Fake Histories #11  15 March –  St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland?


Two days from now we will all quietly celebrate the life and work of a self-sacrificing Christian man who brought comfort and the word of God to thousands of Irish people one and a half millennia ago.

Like hell we will.

Instead, we will eat, drink, parade, turn the Chicago River green, get thousands of normally staid tourists blind drunk before selling them their family tree, and stand four rows back with small children on our shoulders trying to catch a glimpse of a parade. Welcome to St. Patrick’s Festival time. Like a modern Irish wedding what used to take a day now takes three times as long, as we remember the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.

Or did he?

We don’t know a lot about him, other than his autobiographical Confessions. We think he might have come from Wales but we’re not really sure. He could have come from another part of Roman Britain, or even from continental Europe. At least we can be pretty sure he didn’t come from anywhere west of us, despite the enthusiasm with which New York celebrates his feast day.

St. Patrick is supposed to have arrived in Ireland in 432. While he may well have converted a number of prominent and humble Irish folks to Christianity he was not working on a greenfield site. There was already in existence, for example, the Catholic diocese of Ossory, whose first bishop, St. Ciaran, died thirty years before Patrick even got here.

In fact not only was Patrick sent to minister to Irish Christians who had already been converted—as opposed to converting an entirely pagan Ireland— but he didn’t even get here first. It appears that at least a year before Patrick arrived he was preceded by a missionary bishop named Palladius, sent in 431 as, according to a contemporary document, the ‘first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ’. That’s the Irish believing in Christ, not the bishop – there would not have been much point in sending him had he been a pagan or an atheist. Palladius was despatched to Scotland and Ireland by Pope Celestine the First. Back in the Fifth Century Popes obviously did not necessarily have to have bloke’s names.


It appears that Palladius may well have done most of his work in Leinster and Munster, while Patrick thrived in Ulster and Connacht. The potential confusion led at least one scholar, T.F.O’Rahilly, to propose the ‘Two Patricks’ theory – suggesting that somehow the work of Palladius had been conflated with that of Patrick and there were, technically, two Patricks, not one.  Back in the day if you wanted to get a history degree you had to learn it off by heart.

The very name ‘Patrick’ adds weight to this theory. It’s common in Ireland now but the original version would have been the Latin ‘Patricius’. Back in the fifth century, the word Patricius denoted someone of aristocratic birth, or a ‘patrician’. It was actually used as a prefix, a title or an honorific. Today the equivalent would be ‘Lord’ Snooty or ‘Sir’ Political Contribution. So is it conceivable that our patron saint’s name wasn’t Patrick at all, but merely the posh preliminary for his actual name?

Just in case you’re wondering, neither Patrick had anything to do with banishing the snakes from Ireland. That’s because there never were any snakes in Ireland, at least not since the last Ice Age, and back then there would have been no one around to do a serpent census. The Irish have never shared this island with reptiles, other than a drunken conga line in Coppers on New Year’s Eve. So, St. Patrick’s supposed feat would be like banishing penguins from the snowy wastes … of northern Canada.

One more thing. The seventeenth of March is not his birthday either! Not that we would have a hope in hell of being able to work that one out. Saint’s feast days are assigned to mark the day they commence the noble art of pushing up daisies. It’s actually his death day.

So, did our beloved patron saint, whom we will over-celebrate in two days time, bring Christianity to Ireland. I’m afraid not. It was already here. That’s fake history.


Fake Histories #10 – The Spanish flu of 1918-19 is so-called because it originated in Spain?



To put it in perspective. Anything up to ten times the numbers who died in World War 1 would succumb to influenza in 1918 and 1919. More people died of flu in one year than had been killed by the infamous Black Death from 1347 – 1351. And it was a highly democratic, equal opportunities, virus. It did not just plague the very old and the very young. The death rate among 15-34-year-olds worldwide, during the fleeting visit of the H1N1 virus, was ten times the normal rate. Spanish flu couldn’t be faulted for originality either – it was entirely new. Its very novelty meant that no one had time to build up immunity.

While the arrival of the armistice on 11 November 1918 was a welcome reprieve for millions of soldiers who didn’t have to risk life and limb any more, it may have had the opposite effect on the civilian population. The very celebrations that marked Armistice Day all across Europe offered a rare and wonderful opportunity for the bug to increase and multiply among the cheering crowds. Then the return from the front a century ago of millions of demobbed soldiers brought on another wave of the disease.

Average life expectancy in the USA suddenly plummeted by twelve years – more US WW1 soldiers died of influenza than died in battle. This was despite the efforts of their commander, General Pershing, to inflict as many casualties as possible on his own troops and probably kill his way to the Presidency.  There were no anti-flu vaccines back in those days. The first such vaccine wasn’t marketed until the 1940s, just in time for the sequel to the Great War – the Even Greater War of 1939-45

Aggravating the problem was the fact that the world was yet to breed or design medical practitioners who were completely immune to the diseases they were called upon to treat. The flu bug delighted in infecting doctors and nurses just as much as it did soldiers and dockers

A childish rhyme emerged from the pandemic – children would merrily skip to the words …


I had a little bird

Its name was Enza

I opened the window

And in-flu-enza


The first recorded case of Spanish flu occurred this week just over a century ago. Obviously, with a name like Spanish flu it was first documented in Madrid, or maybe Malaga, or perhaps even Barcelona–with the authorities resolutely refusing to call it Catalan flu. Actually, it was none of the above. The first case of Spanish flu was noted in Fort Riley, Kansas. That’s not Kansas in Andalucia, that’s the Kansas that Dorothy so badly wanted to get back to in The Wizard of Oz,  the one in the United States of America. So why, you might well wonder, did the Kansan doctors decide to designate this particular strain of influenza as ‘Spanish’? Was the first patient of Hispanic origin? Did the medical staff share the apparent aversion of the 45thPresident of the United States for ‘bad hombres’ who spoke the dominant language of Central and South America? Again, the answer is ‘none of the above’. They didn’t actually call it Spanish flu at all. In the beginning, nobody did.

That designation is a function of the war that was being fought over much of western Europe at the time. The military authorities in both sets of trenches—not that the actual authorities themselves spent much time in the line of fire—kept a tight rein on information coming from the front. It was distributed with all the largesse and generosity of a White House press conference today, insofar as such things still exist. Not telling the truth was deemed good for morale. This meant no one had a clue that thousands of troops, packed into trenches and susceptible to every cough and splutter, were dying of the disease.

Spain, however, was sensibly neutral and unlimited information was coming out of the Iberian peninsula. Spanish newspapers were even allowed to report the grave illness from the disease of their own King, Alfonso XIII.  This gave the impression that influenza had originated amongst the unfortunate Spaniards and, like some dedicated anti-Hispanic virus, was killing them alone. As the medical staff in Fort Riley, Kansas and thousands of other military and civilian hospitals worldwide could attest, such was not the case.

So, was the virulent Spanish flu, first detected this week in 1918, so-called because it originated in Spain? Not a bit of it. That’s fake history.


Fake Histories #9 – 1 March 2019 The flag of St. David of Wales is green and white with a red dragon?


Happy St. David’s day, or as the Welsh might put it themselves, dydd gwyl Dewi hapus [deedth goo-eel …] It’s a day when thousands of small Welsh girls are asking their mothers, ‘Do I really have to wear this funny hat?’ and ‘Why can’t I just be cool, like Cerys Matthews?’

Today is the day that Welsh people celebrate the birth of their native saint, just as we Irish will celebrate our own St. Patrick in a couple of weeks. Except, of course, that St. Patrick was probably also a Welshman, kidnapped by marauding Irish gangsters in the early fifth century. Happily, the generous Welsh are content to let us pretend he was Irish and don’t seem overly concerned that he exiled the snakes here while leaving them to their own devices in Wales. If he had that Harry Potter-like power he could at least have banished them across Offa’s dyke to England.

The reason the Welsh are so laid back about St.Patrick is that they have St. David, who died on 1 March 589, hence the feast day. St. David’s day is, of course, indelibly associated with the daffodil. However, given the pace of climate change and the growth of daffodils in December, the Welsh now have the option of moving his feast day to the 1 January and sharing Hogmanay with the Scots.


St.David, or Dewi in Welsh,  established up to twelve monasteries across Wales in the sixth century and was canonised in 1120 at a time when the Welsh were trying to resist the incursions of the Normans. Half a century later they had given up the ghost on that one and it was the Irish who were trying to beat back the forces of the Norman/Welsh adventurer, Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke. Call it sweet revenge for kidnapping St.Patrick.

Welsh people like to celebrate St. David’s Day by eating traditional food, dressing up in national costume (which includes those distinctive hats I was talking about) and beating England in the Six Nations championship. Of course, they are not unique in that respect. Everyone likes beating England in the Six Nations. But no one sings quite like the Welsh as they do so. Even St. David himself, who has, after all, been dead for one and a half millennia, sits up and takes notice when a Welsh rugby crowd launches into the stirring and haunting Hen Wlad Fy Nadau [Hane wlad vee nadhai] or Land of My Fathers which somehow always manages to eclipse God Save the Queen even at Twickenham.

The English haven’t always enjoyed Welsh celebrations of St. David’s Day. Back in the days of the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys he recorded how Welsh celebrations in London would give rise to caustic English reactions, which often led to the lynching—thankfully in effigy only—of life-sized Welsh characters. A century later the English also liked to bake cute little gingerbread confectionery figures of a Welshman sitting astride a goat. These became known as ‘taffies’, which is why today Welsh people appreciate being called ‘Taffy’ by an Englishman about as much as an Irish person just longs to be called ‘Paddy’.

One thing the Welsh have so far not managed to achieve is to turn St. David’s Day into a national holiday, even though, in 2000, the Welsh Assembly voted unanimously for this to happen. Apparently Tony Blair wasn’t keen on the idea, obviously, it was insufficiently Third Way-ish, and couldn’t be farmed out to the private sector.

Now when it comes to the Welsh flag there is an assumption that the distinctive banner of a red dragon on a green and white background, is the symbol of St. David himself. But that flag has nothing whatever to do with the Welsh national saint and doesn’t include any of his iconographies. He has that in common with his fellow countryman Patrick, whose traditional colour is St. Patrick’s blue, which doesn’t feature in the Irish flag. St. David’s symbol is a dramatic golden cross on a black background. The Welsh flag is actually, and ironically, the emblem of a line of British kings and queens, albeit one that originated in Wales, the Tudors. In  1485 one of the members of that house, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, under the banner of the red dragon, and became Henry VII of England and Wales.

In much the same way as the Irish green, white and gold tricolour superseded the more traditional golden harp on a green background, the Tudor flag became the acknowledged emblem of Wales ahead of St. David’s golden cross on a black background.

So, is the rampant red dragon the flag of the patron saint of Wales? I’m afraid not. That’s fake history.