Saturday 18 March 2017

Vox Hiberionacum - Irish or Latin?

I have recently been reorganising my files and came across some notes I had made from a paper by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín on Saint Patrick. In it he examines various aspects of our national apostle's career from a revisionary standpoint, thereby providing some food for thought. I intend to have a look at a few of the issues he raises over the octave of Saint Patrick's feast and so will begin with his discussion of the language used by Patrick's community in Ireland. Was the 'voice of the Irish' which Patrick heard in his famous vision of Victoricus and his letters speaking in Irish or in Latin? Let's remind ourselves first of Patrick's own account from his Confessio:
"I saw, in a nocturnal vision, a man named Victoricus coming as if from Ireland, with a large parcel of letters, one of which he handed to me. On reading the beginning of it, I found it contained these words: 'The voice of the Irish;' and while reading it I thought I heard, at the same moment, the voice of a multitude of persons near the Wood of Foclut, which is near the western sea; and they cried out, as if with one voice, 'We entreat thee, holy youth, to come and henceforth walk amongst us.' And I was greatly affected in my heart, and could read no longer; and then I awoke."
Ó Cróinín begins by pointing out that at the time of Saint Patrick, Irish was not a written language:
We recall that Victoricus came to Patrick in his night vision bearing letters, though no Irish person of the 4th or 5th century could have written such a letter in the literal sense, and certainly none in the Irish language. If the letter that Patrick began to read out loud was written in Latin (as surely it must have been), then that raises an interesting question: was Patrick's missionary activity carried out amongst people who spoke that language?
In raising this possibility the writer is not suggesting that Patrick had no knowledge of Irish, on the contrary:
Since Patrick spent six years of his youth in Ireland we need not doubt that, by the time of his escape, he had mastered the native language and could express himself fluently in Irish. He appears to imply as much when he says that his words and speech 'are translated into a foreign tongue' (sermo et loquela nostra translata est in lingua alienam). But since Irish was not, by that time, a written language, is Patrick speaking metaphorically, when he speaks of letters brought by his nocturnal messenger, or does he mean exactly what he says?
But if the letter from Ireland is written in Latin, what might this mean?  Ó Cróinín offers an  interesting speculation:
If it was the case that Patrick's vox Hiberionacum ('the voice of those living in Ireland' belonged to Latin speakers, then it is possible that he refers to a group of people who - like himself - had been taken captive in Britain and brought back to Ireland. There is nothing out of the ordinary in such an interpretation after all, Patrick himself states that he was taken captive 'along with many thousands of others' (cum tot milia hominum; Conf.1
 This leads to a further intriguing possibility about the identity of the community speaking to Patrick:
Patrick seems to make a distinction in his vocabulary between native Irish (Scotti) and people living in Ireland (Hiberionaci), who might not necessarily be Irish. The latter term (an adjectival formation on the noun Hiberio 'Ireland') might well be a coinage of his own, to denote those people - like himself- who had been brought by force to Ireland (Hiberione). 
And this linguistic speculation is followed by a final psychological one:
Patrick would have felt a natural affinity with such fellow-exiles, and the fact that he had escaped and they had not might well have engendered in him a feeling of guilt that preyed on him when he was back in Britain.
 Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, 'Saint Patrick', in A .J. Hughes and W. Nolan, eds., Armagh: History and Society - Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County (Dublin, 2001), 51-52.

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