As he patrols his British forts guarding against Anglo-Saxon invaders, the Count of the Saxon Shore recounts another true story from the first great Brexit, sixteen hundred years ago.
This weekend marks St Patrick’s Day and like a ghost at the feast I’m perhaps a little too keen to point out that Patrick was British not Irish. But it’s a sober reminder that we can learn more about national identity and post-colonialism from his true history than the rather gaudy spectacle of his modern-day celebration.
Patrick was probably born in what is now Cumbria, sometime in the beginning of the 5th century AD, just as the Roman Empire, that great European union of its time, was falling apart. His family was Romano-British and his very name indicates some imperial status. He was actually Patricius, which, of course, means ‘patrician’ or ‘noble’. So, not just a Brit but a bit of a toff as well.
But with the end of legion-based Roman regulation a new free-trade system began to flourish from across the Irish Sea: piracy.
What became known as the ‘Dark Ages’ (it was anything but) is a superfluidity of cultural identity and an essential internationalism
At sixteen Patrick was captured by Gaelic slavers and taken to Ireland, where he toiled in captivity for six years before escaping back to his homeland having undergone some kind of spiritual conversion. He studied for the priesthood and spent time in Europe but once ordained returned to Ireland as a missionary and founded the Christian church in that country. This would eventually inspire some people to wear leprechaun hats and drink themselves into a stupor on the anniversary of his death.
But in his own lifetime something quite complex was happening. Just as the raiders on the Saxon Shore were beginning to settle in Britain to become the English, the descendants of the pirates that captured Patrick were doing some nation-building of their own. These Gaels that migrated from Ireland were known as the Scoti and would give their name to a new dominion (though the term Scotland wouldn’t be in use until the 9th century AD and the modern Gaelic term for this land remains Alba, derived from the ancient Greek Albion.)
So Patrick was British and the Scots were Irish, everyone comes from somewhere else. What we find in what became known as the ‘Dark Ages’ (it was anything but) is a superfluidity of cultural identity and an essential internationalism that has always been part of these curious collection of islands.
And Patrick’s legacy was an age of enlightenment. The Irish hegemony he instigated would convert the pagan Scots and the Northumbrian English, bringing with it the most advanced information technology of its time: the book.
So on this St Patrick’s Day let us be determined that there must never again be a hard border between Britain and Ireland.
Whatever you think of Christianity it’s impossible for an intelligent mind not to be staggered by such vibrantly illuminated word processors such as the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Over the centuries the Irish continued to enrich the literacy of the Scots and the English, even as piracy and occupation went the other way.
So on this St Patrick’s Day let us be determined that there must never again be a hard border between Britain and Ireland. At times it might have existed politically or economically, but it was never there culturally. After all, Paddy was a Brit.