Did St Patrick collect taxes and trade slaves? New paper tests old story

March 18, 2012

(Stained glass image of Saint Patrick in the Church of the Assumption, Our Lady's Island, County Wexford, Ireland, 26 September 2010/Andreas F. Borchert)

St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, may well have been a tax collector for the Romans who fled to Ireland where he could have traded slaves to pay his way, according to new research by a University of Cambridge academic published on Saturday.

The generally accepted account of the saint’s life, albeit based on scant evidence, says Patrick was abducted from western Britain as a teenager and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years during which time he developed a strong Christian faith.

Afterwards, the account continues, he escaped his captors and went back to Britain before eventually returning to Ireland as a missionary.

But Roy Flechner, from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, believes there are reasonable grounds to question the popular version which is based partly on Patrick’s own words in his “Confessio”.

“The problem with this account is that he was telling this story in response to accusations leveled against him that he fled to Ireland for financial gain,” Flechner told Reuters in a telephone interview. “It’s an inference that has been made long before in conventional scholarship.”

According to the study, published on Saturday to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, the saint may have wanted to leave Britain in the early 400s to avoid the “onerous” duties of a “Decurion”, or Roman official responsible for collecting taxes.

Patrick’s father was a Decurion and, when he decided to rid himself of the post by becoming a cleric, his responsibilities would have fallen to his son.

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