The Birthplace of Saint Patrick, by J Cashel Hoey

detail of stained glass window of Saint Patrick, date and artist unknown; Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Knoxville, Tennessee; photographed on 16 September 2016 by Nheyob; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe question of the birthplace of Saint Patrick – a question which has been debated with considerable learning and acrimony for several centuries – has always seemed to me to have an interest far beyond the rival claims of clans and the jealous litigation of the antiquary. It is interesting not merely because it is in reality a curious archaeological problem, but also because it may in some measure afford a clue to the character of one of the greatest saints and greatest men of his own age or of any other – a saint who was the apostle of a nation which he found all heathen and left all Christian; who succeeded in planting the Catholic faith without a single act of martyrdom, but planted it so firmly that it has never failed for now 1,400 years, though tried in what various processes of martyrdom God and man too well know; a saint whose apostolate was the mainspring of an endless succession of missionary enterprises, prosecuted with the same untiring zeal in the nineteenth century as in the fifth, wherever the vanguard of Christendom may happen to be found, whether in Austria, in Gaul, in Switzerland, or in Iceland, as now at the furthest confines of America and of Australasia. Add to these ordinary evidences of the supernatural efficacy of Saint Patrick’s mission the testimony which is derived from the peculiar spiritual character of the people that he converted. The Irish nation retains the impress which it received from the hands of Saint Patrick in a way that I believe no other Christian nation has preserved the mould of its apostle. If that nation has never even dreamed of heresy or schism, it is because, in terms as positive as an ultramontane of our own days could devise, Saint Patrick established the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff as a chief canon of the Irish Church. Patience in poverty, an innate love of purity, prodigal alms-giving, and mutual charities, the practice of heavy penances and of long fasts, a peculiarly vivid sense of purgatory, and a strong devotion to the doctrine of the Trinity, which the saint taught in the figure of the shamrock – these have always been the distinguishing characteristics of Irish piety. They were the peculiar characteristics of the Christian of the fourth century, who had not yet learned to live at peace with the world – who felt that as yet Christians were in the strictest sense one family community – who practised mortification, as if the untamed pagan blood were still burning in his veins, and the great temptation to whose faith was the heresy of Arius, and the question of the relations of the three divine persons. But Saint Patrick was not only a great saint – was not merely and simply the apostle of the Irish; he was their teacher and their lawgiver, their Cadmus and Lycurgus as well. The school of letters which he founded in Ireland so well preserved the learning which had become all but extinguished throughout western Europe, that your own Alfred, following a host of your nobles and clerics, went thither to be taught, and the universities of Paris and Pavia owe their earliest lights to Irish scholars. The Brehon laws, which are at last to be published, by order of Parliament, a complete code of the most minute and comprehensive character, were, according to the evidence of our annalists, carefully revised and remodelled by Saint Patrick, with the consent of the different estates of the kingdom of Ireland; and there is good reason to believe that this revision, of which there is abundant intrinsic evidence, had reference not merely to the Christian doctrine and the canons of the Church, but to the body of the Roman civil law.

It would throw a certain light upon the character of a saint whose works were so various and so full of vitality, if we could arrive at any solid conclusion as to the place of his nativity, the quality of his parentage, and the sources of his education. The theory most generally accepted, and which certainly has the greatest weight of authority in its favor, is that which assumes that Saint Patrick was born in Scotland, at Dumbarton, on the Clyde – the son, as we may suppose, of a French or British official employed in the Roman service at that extreme outpost of their settlements in this island, where he would have spent his youth surrounded by a perpetual clangor of barbarous battle, amid clans of Picts and Celts swarming across the barriers of the Lowland. The opinion that Saint Patrick was a Scotchman has the unanimous assent of all the antiquaries of Scotland; but I am not aware that any of them has succeeded in identifying any single locality named in the original documents with any place of sufficient antiquity in or near Dumbarton; nor could I, in the course of a careful examination of the district and the recognized authorities concerning its topography, arrive at any acceptable evidence on the subject. I have to add to the Scotch authorities and pleadings, however, all the best of the Irish. That Saint Patrick was born in Scotland is the opinion of Colgan, a writer whose services to the history of the Irish Church cannot be excelled and have not been equalled. The opinion of Colgan has overborne almost every other authority which intervened between his time and the present. The Bollandists accepted it without hesitation; and I hasten to add to their great sanction that of the two most learned antiquaries of the latter days of Ireland, Dr. John O’Donovan and Professor Eugene O’Curry. They, I am aware, were also of Colgan’s opinion; and so, I believe, are Dr. Reeves and Dr. Todd, whose views on most points of ecclesiastical antiquities connected with Ireland are entitled to be named with every respect.

Still it is to be said, on the other hand, that the opinion that Saint Patrick was born in France has always had a traditional establishment in Ireland. It is asserted in one of the oldest of his lives, that of Saint Eleran, and indicated in another, that of Probus. Don Philip O’Sullivan Bearre is not the first nor the last of the more modern biographers of the saint who has held that he was of French birth, though of British blood. But before the time of Dr. Lanigan, the most acute, the most conscientious, and perhaps the most generally learned of Irish historians, there appears to have been no really candid and scientific examination of the original documents and evidences. Irish scholars were too angrily engaged in the controversy of Scotia Major and Scotia Minor to be seriously regarded when they proposed to remove Saint Patrick’s birthplace from the neighborhood of Glasgow to the neighborhood of Nantes. Until Dr. Lanigan published his Ecclesiastical History, no one seems to have even attempted to identify he localities named in the various original documents which concern the saint. Dr. Lanigan came to the conclusion that he was born not at Dumbarton but in France, at or in the neighborhood of Boulogne-sur-Mer. I am able, I hope, to perfect the proof which Dr. Lanigan commenced, and which, if he had been enabled to follow it up by local research and by the light lately cast on the geography of Roman Gaul, would, I am sure, have come far more complete from his hands.

I hold, then, with Doctor Lanigan, and with a tradition which has long existed in Ireland, and also in France, that Saint Patrick was born on the coast of Armoric Gaul; and that Roman in one sense by descent – by his education in a province where Roman civilization had long prevailed, where the Latin language was spoken, and the privileges of the empire fully possessed – Roman too by the possession of nobility, which he himself declares, and of which his name was a curious commemoration – Roman, in fine, in the connection of his family which he testifies with the Roman government and with the Church, Saint Patrick was a Celt of Gaul by blood. The fact that the district between Boulogne and Amiens was at that time inhabited by a clan called Britanni has misled both those who supposed he must have been born in the island of Britain and those who held that, if born in France, he must have been born in that part of it which was subsequently called Brittany.

The original documents which bear on the point are only two in number – the “Confession” of Saint Patrick himself, and the hymn in his honor composed by his disciple Saint Fiech. Of the antiquity of these documents we have evidence the most complete that can be conceived. Not merely does written history certify the record of their age – they have borne much more delicate tests. The hymn of Saint Fiech is written in a dialect of Irish that is to the Irish of the Four Masters as the English of Chaucer is to the English of Lord Macaulay. The quotations of Scripture which are given in the “Confession” of Saint Patrick are taken from the version according to the interpretation of the Septuagint, and not according to the recent version of Saint Jerome, which had indeed been just executed in Saint Patrick’s time, but had not yet been publicly received. At the same time, the “Liber Armachanus,” which contains the original copy of the “Confession,” contains also Saint Jerome’s translation of the New Testament – thus curiously marking the fact that the date of the one document by a little preceded the date of the other. The manuscript itself has been subjected to a most curious and rigorous examination. The authentic signature of Brian, Imperator Hibernorum, commonly called Brian Boroimhe, on the occasion of his visit to Armagh, carries us back at a bound eight hundred years in its history; but the scholar who is expert in the hue of vellum and the style of the scribe, will tell us that the “Book of Armagh” was evidently a book of venerable age even then. The Rev. Charles Graves, a fellow of the University of Dublin, and a scholar specially skilled in the study of the Irish manuscripts and hieroglyphs, published a paper some years ago in the “Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy” on the question of the age of the “Book of Amagh.” That the version at present preserved in the library of Trinity College is a copy from a far older version he says there can be no doubt. The marginal notes of the scribe show that he found it difficult in many places to read the manuscript from which he was transcribing. But the same notes, the character of his writing, and a reference to the Irish primate of the time under whose authority the work was undertaken, leave no doubt that the transcript was executed by a scribe named Ferdomnach, during the primacy of Archbishop Torbach, at a date not later than the year of Our Lord 807.

Of the “Confession,” beside the original copy in the “Book of Armagh,” there are several manuscript versions of great age in England: two at Salisbury; two in the Cotton library; one, I believe, at Cambridge; another very interesting and valuable copy, that which was used by the Bollandists in printing their edition of the “Confession,” existed until the time of the revolution in the famous French monastery of Saint Vedastus. Fragments of the precious manuscripts of that learned congregation are scattered among the libraries of Arras, of Saint Omer, of Boulogne, and of Douai; but among them I could not find any trace of the missing manuscript of Saint Patrick’s “Confession;” nor could the present learned representatives of Bollandus, who were good enough to interest themselves in my inquiry, give me any room to hope that it still exists. It would have been of much importance to have been able to compare the style and the text of the only existing French copy with the original in Ireland – especially as that French copy belonged to the very district from which Saint Patrick originally came.

There are four localities designated in these documents; three of them in the “Confession of Saint Patrick,” and one in the hymn of Saint Fiech. In the “Confession,” Saint Patrick says of himself, “Patrem habui Calphurnium Diaconum (or Diacurionem) qui fuit e vico Bonaven-Taberniae; villam Enon prope habuit, ubi ego in capturam decidi.” The hymn of Saint Fiech adds that the saint was born at a place called Nem-tur.

The ancient “Lives of Saint Patrick” cite these localities with little variation.

The first Life, given in Colgan’s collection, and ascribed to Saint Patrick junior, says, “Natus est igitur in illo oppido, Nempthur nomine. Patricius natus est in campo Taburnae.”

The second Life, which is ascribed to Saint Benignus, is word for word the same with the first on this point.

The third, supposed to be by Saint Eleran, suggests that he was of Irish descent through a colony allowed by the Romans to settle in Armorica; but that his parents were of Strato Cludi (Strath Clyde); that he was born, however, “in oppido Nempthur, quod oppidum in campo Taburniae est.” This life is of very ancient date, and shows clearly enough how old is the Irish tradition concerning the saint’s birth in France.

The fourth Life, by Probus, says: “Brito fuit natione . . . de vico Bannave Tiburniae regionis, haud procul a mare occidentali – quem vicum indubitanter comperimus esse Neustriae provinciae, in qua olim gigantes.” Here, again, we observe the same confused tradition of the saint’s French origin; for Neustria was the name in the Merovingian period of the whole district comprised between the Meuse and the Loire.

The fifth and best known life, by Jocelyn, has it: “Brito fuit natione in pago Taburniae – co quod Romanus exercitus tabernacula fixerant ibidem, secus oppidum Nempthor degens, mare Hibernico collimitans habitatione.”

The sixth Life, by Saint Evin, declares that he was “de Brittanis Alcluidensibus, natus in Nempthur.”

The Breviaries repeat the same names with as little attempt to fix the actual localities.

The Breviary of Paris says: “In Britiania natus, oppido Empthoria.” The Breviary of Armagh: “In illo Brittaniae oppido nomine Emptor.” The old Roman Breviary says simply: “Grenere Brito.” The Breviary of Rheims: “In maritimo Brittaniae territorio.” The Breviary of Rouen: “In Brittania Gallicana.” The Breviary of the canons of Saint John of Lateran: “Ex Brittania magna insula.”

It will be observed that in the principal of these authorities there is a concurrence in accepting the locality called so variously Nemthur and Empthoria, as well as the second of the localities, the Taberniae, named by Saint Patrick himself; and also that there is no appearance of certainty in the minds of the writers as to the exact sites of the places of which they speak. None of them ventures to name the exact district or diocese where Empthoria or the Taberniae are to be found.

But certain scholia upon the “Hymn of Saint Fiech,” which were for the first time published by Colgan in the “Triadis Thaumaturgae,” boldly lay down the proposition that “Nemthur est civitas in Brittania Septentrionali, nempe Alcluida;” and the name is also translated as meaning “Holy Tower.” The same writer, however, adds in another note that Saint Patrick was not carried into his Irish captivity from Dumbarton, but from Boulogne, where he and his family were visiting some of their friends at the time when the Irish pirates swept down upon the coast of Gaul. The Irish annals say that about the period of Saint Patrick’s captivity, Nial of the Nine Hostages lost his life on the Sea of Iccius between France and England. These long piratical forays were not uncommon at the time. A little later, the last of our pagan kings, Dathy, was killed by lightning near the Rhaetian Alps.

Colgan with a curious credulity accepted this improbable solution of the scholiast, of which it may in the first place be said that it is incompatible with the statement of Saint Patrick himself, who declares distinctly that he was captured at a country house belonging to his father, near the town to which his family belonged.

Usher, however, who had equal opportunities of studying the original documents, also adopted this explanation. Several Irish writers, and especially Don Philip O’Sullivan, vaguely conscious of the tradition of Saint Patrick’s French origin, attempted to reconcile the fact of his being a Briton with the fact of his birth in France by the supposition that he was a Breton of Brittany. This theory, however, falls summarily to the ground when it is opposed to the fact that the province now known by the name of Brittany was not inhabited by any tribe which bore the name in the time of Saint Patrick, “The year 458,” says the Benedictine Lobineau in his learned history of Brittany, “is about the epoch of the establishment of the Bretons in that part of ancient Armorica which at present bears the name of Bretagne.” There was, however, a clan called Brittani, further toward the north of France, a clan whose territory Pliny and the Greek Dionysius Periegetes had long before designated with accuracy: Pliny in these words, “Deinde Menapii, Morini, Oromansaci juncti pago, qui Gessoriacus vocatur; Brittani, Ambiani, Bellovaci.” The Brittani of the time of Saint Patrick are to be found in the country that lies between Boulogne and Amiens. It is there that Lanigan came upon the first authentic traces of the origin of our apostle.

He was guided to his conclusion, mainly, I think, by the “History of the Morini,” published in the year 1639, by the Jesuit Malbrancq, and which seems strangely to have escaped the notice of every earlier Irish writer. In this work, there are two chapters devoted to the tradition of the connection of Saint Patrick with the see of Boulogne. Malbrancq relates this tradition, which states that previous to his departure for the Irish mission, Saint Patrick remained for some time at Boulogne, occupied in preaching against the Pelagian heresy, to contend with which Saint Germanus and Lupus had crossed over to Britain. Malbrancq refers, in proof of this fact, to the “Chronicon Morinense,” to the Catalogue of the Bishops of Boulogne, and to the “Life of Saint Arnulphus of Soissons.” This tradition is to a certain extent a clue in tracing the early and intimate connection of Saint Patrick with this country – but as yet it is nothing more.

The critical question is, whether the four names given by Saint Patrick himself, and by Saint Fiech, can be identified with any localities now known either in the district of Boulogne or any other district in which toward the close of the fourth century it is possible to find the conditions of Roman government and British blood combined? Before Lanigan there was, it seems to me, no serious attempt made to solve this question. The scholiast whose authority was so unhesitatingly adopted by Colgan and Usher simply says, “Nempthur est civitas in Brittania Septentrionali, nempe Alcluid.” There is not a word more. He does not attempt to show how Nempthur and Alcluid are to be considered as convertible terms. Nor does he attempt to interpret the names of the three localities stated by Saint Patrick himself. The same may be said, in the most sweeping way, of the biographies and the breviaries.

I will now read the reasons which Lanigan gives for identifying Bonaven with Boulogne, and Taberniae with a city very famous in the wars of the middle ages, long before Arras had been fortified by Vauban or defended by General Owen Roe O’Neill. It will be observed that Lanigan does not attempt to identify the two other localities Enon and Nempthur. The former he regarded as too insignificant, the latter he did not believe had any existence. I will not say that his proof with regard to the identity of Boulogne with Bonaven is conclusive; but if the whole of his proof rested on as strong presumptive grounds, little would remain to be said on the subject. The second part of it is, however, in my humble opinion, wholly erroneous. He says:

“Colgan acknowledges that there is an ancient tradition among the inhabitants of Armoric Britain that Saint Patrick was born in their country, and that some Irishmen were of the same opinion. He quotes some passages from Probus and others whence they argued in proof of their position, but omits, through want of attention to that most valuable document, the following passage of ‘St. Patrick’s Confession:’ My father was Calpurnius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest of the town Bonavem Taberniae. He had near the town a small villa, Enon, where I became a captive.’ Here we have neither a town Nemthor nor Alcluit. Nor will any British antiquary be able to find out a place in Great Britain to which the names Bonavem Taberniae can be applied. Usher, although he had quoted these words, has not attempted to give any explanation of them, or to reconcile them with Nemthur.

“The word Taberniae has puzzled not only Colgan, but some of the authors of the Lives which he chose to follow; for while they left out Bonavem as not agreeing with Nemthur, they retained Taberniae, or, as they were pleased to write it, Taburniae, which they endeavored to account for by making it a district that got its name from having been the site of a Roman camp in which there were tents or tabernacles. Colgan, who swallowed all this stuff, quotes Jocelin as his authority for Taburnia being situated near the Clyde, at the South Bank. Great authority, indeed! It is, however, odd that such a place should be unnoticed by all those who have undertaken to elucidate the ancient topography of Great Britain. The places of Roman camps in that country were usually designated by the adjunct castra, whence chester, or cester, in which the names of so many cities and towns in England terminate.

“Bonavem, or Bonaven, was in Armoric Gaul, being the same town as Boulogne-sur-Mer in Picardy. That town was well known to the Romans under the name of Gressoriacum; but about the reign of Constantine the Great the Celtic name Bonaven or Bonaun, alias Bonon, which was Latinized into Bononia, became more general. According to Bullet, who informs us that Am, Aven, On, signify river in the Celtic language, the town was so called from its being at the mouth of a river; Bon, mouth, on or avon, river. Baxter also observes that Bononia is no other than Bonavon or Bonaun, for aven, avem, avon, aun, are pronounced in the same manner. The addition of Taberniae marks its having been in the district of Tarvanna or Tarvenna, alias Tarabanna, a celebrated city not far from Boulogne, the ruins of which still remain under the modern name of Terouanne. The name of this city was extended to a considerable district around it, thence called pagus Tarbannensis, or Tarvanensis regio. Gregory of Tours calls the inhabitants Tarabannenses. It is often mentioned under the name of Civitas Morinorum, having been the principal city of the Morini, in which Boulogne was also situated. Boulogne was so connected with Tarvanna that both places anciently formed but one episcopal see. Thus Jonas, in his ‘Life of the Abbot Eustatius,’ written near twelve hundred years ago, calls Audomarus Bishop of Boulogne and Tarvanna. It is probable that Saint Patrick’s reason for designating Bonaven by the adjunct Taberniae was lest it might be confounded with the Bononia of Italy, now Bologna, or with a Bononia in Aquitain, in the same manner that, to avoid a similar confusion, the French call it at present Boulogne-sur-Mer. Perhaps it will be objected that Tabernia is a different name from Tarvenna. In the first place, it may be observed that, owing to the usual commutation of b for v, and vice versâ, we might read Tavernia. Thus we have seen that Tarvenna was called by some Tarabanna. To account for the further difference of the names, nothing more is required than to admit the transposition of a syllable or a letter, which has frequently occurred in old words, and particularly names of places. Nogesia, the name of a town, becomes Genosia. Dunbritton has been modified into Dunbertane, Dunbarton, Dumbarton. Probus agrees with the ‘Confession,’ except that, according to Colgan’s edition, for Bonavem Taberniae he has ‘Bannave Tyburniae regionis,’ and adds that it was not far from the Western sea or Atlantic ocean. Although we may easily suppose that some errors of transcription have crept into the text of Probus, yet as to Bannave there is no material difference between it and Bonavem. Ban might be used for Bon; and the final m, which was a sort of nasal termination, as it is still with the Portuguese, could be omitted so as to write for Bonavem, or Bonaum (v and u being the same letter), Bonaue. Probus’ addition of regionis is worth noticing, as it corresponds with what has been said concerning the Tarvanensis regio. ”

I think the proof in this passage with regard to the word Bonaven is very strong. The passage which Lanigan cites from Bexter distinctly says, “Gallorum Bononia eodem pene est etymo; quasi dicas Bon-avon sive Bonaun.” The derivation of the word is clear enough. Avon even in England retains its Celtic signification of a river. But the passage identifying the Tabernia of Boulogne with Therouanne is in my opinion altogether incorrect. Where he accounts for the change in the structure of the word by the usual transmutation of b and v, he overlooks the letter r – a letter which does not melt into the music of patois by any means so easily. Again, he hardly lays sufficient stress on the fact that the word Taberniae is invariably understood in all the scholia, and in all the lives, to mean the Campus tabernaculorum – the barracks and district occupied by a Roman army. In fine, he confuses Therouanne, which is at a distance of thirty miles from Boulogne, and certainly did not stand in the relation he supposes to it, with another city some twenty miles still further away. But Malbrancq, who was his chief authority, does not omit to mention that Tervanna and Taruanna are two absolutely distinct places: Tervanna was the old Roman name of the town now known as Saint Pol – Taruanna that of Therouenne.

It is very possible – I may add to the proof concerning the word Bonaven – that it may have been written originally Bononen, for Bononenses Taberniae. Any one familiar with the form of the letters of the early Irish alphabet, indeed of almost all early manuscript, will readily comprehend how easily an o might be written for an a, an n for a v, and vice versâ, by a scribe ignorant of the exact locality, and copying from a half-defaced document. Any one who looks at the form of the letters in the alphabet of the “Book of Kells,” given in Dr. O’Donovan’s Grammar, will conceive at a glance how this might have happened.

Assuming, however, that Lanigan is correct in his conjecture as to Boulogne, I have endeavored to discover whether the other localities named in the “Confession” and “Hymn” can be identified with localities now existing within the proper circumscription of the Roman military occupation around that city, and of a certain and unquestionable antiquity. I need not inform the academy of the great military importance of Boulogne at the time of which we treat. It was the point from which England had been invaded. It was the principal military settlement of the Romans in Northern Gaul. Julian the Apostate had held his headquarters there shortly before Saint Patrick’s birth. The country all around is marked by roads and mounds, which exhibit the rigid lines and stern solidity of Roman construction. I learn from a recent essay by M. Quenson, an accomplished scholar of Saint Omer, that eighty-eight different works have been written to settle the site of the Portus Itius, whence Caesar embarked to invade Britain, and nineteen different localities assigned. Since M. Quenson wrote, M. de Saulcy has again opened, and this time I think finally determined, that controversy. Perhaps I am so far fortunate that the absorbing zeal with which this difficult problem has been pursued, in a country of such zealous scholars, still leaves to a stranger somewhat to glean, in places far inland from the famous port which they have so long labored to identify.

The localities to which Saint Patrick refers have, I find, all been preserved with the least alteration of their etymology that it is possible to conceive in the space of so many centuries; and this, I may add, is peculiarly wonderful in a country where so many Roman names have, by the friction of the much mixed dialects of northern France, been almost frayed out of recognition. Who would suppose, for example, taking some of the familiar names of the department, that Fampoux was the Fanum Pollucis, Dainville Dianae villa, Lens Elena, Etaples Stapulae, Hermaville Hermetis villa, Hesdin Helenum, Souchez Sabucetum, Surques Surcae, Ervillers Herivilla, Tingry Tingriacum? And yet regarding these names there is no doubt that the modern French is a corruption of the old Latin form. Of the localities, which I proceed to designate, I submit that each has kept its original name with far less violation of the ancient word. The Enon, the Nemthur, the Taberniae of Saint Patrick are, to my mind, manifest in comparison with the majority of a hundred other localities in the Boulonnais which undoubtedly derive their titles from a Roman source.

In the first place, let us take the word Enon. The river Liane, which runs into the sea at Boulogne, was known to the Romans as the Fluvius Enna. It is so marked on the most ancient maps of northern Gaul. It is so written in Latin by Malbrancq. Near Desvres – once called Desurennes, or Desvres-sur-Ennes – there is marked a little village of the same name, called also Enna. I will not be said to strain language, which has survived so many centuries, very severely when I venture to identify Saint Patrick’s Enon with this undoubtedly Roman Enon.

Lanigan totally disbelieved in the existence of the town called Nempthor. I could not do so; nor underrate the importance of identifying it, if possible, in such an inquiry as this. But the difficulty of discovering this place was hitherto greatly increased by a mistranslation of its meaning, for which I believe Colgan is responsible. The word was always supposed to mean “Holy Tower” – Neim, holy, and Tur, tower – until Professor Eugene O’Curry, when compiling, some years ago, his valuable catalogue of the Irish MSS. of the British Museum, after a minute examination of the manuscript, which is the oldest copy of the “Hymn” in existence, came to the conclusion that the word should really be written “Emtur,” as it is indeed, though by accident I take it, in some of the breviaries. “The place of Saint Patrick’s birth,” he says, “is generally written Nemtur; but there is clear evidence that the N is but a prefix introduced to fill the hiatus in the text, and that Emtur is the proper form of the word.” The word, then, means not holy tower, but the tower of some place or person indicated by the word Em. Some eight miles distant from Desvres, toward the north, still within the military circumscription of which it is the centre, there is such a place. The river Em, or Hem, flows past a village of so great an antiquity, that even in the ordinary geographical dictionaries the record is preserved that Julius Caesar slept there on his way to embark for the invasion of Britain. The town contains a Roman arch and the ruins of a Roman tower, from which the village derives its name. The name is Tournehem, or, as it was written in Malbrancq’s time, Tur-n-hem. The tower and the river show the derivation of the word at a glance. The exigencies of Irish verse simply caused their transposition. I have only to add to Mr. O’Curry’s ingenious note on the subject the remark that the n was not, as he supposes, merely inserted to fill up a hiatus in the line, but was obviously a part of it. It is a copulative as common in Celtic words as de in modern French, and has precisely the same meaning. Ballynamuck, for example, means the town of, or on, the river Muck. Tulloch na Daly (whose swelling dimensions the French afterward curbed into the famous name of Tollendall) is a more apposite instance.

I have yet to identify the Taberniae. To the eye, and on the old maps, they almost identify themselves. Desvres has all the characters of a great Roman military position – a vast place of arms, the tracings of fortified walls, the fosse, lines of circumvallation, and hard by on the forest edge the Sept Voies or Septemvium, the meeting of the seven great military roads leading from and to the other principal strongholds of the imperial power in northern and western Europe. Any one who examines in particular the “Carte des Voies Romaines du Département du Pas de Calais,” published by the Commission of Departmental Antiquities, cannot fail to perceive that this now obscure village, which certainly never was raised to the rank of a Roman city, was nevertheless once a great nucleus of Roman power. The fragment of an ancient bridge is still known as the Pont de Caesar. The Septemvium, with its remarkable concentration of roads, is alone sufficient to indicate the importance of the place. There is one road leading straight to Amiens; one that reaches the sea by the mouth of the Canche; another that runs to the harbor of Boulogne; another that joins the roads from Saint Omer and from Tournehem, and carries them on to Wissante and Sangate, the supposed Portus Itius and Portus Inferior; the fifth road was to Tervanna and Arras; the sixth to Taruanna; the seventh to Saint Omer. Would so many roads, communicating with places of such military importance, have been concentrated by a race of such a centralizing talent as the Romans anywhere except at the cite of a great city or a great camp? On the ancient maps, indeed, the country which lies between Desvres and Boulogne, along the Liane, is simply marked Castrum.

I now approach, not unconscious of its difficulties, the etymology of the word. In the lax Latin of the middle ages, we find Desvres spoken of as Divernia Bononiensis. There is the epitaph of a churchman, born in the place, which says on his behalf:

“Me Molinet peperit Divernia Bononiensis.”

The local historian, Baron d’Ordre, speaks of the place as “Désurène, Divernia, aujourd’hui Desvres.” The name Desvres itself evidently has undergone strange, yet traceable, variations and modifications. Its first appearance as a French word is “Desurennes,” and this is derived from Desvres sur Enna, or Desvres upon the Enna or Liane, which, as I have said, flows past the place, giving its name to a little village near the forest. By this derivation, however, only the first two letters of the original word Desvres are left. How do they disappear, why do they reappear in the modern form of the word, and what is its original derivation?

It is a very curious fact, that in England the Roman camps seem to have been always known as “Castra,” while in Gaul the Tabernae is the name which generally adhered to them. Lanigan says, and correctly, so far as I have been able to discover, that there is no trace of a Roman station called Tabernae in England, while the affix chester is the most common in its topography. In England, it may be said the Romans encamped; in France, the Tabernae meant a more settled and familiar residence, as familiar as the Caserne of the empire. It would be interesting to inquire whether as many cities in France do not derive their origin from these military stations as England has of Chesters. But the student who attempts this task will be sure to find the Latin word almost defaced beyond power of recognition by the etymological maltreatment which it has sustained in that conflict of consonants which has resulted in the present high polish of Academic French. I may mention one or two instances to show how little violence I do to French philology in identifying the Divernia Bononiensis of the middle ages with the Tabenae of Boulogne. Saveme in Lorraine is well known to be the Tabenae Triborocrum. It was known in a semi-Germanic form as Elsas Tabern. Gradually the sibilant ss of the first word invaded the second; and it has long settled down into one word in the form of Saveme. The Tabernae Rhenanae, on the other hand, retained the hard b instead of converting it into v, as inevitably happened in the south, and instead changed the T into Z Rhein-Zabren. In ages which had no hesitation in changing the pure dental T into the sibilant dentals S or Z, it will not be considered surprising that it was sometimes changed into D – the only other pure dental sound. Indeed, of all the transmutations of letters, those of d and t and those of v and b, are notoriously the most common. “The Irish d,” says O’Donovan, “never has such a hard sound as the English d. ” Again, “In ancient writings, t is frequently substituted for d. ” Again, “It should be remarked that in ancient Irish MSS. consonants of the same organ are very frequently substituted for each other, and that where the ancients usually wrote p, c, t, the moderns write b, q, d.” Decline the Irish word Tâd, father. It becomes Ei dâd, his father; Ei thâd, her father; by nhâd my father. We carry the tendency into English. The mistake is one from which certain parts of Ireland as well as certain parts of France are not exempt even to the present day; and in Munster one may still hear, as in the times when the ballad of “Lillibullero” was written, the letter d occasionally used where the tongue intended t or th. Nor is this vagary of speech confined to the Irish. Why do the Welsh say Tafyd for David? It is the most frequently recurring of that systematic permutation of consonants which is one of the chief difficulties of the Cymbric tongue. The Welsh d and t turn about and wheel about in their mysterious alphabet without the slightest scruple. In Germany the convertibility of the same letters is also very marked. The German says das for that, Dank for thanks, Durst for thirst; and again Teufel for devil, Tanz for dance, Theil for dial. As to the same abuse in France, the dictionary of the Academy and that of Bescherelle lay down the principle very plainly: “Le t est une lettre à la fois linguale et dentale, comme le d son correlatif, plus faible, plus doux, avec lequel il est fréquemment confondu, nonseulement dans les langues germaniques, mais dans la plupart des langues. En latin, cette lettre so permute fréquemment avec le d: attulit pour adtulit. On écrivit primitivement set, aput, quot, haut, au lieu de sed, apud, quod, hand.”

So far as to the permutation of T and D. I will not waste the time of the reader in order to show that the conversion of v into b is even more common. We find a familiar illustration of it in the old Latin name of Ireland, which, as every one knows, is variously written Ibernia, Ivernia, Hibernia, Juvernia, and Iernia. But the English word tavern, which is exactly derived from the Latin Taberniae, is a still more apposite illustration in the present case. In this word, finally, the intermediate vowel swayed in sound with the consonants which inclosed it. As the primary Latin T changed into the softer and feebler D, and the b into v, the intermediate a lost its full force. The mediaeval Latin melts into i in Divernia. The modern French form, Desvres, brings it half-way back toward its place at the head of the alphabet. It does not run the whole gamut of the vowels, as from Ibernia to Juvernia.

This Divernia Bononiensis, then, I claim to identify with the Taberniae Bononienses, Tournehem with Nemtur or Emtor, Enna with Enon. If it were necessary even to push the proof a step further, there is the district called Le Wicquet, which M. Jean Scoti, who was lieutenant particulier de la Sennechaussée de Boulogne, tells us is undoubtedly derived from the Latin Vicus, and which might naturally be the vico Bonaven Taberniae of which the “Confession” speaks; but the historian of Desvres, Baron d’Ordre, whom I have already cited, disputes this derivation, and says the word is Celtic, and comes from Wic, Celtic for wood, like our word wicket. Both may be right, for Vicus may be a Latin form of the same word. But the point is not material.

Let me now add to the etymological evidence a few historical illustrations.

Saint Patrick is stated in almost all his biographies to have been a nephew of Saint Martin of Tours. Saint Martin, though said to be a Celt of Pannonia, was during his military and early ecclesiastical career stationed in this identical district. The well known legend of his division of his cloak with the beggar, who proved to be our Lord himself, is alleged to have taken place at Amiens. It is recorded that he was baptized at Therouanne. The first church raised to his honor was built there. The principal missionaries of the district are said to have been his disciples, and evidently entertained a deep devotion to him, of which there are still abundant evidences.

Saint Patrick, while in captivity at Slemish in Ireland, lived within sight of Scotland. A few miles only separate the coasts at Antrim. But when he escaped, he did not attempt to pass into Scotland. He made his way south, and passed through England to France. He says he was received among the Britons as if (quasi) among his own clan and kin. Doubtless there was close relationship of race and language between the Britons of the island and of the continent. There were Britons and there were Atrebates on both sides of the sea. But Britain was not the saint’s native place nor his resting-place. He went on, and abode with those whom he calls his brethren of Gaul, “seeing again the familiar faces of the saints of the Lord,” until he was summoned to undertake his mission to Ireland.

In his own account of the vision which induced him to undertake the apostolate of Ireland, he says he was called to do so by a man, whose name is variously written Victor, Victoricius, and Victricius. The real name is in all probability Victricius; but if it were Victor or Victoricius, it would be equally easy (were it not for the fear of failing by essaying to prove too much) to identify the source of the saint’s inspiration with the same district. Saint Victricius was the great missionary of the Morini at the end of the fourth century; but he had been preceded in that capacity by Saint Victoricius, who suffered martyrdom with Sts. Fuscien and Firmin, at Amiens, in A.D. 286. Again, the name Victor is that of a favorite disciple of Saint Martin, whom Sulpicius Severns sent to Saint Paulinus of Nola, and of whom they both write in terms of extraordinary encomium. But the person referred to in the “Confession” is far more probably Saint Victricius, who was an exact contemporary of Saint Patrick, who was engaged on the mission of Boulogne at the time of his escape, and who is said to have been a French Briton himself. Malbrancq’s “Annals of the See of Boulogne” aver that in the year 390 the “Morini a Domino Victricio exculti sunt,” and that in the year 400 he dedicated their principal church to Saint Martin.

When Saint Patrick was on his way to Ireland, with full powers from Pope Celestine, it is recorded that he was detained at Boulogne by the request of Saints Germanus and Lupus, who were proceeding into Britain in order to preach against the Pelagian heresy; and that during their absence he temporarily exercised episcopal functions at Boulogne, and so came to be included in the list of its bishops. If Saint Patrick were a native of the island, is it not probable that Germanus and Lupus would rather have invited him to join their mission? But their object in asking him to interrupt his own special enterprise for a time in order to remain among the Boulonnais was, it is said, to guard against the spread of this heresy on the continent. And it is very natural that they should have asked him to stay for such an object, and that he should have consented, if this were indeed his native district, in which his intimacies were calculated to give him a special degree of influence; but not otherwise, hastening as he was under the sense of a divine call to the conversion of a whole nation plunged in paganism.

And, as I began by saying, all this proof is important mainly because it tends in some degree to elucidate the spirit and the work of the saint. We begin to see how with the Celtic character of a French Briton, which made him easily akin to the Irish, he combined the Roman culture and civilization, which added to his missions peculiar literary and political energy, that long remained. We see in him the friend and comrade of the great saints of a great but anxious age. We see how he connects the young Church of Ireland, not with Rome alone, but with the great militant Christian communities of Gaul – a connection which his disciples were destined so to develope and extend in the three following centuries; and we cease to wonder that both Ireland and France have clung so fondly to a tradition which linked together in their earliest days two churches whose mutual services and sympathies have ever since been of the closest kind.

– text taken from Catholic World magazine, March, 1866