by Norman Mongan

'People always used to say my name must be Irish’, recalls Edmond Saint Patrice who, with his wife, made his first visit to Ireland in July of last year. A tall, distinguished, soft-spoken, 76 year old retired headmaster who spent his career on French army bases in North Africa, Germany and France, Mr Saint Patrice speaks very little English, and the family has no known Irish connections. He believes his family is the only one of the name in France at present; he is one of three brothers whose grandchildren will carry on the name. Born in Lyon, son of a shop-owner who went bankrupt during the war, he grew up in Annecy in the Haut Savoie region, and is now retired in Aix-en-Provence. He spoke of a vague possible family connection with a village called St Patrice in Normandy.

Curiosity about Ireland’s patron saint brought Mr Saint Patrice to Ireland, even though his wife, a retired German language teacher, originally wanted to visit the UK. As part of an eight-day French coach tour to Ireland, he visited St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Gallarus’ oratory in Kerry, and Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. He hopes to return for some fishing this year and to look into the origin of his family name.

Subsequent research into St Patrick’s European dimension was spurred on by the recent publication of St Patrick’s World by Prof. Liam de Paor (Four Courts Press, 1993) which delves into Patrick’s life before he arrived to preach in Ireland, and the history of the early Christian church in Gaul. The author underlines that Patrick spent some ten years preaching in Gaul before returning to Ireland. The saint studied with St Honorat at his island monastery at Lerins, off Cannes (still visible today) and with Germanus at Auxerre, some 100 km south of Paris. Lerins and Auxerre were both strongly influenced by Oriental monastic practices, which allowed the marriage of priests, deacons and sub-deacons. So was St Patrick married during his ten year sojourn in Gaul: could the Saint Patrice family descend from the evangeliser of the Irish? St Patrick, writing in his ‘Confessio’, states that his own father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitius a priest. So the idea of married clergymen was already well-established in his own family. The evidence is intriguing.

Research shows that St Patrick is associated with several places in France. St Patrice-de-Claids is a small village near Coutances, south of Cherbourg in Normandy, not far from Utah Beach where the Allies landed in 1944. The parish of St Patrice du Teilleul is south of Avranches, near Mont St Michel, while St Patrice-du-Desert lies 70 km further inland near Alençon. A third village of the name is located near Langeais, just 12 km south of Tours, in the Bourguoil wine-producing region of the Loire valley. Two former Rhone valley vineyards were named after the saint: Clos St Patrice at Tain-l’Hermitage, near Tournon, and Saint Patrice at Chateaneuf-du-Pape, near Avignon, both now closed since the ‘50s. Maurice Healy, writing in 1940 in his Stay Me with Flagons noted that the Clos St Patrice was ‘producing a red wine that would almost convert Hitler to Christianity, great, rich, glowing red wine, with a mouthful of bouquet at every sip … I remembered the wonderful freshness and exuberance of that Hermitage, and I discerned a reason for the sudden and overpowering success of Saint Patrick in Ireland’. Local tradition says that the saint planted these vines in these regions on his way to convert Ireland.

In the ancient parish of St Patrice du Teilleul, south-east of Avranches, is a locality called Bourg de Saint Patrice with a small chapel dedicated to the saint, dating to the sixth or seventh century. Patrick was the grand-nephew of St Martin, whose disciples converted the region. They later dedicated the chapel to him.

When the Normans arrived at Le Teilleul circa 940, the possessors of the territory carried the name Patrick or de St Patrice. A Guillaume de St Patrice is cited in a charter of 1105 which is the first surviving mention of the name, while Guillaume Patric, Robert and Enguerand de Saint Patrice were among prisoners taken at Dol in 1173.

Robert de Saint Patrice was Lord of Saint Patrice, and he held the church by hereditary right; at his death the direct senior line became extinct. Jeanne, his daughter, married Eudes de Ferrieres, who became the next Lord of Saint Patrice by his wife. Other members of the de Saint Patrice family, no doubt descendants of Guillaume or Enguerand, appear to have continued the line in the region, as in 1272, a Guillaume de Saint Patrice made a donation to the Abbey of Savigny. The Lordship of Saint Patrice passed out of the Saint Patrice family through intermarriage with other aristocratic Norman families. In 1751 Julien de Vaufleury was still known as Seigneur de Saint Patrice. So these medieval Lords of Saint Patrice du Teilleul in Normandy would be the ancestors of this retired French headmaster.

At Saint Patrice-de-Claids, near Coutances, the ruins of a small church dedicated to the saint survive, with an early statue of him carrying a cross, preserved in an alcove. The old Roman road passed through the territory of Saint Patrice, which indicates the antiquity of the site. In 1690 Pierre-Hyacinthe-Henri Leforestier was Baron de Claids, Seigneur and patron of Saint-Patrice-de-Claids. Nearby at Hyenville, another late thirteenth century church dedicated to Saint Patrice, still stands.

Maritime links with Ireland run deep in the Cotentin region of northern Normandy around Cherbourg. The area was originally peopled by two Gaulish tribes, the Unelli and the Coriovalenses. The Unelli, whose capital was Crociatonum, are now believed to have been a colony of the Uí Neill, descended from the third century Irish maritime marauder, Niall of the Nine Hostages. Many oppida and castra were built along the coastline to defend the region.

‘The origins of Christianity in the region can probably be traced to several influences. Mediterranean merchants, who followed the maritime route to Cornwall for its tin-mining, stopped off on the Norman coast. Roman legions posted along the coast were already being influenced by Christian teachings. The influence of Breton monks, like Fauste de Riez, who was Abbot of Lerins (433-434) was also important. Germanus of Auxerre, who studied at Lerins with Patrick, passed through the Cotentin on his way to Britain around 428-429 AD. Such was the background to St Patrick’s life in Gaul at that time.

Research on the villages of St Patrice, near Langeois, south of Tours, revealed a legend that shows that St Patrick had actually preached in the Loire valley region one winter. One day, near Brehemont, while fishing for his dinner, the local tribesmen became hostile to this stranger fishing their waters. Patrick escaped across the river, becoming completely soaked in the process. On the opposite bank he spread his cape out to dry on a blackthorn bush, and then, exhausted he crawled into a small cave to sleep for a while. When he awoke there was snow on the ground; it was Christmas day. Yet when he removed his cape from the blackthorn bush, he discovered that it had flowered. A year later the blackthorn bush flowered again on Christmas day and for centuries the same phenomenon took place on many occasions.

To honour this horticultural miracle, a hamlet gradually grew up at Patriciacus (Domaine de Patricius) some centuries later. The village is first mentioned in the earliest documents in a Charter of Charles the Simple in 920 AD, which suggests possible Gallo-Roman origin. The Church itself, first mentioned towards 1032, later formed part of the Bishopric of Tours. Archambault, the local lord, gave the Church of Saint Patrice to monks of the Abbey of Noyer in 1032, along with some land in order to establish a village at the site. They named it in memory of a Celtic holy-man who preached there before setting out in 461 AD to evangelise an island out in the Atlantic mists called Hibernia.

About the Author
Norman Mongan is an Irish writer based in Paris whose book The Menapia Quest, which reveals the long lost Gaulish roots of the Irish, is due for publication this year.


 © 2009