Sunday, December 18, 2016

Duncan MacNab (1820–96) and Saint Patrick's Scottish origins

440px Duncan McNab 1820 1896

Duncan MacNab (also spelled McNab) was a Catholic missionary to the Australian aborigines. Born in Morven in the Scottish Highlands, nearly 100 miles north of Inverness, he arrived in Melbourne on 29 July 1867 along with the Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding, on board the ship Chariot of Fame. McNab became a great champion for aboriginal rights and he features in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

His entry there gives a clue as to his departure from what had been 20 years of parish life in Scotland – "He dabbled in Gaelic literature and at Airdrie in 1862 fell foul of Irish parishioners, probably by arguing the Scottish birth of St Patrick”.

There is a huge full-page letter from McNab in the 28 June 1862 edition of the Glasgow Free Press newspaper where he lays out his case and counters his critics. Some weeks previously McNab had been accused in the pages of the paper by a fellow Catholic priest as follows – “I know well he hates everything Irish … [he is] a fair type of his Scottish order, in his contempt for, and opposition to, everything Irish: people, politics, habits, all except the Irish faith … an anti-Hibernian spirit in our Scottish friends? And yet where would they have a church today … were it not for the always open purse of poor despised and sneered-at Pat?" It is pretty rough stuff.

If the subject was controversial, McNab wasn’t going to lie down as he gave a lengthy ‘archaeological dissertation’ address on the subject in St Margaret’s schoolroom in Airdrie on 25 September 1865, which was published in Dublin by James Duffy the year after (online edition here). According to the history section of the church’s website, McNab had given a similar talk in Bathgate too.

Matters came to a head after he published a pamphlet to prove that St. Patrick was born in Scotland, and followed this with a lecture at Bathgate that was seen as being anti-Irish. Certainly rivalry between Scots and Irish Catholics was common at the time, among the clergy as well as the laity, and Father McNab was undoubtedly one of its victims.

There are some other brilliant stories about McNab there:

He dealt with repeated rumours that the Orangemen were preparing to attack his church and raze it to the ground, by letting it be known that he kept gunpowder in the house and would blow the church up rather than have it desecrated. It appears that this was no idle threat either, as Father Van Stiphout records that he found a small keg of gunpowder in a press in the house when he came there in 1893. 

• A 1989 thesis about McNab can be found here.
• His Wikipedia entry is here.

I really do need to pull together all of the Patrick-related Scottish and Ulster-Scots material I have gathered up over the years and get it published as a booklet or online.

NB: Many other writers, before and after McNab (such as Professor James H Todd of Trinity College Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy, who was also a Treasurer of St Patrick’s Cathedral in the city) have agreed with him that Kilpatrick near Dumbarton is the most plausible birth place for Patrick. However, the birth place issue is just one small part of a larger collection of Scottish Patrick traditions which today’s storytellers and tourism initiatives choose to ignore.