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UC Berkeley Press Release

St. Patrick was ahead of his time, says Celtic Studies professor

– It's commonly known that St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was a fifth century Christian missionary who not only led Ireland's conversion to Christianity but also, legend has it, drove the snakes off the Emerald Isle. And while the exact dates of his life have never been certain, commonly-accepted estimates are between A.D. 390-460 or 490.

But a University of California, Berkeley, professor's research on the matter is challenging those dates, placing Patrick's birth approximately 50 years earlier.

Daniel Melia, a UC Berkeley professor of Celtic Studies and of rhetoric, says this redating of Patrick's life also necessitates a redating of the Christianization of Ireland, a period in which Patrick is said to have baptized thousands, ordained new priests and established churches and monasteries.

Melia will outline his arguments in an illustrated public lecture on "The Real St. Patrick" from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Friday, March 16, at UC Berkeley. The lecture on the eve of St. Patrick's Day will take place in Room 242 of Dwinelle Hall. It will be free and open to the public. Melia will deliver a report on his research at the XIIIth International Congress of Celtic Studies at the University of Bonn, Germany, in July.

A native of Roman Britain, St. Patrick is said to have been captured by Irish raiders as a teenager and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping to return home to his family. He then entered the church, like his father and grandfather, and became a deacon and a bishop. Patrick later returned to Ireland as a missionary.

By the seventh century, he had been assigned the mantle of one of Ireland's patron saints.

Melia found clues about Patrick in the writings the missionary left behind, although Patrick included no dates on those materials. Interpretations since the ninth century of Patrick's "Confessio" (a short account of his life and his mission) and "Letter to Caroticus" led to commonly-accepted estimates that he lived from about A.D. 390-460 or 490.

But Melia's new research reveals that those dates are "based on the shakiest of guesses" from an early period, and that a re-evaluation of the character of Patrick's written Latin, in conjunction with what Patrick wrote about his own life, indicates that he must have lived from about A.D. 350 to 425 or 430.

Patrick's knowledge of Latin technical idiom and formal rhetoric is far more sophisticated than previously believed, Melia says. Building on a recent revival of arguments for an "early Patrick" by John Koch of the Institute for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Wales, Melia reports that Patrick's style of written Latin - for instance, his use of technical legal jargon from the first century - has gone unnoticed and has been mistranslated up until now. But Melia says that Patrick's language shows that he was educated well before the collapse of Roman Britain in the period A.D. 400-410, and thus more likely to have been born around A.D. 350.

This redating makes Patrick a contemporary of St. Augustine of Hippo and a more educated Roman than traditionally thought, says Melia, a past president of the Celtic Studies Association of North America.

"An earlier date for Patrick's birth simplifies the explanations for many of his own statements and other facts about his life," said Melia. "For instance, his statement that he was taken hostage by Irish raiders 'along with many thousands of others,' need not be explained away as hyperbole if he is referring to the 'Great Barbarian Uprising' of 367, the only such event between 350 and 420 that we know about."

Most standard works on Patrick's life still reflect the earlier dating, but Melia predicts that the tide will slowly turn. He reports encountering less resistance than he had expected from Irish historians in informal discussions about his research.

A former "Jeopardy" champion, Melia says he enjoys the fact that "knowledge is indivisible; you start looking at the strange idea of the export of the Irish-American immigrant celebration of St. Patrick's Day back to Ireland and end up rethinking when St. Patrick actually lived."

For information on parking and campus maps in connection with Melia's talk see: http://www.berkeley.edu/map/.