgrace that we are from Ireland’.

(Epistola 16)

The last line is crucial: Indignum est illis Hiberionaci sumus, ‘For them, it is a disgrace/shameful that we are from Ireland‘. 

Now, it could be argued that Patrick was engaging in rhetorical method at this point, seeking to identify and equate himself with his fellow Irish converts in a display of solidarity. After all, as we have seen, he spends much time elsewhere reproducing and re-iterating the distinction between an Irish and ‘an other’ identity. Yet, it is also possible that he may have made an unconcious slip. The surviving Letter to Coroticus, as we have it, was not the first letter he sent; he alludes to a previous one dispatched in an attempt to secure the release of those Christian captives still alive.

Following the rebuttal of the letter and envoy initially sent (‘they scoffed at them’); Patrick sent a second letter, outlining his objections and seeking a resolution. This letter, the one we have today, could only have been sent quite soon after the previous one. Patrick was concerned with time and the ever shrinking possibility of recovering those kidnapped by the soldiers of Coroticus. Indeed, he insinuates a pressing need to hurry when he states that, ‘With my own hand, I have written and put together these words to be given and handed on and sent to the soldiers of Coroticus‘ (Epist 2).

Such a statement was intended to echo the example of St. Paul in his Letter to Galatians. The switch to personal handwriting, as opposed to the more standard dictation within late Antiquity, was seen as an added rhetorical emphasis to the senders emotional and emphatic intentions. In doing so, the immediate context of the writing of the Coroticus letter is at odds with that of the Confessio; the writing of which Patrick intimates as taking a long time. If the Coroticus letter was hurried, as implied, then the statement hiberionaci sumus, ‘we are from Ireland’, could possibly be a unconscious slip on Patrick’s part.

View from Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo (Image: Author)

Friends, Romans, Countrymen…Lend Me Your Tears

This is perhaps contrasted further by his damning indictment directed at Britons within the introduction to his Letter to Coroticus: ‘I will  not call them my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome…‘ (Epist 1). Patrick, writing from a position of extreme anger, denounces any implied or perceived shared Christian identity/relationship with the soldiers of Coroticus. Although having previously written of being a stranger among foreigners; he now appears to be casting his fellow Britons/nominal Christians in a similar vein; they are strangers to him, in the same way as the pagan Scotti had been previously. Conversely, the converted Scotti, now Hiberionaci; provide a replacement identity, one which was more deserving of recognition, equality and association.

This is a further echo of a previous biblical quotation in the Confessio: “Hosea says: Uocabo non plebem meam plebem meam, ‘Those who were not my people, I will call my people; and her who has not obtained mercy, I will name the one who has obtained mercy” (Conf 40). Patrick’s echo of the biblical original is at once profound and enlightening when viewed in conjunction with the above:

I will say to that which was not my people: You are my people’. Hosea 2:23

Earliest Insular Irish Identity

Patrick, in naming ‘his people’ Hiberionaci as opposed to Scotti, provides us with the earliest recorded expression of an insular Irish identity within Ireland. In addition, his phrasing of the words we are from Ireland, whether intentional or not, stands as the earliest surviving insular expression of a collective Irish ‘us/’we’. Patrick was not talking about Irish people, he was talking to Irish people; and it stands to reason that he would not have used such a collective identity if it was something alien, or unknown to the recipients.

For those Irish that may have thought of themselves as Hiberionaci then; Patrick, whether consciously or unconsciously, saw himself in that moment as a part of the same. A new communal social identity that, although expressed in a foreign language nevertheless reflected both the previous terms used by others in the hazy linguistic void of prehistory; as well as what would eventually become standard in vernacular literature.

In providing a textual vehicle for the ‘Voice for the Irish’, Patrick’s articulation of the same represents an important moment at the dawn of Irish history. This was not the first Irish identity, nor even the last; but it is the earliest that we can detect from within Ireland, historically speaking.  Despite being an exclusively Christian one, it also represents one of the earliest attempts to portray an insular identity that went beyond normal social/political boundaries. In a fragmented tribal society, the new religion must surely have offered those who subscribed new avenues of communication and redefinition of social relations within and without; after all, Patrick tells us that his converts were made up of men and women, slaves and nobles, free and unfree.


In such a light, the fledgling identity articulated in the writings of the historical Patrick could perhaps be seen as an experimental one that was threatened by a perilous existence on the fringes of insular society, at risk of attack and unrecognised by fellow Christians elsewhere. Little was he to know that it was one which would go on to form the bedrock of insular medieval identity and ultimately modern ‘Irishness’ itself; expressed at home and abroad, via transportation to the New World and transplantation back into Ireland in modern times.

One could almost be forgiven for regarding him as being the very first ‘Plastic Paddy’. Indeed, one could even go so far as to suggest that Patrick was the proto-plastic ‘Paddy’; a man from abroad, who ended up ‘feeling’ more Irish then the Irish themselves and who, along the way, managed to somehow end up creating a new type of ‘Irishness’ whilst struggling for recognition among his peers. Not bad for runaway slave…

+ + +

Scotti/Scottorum continued to be used in Latin and Irish literature throughout the later medieval period; but in tandem with Hiberno/Hiberniae varients, in addition to the vernacular. Within a few centuries, the original socio-context is likely to have disappeared, along with classical Roman ‘memory’ and identity. Today, the term Scot/Scotii/Scottish is associated with a related, but seperate insular identity due to large scale Irish settlement in modern day Scotland in the centuries following Patrick.

Of course, it goes without saying that the modern day Scotti enjoy a completely different international reputation and perception then that of their late antiquity namesakes; and in no way does it hark back to the early medieval portrayal of wild uncultured barbarism…

Ahem… *

+ + +

* In the event of a complete lack of sense of humour: please click here

——————————————–*Addendum* 17th March 2014*————————————————

For a fantastic exploration of continuing fractured Irish Identities and the questioning of same in the centuries afterwards – see: Irish Philosophy: ‘Patrick and a Question of Identity‘.



Charles-Edwards, T. M., (2000) Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

De Paor, L (1993) (Ed. and trans.) Saint Patrick’s World. Blackrock and Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Koch, J.T. (2003) ‘Celts, Britons and Gaels’, Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, New Series, Vol. 9, 41-56.

Koch, John T., and Carey, John (eds.) (2003) The Celtic Heroic Age. Literary sources for ancient Celtic Europe and early Ireland & Wales, Celtic Studies Publications 1. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications.

Patricks Confession (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at: http://www.confessio.ie/etexts/confessio_english

Patricks Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at: http://www.confessio.ie/etexts/epistola_english#01

Rance, P. (2012) ‘Epiphanius of Salamis and the Scotti: New Evidence for Late Roman Irish Relations’, Britannia 43, 227-242.

St. Patricks Hypertext Stack Project; available at: http://www.confessio.ie/


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

7 thoughts on “Vox Hiberionacum: Patrick and the Voicing of Early Irish Identity [Part 2]

  1. Astonishing. However, in saying “we are from Ireland”, could Patrick also have been specking of his fellow Britons in Ireland? Surely there were enough of them to form a distinct community?


  2. Thats a really intruiging idea. Its certainly possible.

    Yet, I think it sort of jars with his previous depiction of Britons in Ireland in Conf. 42 (mentioned above) – et de genere nostro qui ibi nati sunt nescimus numerum eorum, ‘We do not know the number of our own people who were born there’. He was addressing British Church seniors at that point in the text; so the ‘our people’ certainly means ‘Britons’. This has been previously seen to represent, as you say, enough numbers to form a distinct community.

    However, Patrick mentions them in conjunction with the many different fledgling Irish Christians he has managed to convert, and in particular, women converts, many of which are in servitude. In that sence, he seems to be referencing large numbers of ethnic Britons who were born of slaves already taken in raids. While they seems to have maintained a seperate idenity, they would likely have been scattered in small numbers throughout the territories Patrick visited. i.e. not existing as a distinct community; but an distinct underbelly throughout insular society, as a result of slave raids.

    This is important, because, when Patrick says ‘we are from Ireland’ he is addresing an Irish audience at that point in the text. Those who he has lost in the Coroticus raid, and those who he has been ministering to. He is lamenting that they in Britain do not recognise them as fellow Christians because they are from Ireland. At the end of the section (Epistola 16) he cites biblical rhetoric: “Remember what Scripture says: ‘Do you not have the one God? Then why have you each abandoned your neighbour?’” This, I think, underlines the subject. Patrick’s laments are on behalf of Irish Christians, who in his opinion, should be deemed ‘neighbours’ of British Christians.

    This is then immedietly followed in Epistola 17 by the following: “That is why I grieve for you; I grieve for you who are so very dear to me. And yet I rejoice within myself: I have not worked for nothing; my wanderings have not been in vain. This unspeakably horrifying crime has been carried out. But, thanks to God, you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise”.

    A crucial point is that he has managed to make them ‘baptised believers’ before their deaths. This too, I think, is a further indication that he was depicting Irish converts, previously unbelivers, as opposed to second generation British identities; who if they were like Patrick, already came with a nominal Christian identity or belief.

    Its an interesting idea, though. British slaves maintaining a distinct identity, and presumably, a Christian ‘inheritance’; must have surely been one of the many avenues of Christian introduction into Ireland in late antiquity.


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