Friday 26 April 2019

Was St Patrick a Brexit fugitive?

His move to Ireland may have been fuelled by missionary zeal, but St Patrick was also escaping a Britain that had just separated from the Roman Empire and was facing into an all-too-familiar 'cliff-edge scenario', writes Roy Flechner

Civilising mission: St Patrick described dwelling in Ireland as 'living among barbarians'
Civilising mission: St Patrick described dwelling in Ireland as 'living among barbarians'

When I first started teaching history at university, some 15 years ago, I often found it a struggle to make Late Antique history attractive to undergraduate students. No one seemed to care much about the economic crisis that shook the Roman Empire in the third century AD, or about waves of migration into Europe, or about the rise of rogue emperors who broke with the traditional political order, or even about the wholesale collapse of the western empire in AD 476.

All these events, momentous though they were at the time, seemed too remote and too irrelevant to my students, who were comfortably basking in the euphoria of prosperity that swept through Europe's middle classes in the early years of the third millennium.

But then came the global financial crisis. Some Middle Eastern states began to unravel, ordinary peaceful citizens became refugees overnight and started knocking on Europe's door, unscrupulous populist leaders rose to power and are now challenging the foundations of the rule of law, and the country that was, until recently, the dominant world power, pledged under its current administration to withdraw from the world stage.

With the unfolding of such recent events, I no longer have to convince my students that Late Antique history is topical: the similarities are self-evident.

With St Patrick's Day fast approaching, I want to draw attention to a somewhat less obvious analogy between two processes: one from Late Antiquity and another, unsettling process, which is unfolding right now.

The first, which precipitated Saint Patrick's arrival in Ireland, was the gradual collapse of the Roman colony in Britain between the mid fourth and early fifth centuries.

And the second is Brexit. Britain's impending departure from the European Union and the atmosphere, of doom and gloom that accompanies it, cast a shadow over what would otherwise be an ordinary anticipation for this weekend's St Patrick's Day festivities.

Government ministers have been urged to use the momentum generated by our national holiday to forge new international economic ties to offset the anticipated effects of Brexit, adding extra poignancy to the routine state visits abroad on St Patrick's Day, which last year numbered 92 official visits in 38 countries "to promote Ireland and Irish business" (according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).

Another noticeable effect of the Brexit referendum has been the continuing increase of applications for Irish citizenship from the UK, bringing the total to a record-breaking 190,000 in the year to December 2018.

But in the early fifth century, which is when Patrick is likely to have left Britain, one did not need to apply for a passport to travel to Ireland or settle in it. Then, the economy of Ireland was not all that dependent on Roman Britain; but to speak of the subsistence agriculture of Iron Age Ireland in terms of an 'economy' is somewhat of an overstatement. Nevertheless, Ireland is where Patrick chose to settle despite what must have seemed to him as rather basic living conditions by the standards to which he was accustomed from his aristocratic family estate in Roman Britain. In fact, some of his throw-away comments betray a snobbish sense of superiority. For example, in the opening of his Confession he describes dwelling in Ireland as "living among barbarians".

By his own account, Patrick first arrived in Ireland as a captive in his teens, but after escaping back to Britain, he chose to return and settle here permanently. Although not all his contemporaries believed this version of events in its entirety, there is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says that he wished to convert the Irish to Christianity, perhaps as part of what an illustrious Romano-British notable like him would have regarded as a 'civilising' mission.

Patrick's eagerness to convert is inextricably bound with an eschatological anticipation for the end of time, which he believed was imminent, a feeling that was shared by many of his Romano-British contemporaries, who were witnessing the unravelling of their familiar world. That he chose to live in Ireland is likely to have been occasioned just as much by missionary zeal as it was by economic prudence or necessity. Indeed, archaeology shows that after the departure of the Roman legions in 410, Britain declined rapidly, such that by the second quarter of the fifth century, Roman coins ceased to be used, and standards of living became more similar to those across the Irish Sea. This sharp deterioration would be called a 'cliff-edge scenario' in the jargon of the current Brexit debate. It is also a bleak reminder that total economic collapse is not without precedent in the history of Europe and of these islands.

By separating from the Roman Empire, Britain was extricating itself (although not by popular vote) from the strongest economic and political alliance that had tied it to the European continent. As it 'drifted' further away from the mainland, Britain transformed economically and politically, but also ethnically and devotionally with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, who were not Christian. Ireland itself entered into a long-term process of change, establishing a formidably sophisticated church culture, which, ironically, by the seventh century would itself send missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria to Christianity.

So, is there a moral to this story? Well, unless one has a propensity for prophetic revelation, as Patrick believed that he had, then no essentialist message can be distilled from the comparison between these islands in Late Antiquity and the present day. Like I tell my students, no two events are ever the same and we must guard against drawing false analogies that may reinforce the pursuit of hopeless or reckless nostalgic causes. We cannot relive the past, it is not advisable to attempt to do so, and we must acknowledge that, in most cases, the aspiration of 'learning from history' is no more than a platitude uttered by the likes of canvassing politicians, who have no real intention of practising what they preach.

Nevertheless, once a historical analogy plants itself in one's mind, it is difficult to dismiss it. For those of us who teach Late Antique history, the analogies are impossible to avoid, even if all that they can offer is a pause for informed reflection rather than comfort.

Roy Flechner is a lecturer at University College Dublin and author of 'Saint Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland's Patron Saint', which is out now (Princeton University Press)

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