Read THE ISLAND OF SAINTS AND SCHOLARS of The Glories of Ireland, free online book, by Joseph Dunn and PJ Lennox, on ReadCentral.com.

By canon D’ALTON, M.R.I.A., LL.D.

Unlike the natives of Britain and Scotland, the Irish in pre-Christian times were not brought into contact with Roman institutions or Roman culture. In consequence they created and developed a civilization of their own that was in some respects without equal. They were far advanced in the knowledge of metal-work and shipbuilding; they engaged in commerce; they loved music and had an acquaintance with letters; and when disputes arose among them, these were settled in duly constituted courts of justice, presided over by a trained lawyer, called a brehon, instead of being settled by the stern arbitrament of force. Druidism was their pagan creed. They believed in the immortality and in the transmigration of souls; they worshipped the sun and moon, and they venerated mountains, rivers, and wells; and it would be difficult to find any ministers of religion who were held in greater awe than the Druids.

Commerce and war brought the Irish into contact with Britain and the continent, and thus was Christianity gradually introduced into the island. Though its progress at first was not rapid, there were, by 431, several Christian churches in existence, and in that year Palladius, a Briton and a bishop, was sent by Pope Celestine to the Irish who already believed in Christ. Discouraged and a failure, Palladius returned to Britain after a brief stay on his mission, and then, in 432, the same Pope sent St. Patrick, who became the Apostle of Ireland.

Because of the great work he did, St. Patrick is one of the prominent figures of history; and yet, to such an extent has the dust of time settled down on his life and acts that the place and year of his birth, the schools in which he was educated, and the year of his death, are all matters of dispute. There is, however, no good reason to depart from the traditional account, which is, that the Apostle was born at Dumbarton in Scotland, in the year 372; that in 388 he was captured by the Irish king Niall, who had gone on a plundering raid into Scotland; that he was brought to Ireland and sold as a slave, and that as such he served a pagan chief named Milcho who lived in what is now the county of Antrim; that from Antrim he escaped and went back to his own country; that he had many visions urging him to return to Ireland and preach the Gospel there; that, believing these were from God, he went to France, and there was educated and ordained priest, and later consecrated bishop; and then, accompanied by several ecclesiastics, he was sent to Ireland.

From Wicklow, where he landed, he proceeded north and endeavored, but in vain, to convert his old pagan master Milcho; thence he proceeded south by Downpatrick and Dundalk to Slane in Meath, where, in sight of Tara, the high-king’s seat, he lighted the paschal fire. At Tara he confounded the Druids in argument, baptized the high-king and the chief poet; and then, turning north and west, he crossed the Shannon into Connacht, where he spent seven years. From Connacht he passed into Donegal, and thence through Tyrone and Antrim, after which he entered Munster, and remained there seven years. Finally, he returned to Armagh, which he made his episcopal see, and died at Saul, near Downpatrick, in 493.

St. Patrick wrote two short works, both of which have survived, his Confession and his Epistle to Coroticus. In neither are there any graces of style, and the Latin is certainly not that of Cicero or Livy. But in the Confession the character of the author himself is completely revealed his piety, his zeal, his self-sacrifice, his courage in face of every danger and every trial. Not less remarkable was the skill with which he handled men and used pagan institutions for the purposes of Christianity; and equally so was the success with which his bloodless apostolate was crowned.

One great difficulty which St. Patrick had was to provide the people with a native ministry. At first he selected the chief men princes, brehons, bards and these, with little training and little education, he ordained. Thus, slenderly equipped with knowledge, the priest, with his ritual, missal, and a catechism, and the bishop, with his crozier and bell, went forth to do battle for the Lord. This condition of things was soon ended. In 450 a college was founded at Armagh, which in a short time grew to be a famous school, and attracted students from afar. Other schools were founded in the fifth century, at Noendrum, Louth, and Kildare. In the sixth century arose the famous monastic schools of Clonfert, Clonard, Clonmacnois, Arran, and Bangor; while the seventh century saw the rise of Glendalough and Lismore.

St. Patrick was educated in Gaul, at the monasteries of Marmoutier and Lerins; and, perhaps as a result, the monastic character of the early Irish church was one of its outstanding features; moreover it was to the prevalence of the monastic spirit, the desire for solitude and meditation, that so many of the great monastic establishments owed their existence. Fleeing from society and its attractions, and wishing only for solitude and austerity, some holy man sought out a lonely retreat, and there lived a life of mortification and prayer. Others came to share his poverty and vigils; a grant of land was then obtained from the ruling chief, the holy man became abbot and his followers his monks; and a religious community was formed destined soon to acquire fame. It was thus that St. Finnian established Clonard on the banks of the Boyne, and St. Kieran, Clonmacnois by the waters of the Shannon; and thus did St. Enda make the wind-swept Isles of Arran the home and the resting place of so many saints. Before the close of the sixth century, 3,000 monks followed the rule of St. Corngall at Bangor; and in the seventh century, St. Carthage made Lismore famous and St. Kevin attracted pious men from afar to his lonely retreat in the picturesque valley of Glendalough.

And there were holy women as well as holy men in Ireland. St. Brigid was held in such honor that she is often called the Mary of the Gael. Even in St. Patrick’s day, she had founded a convent at Kildare, beside which was a monastery of which St. Conleth was superior; and she founded many other convents in addition to that at Kildare. Her example was followed by St. Ita, St. Fanchea, and many others; and if at the close of the sixth century there were few districts which had not monasteries and monks, there were few also which had not convents and nuns.

Nor was this all. Fired with missionary zeal, many men left Ireland to plant the faith in distant lands. Thus did St. Columcille settle in Iona, whence he converted the Picts. Under his successors, St. Aidan and his friends went south to Lindisfarne to convert Northumbria in England; and the ninth abbot of Iona was the saintly Adamnan, whose biography of St. Columcille has been declared by competent authority to be the best of its kind of which the whole Middle Ages can boast. Nor must it be forgotten that the monasteries of Luxeuil and Bobbio owed their origin to St. Columbanus; that St. Gall gave his name to a town and canton in Switzerland; that St. Fridolin labored on the Rhine and St. Fursey on the Marne; and that St. Cathaldus was Bishop of Tarentum, and is still venerated as the patron of that Italian see.

And if we would know what was the character of the schools in which these men were trained, we have only to remember that Colgu, who had been educated at Clonmacnois, was the master of Alcuin; that Dicuil the Geographer came from the same school; that Cummian, Abbot and Bishop of Clonfert, combated the errors about the paschal computation with an extent of learning and a wealth of knowledge amazing in a monk of the seventh century; and that at the close of the eighth century two Irishmen went to the court of Charlemagne and were described by a monk of St. Gall as “men incomparably skilled in human learning”. The once pagan Ireland had by that time become a citadel of Christianity, and was rightfully called the School of the West, the Island of Saints and Scholars.

With this state of progress and prosperity the Danes played sad havoc. Animated with the fiercest pagan fanaticism, they turned with fury against Christianity, and especially against monks and religious foundations. Armagh, Clonmacnois, Bangor, Kildare, and many other great monastic establishments thus fell before their fury. Ignorance, neglect of religion, and corruption of manners followed, and from the eighth to the twelfth century there was a noted falling off in the number of Irish scholars. At home indeed were Cormac and Maelmurra, O’Hartigan and O’Flynn, and abroad was John Scotus Erigena, whose learning was so great that it excited astonishment even at Rome. The love of learning and zeal for religion lived on through this long period of accumulated disasters. After the triumph of Brian Boru at Clontarf, there was a distinct revival of piety and learning; and, when a century of turmoil followed Brian’s fall and religion again suffered, nothing was wanted to bring the people back to a sense of their duty but the energy and reforming zeal of St. Malachy.

Gerald Barry, the notorious Anglo-Norman, who visited Ireland towards the close of the twelfth century, has been convicted out of his own mouth when he states that Ireland was a barbarous nation when his people came there. He forgot that a people who could illuminate the Book of Kells and build Cormac’s Chapel could not be called savages, nor could a church be lost to a sense of decency and dignity that numbered among its children such a man as St. Laurence O’Toole. Abuses there were, it is true, consequent on long continued war, though these abuses were increased rather than lessened by the coming of the Anglo-Normans, and to such an extent that for more than two centuries there is not a single great name among Irish scholars except Duns Scotus.

The fame of Duns Scotus was European, and the Subtle Doctor, as he was called, became the great glory of the Franciscan, as his rival St. Thomas was the great glory of the Dominican, order. But he left no successor, and from his death, at the opening of the fourteenth century, till the seventeenth century the number of Irish scholars or recognized Irish saints was small. Yet, in the midst of disorders within, and despite oppression from without, at no time did the love of learning disappear in Ireland; nor was there ever in the Irish church either heresy or schism.

The attempted reformation by Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth produced martyrs like O’Hurley and O’Hely; and there were many more martyrs in the time of the Stuarts, and especially under the short but sanguinary rule of Cromwell.

Those were the days of the penal laws, when they who clung to the old religion suffered much. But nothing could shake their faith; neither the proclamations of Elizabeth and James, the massacres of Cromwell, nor the ferocious proscriptions of the eighteenth century. The priest said Mass, though his crime was punishable by death, and the people heard Mass, though theirs also was a criminal offence; and the schoolmaster, driven from the school, taught under a sheltering hedge. The clerical student, denied education at home, crossed the sea, to be educated at Louvain or Salamanca or Seville, and then, perhaps loaded with academic honors, he returned home to face poverty and persecution and even death. The Catholic masses, socially ostracised, degraded, and impoverished, shut out from every avenue to ambition or enterprise, deprived of every civil right, knowing nothing of law except when it oppressed them and nothing of government except when it struck them down, yet clung to the religion in which they were born. And when, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the tide turned and the first dawn of toleration appeared on the horizon, it was found that the vast majority of the people were unchanged, and that, after two centuries of the most relentless persecution since the days of Diocletian, Ireland was, in faith and practice, a strongly Catholic nation still.

On a soil constantly wet with the blood and tears of its children, it would be vain to expect that scholarship could flourish. And yet the period had its distinguished Irish scholars both at home and abroad. At Louvain, in the sixteenth century, were Lombard and Creagh, who both became Archbishops of Armagh, and O’Hurley who became Archbishop of Cashel. An even greater scholar than these was Luke Wadding, the eminent Franciscan who founded the convent of St. Isidore at Rome. At Louvain was John Colgan, a Franciscan like Wadding, a man who did much for Irish ecclesiastical history. And at home in Ireland, as parish priest of Tybrid in Tipperary, was the celebrated Dr. Geoffrey Keating the historian, once a student at Salamanca. John Lynch, the renowned opponent of Gerald Barry the Welshman, was Archdeacon of Tuam. And in the ruined Franciscan monastery of Donegal, the Four Masters, aided and encouraged by the Friars, labored long and patiently, and finally completed the work which we all know as the Annals of the Four Masters. This work, originally written in Irish, remained in manuscript in Louvain till the middle of the nineteenth century, when it was edited and translated into English by John O’Donovan, one of Ireland’s greatest Irish scholars, with an ability and completeness quite worthy of the original.

On the Anglo-Irish side there were also some great names, and especially in the domain of history, notably Stanyhurst and Hammer, Moryson and Campion and Davies, and, above all, Ussher and Ware. James Ware died in 1666, and though a Protestant and an official of the Protestant government, and living in Ireland in an intolerant age and in an atmosphere charged with religious rancor, he was, to his credit be it said, to a large extent free from bigotry. He dealt with history and antiquities, and wrote in no party spirit, wishing only to be fair and impartial, and to set out the truth as he found it. James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, was a much abler man and a much greater scholar than Ware. His capacity for research, his profound scholarship, the variety and extent of his learning raised him far above his co-religionists, and he has been rightly called the Great Luminary by the Irish Protestant church. It is regrettable that his fine intellect was darkened by bigotry and intolerance.

Far different was the character of another Protestant bishop, the great Berkeley, of Cloyne, a patriot, a philosopher, and a scholar, who afterwards left money and books for a scholarship, which is still in existence, at the then infant Yale College in New England. He lived in the first half of the eighteenth century, when the whole machinery of government was ruthlessly used to crush the Catholics. But Berkeley had little sympathy with the penal laws; he had words of kindness for the Catholics, and undoubtedly wished them well. Nor must Swift be forgotten, for though he took little pride in being an Irishman, he hated and despised those who oppressed Ireland, and is rightly regarded as one of the greatest of her sons.

The short period during which Grattan’s parliament existed was one of great prosperity. It was then that Maynooth College was established for the education of the Irish priesthood. But Catholics, though free to set up schools, were still shut out from the honors and emoluments of Trinity College, the one university at that time in Ireland. Still, Charles O’Connor, MacGeoghegan, and O’Flaherty were great Catholic scholars in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

In the following century, while Protestant ascendancy was still maintained, the Catholics had greater scope. Away back in the days of Queen Elizabeth, Campion found Latin widely spoken among the peasantry, and Father Mooney met country lads familiar with Virgil and Homer. In 1670, Petty had a similar story to tell, in spite of all the savageries of Cromwell and the ruin which necessarily followed. And in the eighteenth century the schoolmaster, though a price was set on his head, was still active. With an inherited love of learning, the Irish in the nineteenth century would have made rapid progress had they been rich. But their impoverishment by the penal laws made it impossible for them to set up an effective system of primary education, and until the national school system came into existence in 1831, they had to rely on the hedge-schools. Secondary education fared better, for the bishops, relying with confidence on the generosity of their flocks, were soon able to establish diocesan colleges. And in higher education, equally determined efforts were made by the establishment of the Catholic University under Cardinal Newman. But in this field of intellectual effort, in spite of the energy and zeal of the bishops, in spite of the great generosity of the people, so many of whom were poor, and in spite of the fame of Newman, it is failure rather than success which the historian has to record.

Nor has the love of the Irish for religion, any more than their love of learning, been lessened or enfeebled by time. The mountain side as the place for Mass in the penal days gradually gave way to the rude stone church without steeple or bell; and when steeple and bell ceased to be proscribed, and the people were left free to erect suitable houses of sacrifice and prayer, the fine churches of the nineteenth century began gradually to appear. The unfettered exercise of freedom of religious worship, the untiring efforts of a zealous clergy and episcopate, the unstinted support of a people, who out of their poverty grudged nothing to God or to God’s house, formed an irresistible combination, and all over the country beautiful churches are now to be found.

In every diocese in Ireland, with scarcely an exception, there is now a stately cathedral to perpetuate the renown of the patron saint of that diocese, and even parish churches have been built not unworthy to be the churches of an ancient see. At Armagh, a cathedral has been built which does honor to Irish architecture, and worthily commemorates the life and labors of St. Patrick, the founder of the primatial see; at Thurles, a cathedral stands, the chief church of the southern province, statelier far than any which ever stood on the Rock of Cashel; at Tuam, a noble building, associated with the memory of John MacHale, the Lion of the Fold of Judah, perpetuates the name of St. Jarlath; at Queenstown, the traveller, going to America or returning from it to the old land, has his attention attracted to the splendid cathedral pile sacred to St. Colman, the patron saint of the diocese of Cloyne; and if we would see how splendid even a parish church may be, let us visit the beautiful church in Drogheda, dedicated to the memory of Oliver Plunkett.

Nor are these things the only evidence we have that zeal for religion among the Irish has survived centuries of persecution. Columbanus and Columcille have still their successors, eager and ready as they were to bring the blessings of the Gospel to distant lands. In recent years an Irish-born Archbishop of Sydney has been succeeded by an Irish-born Archbishop; an Irishman rules the metropolitan see of Adelaide; and an Irish-born Archbishop of Melbourne has as his coadjutor a former president of the College of Maynooth. In South Africa, the work of preaching and teaching and ruling the church is largely the work of Irish-born men. In the great Republic of the West the three cardinal-archbishops at the head of the Catholic Church have the distinctively Irish names of Gibbons and Farley and O’Connell; and in every diocese throughout the United States the proportion of priests of Irish birth or descent is large.

Nor must the poorer Irish be forgotten. How much does the Catholic Church, both in Ireland and in America, owe to the generosity of Irish-American laborers and servant girls! Out of their scanty and hard-earned pay they have contributed much not only towards the building of the plain wooden church in the rural parishes, but also of the stately cathedrals of American cities. And many a church in old Ireland owes its completion and its adornment to the dollars given by the poor but generous Irish exiles.

And if the zeal of the Irish for religion has thus survived to the twentieth century, so also in an equally remarkable degree has their zeal for learning. We have evidence of this in the numerous primary schools in every parish, filled with eager pupils and presided over by hard working teachers; in the colleges where the sciences and the classics are studied with the same energy as in the ancient monastic schools; and in Maynooth College, which is the foremost ecclesiastical college in the world. And if there are now new universities, the National and the Queen’s, sturdy and vigorous in their youth, this does not imply that Trinity College suffers from the decreptitude of age. For among those whom she sent forth in recent times are Dowden and Mahaffy and Lecky, to name but three, and these would do credit to any university in Europe.

It would be difficult to find in any age of Irish history a greater pulpit orator than the famous Dominican, Father Tom Burke, or a more delightful essayist than Father Joseph Farrell; and who has depicted Irish clerical life more faithfully than the late Canon Sheehan, whose fame as a novelist has crossed continents and oceans? O’Connell was a great orator as well as a great political leader, and Dr. Doyle and Archbishop John MacHale were scholars as well as statesmen and bishops. We have thus an unbroken chain of great names, a series of Irishmen whom the succeeding ages have brought forth to enlighten and instruct lesser men; and Ireland, in the twentieth century, is not less attached to religion and learning than she was when Clonmacnois flourished and the saintly Carthage ruled at Lismore.