Read CHAPTER IX - THE SAINTS AND SCHOLARS of Ireland‚ Historic and Picturesque, free online book, by Charles Johnston, on ReadCentral.com.

A.D. 493-750.

It would be hard to find in the whole history of early Christianity a record of greater and more enduring success than the work of St. Patrick. None of the Messengers of the New Way, as they were called first by St. Luke, unless the phrase is St. Paul’s, accomplished single-handed so wonderful a work, conquering so large a territory, and leaving such enduring monuments of his victory. Amongst the world’s masters, the son of Calpurn the Decurion deserves a place with the greatest.

Not less noteworthy than the wide range of his work was the way in which he gained success. He addressed himself always to the chiefs, the kings, the men of personal weight and power. And his address was almost invariably successful,-a thing that would have been impossible had he not been himself a personality of singular force and fire, able to meet the great ones of the land as an equal. His manner was that of an ambassador, full of tact, knowledge of men and of the world. Nor can we find in him-or, indeed, in the whole history of the churches founded by him-anything of that bitter zeal and fanaticism which, nearly two centuries nearer to apostolic times, marred the work of the Councils under Constantius; the fierce animosity between Christian and Christian which marked the Arian controversy. The Apostle of Ireland showed far more urbanity, far more humane and liberal wisdom, far more gentleness, humor and good feeling, in his treatment of the pre-Christian institutions and ideals of Ireland than warring Christian sects have generally been willing to show to each other.

It was doubtless due to this urbane wisdom that the history of the conversion of Ireland is without one story of martyrdom. The change was carried out in open-hearted frankness and good-will, the old order giving place to the new as gently as spring changes to summer. The most marvelous example of St. Patrick’s wisdom, and at the same time the most wonderful testimony to his personal force, is his action towards the existing civil and religious law of the country, commonly known as the Brehon Law. Principles had by long usage been wrought into the fabric of the Brehon Laws which were in flat contradiction to St. Patrick’s teaching of the New Way. Instead of fiercely denouncing the whole system, he talked with the chief jurists and heralds,-custodians of the old system,-and convinced them that changes in their laws would give effect to more humane and liberal principles. They admitted the justice of his view, and agreed to a meeting between three great chieftains or kings, three Brehons or jurists, and three of St. Patrick’s converts, to revise the whole system of law, substituting the more humane principles, which they had already accepted as just and right. These changes were made and universally applied; so that, without any violent revolution, without strife or bloodshed, the better way became the accepted law. It would be hard to find in all history a finer example of wisdom and moderation, of the great and worthy way of accomplishing right ends.

We have seen the great Messenger himself founding monasteries, houses of religious study, and churches for his converts, on land given to him by chieftains who were moved by his character and ideals. We can judge of the immediate spread of his teaching if we remember that these churches were generally sixty feet long, thus giving room for many worshippers. They seem to have been built of stone-almost the first use of that material in Ireland since the archaic days. Among the first churches of this type were those at Saul, at Donaghpatrick on the Blackwater, and at Armagh, with others further from the central region of St. Patrick’s work. The schools of learning which grew up beside them were universally esteemed and protected, and from them came successive generations of men and women who worthily carried on the work so wisely begun. The tongues first studied were Latin and Irish. We have works of very early periods in both, as, for instance, the Latin epistles of St. Patrick himself, and the Irish poems of the hardly less eminent Colum Kill. But other languages were presently added.

These schools and churches gradually made their way throughout the whole country; some of the oldest of them are still to be seen, as at Donaghpatrick, Clonmacnoise and Glendalough. Roofed with stone, they are well fitted to resist the waste of time. An intense spiritual and moral life inspired the students, a life rich also in purely intellectual and artistic force. The ancient churches speak for themselves; the artistic spirit of the time is splendidly embodied in the famous Latin manuscript of the Gospels, called the Book of Kells, the most beautiful specimen of illumination in the world. The wonderful colored initial letters reproduce and develop the designs of the old gold work, the motives of which came, it would seem, from the Baltic, with the De Danaan tribes. We can judge of the quiet and security of the early disciples at Kells, the comfort and amenity of their daily life, the spirit of comity and good-will, the purity of inspiration of that early time, by the artistic truth and beauty of these illuminated pages and the perfection with which the work was done. Refined and difficult arts are the evidence of refined feeling, abundant moral and spiritual force, and a certain material security and ease surrounding the artist. When these arts are freely offered in the service of religion, they are further evidence of widespread fervor and aspiration, a high and worthy ideal of life.

Yet we shall be quite wrong if we imagine an era of peace and security following the epoch of the first great Messenger. Nothing is further from the truth. The old tribal strife continued for long centuries; the instincts which inspired it are, even now, not quite outworn. Chief continued to war against chief, province against province, tribe against tribe, even among the fervent converts of the first teachers.

Saint Brigid is one of the great figures in the epoch immediately succeeding the first coming of the Word. She was the foundress of a school of religious teaching for women at Kildare, or Killdara, “The Church of the Oak-woods,” whose name still records her work. Her work, her genius, her power, the immense spiritual influence for good which flowed from her, entitle her to be remembered with the women of apostolic times, who devoted their whole lives to the service of the divine. We have seen the esteem in which women were always held in Ireland. St. Brigid and those who followed in her steps gave effect to that high estimation, and turned it to a more spiritual quality, so that now, as in all past centuries, the ideal of womanly purity is higher in Ireland than in any country in the world.

This great soul departed from earthly life in the year 525, a generation after the death of the first Messenger. To show how the old order continued with the new, we may record the words of the Chronicler for the following year: “526: The battle of Eiblinne, by Muirceartac son of Erc; the battle of Mag-Ailbe; the battle of Almain; the battle of Ceann-eic; the plundering of the Cliacs; and the battle of Eidne against the men of Connacht.” Three of these battles were fought at no great distance from St. Brigid’s Convent.

The mediaeval Chronicler quotes the old Annalist for the following year: “The king, the son of Erc, returned to the side of the descendants of Nial. Blood reached the girdle in each plain. The exterior territories were enriched. Seventeen times nine chariots he brought, and long shall it be remembered. He bore away the hostages of the Ui-Neill with the hostages of the plain of Munster.”

Ten years later we find the two sons of this same king, Muirceartac son of Erc, by name Fergus and Domnall, fighting under the shadow of Knocknarea mountain against Eogan Bel the king of Connacht; the ancient Annalist, doubtless contemporary with the events recorded, thus commemorated the battle in verse:

“The battle of the Ui-Fiacrac was fought with the fury of edged weapons against Bel;

“The kine of the enemy roared with the javelins, the battle was spread out at Crinder;

“The River of Shells bore to the great sea the blood of men with their flesh;

“They carried many trophies across Eaba, together with the head of Eogan Bel.”

During this stormy time, which only carried forward the long progress of fighting since the days of the prime, a famous school of learning and religion had been founded at Moville by Finian, “the tutor of the saints of Ireland.” The home of his church and school is a very beautiful one, with sombre mountains behind rising from oak-woods into shaggy masses of heather, the blue waters of Lough Foyle in front, and across the mouth of the lough the silver sands and furrowed chalk hills of Antrim, blending into green plains. Here the Psalms and the Gospels were taught in Latin to pupils who had in no wise given up their love for the old poetry and traditions of their motherland. Here Colum studied, afterwards called Colum Kill, “Saint Colum of the Churches,” and here arose a memorable dispute concerning a Latin manuscript of the Psalms. The manuscript belonged to Finian, founder of the school, and was esteemed one of the treasures of his college. Colum, then a young student, ardently longed for a copy, and, remaining in the church after service, he daily copied a part of the sacred text. When his work was completed, Finian discovered it, and at once claimed the copy of his book as also his. The matter was submitted to an umpire, who gave the famous decision: “Unto every cow her calf; unto every book its copy”-the copy belonged to the owner of the book. This early decision of copyright was by no means acceptable to the student Colum. He disputed its justice, and the quarrel spread till it resulted in a battle. The discredit attaching to the whole episode resulted in the banishment of Colum, who sailed away northward and eastward towards the isles and fiords of that land which, from the Irish Scoti who civilized it, now bears the name of Scotland. Let us recall a few verses written by Colum on his departure, in a version which echoes something of the original melody and form:

“We are rounding Moy-n-Olurg, we sweep by its head and
We plunge through the Foyle,
Whose swans could enchant with their music the dead and
Make pleasure of toil....
Oh, Erin, were wealth my desire, what a wealth were
To gain far from thee,
In the land of the stranger, but there even health were
A sickness to me!
Alas for the voyage, oh high King of Heaven,
Enjoined upon me,
For that I on the red plain of bloody Cooldrevin
Was present to see.
How happy the son is of Dima; no sorrow
For him is designed,
He is having this hour, round his own Kill in Durrow,
The wish of his mind.
The sound of the wind in the elms, like the strings of
A harp being played,
The note of the blackbird that claps with the wings of
Delight in the glade.
With him in Ros-grenca the cattle are lowing
At earliest dawn,
On the brink of the summer the pigeons are cooing
And doves on the lawn....”

In another measure, he again mourns his exile: “Happy to be on Ben Edar, before going over the sea; white, white the dashing of the wave against its face; the bareness of its shore and its border....

“How swiftly we travel; there is a grey eye
Looks back upon Erin, but it no more
Shall see while the stars shall endure in the sky,
Her women, her men, or her stainless shore....”

This great-hearted and impetuous exile did not waste his life in useless regrets. Calling forth the fire of his genius, and facing the reality of life, he set himself to work, spreading the teaching of the New Way among the Picts of the north-the same Picts who, in years gone by, had raged against the barrier of Hadrian between Forth and Clyde. The year of his setting out was 563; the great center of his work was in the sacred isle of Iona, off the Ross of Mull. Iona stands in the rush of Atlantic surges and fierce western storms, yet it is an island of rare beauty amid the tinted mists of summer dawns. Under the year 592, a century after Saint Patrick’s death, we find this entry in the Chronicle: “Colum Kill, son of Feidlimid, Apostle of Scotland, head of the piety of the most part of Ireland and Scotland after Patrick, died in his own church in Iona in Scotland, after the thirty-fifth year of his pilgrimage, on Sunday night, the ninth of June. Seventy-seven years was his whole age when he resigned his spirit to heaven.” The corrected date is 596.

We can see in Colum of the Churches the very spirit of turbulence and adventure, the fierce impetuosity and readiness for dispute, which led to the contests between the chieftains of Ireland, the wars between province and province, often between valley and valley. It is the same spiritual energy, working itself out in another way, transmuted by the sacred fire into a divine mission. In the same way the strong will of Meave, the romantic power of Deirdre and Grania, transmuted to ideal purposes, was the inspiration of Saint Brigid and so many like her, who devoted their powers to the religious teaching of women.

We should doubtless fail utterly to understand the riddle of history, were we to regret the wild warring of these early times as a mere lamentable loss of life, a useless and cruel bloodshed. We are too much given to measuring other times and other moods of the soul by our own, and many false judgments issue from this error. Peaceful material production is our main purpose, and we learn many lessons of the Will embodied in the material world when we follow this purpose honestly. But before our age could begin, it was necessary for the races to come to personal consciousness. This end seems everywhere to have been reached by a long epoch of strife, the contending of man against man, of tribe against tribe. Thus were brought to full consciousness the instinct of personal valor, personal honor and personal readiness to face death.

Only after this high personal consciousness is kindled can a race enter the wider path of national life, where vivid and intense individuals unite their forces to a common end, reaching a common consciousness, and holding their power in common for the purposes of all. After the lessons of fighting come the lessons of work. For these lessons of work, for the direct touch with the everlasting Will gained in all honest work, our own age is to be valued, far more than for the visible and material fruits which that work produces.

In like manner the old epoch of war is to be esteemed for the lessons it taught of high valor, sacrifice, heroic daring. And to what admirable ends these same qualities may tend we can see in a life like that of Colum Kill, “head of the piety of the most part of Ireland and Scotland after Patrick.”

Yet the days of old were grim enough to live in. Let this record of some half-century later testify. It is but one year culled from a long red rank of years. We give the Chronicler’s own words: “645: The sixth year of Conall and Ceallac. Mac Laisre, abbot of Bangor, died on May 16. Ragallac son of Uatac, King of Connacht, was killed by Maelbrigde son of Motlacan, of which was said:

“Ragallac son of Uatac was pierced on the back of a white
steed;

Muiream has well lamented him; Catal has well avenged him.

Catal is this day in battle, though bound to peace in the
presence of kings;

Though Catal is without a father, his father is not without
vengeance.

Estimate his terrible revenge from the account of it related:

He slew six men and fifty; he made sixteen devastations;

I had my share like another in the revenge of Ragallac,-

I have the gray beard in my hand, of Maelbrigde son of Motlacan.”

These are evidently the very words of one who fought in the battle. Nor need this in any way surprise us, for we have far older Chronicles set down year by year in unbroken record. The matter is easy to prove. The Chronicles of Ulster record eclipses of the sun and moon as early as 495,-two years after Saint Patrick’s death. It was, of course, the habit of astronomers to reckon eclipses backwards, and of annalists to avail themselves of these reckonings. The Venerable Bede, for example, has thus inserted eclipses in his history. The result is that the Venerable Bede has the dates several days wrong, while the Chronicles of Ulster, where direct observation took the place of faulty reckoning, has them right, to the day and hour. It is only in quite modern times that we have reached sufficiently accurate knowledge of the moon’s movements to vindicate the old Ulster Annalists, who began their work not less than a hundred and fifty years before the battle we have just recorded.

Nor should we exaggerate the condition of the time, thinking of it as altogether given over to ravaging and devastation. Even though there were two or three expeditions and battles every year, these would only affect a small part of the whole country. Over all the rest, the tending of cattle in the glades of the forest, the sowing and reaping of wheat and oats, the gathering of fruit and nuts, continued in quiet contentment and peace. The young men practiced the arts of war and exercised themselves in warlike games. The poets sang to them, the heralds recounted the great doings of old, how Cuculain kept the ford, how Concobar thirsted in his heart for Deirdre, how the son of Cumal went to war, how golden-tongued Ossin was ensnared by the spirits. The gentle life of tillage and the keeping of cattle could never engage the whole mental force of so vigorous a race. What wonder, then, that, when a chieftain had some real or imagined wrong to avenge, or some adventure to propose,-what wonder that bold spirits were ever ready to accompany him, leaving the women to their distaffs and the tending of children and the grinding of corn? Mounting their horses, they rode forth through the woods, under the huge arms of the oak-trees; along the banks of swift-gliding rivers, through passes of the lowering hills. While still in familiar territory, the time of the march was passed in song and story. Then came increased precaution, and gradually heightened pulses marked the stages of the way. The rival chieftain, warned by his scouts and outlying tribesmen, got word of their approach, and hastily replenishing his granaries and driving the cattle into the great circle of his embankments, prepared to meet the coming foe. Swords, spears, bows, arrows were the arms of both sides. Though leather tunics were common, coats of mail came only at a later date. The attackers under cover of the night sped across the open ground before the fort, and tried to storm the fortress, the defenders meanwhile showering down keen-pointed arrows on them from above. Both parties, under the chieftains’ guidance, fought fiercely, in a fever of excitement, giving no heed to wounds, seeing nothing but the foe and the battlements to be scaled. Then either a successful sortie broke the ranks of the assailants and sent them back to their forest camp in wild disorder, or, the stockade giving way, the stormers swept in like a wave of the sea, and all was chaos and wild struggle hand to hand. Whatever the outcome, both sides thought of the wild surge of will and valor in that hour as the crowning event of their lives.

Meanwhile, within the quiet enclosures of the monasteries and religious schools, the spirit of the time was working with not less fervor, to invisible and ideal ends. At Bangor, on the neck of the northern Ards; at Moville, where Lough Foyle spreads its inland sea; at Saul, where the first Messenger won his first convert; at Devenish Island amid the waters of Lough Erne; at Monasterboice in the plain of Louth; at Grlendalough, among the solemn hills of Wicklow; at Kildare, beneath the oak-woods; at Durrow, amid the central marshes, and many another ancient seat of learning, the way of wisdom and holiness was trod with gladness. Latin had been taught since the early days of the Message; the native tongue of Ireland, consecrated in the hymns of St. Patrick and the poems of St. Colum of the Churches, was the language in which all pupils were taught, the modern ministrant to the classical speech of Rome. Nor were the Scriptures alone studied. Terence, Virgil, Ovid, the Augustans and the men of the silver age, were familiar in the Irish schools; and to these Latin writers were soon added the Greeks, more especially-as was natural-the Greek Fathers, the religious philosophers, and those who embodied the thought and controversies of the early Christian centuries. To Greek, Hebrew was added, so that both Old and New Testaments were known in their proper tongues. About the time when “Ragallac son of Uatac was pierced on the back of a white steed,” Saint Camin in his island school at Inis Caltra, where red mountains hem in Lough Derg of the Shannon, was writing his Commentary on the Psalms, recording the Hebrew readings on the margin of the page. A few years before that battle, in 634, Saint Cummian of Durrow, some thirty miles to the east of Camin’s Holy Island, wrote to his brother, the Abbot of Iona in the northern seas, quoting Latin writers sacred and secular, as well as Origen, Cyril and Pachomius among the Greeks. The learned man discusses the astronomical systems of the Mediterranean world, giving the names of months and cycles in Hebrew, Greek and Egyptian, and telling of his researches into the true time of Easter, while on a journey to Italy and Rome. This letter, which has come down to our days, is first-hand testimony to the learning of the early Irish schools.

Fifty years later, in 683, we hear of the Saxons for the first and almost the last time in the history of Ireland. It is recorded that the North Saxons raided Mag Breag in the East of Meath, attacking both churches and chieftains. They carried away many hostages and much spoil, but the captives were soon after set at liberty and sent home again, on the intercession of a remarkable man, Adamnan, the biographer of Colum of the Churches, whose success in his mission was held to be miraculous.

For more than a century after this single Saxon raid Ireland was wholly undisturbed by foreign invasion, and the work of building churches, founding schools, studying Hebrew and Greek and Latin, went on with increasing vigor and success. An army of missionaries went forth to other lands, following in the footsteps of Colum of the Churches, and of these we shall presently speak. The life of the church was so rich and fruitful that we are led to think of this as a period of childlike and idyllic peace.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The raids, devastations and wars between province and province, tribe and tribe, went on without a year’s interruption. This was the normal course of the nation’s life, the natural outlet of the nation’s energy: not less a visible sign of invisible inward power than the faith and fervor of the schools. We shall get the truest flavor of the times by quoting again from the old Annals. That they were recorded year by year, we have already seen; the records of frosts, great snow-storms, years of rich harvests and the like, interspersed among the fates of kings, show how faithfully the annals were kept,-as, for example, the winter of great cold, “when all the rivers and lakes of Ireland were frozen over,” in the year after the Saxon raid.

Here again, under the year 701, is the word of a man then living: “After Loing Seac son of Angus son of Domnall had been eight years in the sovreignty of Ireland, he was slain in the battle of Ceann by Cealleac of Lough Cime, the son of Ragallac, as Cealleac himself testifies:

“’For his deeds of ambition he was slain in the morning at
Glas Cuilg;

I wounded Loing Seac with a sword, the monarch of Ireland
round.’”

Two years later Saint Adamnan died, after governing the Abbey of Iona for six and twenty years. It was said of him that “He made a slave of himself to his virtues,” and his great life-work, the Latin history of Saint Colum of the Churches, founder of the Iona Abbey, to this day testifies to his high learning and wisdom.

Fourteen years later “Leinster was five times devastated by the Ui-Neill,” the descendants of Nial, and a battle was fought between the men of Connacht and Munster. Thus the lives of saints and warriors were interwoven. On very rare occasions the two lives of the race came into collision. Thus, a quarrel arose between Congus the Abbot and Aed Roin king of Ulad. Congus summoned to his aid the chief of the Ui-Neill, Aed Allan by name, in these verses:

“Say to the cold Aed Allan that I have been oppressed by
a feeble enemy:

Aed Roin insulted me last night at Cill Cunna of the sweet
music.”

Aed Allan made these verses on his way to battle to avenge the insult:

“For Cill Cunna the church of my spiritual father,
I take this day a journey on the road.
Aed Roin shall leave his head with me,
Or I shall leave my head with him.”

The further history of that same year, 733, is best told in the words of the Annals: “Aed Allan, king of Ireland, assembled his forces to proceed into Leinster, and he arrived at the Ford of Seannait (in Kildare). The Leinstermen collected the greatest number they were able, to defend their rights against him. The king Aed Allan himself went into the battle, and the chieftains of the north along with him. The chieftains of Leinster came with their kings into the battle, and bloodily and heroically was the battle fought between them. Heroes were slaughtered and bodies were hacked. Aed Allan and Aed, son of Colgan, king of Leinster, met each other, and Aed son of Colgan was slain by Aed Allan. The Leinstermen were killed, slaughtered, cut off, and dreadfully exterminated in this battle, so that there escaped of them but a small remnant and a few fugitives.”

To round out the picture, to contrast the two streams of the nation’s life, let us give this, from the following year: “734: Fifth year of Aed Allan. Saint Samtain, virgin, of Cluain Bronaig (Longford), died on December 19. It was of her that Aed Allan gave this testimony:

“Samtain for enlightening various sinners,
A servant who observed stern chastity,
In the wide plain of fertile Meath
Great suffering did Samtain endure;
She undertook a thing not easy,-
Fasting for the kingdom above.
She lived on scanty food;
Hard were her girdles;
She struggled in venomous conflicts;
Pure was her heart amid the wicked.
To the bosom of the Lord, with a pure death,
Samtain passed from her trials.”