St. Patrick, we hardly knew ye.
Actually, you don’t have to hail from County Cork – or sport a lilting Irish brogue – to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. ’Tis a feast that’s a tribute to Western civilization. And the scions of Italy should be among the joyous revelers.
For in paying homage to Patricius of Ireland, we honor the man who brought the fruits of the Seed of Aeneas to a wild patch of earth in the North Atlantic – making the Emerald Isle fertile ground for the genius of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
Born of a noble family in Roman Britain’s Bannaventa Berniae, Patrick was the privileged son of Calpornius, a deacon and decurion (town councilor), and Conchessa. His grandfather, Potitus, had been the village presbyter.
As a member of the Roman upper class, Patrick received a classical education: fluency in Latin, immersion in the history of the Caesars, and a devotion to Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
Yet history tells us that Rome’s penetration of Ireland predated Patricius. And though Thomas Cahill has hinted at such revelations, he never spelled out how much the Irish owe to the pluck of men from the mare nostrum.
In addition to archaeological evidence pointing to a fortified Roman base at Tipperary, historians have long maintained that extensive trade and cultural links existed between Imperial Italy and Ireland.
Richard Hanson contends that trade between Hibernia and Roman Britain – and between the Old Sod and the Italian heartland – flourished. This would do much to explain the Irish aristocracy’s adoption of Roman manners and customs.
No wonder Edmund Burke, James Joyce and Frank McCourt were such ardent Italophiles.
St. Patrick was dispatched to the Emerald Isle to bolster what may well have been a pre-existing Roman Christian Church established in the 2nd century A.D. Moreover, the discovery of a Roman fort at Drumanagh (north of Dublin) – with coins bearing the faces of Titus, Trajan and Hadrian – indicates a distinct Italian footprint on Gaelic soil between 79 and 182 A.D.
According to Tacitus, Julius Agricola, Rome’s governor of Britain from 78 to 84 A.D., even hosted an exiled Irish prince named Tuathal Techtmar. And in 82 A.D., Agricola actually crossed the sea and defeated a band of Hibernians, gleefully boasting that the conquest of Ireland could be achieved with but one legion and some auxiliary troops. (Historians Barry Rafferty and Gabriel Cooney believe he used another recently discovered fort near Dublin as his base of operations.)
But conquest comes in many forms. From the Roman citadel of Cashel (castellum) in Leinster to the military-religious complex in Tara to Saint Palladio’s church in Tigroney – Teach-na Roman (House of the Romans) – to St. Patrick’s foundational missions, Ireland fell under Rome’s cultural sway – adopting the Latin alphabet and becoming a most enlightened isle.
Rosario A. Iaconis is an adjunct professor in the Social Sciences Department of Suffolk County Community College in New York.