Scholars differ on much about the life of St. Patrick, but they tend to agree that his mission of walking the Emerald Isle to spread the gospel of Christ fits squarely into the 5th century A.D.
But now comes a challenge from a Patrick sleuth at UC Berkeley, Daniel Melia, a professor of rhetoric and Celtic studies and incidentally a former "Jeopardy" champion who won a quarter of a million dollars and a silver Corvette he still drives.
Melia has studied linguistic details of Patrick's writings and is prepared to argue that the Christian priest who evangelized most of what is now Ireland lived from the late 4th to early 5th centuries -- 50 years earlier than the dates generally agreed upon by Patrick scholars.
The argument poses no threat to Patrick's sainthood, which is based on myths layered on by later generations.
And there's no risk to the secular feast day of March 17, which historians maintain is the date Patrick passed on after his rugged life of proselytizing among Britain's pagan Celts. That date, Melia says, is legendary as well and may have been set long ago to mark a spring folk festival.
Green beer will continue to flow no matter what the scholars say now or probably ever will say.
Melia is excited about the redating because he feels it argues for a more accurate picture of the historical Patrick. He sees Patrick's mission as taking place within a provincial Roman society yet to face the tribal invasions that forced Rome to abandon Britain in the first decade of the 5th century.
"It has implications for the development of Christianity in Ireland, which takes longer than if Patrick comes in the 5th century," Melia said.
What's more, the earlier Patrick would have been a contemporary of two other early church fathers, St. Augustine and St. Jerome.
Melia builds on the work of former proponents of the early Patrick. His contribution to early-Patrick theory is to establish that Patrick was a sophisticated person functioning in an intellectual world.
Such language as Patrick employs to defend himself in the power struggles of the day would have been less likely to appear after later barbarian inroads tore civil society apart, Melia argues.
"He would have been through Roman elementary school and high school education with an expert in grammar," he said.
Melia argues that Patrick would have been educated prior to his abduction by Irish raiders at age 16 and his six years of enslavement tending a chieftain's flocks.
Patrick's enslavement led to his spiritual transformation, his career as a missionary defending the Trinity and his growing legend in later centuries as a white-bearded pastoral figure with a curved staff, shamrocks and miracles to battle evil druid magicians in the struggle for souls.
But now rustic was he?
Melia says Patrick may betray a touch of rhetorical modesty in his replies to the clerical authorities who presumably -- the charges haven't survived -- questioned his status as a self-appointed bishop and his practice of financing his own missionary work.
"In his confession he says he does not have these fine rhetorical skills," Melia said. "It's like Perry Mason saying, 'Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking ...' "
Patrick defended himself as someone who consorts with nobles but maintained it was all for Christ.
"There's a lot self-justification," Melia said. "He may have been guilty as charged in the technical sense."
Melia will deliver an illustrated hourlong lecture today at 5:30 p.m. on "The Real St. Patrick" in Room 242 of Dwinelle Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
His big show is scheduled in July when he presents his findings to the XIIIth International Congress of Celtic Studies in Bonn, Germany.
Melia recalls debating Patrick's dates earlier with a noted Patrick scholar from Wales. He says the scholar left the discussion on this note: "This is going to take more than a couple of beers to straighten out."
Melia doesn't plan to celebrate Saturday, St. Patrick's Day, in the traditional sense.
"We're having some friends over for dinner," he said. "I think we're going to have a couple of drinks, than go across the street to a Mediterranean restaurant."