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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 10600

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

About fifty years after the death of St. Patrick a new missionary arose, one who was destined to carry the work which he had begun yet further, to become indeed the founder of what for centuries was the real metropolis and centre of Western Christendom.

In 521 A.D., St. Columba was born in Donegal, of the royal race, say the annalists, of Hy-Nial--of the royal race, at any rate, of the great workers, doers, and thinkers all the world over. In 565, forty-four years later, he left Ireland with twelve companions (the apostolic number), and started on his memorable journey to Scotland, a date of immeasurable importance in the history of Western Christianity.

In that dense fog which hangs over these early times--thick enough to try even the most penetrating eyesight--there is a curious and indescribable pleasure in coming upon so definite, so living, so breathing a figure as that of St. Columba, In writing the early history of Ireland, one of the greatest difficulties which the historian--great or small--has to encounter is to be found in that curious unreality, that tantalizing sense of illusiveness and indefiniteness which seems to envelope every figure whose name crops up on his pages. Even four hundred years later the name of a really great prince and warrior like Brian Boru, or Boruma, awakens no particular sense of reality, nay as often as not is met by a smile of incredulity. The existence of St. Columba no one, however, has been found rash enough to dispute! His, in fact, is one of those essentially self-lit figures which seem to shed some of their own light upon every other they come in contact with, even accidentally. Across the waste of centuries we see him almost as he appeared to his contemporaries. There is something friendly--as it were, next-door-neighbourly--about the man. If we land to-day on Iona, or stand in any of the little chapels in Donegal which bear his name, his presence seems as real and tangible to us as that of Tasso at Ferrara or Petrarch at Avignon. In spite of that thick--one is inclined to say rank--growth of miracles which at times confuse Adamnan's fine portrait of his hero--cover it thick as lichens some monumental slab of marble--we can still recognize his real lineaments underneath. His great natural gifts; his abounding energy; his characteristically Irish love for his native soil; for the beloved "oaks of Derry." We see him in his goings out and his comings in; we know his faults; his fiery Celtic temper, swift to wrath, swift to forgive when the moment of anger is over. Above all, we feel the charm of his abounding humanity. Like Sterne's Uncle Toby there seems to have been something about St. Columba which "eternally beckoned to the unfortunate to come and take shelter under him," and no one apparently ever refused to respond to that appeal.

One thing it is important hereto have clearly before the mind, as it is very apt to be overlooked. At the time of St. Columba's ministry, England, which during the lifetime of St. Patrick had been Roman and Christian, had now under the iron flail of its Saxon conquerors lapsed back into Paganism. Ireland, therefore, which for a while had made a part of Christendom, had been broken short off by the heathen conquest of Britain. It was now a small, isolated fragment of Christendom, with a great mass of heathenism between. We can easily imagine what a stimulus to all the eager enthusiasts of the Faith the consciousness of this neighbourhood must have been; how keen the desire to rush to the assault and to replace the Cross where it had been before.

That assault was not, however, begun by Ireland; it was begun, as every one knows, by St. Augustine, a Roman priest, sent by Pope Gregory, who landed at Ebbsfleet, in the Isle of Thanet, in the year 597--thirty-two years after St. Columba left Ireland. If the South of England owes its conversion to Rome, Northern England owes its conversion to Ireland, through the Irish colony at Iona. Oswald, the king of Northumbria, had himself taken refuge in Iona in his youth, and when summoned to reign he at once called in the Irish missionaries, acting himself, we are told, as their interpreter. His whole reign was one continuous struggle with heathenism, and although at his death it triumphed for a time, in the end the faith and energies of the missionaries carried all before them. After the final defeat of the Mercians, under their king Penda, at Winwoed, in 655, the struggle was practically over. Northern and Southern England were alike once more Christian.

One of the chief agents in this result was the Irish monk Aidan, who had fixed his seat in the little peninsula of Lindisfarne, and from whose monastery, as from another Iona, missionaries poured over the North of England. At Lichfield, Whitby, and many other places religious houses sprang up, all owing their allegiance to Lindisfarne, and through it to Iona and Ireland.

In this very fervour there lay the seeds of a new trouble. A serious schism arose between Western Christendom and the Papacy. Rome, whether spiritually or temporally, was a name which reverberated with less awe-inspiring sound in the ears of Irishmen (even Irish Churchmen) than, probably, in those of any other people at that time on the globe. They had neve

r come under the tremendous sway of its material power, and until centuries after this period--when political and, so to speak, accidental causes drove them into its arms--its spiritual power remained to them a thing apart, a foreign element to which they gave at most a reluctant half adhesion.

From this it came about that early in the history of the Western Church serious divisions sprang up between it and the other churches, already being fast welded together into a coherent body under the yoke and discipline of Rome. The points in dispute do not strike us now of any very vital importance. They were not matters of creed at all, merely of external rule and discipline. A vehement controversy as to the proper form of the tonsure, another as to the correct day for Easter, raged for more than a century with much heat on either side; those churches which owed their allegiance to Iona clinging to the Irish methods, those who adhered to Rome vindicating its supreme and paramount authority.

At the Synod of Whitby, held in 664, these points of dispute came to a crisis, and were adjudicated upon by Oswin, king of Northumbria; Bishop Colman, Aidan's successor at Holy Island, maintaining the authority of Columba; Wilfrid, a Saxon priest who had been to Rome, that of St. Peter. Oswin's own leaning seems at first to have been towards the former, but when he heard of the great pretensions of the Roman saint he was staggered. "St. Peter, you say, holds the keys of heaven and hell?" he inquired thoughtfully, "have they also been given then to St. Columba?" It was owned with some reluctance that the Irish saint had been less favoured. "Then I give my verdict for St. Peter," said Oswin, "lest when I reach the gate of heaven I find it shut, and the porter refuse to open to me." This sounds prudent, but scarcely serious; it seems, however, to have been regarded as serious enough by the Irish monks. The Synod broke up. Colman, with his Irish brethren, and a few English ones who threw in their lot with them, forsook Lindisfarne, and sailed away for Ireland. From that moment the rift between them and their English brethren grew steadily wider, and was never afterwards thoroughly healed.

It does not, however, seem to have affected the position of the Irish Church at home, nor yet to have diminished the number of its foreign converts. Safe in its isolation, it continued to go on in its own way with little regard to the rest of Christendom, although in respect to the points chiefly in dispute it after a while submitted to the Roman decision. Armagh was the principal spiritual centre, but there were other places, now tiny villages, barely known by name to the tourist, which were then centres of learning, and recognized as such, not alone in Ireland itself, but throughout Europe. Clonard, Tallaght Clonmacnois; Slane in Meath, where Dagobert II. one of the kings of France, was educated; Kildare, where the sacred fire--not lamp--of St. Bridget was kept burning for centuries, all are places whose names fill a considerable space in the fierce dialectical controversy of that fiery theological age[4].

[4] For an excellent account of early Irish monastic life see "Ireland, and the Celtic Church," by Professor G. Stokes.

This period of growth slipped all too quickly away, but it has never been forgotten. It was the golden time to which men looked wistfully back when growing trouble and discord, attack from without, and dissension from within, had torn in pieces the unhappy island which had shone like a beacon through Europe only to become its byword. The Norsemen had not yet struck prow on Irish strand, and the period between the Synod of Whitby and their appearance seems to have been really one of steady moral and intellectual growth. Heathenism no doubt still lurked in obscure places; indeed traces of it may with no


great difficulty still be discovered in Ireland, but it did not hinder the light from spreading fast under the stimulus which it had received from its first founders. The love of letters, too, sprang up with the religion of a book, and the copying of manuscripts became a passion.

As in Italy and elsewhere, so too in Ireland, the monks were the painters, the illuminators, the architects, carvers, gilders, and book-binders of their time. While outside the monastery walls the fighters were making their neighbours' lives a burden to them, and beyond the Irish Sea the whole world as then known was being shaken to pieces and reconstructed, the monk sat placidly inside at his work, producing chalices, crosiers, gold and silver vessels for the churches, carving crosses, inditing manuscripts filled with the most marvellously dexterous ornament; works, which, in spite of the havoc wrought by an almost unbroken series of devastations which have poured over the doomed island, still survive to form the treasure of its people. We can have very little human sympathy, very little love for what is noble and admirable, if--whatever our creeds or our politics-we fail, as we look back across that weary waste which separates us from them, to extend our sympathy and admiration to these early workers--pioneers in a truly national undertaking which has found only too few imitators since.

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