A Tale of Two Patricks: But Who Was First?

Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

We’re in the month where all eyes turn to the Patron Saint of Ireland, as well as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York.

Facing a second consecutive year without a parade, hearts are understandably bereft. But take heart in a fact that most of us are completely unaware of: there were two saints of the name. The one most of us recognize was likely not the first to have converted the Irish (or at least some of them) to Christianity.

What is known as the “Two Patricks” theory has been around in academic circles since at least 1942, when Irish scholar Thomas O’Rahilly suggested there were in fact two missionaries to Ireland, each of whose roughly 30-year stay spanned more than 60 years of the 5th century. They were both Roman citizens. Both were known by a number of names, including Patricius, Latin for Patrick. Both were sent to Ireland by popes.

But only one wrote down an account of his life, “Patrick the Briton”, who we honor on Mar. 17, regardless of parade or not.

Why the confusion? The answer lies in the sloppy handiwork of a medieval scribe who implied there was only one Patrick, who died somewhere between 461 and 493. His error was eventually accepted as the range of possible death dates for the more known Patrick (the Briton), whose memory over time proceeded to be credited with all the work done before him by another Patrick, this one called Palladius, who really was the first.

Palladius was born in the Roman province of Gaul (modern-day France) about 390. He was first sent by Pope Celestine to Britain, there to bring some heretics back into the fold, and then to Ireland. He arrived about 432, and proceeded to bring converts into his nascent church throughout Leinster and Munster, the two southern provinces of Ireland. 

He also preached in Scotland, then the land of the fearsome Picts, who painted themselves blue and ran naked into battle. His mission lasted until his death, somewhere about the year 461. He may even have died in Scotland, where some sources suggest he met a martyr’s fate. He is known to have fathered a daughter, and his grandfather was a priest. The rule of celibacy was clearly not as strict in the early days of Christianity. His feast day is given in some ancient texts as July 6.

Patrick the Briton arrived in Ireland before Palladius’s mission, but not as a missionary. Born about 385 in Roman Britain, he was captured at 16 by Irish raiders pillaging the west coast of Britain, by then a land no longer protected by the rapidly dissolving Roman Empire. This was the better-known saint, whose day we celebrate on the anniversary of his death, Mar. 17.

Enduring years of captivity in the north, he came to know his captors and the people of Ireland well. Eventually escaping, he vowed to return to Ireland and bring the gospel of Christ to the people he had come to love. He did just that, but not in 432, as is popularly believed, but in 461, at the same time that Palladius’s days either had drawn, or were shortly drawing to a close. 

The latter Patrick’s mission concentrated on the north and west of Ireland, in Ulster and Connacht, places Palladius had not touched. He died in 493, according to no less of an authority than St. Colmcille, and is buried in Downpatrick, in Ulster.  Where Palladius’s bones may lay is unknown, no less a loss than that of his very existence over the centuries that followed his work.

So, if the weather and COVID allow, perhaps a substitute for a March parade might be July 6. Of course, that would likely not be looked upon fondly by others on the island of Ireland who have their own celebration just six days later, on the 12th. But that’s another tale, entirely!

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx, a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.

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