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Thursday 18 September 2014

Slave trader or saint? Doubt over Patrick's origins

Stephen Cummings

Published 17/03/2012 | 05:00

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Molly and Cian Navin were all geared up for the big day as they visited Croagh Patrick, Mayo's holy mountain, watched over by a statue of the mighty man himself. Photo: PAUL MEALEY

THE popular legend that St Patrick was a slave taken to Ireland by force is untrue, according to researchers in England, who claim he was actually a slave trader.

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The classic telling of St Patrick's life suggests he was abducted from western Britain in his adolescence and forced to work unpaid.

But a new study by Cambridge University dismisses this as "fiction" and argues the saint fled to Ireland deliberately to avoid becoming a Roman tax collector and took up a job as a slave trader instead.

The study has been published to coincide with today's St Patrick's Day celebrations.

Patrick's own father, Calpornius, was a Decurion, a Roman official responsible for tax collection.

But he exploited a bail-out clause in Roman law that allowed him to leave his post by joining the clergy on the condition the role was passed to his son. According to the study, once St Patrick was faced with the obligation to become a Decurion he chose to emigrate to Ireland.

The study also claims there is a good chance St Patrick became a slave trader as Ireland did not have a monetary economy. This means he most likely bought slaves in England and then used them to trade when he moved to Ireland, researchers have claimed

At the time slaves were also relatively easy to transport and experts believe St Patrick would have converted his family's wealth into slaves.


Dr Roy Flechner, research fellow at Cambridge University's Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNC), said the traditional story of St Patrick was "likely to be fiction".

"In the troubled era in which Patrick lived, which saw the demise and eventual collapse of Roman government in Britain in 410, discharging the obligations of a Decurion, especially tax collecting, would not only have been difficult but also very risky," Dr Flechner said.

"It may seem strange that a Christian cleric of Patrick's stature would own slaves, but in late antiquity and the early middle ages the church was a major slave owner -- early medieval Irish legal texts regulate the church's ownership of slaves.

"The traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction.

"The traditional legend was instigated by Patrick himself in the letters he wrote, because this is how he wanted to be remembered.

"Escaped slaves had no legal status and could be killed or recaptured by anyone. The probability Patrick managed to cross from his alleged place of captivity in western Ireland back to Britain undetected, at a time when transportation was extremely complicated, is highly unlikely," Dr Flechner added.

Irish Independent

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