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   Chapter 4 ST. PATRICK THE MISSIONARY.

The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 8949

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


But a new element was about to appear upon the troubled stage, and a new figure, one whose doings, however liberally we may discount the more purely supernatural part of them, strikes us even now as little short of miraculous. There are plenty of heathen countries still; plenty of missionaries too; but a missionary at whose word an entire island--a heathen country given up, it must be remembered, to exceedingly heathen practices--resigns its own creed, and that missionary, too, no king, no warrior, but a mere unarmed stranger, without power to enforce one of the decrees he proclaimed so authoritatively, is a phenomenon which we should find some little difficulty now, or, indeed, at any time, in paralleling.

In one respect St. Patrick was less fortunate than his equally illustrious successor, Columba, since he found no contemporary, or nearly contemporary chronicler, to write his story; the consequence being that it has become so overgrown with pious myths, so tangled and matted with portents and miracles, that it is often difficult for us to see any real substance or outline below them at all.

What little direct knowledge we have is derived from a famous Irish manuscript known as "The Book of Armagh," which contains, amongst other things, a Confession and an Epistle, believed by some authorities to have been actually written by St. Patrick himself, which was copied as it now stands by a monkish scribe early in the eighth century. It also contains a life of the saint from which the accounts of his later historians have been chiefly drawn.

According to the account now generally accepted he was born about the year 390, though as this would make him well over a hundred at the time of his death, perhaps 400 would be the safest date; was a native, not as formerly believed of Gaul, but of Dumbarton upon the Clyde, whence he got carried off to Ireland in a filibustering raid, became the slave of one Milcho, an inferior chieftain, and herded his master's sheep upon the Slemish mountains in Antrim.

Seven or eight years later he escaped, got back to Britain, was ordained, afterwards went to Gaul, and, according to one account, to Italy. But the thought of the country of his captivity seems to have remained upon his mind and to have haunted his sleeping and waking thoughts. The unborn children of the pagan island seemed to stretch our their hands for help to him. At last the inward impulse grew too strong to be resisted, and accompanied by a few followers, he set foot first on the coast of Wicklow where another missionary, Paladius, had before attempted vainly to land, and being badly received there, took boat again, and landed finally at the entrance of Strangford Lough. From this point he made his way on foot to Meath, where the king Laoghaire was holding a pagan festival, and stopped to keep Easter on the hill of Slane where he lit a fire. This fire being seen from the hill of Tara aroused great anger, as no lights were by law allowed to be shown before the king's beacon was lit. Laoghaire accordingly sent to know the meaning of this insolence and to have St. Patrick brought before him. St. Patrick's chronicler, Maccumacthenius (one could wish that he had been contented with a shorter name!), tells that as the saint drew nigh to Tara, many prodigies took place. The earth shook, darkness fell, and certain of the magicians who opposed him were seized and tossed into the air. One prodigy certainly took place, for he seems to have won converts from the first. A large number appear to have been gained upon the spot, and before long the greater part of Meath had accepted the new creed, although its king, Laoghaire himself remained a sturdy pagan until his death.

From Tara St. Patrick went to Connaught, a province to which he seems to have been drawn from the first, and there spent eight years, founding many churches and monasteries. There also he ascended Croagh Patrick, the tall sugar-loaf mountain which stands over the waters of Clew Bay, and up to the summit of which hundreds of pilgrims still annually climb in his honour.

From Connaught he next turned his steps to Ulster, visited Antrim and Armagh, and laid the foundations of the future cathedral and bishopric in the latter place. Wherever he went converts seem to have come in to him in crowds. Even the Bards, who had most to lose by the innovation, appear to have been in many cases drawn over. They and the chiefs gained, the rest fol

lowed unhesitatingly; whole clans were baptized at a time. Never was spiritual conquest so astonishingly complete!

The tale of St. Patrick's doings; of his many triumphs; his few failures; of the boy Benignus his first Irish disciple; of his wrestling upon Mount Cruachan; of King Eochaidh; of the Bard Ossian, and his dialogues with the apostle, all this has been excellently rendered into verse by Mr. Aubrey de Vere, whose "Legends of St. Patrick" seem to the present writer by no means so well known as they ought to be. The second poem in the series, "The Disbelief of Milcho," especially is one of great beauty, full of wild poetic gleams, and touches which breathe the very breath of an Irish landscape. Poetry is indeed the medium best suited for the Patrician history. The whole tale of the saint's achievements in Ireland is one of those in which history seems to lose its own sober colouring, to become luminous and half magical, to take on all the rosy hues of a myth.

The best proof of the effect of the new revelation is to be found in that extraordinary burst of enthusiasm which marked the next few centuries. The passion for conversion, for missionary labour of all sorts, seems to have swept like a torrent over the island, arousing to its best and highest point that Celtic enthusiasm and which has never, unhappily, found such noble exercise since. Irish missionaries flung themselves upon the dogged might of heathenism, and grappled with it in a death struggle. Amongst the Picts of the Highlands, amongst the fierce Friscians of the Northern seas, beside the Lake of Constance, where the church of St. Gall still preserves the name of another Irish saint, in the Black Forest, at Schaffhausen, at Würtzburg, throughout, in fact, all Germany and North Italy, they were ubiquitous. Wherever they went their own red-hot fervour seems to have melted every obstacle; wherever they went victory seems to have crowned their zeal[3].

[3] For an account of Irish missionaries in Germany, see Mr. Baring-Gould's "Germany," in this series, p. 46.

Discounting as much as you choose everything that seems to partake of pious exaggeration, there can be no doubt that the period which followed the Christianizing of Ireland was one of those shining epochs of spiritual and also to a great degree intellectual enthusiasm rare indeed in the history of the world. Men's hearts, lull of newly--won fervour, burned to hand on the torch in their turn to others. They went out by thousands, and they beckoned in their converts by tens of thousands. Irish hospitality--a quality which has happily escaped the tooth of criticism--broke out then with a vengeance, and extended its hands to half a continent. From Gaul, from Britain, from Germany, from dozens of scattered places throughout the wide dominions of Charlemagne, the students came; were kept, as Bede expressly tells us, free of cost in the Irish monasteries, and drew their first inspirations in the Irish schools. Even now, after the lapse of all these centuries, many of the places whence they came still reverberate faintly with the memory of that time.

Before plunging into that weltering tangle of confusion which makes up what we call Irish history, one may be forgiven for lingering a little at this point, even at the risk of some slight over-balance of proportion. With so dark a road before us, it seems good to remember that the energies of Irishmen were not, as seems sometimes to be concluded, always and of necessity directed to injuring themselves or tormenting their rulers! Neither was this period by any means a short one. It was no mere "flash in the pan;" no "small pot soon hot" enthusiasm, but a steady flame which burned undimmed for centuries. "During the seventh and eighth centuries, and part of the ninth," says Mr. Goldwin Smith, not certainly a prejudiced writer, "Ireland played a really great part in European history." "The new religious houses," says Mr. Green in his Short History, "looked for their ecclesiastical traditions, not to Rome, but to Ireland, and quoted for their guidance the instructions not of Gregory, but of Columba." "For a time," he adds, "it seemed as if the course of the world's history was to be changed, as if that older Celtic race which the Roman and German had swept before them, had turned to the moral conquest of their conquerors, as if Celtic and not Latin Christianity was to mould the destinies of the Church of the West."

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