HISTORY OF IRELAND
THE FIRST INHABITANTS.
Ireland is situated in the North Atlantic, between the degrees fifty-one and a half and fifty-five and a half North, and five and a quarter and ten and a third West longitude from Greenwich. It is the last land usually seen by ships leaving the Old World, and the first by those who arrive there from the Northern ports of America. In size it is less than half as large as Britain, and in shape it may be compared to one of those shields which we see in coats-of-arms, the four Provinces—Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster—representing the four quarters of the shield.
Around the borders of the country, generally near the coast, several ranges of hills and mountains rear their crests, every Province having one or more such groups. The West and South have, however, the largest and highest of these hills, from the sides of all which descend numerous rivers, flowing in various directions to the sea. Other rivers issue out of large lakes formed in the valleys, such as the Galway river which drains Lough Corrib, and the Bann which carries off the surplus waters of Lough Neagh (Nay). In a few districts where the fall for water is insufficient, marshes and swamps were long ago formed, of which the principal one occupies nearly 240,000 acres in the very heart of the country. It is called “the Bog of Alien,” and, though quite useless for farming purposes, still serves to supply the surrounding district with fuel, nearly as well as coal mines do in other countries.
In former times, Ireland was as well wooded as watered, though hardly a tree of the primitive forest now remains. One of the earliest names applied to it was “the wooded Island,” and the export of timber and staves, as well as of the furs of wild animals, continued, until the beginning of the seventeenth century, to be a thriving branch of trade. But in a succession of civil and religious wars, the axe and the torch have done their work of destruction, so that the age of most of the wood now standing does not date above two or three generations back.
Who were the first inhabitants of this Island, it is impossible to say, but we know it was inhabited at a very early period of the world’s lifetime—probably as early as the time when Solomon the Wise, sat in Jerusalem on the throne of his father David. As we should not altogether reject, though neither are we bound to believe, the wild and uncertain traditions of which we have neither documentary nor monumental evidence, we will glance over rapidly what the old Bards and Story-tellers have handed down to us concerning Ireland before it became Christian.
The first story they tell is, that about three hundred years after the Universal Deluge, Partholan, of the stock of Japhet, sailed down the Mediterranean, “leaving Spain on the right hand,” and holding bravely on his course, reached the shores of the wooded western Island. This Partholan, they tell us, was a double parricide, having killed his father and mother before leaving his native country, for which horrible crimes, as the Bards very morally conclude, his posterity were fated never to possess the land. After a long interval, and when they were greatly increased in numbers, they were cut off to the last man, by a dreadful pestilence.
The story of the second immigration is almost as vague as that of the first. The leader this tune is called Nemedh, and his route is described as leading from the shores of the Black Sea, across what is now Russia in Europe, to the Baltic Sea, and from the Baltic to Ireland. He is said to have built two royal forts, and to have “cleared twelve plains of wood” while in Ireland. He and his posterity were constantly at war, with a terrible race of Formorians, or Sea Kings, descendants of Ham, who had fled from northern Africa to the western islands for refuge from their enemies, the sons of Shem. At length the Formorians prevailed, and the children of the second immigration were either slain or driven into exile, from which some of their posterity returned long afterwards, and again disputed the country, under two different denominations.
The Firbolgs or Belgae are the third immigration. They were victorious under their chiefs, the five sons of Dela, and divided the island into five portions. But they lived in days when the earth—the known parts of it at least—was being eagerly scrambled for by the overflowing hosts of Asia, and they were not long left in undisputed possession of so tempting a prize. Another expedition, claiming descent from the common ancestor, Nemedh, arrived to contest their supremacy. These last—the fourth immigration—are depicted to us as accomplished soothsayers and necromancers who came out of Greece. They could quell storms; cure diseases; work in metals; foretell future events; forge magical weapons; and raise the dead to life; they are called the Tuatha de Danans, and by their supernatural power, as well as by virtue of “the Lia Fail,” or fabled “stone of destiny,” they subdued their Belgic kinsmen, and exercised sovereignty over them, till they in turn were displaced by the Gaelic, or fifth immigration.
This fifth and final colony called themselves alternately, or at different periods of their history, Gael, from one of their remote ancestors; Milesians, from the immediate projector of their emigration; or Scoti, from Scota, the mother of Milesius. They came from Spain under the leadership of the sons of Milesius, whom they had lost during their temporary sojourn in that country. In vain the skillful Tuatha surrounded themselves and their coveted island with magic-made tempest and terrors; in vain they reduced it in size so as to be almost invisible from sea; Amergin, one of the sons of Milesius, was a Druid skilled in all the arts of the east, and led by his wise counsels, his brothers countermined the magicians, and beat them at their own weapons. This Amergin was, according to universal usage in ancient times, at once Poet, Priest, and Prophet; yet when his warlike brethren divided the island between them, they left the Poet out of reckoning. He was finally drowned in the waters of the river Avoca, which is probably the reason why that river has been so suggestive of melody and song ever since.
Such are the stories told of the five successive hordes of adventurers who first attempted to colonize our wooded Island. Whatever moiety of truth may be mixed up with so many fictions, two things are certain, that long before the time when our Lord and Saviour came upon earth, the coasts and harbours of Erin were known to the merchants of the Mediterranean, and that from the first to the fifth Christian century, the warriors of the wooded Isle made inroads on the Roman power in Britain and even in Gaul. Agricola, the Roman governor of Britain in the reign of Domitian—the first century—retained an Irish chieftain about his person, and we are told by his biographer that an invasion of Ireland was talked of at Rome. But it never took place; the Roman eagles, although supreme for four centuries in Britain, never crossed the Irish Sea; and we are thus deprived of those Latin helps to our early history, which are so valuable in the first period of the histories of every western country, with which the Romans had anything to do.
THE FIRST AGES.
Since we have no Roman accounts of the form of government or state of society in ancient Erin, we must only depend on the Bards and Story-tellers, so far as their statements are credible and agree with each other. On certain main points they do agree, and these are the points which it seems reasonable for us to take on their authority.
As even brothers born of the same mother, coming suddenly into possession of a prize, will struggle to see who can get the largest share, so we find in those first ages a constant succession of armed struggles for power. The petty Princes who divided the Island between them were called Righ, a word which answers to the Latin Rex and French Roi; and the chief king or monarch was called Ard-Righ, or High-King. The eldest nephew, or son of the king, was the usual heir of power, and was called the Tanist, or successor; although any of the family of the Prince, his brothers, cousins, or other kinsmen, might be chosen Tanist, by election of the people over whom he was to rule. One certain cause of exclusion was personal deformity; for if a Prince was born lame or a hunchback, or if he lost a limb by accident, he was declared unfit to govern. Even after succession, any serious accident entailed deposition, though we find the names of several Princes who managed to evade or escape this singular penalty. It will be observed besides of the Tanist, that the habit of appointing him seems to have been less a law than a custom; that it was not universal in all the Provinces; that in some tribes the succession alternated between a double line of Princes; and that sometimes when the reigning Prince obtained the nomination of a Tanist, to please himself, the choice was set aside by the public voice of the clansmen. The successor to the Ard-Righ, or Monarch, instead of being simply called Tanist, had the more sounding title of Roydamna, or King-successor.
The chief offices about the Kings, in the first ages, were all filled by the Druids, or Pagan Priests; the Brehons, or Judges, were usually Druids, as were also the Bards, the historians of their patrons. Then came the Physicians; the Chiefs who paid tribute or received annual gifts from the Sovereigns, or Princes; the royal stewards; and the military leaders or Champions, who, like the knights of the middle ages, held their lands and their rank at court, by the tenure of the sword. Like the feudal Dukes of Prance, and Barons of England, these military nobles often proved too powerful for their nominal patrons, and made them experience all the uncertainty of reciprocal dependence. The Champions play an important part in all the early legends. Wherever there is trouble you are sure to find them. Their most celebrated divisions were the warriors of the Red Branch—that is to say, the Militia of Ulster; the Fiann, or Militia of Leinster, sometimes the royal guard of Tara, at others in exile and disgrace; the Clan-Degaid of Munster, and the Fiann of Connaught. The last force was largely recruited from the Belgic race who had been squeezed into that western province, by their Milesian conquerors, pretty much as Cromwell endeavoured to force the Milesian Irish into it, many hundred years afterwards. Each of these bands had its special heroes; its Godfreys and Orlandos celebrated in song; the most famous name in Ulster was Cuchullin: so called from cu, a hound, or watch-dog, and Ullin, the ancient name of his province. He lived at the dawn of the Christian era. Of equal fame was Finn, the father of Ossian, and the Fingal of modern fiction, who flourished in the latter half of the second century. Gall, son of Morna, the hero of Connaught (one of the few distinguished men of Belgic origin whom we hear of through the Milesian bards), flourished a generation earlier than Finn, and might fairly compete with him in celebrity, if he had only had an Ossian to sing his praises.
The political boundaries of different tribes expanded or contracted with their good or ill fortune in battle. Immigration often followed defeat, so that a clan, or its offshoot is found at one period on one part of the map and again on another. As surnames were not generally used either in Ireland or anywhere else, till after the tenth century, the great families are distinguishable at first, only by their tribe or clan names. Thus at the north we have the Hy-Nial race; in the south the Eugenian race, so called from Nial and Eoghan, their mutual ancestors.
We have already compared the shape of Erin to a shield, in which the four Provinces represented the four quarters. Some shields have also bosses or centre-pieces, and the federal province of MEATH was the boss of the old Irish shield. The ancient Meath included both the present counties of that name, stretching south to the Liffey, and north to Armagh. It was the mensal demesne, or “board of the king’s table:” it was exempt from all taxes, except those of the Ard-Righ, and its relations to the other Provinces may be vaguely compared to those of the District of Columbia to the several States of the North American Union. ULSTER might then be defined by a line drawn from Sligo Harbour to the mouth of the Boyne, the line being notched here and there by the royal demesne of Meath; LEINSTER stretched south from Dublin triangle-wise to Waterford Harbour, but its inland line, towards the west, was never very well defined, and this led to constant border wars with Munster; the remainder of the south to the mouth of the Shannon composed MUNSTER; the present county of Clare and all west of the Shannon north to Sligo, and part of Cavan, going with CONNAUGHT. The chief seats of power, in those several divisions, were TARA, for federal purposes; EMANIA, near Armagh, for Ulster; LEIGHLIN, for Leinster; CASHEL, for Munster; and CRUCHAIN, (now Rathcrogan, in Roscommon,) for Connaught.
How the common people lived within these external divisions of power it is not so easy to describe. All histories tell us a great deal of kings, and battles, and conspiracies, but very little of the daily domestic life of the people. In this respect the history of Erin is much the same as the rest; but some leading facts we do know. Their religion, in Pagan times, was what the moderns call Druidism, but what they called it themselves we now know not. It was probably the same religion anciently professed by Tyre and Sidon, by Carthage and her colonies in Spain; the same religion which the Romans have described as existing in great part of Gaul, and by their accounts, we learn the awful fact, that it sanctioned, nay, demanded, human sacrifices. From the few traces of its doctrines which Christian zeal has permitted to survive in the old Irish language, we see that Belus or “Crom,” the god of fire, typified by the sun, was its chief divinity—that two great festivals were held in his honour on days answering to the first of May and last of October. There were also particular gods of poets, champions, artificers and mariners, just as among the Romans and Greeks. Sacred groves were dedicated to these gods; Priests and Priestesses devoted their lives to their service; the arms of the champion, and the person of the king were charmed by them; neither peace nor war was made without their sanction; their own persons and their pupils were held sacred; the high place at the king’s right hand and the best fruits of the earth and the waters were theirs. Old age revered them, women worshipped them, warriors paid court to them, youth trembled before them, princes and chieftains regarded them as elder brethren. So numerous were they in Erin, and so celebrated, that the altars of Britain and western Gaul, left desolate by the Roman legions, were often served by hierophants from Erin, which, even in those Pagan days, was known to all the Druidic countries as the “Sacred Island.” Besides the princes, the warriors, and the Druids, (who were also the Physicians, Bards and Brehons of the first ages,) there were innumerable petty chiefs, all laying claim to noble birth and blood. They may be said with the warriors and priests to be the only freemen. The Bruais, or farmers, though possessing certain legal rights, were an inferior caste; while of the Artisans, the smiths and armorers only seem to have been of much consideration. The builders of those mysterious round towers, of which a hundred ruins yet remain, may also have been a privileged order. But the mill and the loom were servile occupations, left altogether to slaves taken in battle, or purchased in the market-places of Britain. The task of the herdsman, like that of the farm-labourer, seems to have devolved on the bondsmen, while the quern and the shuttle were left exclusively in the hands of the bondswomen.
We need barely mention the names of the first Milesian kings, who were remarkable for something else than cutting each other’s throats, in order to hasten on to the solid ground of Christian tunes. The principal names are: Heber and Heremhon, the crowned sons of Milesians; they at first divided the Island fairly, but Heremhon soon became jealous of his brother, slew him in battle, and established his own supremacy. Irial the Prophet was King, and built seven royal fortresses; Tiern’mass; in his reign the arts of dyeing in colours were introduced; and the distinguishing of classes by the number of colours they were permitted to wear, was decreed. Ollamh (“the Wise”) established the Convention of Tara, which assembled habitually every ninth year, but might be called oftener; it met about the October festival in honour of Beleus or Crom; Eocaid invented or introduced a new species of wicker boats, called cassa, and spent much of his time upon the sea; a solitary queen, named Macha, appears in the succession, from whom Armagh takes its name; except Mab, the mythological Queen of Connaught, she is the sole female ruler of Erin in the first ages; Owen or Eugene Mor (“the Great”) is remembered as the founder of the notable families who rejoice in the common name of Eugenians; Leary, of whom the fable of Midas is told with variations; Angus, whom the after Princes of Alba (Scotland) claimed as their ancestor; Eocaid, the tenth of that name, in whose reign are laid the scenes of the chief mythological stories of Erin—such as the story of Queen Mab—the story of the Sons of Usna; the death of Cuchullin (a counterpart of the Persian tale of Roostam and Sohrab); the story of Fergus, son of the king; of Connor of Ulster; of the sons of Dari; and many more. We next meet with the first king who led an expedition abroad against the Romans in Crimthan, surnamed Neea-Naari, or Nair’s Hero, from the good genius who accompanied him on his foray. A well-planned insurrection of the conquered Belgae, cut off one of Crimthan’s immediate successors, with all his chiefs and nobles, at a banquet given on the Belgian-plain (Moybolgue, in Cavan); and arrested for a century thereafter Irish expeditions abroad. A revolution and a restoration followed, in which Moran the Just Judge played the part of Monk to his Charles II., Tuathal surnamed “the Legitimate.” It was Tuathal who imposed the special tax on Leinster, of which, we shall often hear—under the title of Borooa, or Tribute. “The Legitimate” was succeeded by his son, who introduced the Roman Lex Talionis (“an eye for an eye and a tooth, for a tooth”) into the Brehon code; soon after, the Eugenian families of the south, strong in numbers, and led by a second Owen More, again halved the Island with the ruling race, the boundary this time being the esker, or ridge of land which can be easily traced from Dublin west to Galway. Olild, a brave and able Prince, succeeded in time to the southern half-kingdom, and planted his own kindred deep and firm in its soil, though the unity of the monarchy was again restored under Cormac Ulla, or Longbeard. This Cormac, according to the legend, was in secret a Christian, and was done to death by the enraged and alarmed Druids, after his abdication and retirement from the world (A.D. 266). He had reigned full forty years, rivalling in wisdom, and excelling in justice the best of his ancestors. Some of his maxims remain to us, and challenge comparison for truthfulness and foresight with most uninspired writings.
Cormac’s successors during the same century are of little mark, but in the next the expeditions against the Roman outposts were renewed with greater energy and on an increasing scale. Another Crimthan eclipsed the fame of his ancestor and namesake; Nial, called “of the Hostages,” was slain on a second or third expedition into Gaul (A.D. 405), while Dathy, nephew and successor to Nial, was struck dead by lightning in the passage of the Alps (A.D. 428). It was in one of Nial’s Gallic expeditions that the illustrious captive was brought into Erin, for whom Providence had reserved the glory of its conversion to the Christian faith—an event which gives a unity and a purpose to the history of that Nation, which must always constitute its chief attraction to the Christian reader.
CHRISTIANITY PREACHED AT TARA—THE RESULT.
The conversion of a Pagan people to Christianity must always be a primary fact in their history. It is not merely for the error it abolishes or the positive truth it establishes that a national change of faith is historically important, but for the complete revolution it works in every public and private relation. The change socially could not be greater if we were to see some irresistible apostle of Paganism ariving from abroad in Christian Ireland, who would abolish the churches, convents, and Christian schools; decry and bring into utter disuse the decalogue, the Scriptures and the Sacraments; efface all trace of the existing belief in One God and Three Persons, whether in private or public worship, in contracts, or in courts of law; and instead of these, re-establish all over the country, in high places and in every place, the gloomy groves of the Druids, making gods of the sun and moon, the natural elements, and man’s own passions, restoring human sacrifices as a sacred duty, and practically excluding from the community of their fellows, all who presumed to question the divine origin of such a religion. The preaching of Patrick effected a revolution to the full as complete as such a counter-revolution in favour of Paganism could possibly be, and to this thorough revolution we must devote at least one chapter before going farther.
The best accounts agree that Patrick was a native of Gaul, then subject to Rome; that he was carried captive into Erin on one of King Nial’s returning expeditions; that he became a slave, as all captives of the sword did, in those iron times; that he fell to the lot of one Milcho, a chief of Dalriada, whose flocks he tended for seven years, as a shepherd, on the mountain called Slemish, in the present county of Antrim. The date of Nial’s death, and the consequent return of his last expedition, is set down in all our annals at the year 405; as Patrick was sixteen years of age when he reached Ireland, he must have been born about the year 390; and as he died in the year 493, he would thus have reached the extraordinary, but not impossible age of 103 years. Whatever the exact number of his years, it is certain that his mission in Ireland commenced in the year 432, and was prolonged till his death, sixty-one years afterwards. Such an unprecedented length of life, not less than the unprecedented power, both popular and political, which he early attained, enabled him to establish the Irish Church, during his own time, on a basis so broad and deep, that neither lapse of ages, nor heathen rage, nor earthly temptations, nor all the arts of Hell, have been able to upheave its firm foundations. But we must not imagine that the powers of darkness abandoned the field without a struggle, or that the victory of the cross was achieved without a singular combination of courage, prudence, and determination—God aiding above all.
If the year of his captivity was 405 or 406, and that of his escape or manumission seven years later (412 or 413), twenty years would intervene between his departure out of the land of his bondage, and his return to it clothed with the character and authority of a Christian Bishop. This interval, longer or shorter, he spent in qualifying himself for Holy Orders or discharging priestly duties at Tours, at Lerins, and finally at Rome. But always by night and day he was haunted by the thought of the Pagan nation in which he had spent his long years of servitude, whose language he had acquired, and the character of whose people he so thoroughly understood. These natural retrospections were heightened and deepened by supernatural revelations of the will of Providence towards the Irish, and himself as their apostle. At one time, an angel presented him, in his sleep, a scroll bearing the superscription, “the voice of the Irish;” at another, he seemed to hear in a dream all the unborn children of the nation crying to him for help and holy baptism. When, therefore, Pope Celestine commissioned him for this enterprise, “to the ends of the earth,” he found him not only ready but anxious to undertake it.
When the new Preacher arrived in the Irish Sea, in 432, he and his companions were driven off the coast of Wicklow by a mob, who assailed them with showers of stones. Running down the coast to Antrim, with which he was personally familiar, he made some stay at Saul, in Down, where he made few converts, and celebrated Mass in a barn; proceeding northward he found himself rejected with scorn by his old master, Milcho, of Slemish. No doubt it appeared an unpardonable audacity in the eyes of the proud Pagan, that his former slave should attempt to teach him how to reform his life and order his affairs. Returning again southward, led on, as we must believe, by the Spirit of God, he determined to strike a blow against Paganism at its most vital point. Having learned that the monarch, Leary (Laeghaire), was to celebrate his birthday with suitable rejoicings at Tara, on a day which happened to fall on the eve of Easter, he resolved to proceed to Tara on that occasion, and to confront the Druids in the midst of all the princes and magnates of the Island. With this view he returned on his former course, and landed from his frail barque at the mouth of the Boyne. Taking leave of the boatmen, he desired them to wait for him a certain number of days, when, if they did not hear from him, they might conclude him dead, and provide for their own safety. So saying he set out, accompanied by the few disciples he had made, or brought from abroad, to traverse on foot the great plain which stretches from the mouth of the Boyne to Tara. If those sailors were Christians, as is most likely, we can conceive with what anxiety they must have awaited tidings of an attempt so hazardous and so eventful.
The Christian proceeded on his way, and the first night of his journey lodged with a hospitable chief, whose family he converted and baptized, especially marking out a fine child named Beanen, called by him Benignus, from his sweet disposition; who was destined to be one of his most efficient coadjutors, and finally his successor in the Primatial see of Armagh. It was about the second or third day when, travelling probably by the northern road, poetically called “the Slope of the Chariots,” the Christian adventurers came in sight of the roofs of Tara. Halting on a neighbouring eminence they surveyed the citadel of Ancient Error, like soldiers about to assault an enemy’s stronghold. The aspect of the royal hill must have been highly imposing. The building towards the north was the Banquet Hall, then thronged with the celebrants of the King’s birth-day, measuring from north to south 360 feet in length by 40 feet wide. South of this hall was the King’s Rath, or residence, enclosing an area of 280 yards in diameter, and including several detached buildings, such as the house of Cormac, and the house of the hostages. Southward still stood the new rath of the reigning king, and yet farther south, the rath of Queen Mab, probably uninhabited even then. The intervals between the buildings were at some points planted, for we know that magnificent trees shaded the well of Finn, and the well of Newnaw, from which all the raths were supplied with water. Imposing at any time, Tara must have looked its best at the moment Patrick first beheld it, being in the pleasant season of spring, and decorated in honour of the anniversary of the reigning sovereign.
One of the religious ceremonies employed by the Druids to heighten the solemnity of the occasion, was to order all the fires of Tara and Meath to be quenched, in order to rekindle them instantaneously from a sacred fire dedicated to the honour of their god. But Patrick, either designedly or innocently, anticipated this striking ceremony, and lit his own fire, where he had encamped, in view of the royal residence. A flight of fiery arrows, shot into the Banqueting Hall, would not have excited more horror and tumult among the company there assembled, than did the sight of that unlicensed blaze in the distance. Orders were issued to drag the offender against the laws and the gods of the Island before them, and the punishment in store for him was already decreed in every heart. The Preacher, followed by his trembling disciples, ascended “the Slope of the Chariots,” surrounded by menacing minions of the Pagan law, and regarded with indignation by astonished spectators. As he came he recited Latin Prayers to the Blessed Trinity, beseeching their protection and direction in this trying hour. Contrary to courteous custom no one at first rose to offer him a seat. At last a chieftain, touched with mysterious admiration for the stranger, did him that kindness. Then it was demanded of him, why he had dared to violate the laws of the country, and to defy its ancient gods. On this text the Christian Missionary spoke. The place of audience was in the open air, on that eminence, the home of so many kings, which commands one of the most agreeable prospects in any landscape. The eye of the inspired orator, pleading the cause of all the souls that hereafter, till the end of time, might inhabit the land, could discern within the spring-day horizon, the course of the Blackwater and the Boyne before they blend into one; the hills of Cavan to the far north; with the royal hill of Tailtean in the foreground; the wooded heights of Slane and Skreen, and the four ancient roads, which led away towards the four subject Provinces, like the reins of empire laid loosely on their necks. Since the first Apostle of the Gentiles had confronted the subtle Paganism of Athens, on the hill of Mars, none of those who walked in his steps ever stood out in more glorious relief than Patrick, surrounded by Pagan Princes, and a Pagan Priesthood, on the hill of Tara.
The defence of the fire he had kindled, unlicensed, soon extended into wider issues. Who were the gods against whom he had offended? Were they true gods or false? They had their priests: could they maintain the divinity of such gods, by argument, or by miracle? For his God, he, though unworthy, was ready to answer, yea, right ready to die. His God had become man, and had died for man. His name alone was sufficient to heal all diseases; to raise the very dead to life. Such, we learn from the old biographers, was the line of Patrick’s argument. This sermon ushered in a controversy. The king’s guests, who had come to feast and rejoice, remained to listen and to meditate. With the impetuosity of the national character —with all its passion for debate—they rushed into this new conflict, some on one side, some on the other. The daughters of the king and many others—the Arch-Druid himself—became convinced and were baptized. The missionaries obtained powerful protectors, and the king assigned to Patrick the pleasant fort of Trim, as a present residence. From that convenient distance, he could readily return at any moment, to converse with the king’s guests and the members of his household.
The Druidical superstition never recovered the blow it received that day at Tara. The conversion of the Arch-Druid and the Princesses, was, of itself, their knell of doom. Yet they held their ground during the remainder of this reign—twenty-five years longer (A.D. 458). The king himself never became a Christian, though he tolerated the missionaries, and deferred more and more every year to the Christian party. He sanctioned an expurgated code of the laws, prepared under the direction of Patrick, from which every positive element of Paganism was rigidly excluded. He saw, unopposed, the chief idol of his race, overthrown on “the Plain of Prostration,” at Sletty. Yet withal he never consented to be baptized; and only two years before his decease, we find him swearing to a treaty, in the old Pagan form—”by the Sun, and the Wind, and all the Elements.” The party of the Druids at first sought to stay the progress of Christianity by violence, and even attempted, more than once, to assassinate Patrick. Finding these means ineffectual they tried ridicule and satire. In this they were for some time seconded by the Bards, men warmly attached to their goddess of song and their lives of self-indulgence. All in vain. The day of the idols was fast verging into everlasting night in Erin. Patrick and his disciples were advancing from conquest to conquest. Armagh and Cashel came in the wake of Tara, and Cruachan was soon to follow. Driven from the high places, the obdurate Priests of Bel took refuge in the depths of the forest and in the islands of the sea, wherein the Christian anchorites of the next age were to replace them. The social revolution proceeded, but all that was tolerable in the old state of things, Patrick carefully engrafted with the new. He allowed much for the habits and traditions of the people, and so made the transition as easy, from darkness into the light, as Nature makes the transition from night to morning. He seven times visited in person every mission in the kingdom, performing the six first “circuits” on foot, but the seventh, on account of his extreme age, he was borne in a chariot. The pious munificence of the successors of Leary, had surrounded him with a household of princely proportions. Twenty-four persons, mostly ecclesiastics, were chosen for this purpose: a bell-ringer, a psalmist, a cook, a brewer, a chamberlain, three smiths, three artificers, and three embroiderers are reckoned of the number. These last must be considered as employed in furnishing the interior of the new churches. A scribe, a shepherd to guard his flocks, and a charioteer are also mentioned, and their proper names given. How different this following from the little boat’s crew, he had left waiting tidings from Tara, in such painful apprehension, at the mouth of the Boyne, in 432. Apostolic zeal, and unrelaxed discipline had wrought these wonders, during a lifetime prolonged far beyond the ordinary age of man.
The fifth century was drawing to a close, and the days of Patrick were numbered. Pharamond and the Franks had sway on the Netherlands; Hengist and the Saxons on South Britain; Clovis had led his countrymen across the Rhine into Gaul; the Vandals had established themselves in Spain and North Africa; the Ostrogoths were supreme in Italy. The empire of barbarism had succeeded to the empire of Polytheism; dense darkness covered the semi-Christian countries of the old Roman empire, but happily daylight still lingered in the West. Patrick, in good season, had done his work. And as sometimes, God seems to bring round His ends, contrary to the natural order of things, so the spiritual sun of Europe was now destined to rise in the West, and return on its light-bearing errand towards the East, dispelling La its path, Saxon, Frankish, and German darkness, until at length it reflected back on Rome herself, the light derived from Rome.
On the 17th of March, in the year of our Lord 493, Patrick breathed his last in the monastery of Saul, erected on the site of that barn where he had first said Mass. He was buried with national honours in the Church of Armagh, to which he had given the Primacy over all the churches of Ireland; and such was the concourse of mourners, and the number of Masses offered for his eternal repose, that from the day of his death till the close of the year, the sun is poetically said never to have set—so brilliant and so continual was the glare of tapers and torches.
THE CONSTITUTION, AND HOW THE KINGS KEPT IT.
We have fortunately still existing the main provisions of that constitution which was prepared under the auspices of Saint Patrick, and which, though not immediately, nor simultaneously, was in the end accepted by all Erin as its supreme law. It is contained in a volume called “the Book of Rights,” and in its printed form (the Dublin bilingual edition of 1847), fills some 250 octavo pages. This book may be said to contain the original institutes of Erin under her Celtic Kings: “the Brehon laws,” (which have likewise been published), bear the same relation to “the Book of Rights,” as the Statutes at large of England, or the United States, bear to the English Constitution in the one case, or to the collective Federal and State Constitutions in the other. Let us endeavour to comprehend what this ancient Irish Constitution was like, and how the Kings received it, at first.
There were, as we saw in the first chapter, beside the existing four Provinces, whose names are familiar to every one, a fifth principality of Meath. Each of the Provinces was subdivided into chieftainries, of which there were at least double or treble as many as there are now counties. The connection between the chief and his Prince, or the Prince and his monarch, was not of the nature of feudal obedience; for the fee-simple of the soil was never supposed to be vested in the sovereign, nor was the King considered to be the fountain of all honour. The Irish system blended the aristocratic and democratic elements more largely than the monarchical. Everything proceeded by election, but all the candidates should be of noble blood. The Chiefs, Princes, and Monarchs, so selected, were bound together by certain customs and tributes, originally invented by the genius of the Druids, and afterwards adopted and enforced by the authority of the Bishops. The tributes were paid in kind, and consisted of cattle, horses, foreign-born slaves, hounds, oxen, scarlet mantles, coats of mail, chess-boards and chess-men, drinking cups, and other portable articles of value. The quantity in every case due from a King to his subordinate, or from a subordinate to his King—for the gifts and grants were often reciprocal—is precisely stated in every instance. Besides these rights, this constitution defines the “prerogatives” of the five Kings on their journeys through each other’s territory, their accession to power, or when present in the General Assemblies of the Kingdom. It contains, besides, a very numerous array of “prohibitions”—acts which neither the Ard-Righ nor any other Potentate may lawfully do. Most of these have reference to old local Pagan ceremonies in which the Kings once bore a leading part, but which were now strictly prohibited; others are of inter-Provincial significance, and others, again, are rules of personal conduct. Among the prohibitions of the monarch the first is, that the sun must never rise on him in his bed at Tara; among his prerogatives he was entitled to banquet on the first of August, on the fish of the Boyne, fruit from the Isle of Man, cresses from the Brosna river, venison from Naas, and to drink the water of the well of Talla: in other words, he was entitled to eat on that day, of the produce, whether of earth or water, of the remotest bounds, as well as of the very heart of his mensal domain. The King of Leinster was “prohibited” from upholding the Pagan ceremonies within his province, or to encamp for more than a week in certain districts; but he was “privileged” to feast on the fruits of Almain, to drink the ale of Cullen, and to preside over the games of Carman, (Wexford.) His colleague of Munster was “prohibited” from encamping a whole week at Killarney or on the Suir, and from mustering a martial host on the Leinster border at Gowran; he was “privileged” to pass the six weeks of Lent at Cashel (in free quarters), to use fire and force in compelling tribute from north Leinster; and to obtain a supply of cattle from Connaught, at the time “of the singing of the cuckoo.” The Connaught King had five other singular “prohibitions” imposed on him—evidently with reference to some old Pagan rites—and his “prerogatives” were hostages from Galway, the monopoly of the chase in Mayo, free quarters in Murrisk, in the same neighbourhood, and to marshal his border-host at Athlone to confer with the tribes of Meath. The ruler of Ulster was also forbidden to indulge in such superstitious practices as observing omens of birds, or drinking of a certain fountain “between two darknesses;” his prerogatives were presiding at the games of Cooley, “with the assembly of the fleet;” the right of mustering his border army in the plains of Louth; free quarters in Armagh for three nights for his troops before setting out on an expedition; and to confine his hostages in Dunseverick, a strong fortress near the Giant’s Causeway. Such were the principal checks imposed upon the individual caprice of Monarchs and Princes; the plain inference from all which is, that under the Constitution of Patrick, a Prince who clung to any remnant of ancient Paganism, might lawfully be refused those rents and dues which alone supported his dignity. In other words, disguised as it may be to us under ancient forms, “the Book of Rights” establishes Christianity as the law of the land. All national usages and customs, not conflicting with this supreme law, were recognized and sanctioned by it. The internal revenues in each particular Province were modelled upon the same general principle, with one memorable exception—the special tribute which Leinster paid to Munster—and which was the cause of more bloodshed than all other sources of domestic quarrel combined. The origin of this tax is surrounded with fable, but it appears to have arisen out of the reaction which took place, when Tuathal, “the Legitimate,” was restored to the throne of his ancestors, after the successful revolt of the Belgic bondsmen. Leinster seems to have clung longest to the Belgic revolution, and to have submitted only after repeated defeats. Tuathal, therefore, imposed on that Province this heavy and degrading tax, compelling its Princes not only to render him and his successors immense herds of cattle, but also 150 male and female slaves, to do the menial offices about the palace of Tara. With a refinement of policy, as far-seeing as it was cruel, the proceeds of the tax were to be divided one-third to Ulster, one-third to Connaught, and the remainder between the Queen of the Monarch and the ruler of Munster. In this way all the other Provinces became interested in enforcing this invidious and oppressive enactment upon Leinster which, of course, was withheld whenever it could be refused with the smallest probability of success. Its resistance, and enforcement, especially by the kings of Munster, will be found a constant cause of civil war, even in Christian times.
The sceptre of Ireland, from her conversion to the time of Brian, was almost solely in the hands of the northern Hy-Nial, the same family as the O’Neills. All the kings of the sixth and seventh centuries were of that line. In the eighth century (from 709 to 742), the southern annalists style Cathal, King of Munster, Ard-Righ; in the ninth century (840 to 847), they give the same high title to Felim, King of Munster; and in the eleventh century Brian possessed that dignity for the twelve last years of his life, (1002 to 1014). With these exceptions, the northern Hy-Nial, and their co-relatives of Meath, called the southern Hy-Nial, seem to have retained the sceptre exclusively in their own hands, during the five first Christian centuries. Yet on every occasion, the ancient forms of election, (or procuring the adhesion of the Princes), had to be gone through. Perfect unanimity, however, was not required; a majority equal to two-thirds seems to have sufficed. If the candidate had the North in his favour, and one Province of the South, he was considered entitled to take possession of Tara; if he were a Southern, he should be seconded either by Connaught or Ulster, before he could lawfully possess himself of the supreme power. The benediction of the Archbishop of Armagh, seems to have been necessary to confirm the choice of the Provincials. The monarchs, like the petty kings, were crowned or “made” on the summit of some lofty mound prepared for that purpose; an hereditary officer, appointed to that duty, presented him with a white wand perfectly straight, as an emblem of the purity and uprightness which should guide all his decisions, and, clothed with his royal robes, the new ruler descended among his people, and solemnly swore to protect their rights and to administer equal justice to all. This was the civil ceremony; the solemn blessing took place in a church, and is supposed to be the oldest form of coronation service observed anywhere in Christendom.
A ceremonial, not without dignity, regulated the gradations of honour, in the General Assemblies of Erin. The time of meeting was the great Pagan Feast of Samhain, the 1st of November. A feast of three days opened and closed the Assembly, and during its sittings, crimes of violence committed on those in attendance were punished with instant death. The monarch himself had no power to pardon any violator of this established law. The Chiefs of territories sat, each in an appointed seat, under his own shield; the seats being arranged by order of the Ollamh, or Recorder, whose duty it was to preserve the muster-roll, containing the names of all the living nobles. The Champions, or leaders of military bands, occupied a secondary position, each sitting’ under his own shield. Females and spectators of an inferior rank were excluded; the Christian clergy naturally stepped into the empty places of the Druids, and were placed immediately next the monarch.
We shall now briefly notice the principal acts of the first Christian kings, during the century immediately succeeding St. Patrick’s death. Of OLLIOL, who succeeded Leary, we cannot say with certainty that he was a Christian. His successor, LEWY, son of Leary, we are expressly told was killed by lightning (A.D. 496), for “having violated the law of Patrick”—that is, probably, for having practised some of those Pagan rites forbidden to the monarchs by the revised constitution. His successor, MURKERTACH, son of Ere, was a professed Christian, though a bad one, since he died by the vengeance of a concubine named Sheen, (that is, storm,) whom he had once put away at the instance of his spiritual adviser, but whom he had not the courage—though brave as a lion in battle—to keep away (A.D. 527). TUATHAL, “the Rough,” succeeded and reigned for seven years, when he was assassinated by the tutor of DERMID, son of Kerbel, a rival whom he had driven into exile. DERMID immediately seized on the throne (A.D. 534), and for twenty eventful years bore sway over all Erin. He appears to have had quite as much of the old leaven of Paganism in his composition—at least in his youth and prime—as either Lewy or Leary. He kept Druids about his person, despised “the right of sanctuary” claimed by the Christian clergy, and observed, with all the ancient superstitious ceremonial, the national games at Tailteen. In his reign, the most remarkable event was the public curse pronounced on Tara, by a Saint whose sanctuary the reckless monarch had violated, in dragging a prisoner from the very horns of the altar, and putting him to death. For this offence—the crowning act of a series of aggressions on the immunities claimed by the clergy—the Saint, whose name was Ruadan, and the site of whose sanctuary is still known as Temple-Ruadan in Tipperary, proceeded to Tara, accompanied by his clergy, and, walking round the royal rath, solemnly excommunicated the monarch, and anathematized the place. The far-reaching consequences of this awful exercise of spiritual power are traceable for a thousand years through Irish history. No king after Dermid resided permanently upon the hill of Tara. Other royal houses there were in Meath—at Tailteen, at the hill of Usna, and on the margin of the beautiful Lough Ennell, near the present Castlepollard, and at one or other of these, after monarchs held occasional court; but those of the northern race made their habitual home in their own patrimony near Armagh, or on the celebrated hill of Aileach. The date of the malediction which left Tara desolate is the year of our Lord, 554. The end of this self-willed semi-Pagan (Dermid) was in unison with his life; he was slain in battle by Black Hugh, Prince of Ulster, two years after the desolation of Tara.
Four kings, all fierce competitors for the succession, reigned and fell, within ten years of the death of Dermid, and then we come to the really interesting and important reign of Hugh the Second, which lasted twenty-seven years (A.D. 566 to 593), and was marked by the establishment of the Independence of the Scoto-Irish Colony in North Britain, and by other noteworthy events. But these twenty-seven years deserve a chapter to themselves.
REIGN OF HUGH II.—THE IRISH COLONY IN SCOTLAND OBTAINS ITS INDEPENDENCE.
Twenty-seven years is a long reign, and the years of King-Hugh II. were marked with striking events. One religious and one political occurrence, however, threw all others into the shade—the conversion of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (then called Alba or Albyn by the Gael, and Caledonia by the Latins), and the formal recognition, after an exciting controversy, of the independence of the Milesian colony in Scotland. These events follow each other in the order of time, and stand partly in the relation of cause and effect.
The first authentic Irish immigration into Scotland seems to have taken place about the year of our Lord 258. The pioneers crossed over from Antrim to Argyle, where the strait is less than twenty-five miles wide. Other adventurers followed at intervals, but it is a fact to be deplored, that no passages in our own, and in all other histories, have been so carelessly kept as the records of emigration. The movements of rude masses of men, the first founders of states and cities, are generally lost in obscurity, or misrepresented by patriotic zeal. Several successive settlements of the Irish in Caledonia can be faintly traced from the middle of the third till the beginning of the sixth century. About the year 503, they had succeeded in establishing a flourishing principality among the cliffs and glens of Argyle. The limits of their first territory cannot be exactly laid down; but it soon spread north into Rosshire, and east into the present county of Perth. It was a land of stormy friths and fissured headlands, of deep defiles and snowy summits. “‘Tis a far cry to Lough Awe,” is still a lowland proverb, and Lough Awe was in the very heart of that old Irish settlement.
The earliest emigrants to Argyle were Pagans, while the latter were Christians, and were accompanied by priests, and a bishop, Kieran, the son of the carpenter, whom, from his youthful piety and holy life, as well as from the occupation followed by his father, is sometimes fancifully compared to our Lord and Saviour himself. Parishes in Cantyre, in Islay, and in Carrick, still bear the name of St. Kieran as patron. But no systematic attempt—none at least of historic memory—was made to convert the remoter Gael and the other races then inhabiting Alba—the Picts, Britons, and Scandinavians, until the year of our era, 565, Columba or COLUMBKILL, a Bishop of the royal race of Nial, undertook that task, on a scale commensurate with its magnitude. This celebrated man has always ranked with Saint Patrick and Saint Bridget as the most glorious triad of the Irish Calendar. He was, at the time he left Ireland, in the prime of life—his 44th year. Twelve companions, the apostolic number, accompanied him on his voyage. For thirty-four years he was the legislator and captain of Christianity in those northern regions. The King of the Picts received baptism at his hands; the Kings of the Scottish colony, his kinsmen, received the crown from him on their accession. The islet of I., or Iona, as presented to him by one of these princes. Here he and his companions built with their own hands their parent-house, and from this Hebridean rock in after times was shaped the destinies, spiritual and temporal, of many tribes and kingdoms.
The growth of Iona was as the growth of the grain of mustard seed mentioned in the Gospel, even during the life of its founder. Formed by his teaching and example, there went out from it apostles to Iceland, to the Orkneys, to Northumbria, to Man, and to South Britain. A hundred monasteries in Ireland looked to that exiled saint as their patriarch. His rule of monastic life, adopted either from the far East, from the recluses of the Thebaid, or from his great contemporary, Saint Benedict, was sought for by Chiefs, Bards, and converted Druids. Clients, seeking direction from his wisdom, or protection through his power, were constantly arriving and departing from his sacred isle. His days were divided between manual labour and the study and transcribing of the Sacred Scriptures. He and his disciples, says the Venerable Bede, in whose age Iona still flourished, “neither thought of nor loved anything in this world.” Some writers have represented Columbkill’s Culdees, (which in English means simply “Servants of God,”) as a married clergy; so far is this from the truth, that we now know, no woman was allowed to land on the island, nor even a cow to be kept there, for, said the holy Bishop, “wherever there is a cow there will be a woman, and wherever there is a woman there will be mischief.”
In the reign of King Hugh, three domestic questions arose of great importance; one was the refusal of the Prince of Ossory to pay tribute to the Monarch; the other, the proposed extinction of the Bardic Order, and the third, the attempt to tax the Argyle Colony. The question between Ossory and Tara, we may pass over as of obsolete interest, but the other two deserve fuller mention:
The Bards—who were the Editors, Professors, Registrars and Record-keepers—the makers and masters of public opinion in those days, had reached in this reign a number exceeding 1,200 in Meath and Ulster alone. They claimed all the old privileges of free quarters on their travels and freeholdings at home, which were freely granted to their order when it was in its infancy. Those chieftains who refused them anything, however extravagant, they lampooned and libelled, exciting their own people and other princes against them. Such was their audacity, that some of them are said to have demanded from King Hugh the royal brooch, one of the most highly prized heirlooms of the reigning family. Twice in the early part of this reign they had been driven from the royal residence, and obliged to take refuge in the little principality of Ulidia (or Down); the third time the monarch had sworn to expel them utterly from the kingdom. In Columbkill, however, they were destined to find a most powerful mediator, both from his general sympathy with the Order, being himself no mean poet, and from the fact that the then Arch-Poet, or chief of the order, Dallan Forgaill, was one of his own pupils.
To settle this vexed question of the Bards, as well as to obtain the sanction of the estates to the taxation of Argyle, King Hugh called a General Assembly in the year 590. The place of meeting was no longer the interdicted Tara, but for the monarch’s convenience a site farther north was chosen—the hill of Drom-Keth, in the present county of Deny. Here came in rival state and splendour the Princes of the four Provinces, and other principal chieftains. The dignitaries of the Church also attended, and an occasional Druid was perhaps to be seen in the train of some unconverted Prince. The pretensions of the mother-country to impose a tax upon her Colony, were sustained by the profound learning and venerable name of St. Colman, Bishop of Dromore, one of the first men of his Order.
When Columbkill “heard of the calling together of that General Assembly,” and of the questions to be there decided, he resolved to attend, notwithstanding the stern vow of his earlier life, never to look on Irish soil again. Under a scruple of this kind, he is said to have remained blindfold, from Ms arrival in Ms fatherland, till his return to Iona. He was accompanied by an imposing train of attendants; by Aidan, Prince of Argyle, so deeply interested in the issue, and a suite of over one hundred persons, twenty of them Abbots or Bishops. Columbkill spoke for his companions; for already, as in Bede’s time, the Abbots of Iona exercised over all the clergy north of the Humber, but still more directly north of the Tweed, a species of supremacy similar to that which the successors of St. Benedict and St. Bernard exercised, in turn, over Prelates and Princes on the European Continent.
When the Assembly was opened the holy Bishop of Dromore stated the arguments in favour of Colonial taxation with learning and effect. Hugh himself impeached the Bards for their licentious and lawless lives. Columbkill defended both interests, and, by combining both, probably strengthened the friends of each. It is certain that he carried the Assembly with him, both against the monarch and those of the resident clergy, who had selected Colman as their spokesman. The Bardic Order was spared. The doctors, or master-singers among them, were prohibited from wandering from place to place; they were assigned residence with the chiefs and princes; their losel attendants were turned over to honest pursuits, and thus a great danger was averted, and one of the most essential of the Celtic institutions being reformed and regulated, was preserved. Scotland and Ireland have good reason to be grateful to the founder of Iona, for the interposition that preserved to us the music, which is now admitted to be one of the most precious inheritances of both countries.
The proposed taxation Columbkill strenuously and successfully resisted. Up to this time, the colonists had been bound only to furnish a contingent force, by land and sea, when the King of Ireland went to war, and to make them an annual present called “chief-rent.”
From the Book of Rights we learn that (at least at the time the existing transcript was made) the Scottish Princes paid out of Alba, seven shields, seven steeds, seven bondswomen, seven bondsmen, and seven hounds all of the same breed. But the “chief-rent,” or “eric for kindly blood,” did not suffice in the year 590 to satisfy King Hugh. The colony had grown great, and, like some modern monarchs, he proposed to make it pay for its success. Columbkill, though a native of Ireland, and a prince of its reigning house, was by choice a resident of Caledonia, and he stood true to his adopted country. The Irish King refused to continue the connection on the old conditions, and declared his intention to visit Alba himself to enforce the tribute due; Columbkill, rising in the Assembly, declared the Albanians “for ever free from the yoke,” and this, adds an old historian, “turned out to be the fact.” From the whole controversy we may conclude that Scotland never paid political tribute to Ireland; that their relation was that rather of allies, than of sovereign and vassal; that it resembled more the homage Carthage paid to Tyre, and Syracuse to Corinth, than any modern form of colonial dependence; that a federal connection existed by which, in time of war, the Scots of Argyle, and those of Hibernia, were mutually bound to aid, assist, and defend each other. And this natural and only connection, founded in the blood of both nations, sanctioned by their early saints, confirmed by frequent intermarriage, by a common language and literature, and by hostility to common enemies, the Saxons, Danes, and Normans, grew into a political bond of unusual strength, and was cherished with affection by both nations, long ages after the magnates assembled at Drom-Keth had disappeared in the tombs of their fathers.
The only unsettled question which remained after the Assembly at Drom-Keth related to the Prince of Ossory. Five years afterwards (A.D. 595), King Hugh fell in an attempt to collect the special tribute from all Leinster, of which we have already heard something, and shall, by and by, hear more. He was an able and energetic ruler, and we may be sure “did not let the sun rise on him in his bed at Tara,” or anywhere else. In his time great internal changes were taking place in the state of society. The ecclesiastical order had become more powerful than any other in the state. The Bardic Order, thrice proscribed, were finally subjected to the laws, over which they had at one time insolently domineered. Ireland’s only colony —unless we except the immature settlement in the Isle of Man, under Cormac Longbeard—was declared independent of the parent country, through the moral influence of its illustrious Apostle, whose name many of its kings and nobles were of old proud to bear—Mal-Colm, meaning “servant of Columb,” or Columbkill. But the memory of the sainted statesman who decreed the separation of the two populations, so far as claims to taxation could be preferred, preserved, for ages, the better and far more profitable alliance, of an ancient friendship, unbroken by a single national quarrel during a thousand years.
A few words more on the death and character of this celebrated man, whom we are now to part with at the close of the sixth, as we parted from Patrick at the close of the fifth century. His day of departure came in 596. Death found him at the ripe age of almost fourscore, stylus in hand, toiling cheerfully over the vellum page. It was the last night of the week when the presentiment of his end came strongly upon him. “This day,” he said to his disciple and successor, Dermid, “is called the day of rest, and such it will be for me, for it will finish my labours.” Laying down the manuscript, he added, “let Baithen finish the rest.” Just after Matins, on the Sunday morning, he peacefully passed away from the midst of his brethren.
Of his tenderness, as well as energy of character, tradition, and his biographers have recorded many instances. Among others, his habit of ascending an eminence every evening at sunset, to look over towards the coast of his native land. The spot is called by the islanders to this day, “the place of the back turned upon Ireland.” The fishermen of the Hebrides long believed they could see their saint flitting over the waves after every new storm, counting the islands to see if any of them had foundered. It must have been a loveable character of which such tales could be told and cherished from generation to generation.
Both Education and Nature had well fitted Columbkill to the great task of adding another realm to the empire of Christendom. His princely birth gave him power over his own proud kindred; his golden eloquence and glowing verse—the fragments of which still move and delight the Gaelic scholar—gave him fame and weight in the Christian schools which had suddenly sprung up in every glen and island. As prince, he stood on equal terms with princes; as poet, he was affiliated to that all-powerful Bardic Order, before whose awful anger kings trembled, and warriors succumbed in superstitious dread. A spotless soul, a disciplined body, an indomitable energy, an industry that never wearied, a courage that never blanched, a sweetness and courtesy that won all hearts, a tenderness for others that contrasted strongly with his rigour towards himself—these were the secrets of the success of this eminent missionary—these were the miracles by which he accomplished the conversion of so many barbarous tribes and Pagan Princes.
KINGS OF THE SEVENTH CENTURY.
THE five years of the sixth century, which remained after the death of Hugh II., were filled by Hugh III., son of Dermid, the semi-Pagan. Hugh IV. succeeded (A.D. 599) and reigned for several years; two other kings, of small account, reigned seven years; Donald II. (A.D. 624) reigned sixteen years; Connall and Kellach, brothers, (A.D. 640) reigned jointly sixteen years; they were succeeded (A.D. 656) by Dermid and Blathmac, brothers, who reigned jointly seven years; Shanasagh, son of the former, reigned six years; Kenfala, four; Finnacta, “the hospitable,” twenty years, and Loingsech (A.D. 693) eight years.
Throughout this century the power of the Church was constantly on the increase, and is visible in many important changes. The last armed struggle of Druidism, and the only invasion of Ireland by the Anglo-Saxons, are also events of the civil history of the seventh century.
The reign, of Donald II. is notable for the passing away of most of those saintly men, the second generation of Irish abbots and bishops; for the foundation of the celebrated school of Lismore on the Munster Blackwater; and the battle of Moira, in the present county of Down. Of the school and the saints we shall speak hereafter; the battle deserves more immediate mention.
The cause of the battle was the pretension of the petty Prince of Ulidia, which comprised little more than the present county of Down, to be recognised as Prince of all Ulster. Now the Hy-Nial family, not only had long given monarchs to all Ireland, but had also the lion’s share of their own Province, and King Donald as their head could not permit their ascendency to be disputed. The ancestors of the present pretender, Congal, surnamed “the squint-eyed,” had twice received and cherished the licentious Bards when under the ban of Tara, and his popularity with that still powerful order was one prop of his ambition. It is pretty clear also that the last rally of Druidism against Christianity took place behind his banner, on the plain of Moira. It was the year 637, and preparations had long gone on on both sides for a final trial of strength. Congal had recruited numerous bands of Saxons, Britons, Picts and Argyle Scots, who poured into the Larbours of Down for months, and were marshalled on the banks of the Lagan, to sustain his cause. The Poets of succeeding ages have dwelt much in detail on the occurrences of this memorable day. It was what might strictly be called a pitched battle, time and place being fixed by mutual agreement. King Donald was accompanied by his Bard, who described to him, as they came in sight, the several standards of Congal’s host, and who served under them. Conspicuous above all, the ancient banner of the Red Branch Knights-“a yellow lion wrought on green satin”—floated over Congal’s host. On the other side the monarch commanded in person, accompanied by his kinsmen, the sons of Hugh III. The red hand of Tirowen, the cross of Tirconnell, the eagle and lion of Innishowen, the axes of Fanad, were in his ranks, ranged closely round his own standard. The cause of the Constitution and the Church prevailed, and Druidism mourned its last hope extinguished on the plains of Moira, in the death of Congal, and the defeat of his vast army. King Donald returned in triumph to celebrate his victory at Emania and to receive the benediction of the Church at Armagh.
The sons of Hugh III., Dermid and Blathmac, zealous and pious Christian princes, survived the field of Moira and other days of danger, and finally attained the supreme power—A.D. 656. Like the two kings of Sparta they reigned jointly, dividing between them the labours and cares of State. In their reign, that terrible scourge, called in Irish, “the yellow plague,” after ravaging great part of Britain, broke out with undiminished virulence in Erin (A.D. 664). To heighten the awful sense of inevitable doom, an eclipse of the sun occurred concurrently with the appearance of the pestilence on the first Sunday in May. It was the season when the ancient sun-god had been accustomed to receive his annual oblations, and we can well believe that those whose hearts still trembled at the name of Bel, must have connected the eclipse and the plague with the revolution in the national worship, and the overthrow of the ancient gods on that “plain of prostration,” where they had so long received the homage of an entire people. Among the victims of this fearful visitation—which, like the modern cholera, swept through all ranks and classes of society, and returned in the same track for several successive seasons—were very many of those venerated men, the third and fourth generation of the Abbots and Bishops. The Munster King, and many of the chieftain class shared the common lot. Lastly, the royal brothers fell themselves victims to the epidemic, which so sadly signalizes their reign.
The only conflicts that occurred on Irish soil with a Pictish or an Anglo-Saxon force—if we except those who formed a contingent of Congal’s army at Moira—occurred in the time of the hospitable Finnacta. The Pictish force, with their leaders, were totally defeated at Rathmore, in Antrim (A.D. 680), but the Anglo-Saxon expedition (A.D. 684) seems not to have been either expected or guarded against. As leading to the mention of other interesting events, we must set this inroad clearly before the reader.
The Saxons had now been for four centuries in Britain, the older inhabitants of which—Celts like the Gauls and Irish—they had cruelly harassed, just as the Milesian Irish oppressed their Belgic predecessors, and as the Normans, in turn, will be found oppressing both Celt and Saxon in England and Ireland. Britain had been divided by the Saxon leaders into eight separate kingdoms, the people and princes of several of which were converted to Christianity in the fifth, sixth, and seventh century, though some of them did not receive the Gospel before the beginning of the eighth. The Saxons of Kent and the Southern Kingdoms generally were converted by missionaries from France or Rome, or native preachers of the first or second Christian generation; those of Northumbria recognise as their Apostles St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, two Fathers from Iona. The Kingdom of Northumbria, as the name implies, embraced nearly all the country from the Humber to the Pictish border. York was its capital, and the seat of its ecclesiastical primacy, where, at the time we speak of, the illustrious Wilfrid was maintaining, with a wilful and unscrupulous king, a struggle not unlike that which Becket maintained with Henry II. This Prince, Egfrid by name, was constantly engaged in wars with his Saxon cotemporaries, or the Picts and Scots. In the summer of 683 he sent an expedition under the command of Beort, one of his earls, to ravage the coast of Leinster. Beort landed probably in the Boyne, and swept over the rich plain of Meath with fire and sword, burning churches, driving off herds and flocks, and slaughtering the clergy and the husbandmen. The piety of an after age saw in the retribution which overtook Egfrid the following year, when he was slain by the Picts and Scots, the judgment of Heaven, avenging the unprovoked wrongs of the Irish. His Scottish conquerors, returning good for evil, carried his body to Iona, where it was interred with all due honour.
Iona was now in the zenith of its glory. The barren rock, about three miles in length, was covered with monastic buildings, and its cemetery was already adorned with the tombs of saints and kings. Five successors of Columbkill slept in peace around their holy Founder, and a sixth, equal in learning and sanctity to any who preceded him, received the remains of King Egfrid from the hands of his conquerors. This was Abbot Adamnan, to whom Ireland and Scotland are equally indebted for his admirable writings, and who might almost dispute with Bede himself, the title of Father of British History. Adamnan regarded the fate of Egfrid, we may be sure, in the light of a judgment on him for his misdeeds, as Bede and British Christians very generally did. He learned, too, that there were in Northumbria several Christian captives, carried off in Beort’s expedition and probably sold into slavery. Now every missionary that ever went out from Iona, had taught that to reduce Christians to slavery was wholly inconsistent with a belief in the doctrines of the Gospel. St. Aidan, the Apostle of Northumbria, had refused the late Egfrid’s father absolution, on one occasion, until he solemnly promised to restore their freedom to certain captives of this description. In the same spirit Adamnan voluntarily undertook a journey to York, where Aldfrid (a Prince educated in Ireland, and whose “Itinerary” of Ireland we still have) now reigned. The Abbot of Iona succeeded in his humane mission, and crossing over to his native land, he restored sixty of the captives to their homes and kindred. While the liberated exiles rejoiced on the plain of Meath, the tent of the Abbot of Iona was pitched on the rath of Tara—a fact which would seem to indicate that already, in little more than a century since the interdict had fallen on it, the edifices which made so fine a show in the days of Patrick were ruined and uninhabitable. Either at Tara, or some other of the royal residences, Adamnan on this visit procured the passing of a law, (A.D. 684,) forbidding women to accompany an army to battle, or to engage personally in the conflict. The mild maternal genius of Christianity is faithfully exhibited in such a law, which consummates the glory of the worthy successor of Columbkill. It is curious here to observe that it was not until another hundred years had past—not till the beginning of the ninth century—that the clergy were “exempt” from military service. So slow and patient is the process by which Christianity infuses itself into the social life of a converted people!
The long reign of FINNACTA, the hospitable, who may, for his many other virtues, be called also the pious, was rendered farther remarkable in the annals of the country by the formal abandonment of the special tax, so long levied upon, and so long and desperately resisted by, the men of Leinster. The all-powerful intercessor in this case was Saint Moling, of the royal house of Leinster, and Bishop of Fernamore (now Ferns). In the early part of his reign Finnacta seems not to have been disposed to collect this invidious tax by force; but, yielding to other motives, he afterwards took a different view of his duty, and marched into Leinster to compel its payment. Here the holy Prelate of Ferns met him, and related a Vision in which he had been instructed to demand the abolition of the impost. The abolition, he contended, should not be simply a suspension, but final and for ever. The tribute was, at this period, enormous; 15,000 head of cattle annually. The decision must have been made about the time that Abbot Adamnan was in Ireland, (A.D. 684,) and that illustrious personage is said to have been opposed to the abolition. Abolished it was, and though its re-enactment was often attempted, the authority of Saint Moling’s solemn settlement, prevented it from being re-enforced for any length of time, except as a political or military infliction.
Finnacta fell in battle in the 20th year of his long and glorious reign; and is commemorated as a saint in the Irish calendar. St. Moling survived him three years, and St. Adamnan, so intimately connected with his reign, ten years. The latter revisited Ireland in 697, under the short reign of Loingsech, and concerned himself chiefly in endeavouring to induce his countrymen to adopt the Roman rule, as to the tonsure, and the celebration of Easter. On this occasion there was an important Synod of the Clergy, under the presidency of Flan, Archbishop of Armagh, held at Tara. Nothing could be more natural than such an assembly in such a place, at such a period. In every recorded instance the power of the clergy had been omnipotent in politics for above a century. St. Patrick had expurgated the old constitution; St. Ruadan’s curse drove the kings from Tara; St. Columbkill had established the independence of Alba, and preserved the Bardic Order; St. Moling had abolished the Leinster tribute. If their power was irresistible in the sixth and especially in the seventh centuries, we must do these celebrated Abbots and Bishops the justice to remember that it was always exercised against the oppression of the weak by the strong, to mitigate the horrors of war, to uphold the right of sanctuary (the Habeus Corpus of that rude age), and for the maintenance and spread of sound Christian principles.
KINGS OF THE EIGHTH CENTURY.
The kings of the eighth century are Congal II. (surnamed Kenmare), who reigned seven years; Feargal, who reigned ten years; Forgartah, Kenneth, Flaherty, respectively one, four, and seven years; Hugh V. (surnamed Allan), nine years; Donald III., who reigned (A.D. 739-759) twenty years; Nial II. (surnamed Nial of the Showers), seven years; and Donogh I., who reigned thirty-one years, A.D. 766-797. The obituaries of these kings show that we have fallen on a comparatively peaceful age, since of the entire nine, but three perished in battle. One retired to Armagh and one to Iona, where both departed in the monastic habit; the others died either of sickness or old age.
Yet the peaceful character of this century is but comparative, for in the first quarter (A.D. 722), we have the terrible battle of Almain, between Leinster and the Monarch, in which 30,000 men were stated to have engaged, and 7,000 to have fallen. The Monarch who had double the number of the Leinster Prince, was routed and slain, apropos of which we have a Bardic tale told, which almost transports one to the far East, the simple lives and awful privileges of the Hindoo Brahmins. It seems that some of King FEARGAL’s army, in foraging for their fellows, drove off the only cow of a hermit, who lived in seclusion near a solitary little chapel called Killin. The enraged recluse, at the very moment the armies were about to engage, appeared between them, regardless of personal danger, denouncing ruin and death to the monarch’s forces. And in this case, as in others, to be found in every history, the prophecy, no doubt, helped to produce its own fulfilment. The malediction of men dedicated to the service of God, has often routed hosts as gallant as were marshalled on the field of Almain.
FEARGAL’S two immediate successors met a similar fate —death in the field of battle—after very brief reigns, of which we have no great events to record.
FLAHERTY, the next who succeeded, after a vigorous reign of seven years, withdrew from the splendid cares of a crown, and passed the long remainder of his life—thirty years—in the habit of a monk at Armagh. The heavy burthen which he had cheerfully laid down, was taken up by a Prince, who combined the twofold character of poet and hero. HUGH V. (surnamed Allan), the son of FEARGAL, of whom we have just spoken, was the very opposite of his father, in his veneration for the privileges of holy persons and places. His first military achievement was undertaken in vindication of the rights of those who were unable by arms to vindicate their own. Hugh Roin, Prince of the troublesome little principality of Ulidia (Down), though well stricken in years and old enough to know better, in one of his excursions had forcibly compelled the clergy of the country through which he passed to give him free quarters, contrary to the law everywhere existing. Congus, the Primate, jealous of the exemptions of his order, complained of this sacrilege in a poetic message addressed to Hugh Allan, who, as a Christian and a Prince, was bound to espouse his quarrels. He marched into the territory of the offender, defeated him in battle, cut off his head on the threshold of the Church of Faughard, and marched back again, his host chanting a war song composed by their leader.
In this reign died Saint Gerald of Mayo, an Anglo-Saxon Bishop, and apparently the head of a colony of his countrymen, from whom that district is ever since called “Mayo of the Saxons.” The name, however, being a general one for strangers from Britain about that period, just as Dane became for foreigners from the Baltic in the next century, is supposed to be incorrectly applied: the colony being, it is said, really from Wales, of old British stock, who had migrated rather than live under the yoke of their victorious Anglo-Saxon Kings. The descendants of these Welshmen are still to be traced, though intimately intermingled with the original Belgic and later Milesian settlers in Mayo, Sligo, and Galway—thus giving a peculiar character to that section of the country, easily distinguishable from all the rest.
Although Hugh Allan did not imitate his father’s conduct towards ecclesiastics, he felt bound by all-ruling custom to avenge his father’s death. In all ancient countries the kinsmen of a murdered man were both by law and custom the avengers of his blood. The members of the Greek phratry, of the Roman fatria, or gens, of the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon guild, and of the mediaeval sworn commune, were all solemnly bound to avenge the blood of any of their brethren, unlawfully slain. So that the repulsive repetition of reprisals, which so disgusts the modern reader in our old annals, is by no means a phenomenon peculiar to the Irish state of society. It was in the middle age and in early times common to all Europe, to Britain and Germany, as well as to Greece and Rome. It was, doubtless, under a sense of duty of this sort that Hugh V. led into Leinster a large army (A.D. 733), and the day of Ath-Senaid fully atoned for the day of Almain. Nine thousand of the men of Leinster were left on the field, including most of their chiefs; the victorious monarch losing a son, and other near kinsmen. Four years later, he himself fell in an obscure contest near Kells, in the plain of Meath. Some of his quartrains have come down to us, and they breathe a spirit at once religious and heroic—such as must have greatly endeared the Prince who possessed it to his companions in arms. We are not surprised, therefore, to find his reign a favourite epoch with subsequent Bards and Storytellers.
The long and prosperous reign of Donald III. succeeded (A.D. 739 to 759). He is almost the only one of this series of Kings of whom it can be said that he commanded in no notable battle. The annals of his reign are chiefly filled with ordinary accidents, and the obits of the learned. But its literary and religious record abounds with bright names and great achievements, as we shall find when we come to consider the educational and missionary fruits of Christianity in the eighth century. While on a pilgrimage to Durrow, a famous Columbian foundation in Meath, and present King’s County, Donald III. departed this life, and in Durrow, by his own desire, his body was interred.
Nial II. (surnamed of the Showers), son to FEARGAL and brother of the warrior-Bard, Hugh V., was next invested with the white wand of sovereignty. He was a prince less warlike and more pious than his elder brother. The soubriquet attached to his name is accounted for by a Bardic tale, which represents him as another Moses, at whose prayer food fell from heaven in time of famine. Whatever “showers” fell or wonders were wrought in his reign, it is certain that after enjoying the kingly office for seven years, Nial resigned, and retired to Iona, there to pass the remainder of his days in penance and meditation. Eight years he led the life of a monk in that sacred Isle, where his grave is one of those of “the three Irish Kings,” still pointed out in the cemetery of the Kings. He is but one among several Princes, his cotemporaries, who had made the same election. We learn in this same century, that Cellach, son of the King of Connaught, died in Holy Orders, and that Bec, Prince of Ulidia, and Ardgall, son of a later King of Connaught, had taken the “crostaff” of the pilgrim, either for Iona or Armagh, or some more distant shrine. Pilgrimages to Rome and to Jerusalem seem to have been begun even before this time, as we may infer from St. Adamnan’s work on the situation of the Holy Places, of which Bede gives an abstract.
The reign of Donogh I. is the longest and the last among the Kings of the eighth century (A.D. 776 to 797). The Kings of Ireland had now not only abandoned Tara, but one by one, the other royal residences in Meath as their usual place of abode. As a consequence a local sovereignty sprung up in the family of O’Melaghlin, a minor branch of the ruling race. This house developing its power so unexpectedly, and almost always certain to have the national forces under the command of a Patron Prince at their back, were soon involved in quarrels about boundaries, both with Leinster and Munster. King Donogh, at the outset of his reign, led his forces into both principalities, and without battle received their hostages. Giving hostages—generally the sons of the chiefs—was the usual form of ratifying any treaty. Generally also, the Bishop of the district, or its most distinguished ecclesiastic, was called in as witness of the terms, and both parties were solemnly sworn on the relics of Saints—the Gospels of the Monasteries or Cathedrals—or the croziers of their venerated founders. The breach of such a treaty was considered “a violation of the relics of the saint,” whose name had been invoked, and awful penalties were expected to follow so heinous a crime. The hostages were then carried to the residence of the King, to whom they were entrusted, and while the peace lasted, enjoyed a parole freedom, and every consideration due to their rank. If of tender age they were educated with the same care as the children of the household. But when war broke out their situation was always precarious, and sometimes dangerous. In a few instances they had even been put to death, but this was considered a violation of all the laws both of hospitality and chivalry; usually they were removed to some strong secluded fort, and carefully guarded as pledges to be employed, according to the chances and changes of the war. That Donogh preferred negotiation to war, we may infer by his course towards Leinster and Munster, in the beginning of his reign, and his “kingly parlee” at a later period (A.D. 783) with FIACHNA, of Ulidia, son of that over-exacting Hugh Roin, whose head was taken from his shoulders at the Church door of Faughard. This “kingly parlee” was held on an island off the Methian shore, called afterwards “King’s Island.” But little good came of it. Both parties still held their own views, so that the satirical poets asked what was the use of the island, when one party “would not come upon the land, nor the other upon the sea?” However, we needs must agree with King Donogh, that war is the last resort, and is only to be tried when all other means have failed.
Twice during this reign the whole island was stricken with panic, by extraordinary signs in the heavens, of huge serpents coiling themselves through the stars, of fiery bolts flying like shuttles from one side of the horizon to the other, or shooting downward directly to the earth. These atmospheric wonders were accompanied by thunder and lightning so loud and so prolonged that men hid themselves for fear in the caverns of the earth. The fairs and markets were deserted by buyers and sellers; the fields were abandoned by the farmers; steeples were rent by lightning, and fell to the ground; the shingled roofs of churches caught fire and burned whole buildings. Shocks of earthquake were also felt, and round towers and cyclopean masonry were strewn in fragments upon the ground. These visitations first occurred in the second year of Donogh, and returned again in 783. When, in the next decade, the first Danish descent was made on the coast of Ulster (A.D. 794), these signs and wonders were superstitiously supposed to have been the precursors of that far more terrible and more protracted visitation.
The Danes at first attracted little notice, but in the last year of Donogh (A.D. 797) they returned in greater force, and swept rapidly along the coast of Meath; it was reserved for his successors of the following centuries to face the full brunt of this new national danger.
But before encountering the fierce nations of the north, and the stormy period they occupy, let us cast back a loving glance over the world-famous schools and scholars of the last two centuries. Hitherto we have only spoken of certain saints, in connection with high affairs of state. We must now follow them to the college and the cloister, we must consider them as founders at home, and as missionaries abroad; otherwise how could we estimate all that is at stake for Erin and for Christendom, in the approaching combat with the devotees of Odin,—the deadly enemies of all Christian institutions?
WHAT THE IRISH SCHOOLS AND SAINTS DID IN THE THREE FIRST CHRISTIAN CENTURIES.
We have now arrived at the close of the third century, from the death of Saint Patrick, and find ourselves on the eve of a protracted struggle with the heathen warriors of Scandinavia; it is time, therefore, to look back on the interval we have passed, and see what changes have been wrought in the land, since its kings, instead of waiting to be attacked at home, had made the surrounding sea “foam with the oars” of their outgoing expeditions.
The most obvious change in the condition of the country is traceable in its constitution and laws, into every part of which, as was its wont from the beginning, the spirit of Christianity sought patiently to infuse itself. We have already spoken of the expurgation of the constitution, which prohibited the observance of Pagan rites to the kings, and imposed on them instead, certain social obligations. This was a first change suggested by Saint Patrick, and executed mainly by his disciple, Saint Benignus. We have seen the legislative success which attended the measures of Columbkill, Moling, and Adamnan; in other reforms of minor importance the paramount influence of the clerical order may be easily traced.
But it is in their relation as teachers of human and divine science that the Irish Saints exercised their greatest power, not only over their own countrymen, but over a considerable part of Europe. The intellectual leadership of western Europe—the glorious ambition of the greatest nations—has been in turn obtained by Italy, Prance, Britain and Germany. From the middle of the sixth to the middle of the eighth century, it will hardly be disputed that that leadership devolved on Ireland. All the circumstances of the sixth century helped to confer it upon the newly converted western isle; the number of her schools, and the wisdom, energy, and zeal of her masters, retained for her the proud distinction for two hundred years. And when it passed away from her grasp, she might still console herself with the grateful reflection that the power she had founded and exercised, was divided among British and continental schools, which her own alumni had largely contributed to form and establish. In the northern Province, the schools most frequented were those of Armagh, and of Bangor, on Belfast lough; in Meath, the school of Clonard, and that of Clomnacnoise, (near Athlone); in Leinster, the school of Taghmon (Ta-mun), and Beg-Erin, the former near the banks of the Slaney, the latter in Wexford harbour; in Munster, the school of Lismore on the Blackwater, and of Mungret (now Limerick), on the Shannon; in Connaught, the school of “Mayo of the Saxons,” and the schools of the Isles of Arran. These seats of learning were almost all erected on the banks of rivers, in situations easy of access, to the native or foreign student; a circumstance which proved most disastrous to them when the sea kings of the north began to find their way to the shores of the island. They derived their maintenance—not from taxing their pupils —but in the first instance from public endowments. They were essentially free schools; not only free as to the lessons given, but the venerable Bede tells us they supplied free bed and board and books to those who resorted to them from abroad. The Prince and the Clansmen of every principality in which a school was situated, endowed it with a certain share—often an ample one—of the common land of the clan. Exclusive rights of fishery, and exclusive mill-privileges seem also to have been granted. As to timber for building purposes and for fuel, it was to be had for carrying and cutting. The right of quarry went with the soil, wherever building stone was found. In addition to these means of sustenance, a portion of the collegiate clergy appeared to have discharged missionary duty, and received offerings of the produce of the land. We hear of periodical quests or collections made for the sustenance of these institutions, wherein the learned Lectors and Doctors, no doubt, pleaded their claims to popular favour, with irresistible eloquence. Individuals, anxious to promote the spread of religion and of science, endowed particular institutions out of their personal means; Princes, Bishops, and pious ladies, contributed to enlarge the bounds and increase the income of their favourite foundations, until a generous emulation seems to have seized on all the great families as well as on the different Provinces, as to which could boast the most largely attended schools, and the greatest number of distinguished scholars. The love of the alma mater —that college patriotism which is so sure a sign of the noble-minded scholar—never received more striking illustration than among the graduates of those schools. Columbkill, in his new home among the Hebrides, invokes blessings on blessings, on “the angels” with whom it was once his happiness to walk in Arran, and Columbanus, beyond the Alps, remembers with pride the school of Bangor—the very name of which inspires him with poetic rapture.
The buildings, in which so many scholars were housed and taught, must have been extensive. Some of the schools we have mentioned were, when most flourishing, frequented by one, two, three, and even, at some periods, as many as seven thousand scholars. Such a population was alone sufficient to form a large village; and if we add the requisite number of teachers and attendants, we will have an addition of at least one-third to the total. The buildings seem to have been separately of no great size, but were formed into streets, and even into something like wards. Armagh was divided into three parts— trian-more (or the town proper), trian-Patrick, the Cathedral close, and trian-Sassenagh, the Latin quarter, the home of the foreign students. A tall sculptured Cross, dedicated to some favourite saint, stood at the bounds of these several wards, reminding the anxious student to invoke their spiritual intercession as he passed by. Early hours and vigilant night watches had to be exercised to prevent conflagrations in such village-seminaries, built almost wholly of wood, and roofed with reeds or shingles. A Cathedral, or an Abbey Church, a round tower, or a cell of some of the ascetic masters, would probably be the only stone structure within the limits. To the students, the evening star gave the signal for retirement, and the morning sun for awaking. When, at the sound of the early bell, two or three thousand of them poured into the silent streets and made their way towards the lighted Church, to join in the service of matins, mingling, as they went or returned, the tongues of the Gael, the Cimbri, the Pict, the Saxon, and the Frank, or hailing and answering each other in the universal language of the Roman Church, the angels in Heaven must have loved to contemplate the union of so much perseverance with so much piety.
The lives of the masters, not less than their lessons, were studied and observed by their pupils. At that time, as we gather from every authority, they were models of simplicity. One Bishop is found, erecting with his own hands, the cashel or stone enclosure which surrounded his cell; another is labouring in the field, and gives his blessing to his visitors, standing between the stilts of the plough. Most ecclesiastics work occasionally either in wood, in bronze, in leather, or as scribes. The decorations of the Church, if not the entire structure, was the work of those who served at the altar. The tabernacle, the rood-screen, the ornamental font; the vellum on which the Psalms and Gospels were written; the ornamented case which contained the precious volume, were often of their making. The music which made the vale of Bangor resound as if inhabited by angels, was their composition; the hymns that accompanied it were their own. “It is a poor Church that has no music,” is one of the oldest Irish proverbs; and the Antiphonarium of Bangor, as well as that of Armagh, remains to show that such a want was not left unsupplied in the early Church.
All the contemporary schools were not of the same grade nor of equal reputation. We constantly find a scholar, after passing years in one place, transferring himself to another, and sometimes to a third and a fourth. Some masters were, perhaps, more distinguished in human Science; others in Divinity. Columbkill studied in two or three different schools, and visited others, perhaps as disputant or lecturer—a common custom in later years. Nor should we associate the idea of under-age with the students of whom we speak. Many of them, whether as teachers or learners, or combining both characters together, reached middle life before they ventured as instructors upon the world. Forty years is no uncommon age for the graduate of those days, when as yet the discovery was unmade, that all-sufficient wisdom comes with the first trace of down upon the chin of youth.
The range of studies seems to have included the greater part of the collegiate course of our own times. The language of the country, and the language of the Roman Church; the languages of Scripture—Greek and Hebrew; the logic of Aristotle, the writings of the Fathers, especially of Pope Gregory the Great—who appears to have been a favourite author with the Irish Church; the defective Physics of the period; Mathematics, Music, and Poetical composition went to complete the largest course. When we remember that all the books were manuscripts; that even paper had not yet been invented; that the best parchment was equal to so much beaten gold, and a perfect MS. was worth a king’s ransom, we may better estimate the difficulties in the way of the scholar of the seventh century. Knowing these facts, we can very well credit that part of the story of St. Columbkill’s banishment into Argyle, which turns on what might be called a copyright dispute, in which the monarch took the side of St. Finian of Clonard, (whose original MSS. his pupil seems to have copied without permission,) and the Clan-Conal stood up, of course, for their kinsman. This dispute is even said to have led to the affair of Culdrum, in Sligo, which is sometimes mentioned as “the battle of the book.” The same tendency of the national character which overstocked the Bardic Order, becomes again visible in its Christian schools; and if we could form anything like an approximate census of the population, anterior to the northern invasions, we would find that the proportion of ecclesiastics was greater than has existed either before or since in any Christian country. The vast designs of missionary zeal drew off large bodies of those who had entered Holy Orders; still the numbers engaged as teachers in the great schools, as well as of those who passed their lives in solitude and contemplation, must have been out of all modern proportion to the lay inhabitants of the Island.
The most eminent Irish Saints of the fifth century were St. Ibar, St. Benignus and St. Kieran, of Ossory; in the sixth, St. Bendan, of Clonfert; St. Brendan, of Birr; St. Maccartin, of Clogher; St. Finian, of Moville; St. Finbar, St. Cannice, St. Finian, of Clonard; and St. Jarlath, of Tuam; in the seventh century, St. Fursey, St. Laserian, Bishop of Leighlin; St. Kieran, Abbot of Clonmacnoise; St. Comgall, Abbot of Bangor; St. Carthage, Abbot of Lismore; St. Colman, Bishop of Dromore; St. Moling, Bishop of Ferns; St. Colman Ela, Abbot; St. Cummian, “the White;” St. Fintan, Abbot; St. Gall, Apostle of Switzerland; St. Fridolin, “the Traveller;” St. Columbanus, Apostle of Burgundy and Lombardy; St. Killian, Apostle of Franconia; St. Columbkill, Apostle of the Picts; St. Cormac, called “the Navigator;” St. Cuthbert; and St. Aidan, Apostle of Northumbria. In the eighth century the most illustrious names are St. Cataldus, Bishop of Tarentum; St. Adamnan, Abbot of Iona; St. Rumold, Apostle of Brabant; Clement and Albinus, “the Wisdom-seekers;” and St. Feargal or Virgilius, Bishop of Saltzburgh. Of holy women in the same ages, we have some account of St. Samthan, in the eighth century; of St. Bees, St. Dympna and St. Syra, in the seventh century, and of St. Monina, St. Ita of Desies, and St. Bride, or Bridget, of Kildare, in the sixth. The number of conventual institutions for women established in those ages, is less easily ascertained than the number of monastic houses for men; but we may suppose them to have borne some proportion to each other, and to have even counted by hundreds. The veneration in which St. Bridget was held during her life, led many of her countrywomen to embrace the religious state, and no less than fourteen Saints, her namesakes, are recorded. It was the custom of those days to call all holy persons who died in the odour of sanctity, Saints, hence national or provincial tradition venerates very many names, which the reader may look for in vain, in the Roman calendar.
The intellectual labours of the Irish schools, besides the task of teaching such immense numbers of men of all nations on their own soil, and the missionary conquests to which I have barely alluded, were diversified by controversies, partly scientific and partly theological —such as the “Easter Controversy,” the “Tonsure Controversy,” and that maintained by “Feargal the Geometer,” as to the existence of the Antipodes.
The discussion, as to the proper time of observing Easter, which had occupied the doctors of the Council of Nice in the fourth century, was raised in Ireland and in Britain early in the sixth, and complete uniformity was not established till far on in the eighth. It occupied the thoughts of several generations of the chief men of the Irish Church, and some of their arguments still fortunately survive, to attest their learning and tolerance, as well as their zeal. St. Patrick had introduced in the fifth century the computation of time then observed in Gaul, and to this custom many of the Irish doctors rigidly adhered, long after the rest of Christendom had agreed to adopt the Alexandrian computation. Great names were found on both sides of the controversy: Columbanus, Fintan, and Aidan, for adhering exactly to the rule of St. Patrick; Cummian, the White, Laserian and Adamnan, in favour of strict agreement with Rome and the East. Monks of the same Monastery and Bishops of the same Province maintained opposite opinions with equal ardour and mutual charity. It was a question of discipline, not a matter of faith; but it involved a still greater question, whether national churches were to plead the inviolability of their local usages, even on points of discipline, against the sense and decision of the Universal Church.
In the year of our Lord 630, the Synod of Leighlin was held, under the shelter of the ridge of Leinster, and the presidency of St. Laserian. Both parties at length agreed to send deputies to Rome, as “children to their mother,” to learn her decision. Three years later, that decision was made known, and the midland and southern dioceses at once adopted it. The northern churches, however, still held out, under the lead of Armagh and the influence of Iona, nor was it till a century later that this scandal of celebrating Easter on two different days in the same church was entirely removed. In justification of the Roman rule, St. Cummian, about the middle of the seventh century, wrote his famous epistle to Segenius, Abbot of Iona, of the ability and learning of which all modern writers from Archbishop Usher to Thomas Moore, speak in terms of the highest praise. It is one of the few remaining documents of that controversy. A less vital question of discipline arose about the tonsure. The Irish shaved the head in a semicircle from temple to temple, while the Latin usage was to shave the crown, leaving an external circle of hair to typify the crown of thorns. At the conference of Whitby (A.D. 664) this was one of the subjects of discussion between the clergy of Iona, and those who followed the Roman method—but it never assumed the importance of the Easter controversy.
In the following century an Irish Missionary, Virgilius, of Saltzburgh, (called by his countrymen “Feargal, the Geometer,”) was maintaining in Germany against no less an adversary than St. Boniface, the sphericity of the earth and the existence of antipodes. His opponents endeavoured to represent him, or really believed him to hold, that there were other men, on our earth, for whom the Redeemer had not died; on this ground they appealed to Pope Zachary against him; but so little effect had this gross distortion of his true doctrine at Rome, when explanations were given, that Feargal was soon afterwards raised to the See of Saltzburgh, and subsequently canonized by Pope Gregory IX. In the ninth century we find an Irish geographer and astronomer of something like European reputation in Dicuil and Dungal, whose treatises and epistles have been given to the press. Like their compatriot, Columbanus, these accomplished men had passed their youth and early manhood in their own country, and to its schools are to be transferred the compliments paid to their acquirements by such competent judges as Muratori, Latronne, and Alexander von Humboldt. The origin of the scholastic philosophy—which pervaded Europe for nearly ten centuries—has been traced by the learned Mosheim to the same insular source. Whatever may now be thought of the defects or shortcomings of that system, it certainly was not unfavourable either to wisdom or eloquence, since among its professors may be reckoned the names of St. Thomas and St. Bernard.
We must turn away our eyes from the contemplation of those days in which were achieved for Ireland the title of the land of saints and doctors. Another era opens before us, and we can already discern the long ships of the north, their monstrous beaks turned towards the holy Isle, their sides hung with glittering shields and their benches thronged with fair-haired warriors, chanting as they advance the fierce war songs of their race. Instead of the monk’s familiar voice on the river banks we are to hear the shouts of strange warriors from a far-off country; and for matin hymn and vesper song, we are to be beset through a long and stormy period, with sounds of strife and terror, and deadly conflict.