Irish Race in the Past and the Present
Aug. J. Thebaud
Part 3 out of 14
the sibyls. St. Augustine would have blamed paganism less, if,
in place of a temple to Cybele, it had raised a shrine to Plato,
in which his works might have been publicly read. St. Jerome's
dream is well known, and the scourging inflicted upon him by
angels for having loved Cicero too well; yet his repentance was
but short-lived, since he caused the monks of the Mount of
Olives to pass their nights in copying the Ciceronian dialogues,
and did not shrink himself from expounding the comic and lyric
poets to the children of Bethlehem."
We know already that nothing of the kind existed in Ireland when
the Gospel reached her, and that there the new religion assumed
a peculiar aspect, which has never varied, and which made her at
once and forever a preeminently Christian nation.
Among the Greeks and Romans, literature and art, although
accepted by the Church, were nevertheless deeply impregnated
with paganism. All their chief acts of social life required a
profession of idolatry; even amusements, dramatic
representations, and simple games, were religious and
consequently pagan exhibitions.
We do not here speak of the attractions of an atheistic and
materialist philosophy, of a voluptuous, often, and demoralizing
literature and poetry, of an unimaginable prostitution of art to
the vilest passions, which the relics of Pompeii too abundantly
But apart from those excesses of corruption and unbelief, which,
no doubt, virtuous pagans themselves abhorred, the approved,
correct, and so-called pure life of the best men of pagan Rome
necessitated the contamination of idolatrous worship. Apart from
the thousand duties, festivals, and the like, decreed or
sanctioned by the state, the most ordinary acts of life, the
enlisting of the soldier, the starting on a military expedition,
the assumption of any civil office or magistracy, the civil
oaths in the courts of law, the public bath, the public walk
almost, the current terms in conversation, the private reading
of the best books, the mere glancing at a multitude of exterior
objects, constituted almost as many professions of a false and
How could any one become a Christian and at the same time remain
a Greek or a Roman? The gloomy views of the Montanist Tertullian
were, to many, frightful truths requiring constant care and self-
examen. For the Christian there were two courses open--both
excesses, yet either almost unavoidable: on the one side, a
terrible rigorism, making life unsupportable, next to impossible;
on the other, a laxity of thought and action leading to
lukewarmness and sometimes apostasy.
Bearing in mind what was written on the subject in the first
three ages of Christianity, not only by Tertullian, but by most
orthodox writers, St. Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius, and the
authors of many Acts of martyrs, we may easily understand how
the doctrines of Christianity stood in danger of never taking
deep root in the hearts of men surrounded by such temptations,
themselves born in paganism, and remaining, after their
conversion, exposed to seductions of such an alluring character.
Therefore this same "high civilization," as it is called, in the
midst of which Christianity was preached, was a real danger to
the inward life of the new disciple of Christ.
How could it be otherwise, when it is a fact now known to
all, that, even at the beginning of the fifth century, Rome was
almost entirely pagan, at least outwardly, and among her highest
classes; so that the poet Claudian, in addressing Honorius at the
beginning of his sixth consulship, pointed out to him the site of
the capitol still crowned with the Temple of Jove, surrounded by
numerous pagan edifices, supporting in air an army of gods; and
all around temples, chapels, statues, without number--in fact, the
whole Roman and Greek mythology, standing in the City of the
Catacombs and of the Popes!
The public calendars, preserved to this day, continued to note
the pagan festivals side by side with the feasts of the Saviour
and his apostles. Within the city and beyond, throughout Italy
and the most remote provinces, idols and their altars were still
surrounded by the thronging populace, prostrate at their feet.
If in the cities the new religion already dared display
something of its inherent splendor, the whole rural population
was still pagan, singing the praises of Ceres and of Bacchus,
trembling at Fauns and Satyrs and the numerous divinities of the
groves and fountains. Christianity then held the same standing
in Italy that in the United States Catholicity holds to-day in
the midst of innumerable religious sects.
This is not the place to show how far the paganism of Greece and
Rome had corrupted society, and how complete was its rottenness
at the time. It has been already shown by several great writers
of this century. Enough for our purpose to remark that even some
Christian writers, of the age immediately succeeding that of the
early martyrs, showed themselves more than half pagans in their
tastes and productions. Ausonius in the West, the preceptor of
St. Paulinus, is so obscene in some of his poems, so thoroughly
pagan in others, that critics have for a long time hesitated to
pronounce him a Christian. How many of his contemporaries
hovered like him on the confines of Christianity and paganism!
When Julian the apostate restored idolatry, many, who had only
disgraced the name of Christian, openly returned to the worship
of Jupiter and Venus, and their apostasy could scarcely be cause
for regret to sincere disciples of our Lord.
In the East the phenomenon is less striking. Strange to say,
idolatry did not remain so firmly rooted in the country, where
it first took such an alluring shape; and Constantinople was in
every sense of the word a Christian city when Rome, in her
senate, fought with such persistent tenacity for her altars of
Victory, her vestals, and her ancient worship.
Yet there, also, Christian writers were too apt to interfuse the
old ideas with the new, and to adopt doctrines placed, as it
were, midway between those of Plato and St. Paul. There were
bishops even who were a scandal to the Church and yet remained
in it. Synesius is the most striking example; whose doctrine was
certainly more philosophical than Christian, and whose life,
though decorous, was altogether worldly. The history of Arianism
shows that others besides Synesius were far removed from the
ideal of Christian bishops so worthily represented at the time
by many great doctors and holy pontiffs.
Such, in the East as well as in the West, were the perils
besetting the true Christian spirit at the very cradle of our
Nor was the danger confined to the mythology of paganism, its
literature and poetry. Philosophy itself became a real stumbling-
block to many, who would fain appear disciples of faith, when
they gave themselves up to the most unrestrained wanderings of
The truth is, that Greek philosophy, divided into so many
schools in order to please all tastes, had become a wide-spread
institution throughout the Roman world. The mind of the East was
best adapted to it, and those who taught it were, consequently,
nearly all Greeks. Cicero had made it fashionable among many of
his countrymen; and although the Latin mind, always practical to
the verge of utilitarianism, was not congenial to utopian
speculations, still, as it was the fashion, all intellectual men
felt the need of becoming sufficiently acquainted with it to be
able to speak of it and even to embrace some particular school.
Those patricians, who remained attached to the stern principles
of the old republic, became Stoics; while the men of the corrupt
aristocracy called themselves, with Horace, members of the
"Epicurean herd." Hence the necessity for all to train their
minds to scientific speculation, converted the Western world
into a hot-bed of wild and dangerous doctrines.
In the opinion of some Eastern Fathers of the Church, Greek
philosophy had been a preparation for the Gospel, and could be
made subservient to the conversion of many. Thus we find St.
Justin, the martyr, all his life long glorying in the name of
philosopher, and continuing to wear, even after his conversion,
the philosopher's cloak so much derided by the scoffer, Lucian.
Still, despite this very respectable opinion, we can entertain
no doubt, in view of what happened at the time and of subsequent
events, that philosophy grew to be a stumbling-block in the path
of Christianity, and originated the worst and most dangerous
forms of heresy; that it sowed the seed, in the European mind,
of all errors, by creating that speculative tendency of
character so peculiar to most branches of the Japhetic race.
Persian Dualism, and, as many think, Pantheistic Buddhism, which
were then flourishing in Central and Eastern Asia, infected the
Alexandrian schools, and impressed philosophy with a new and
dreamy character, which became the source of subsequent and
frightful errors. The Neo-Platonism of Porphyry and Plotinus was
intended, in the minds of its originators, to lay a scientific
basis for polytheism; and, in Jamblichus finally, became an open
justification of the most absurd fables of mythology.
But, though this might satisfy Julian and those who followed him
in his apostasy, it could not come to be an inner danger to the
Church. With many, however, it assumed a form which at once
engendered the worst errors of Gnosticism; and Gnosticism was,
at first, considered a Christian heresy; so that a man might be
a pantheist, of the worst kind, and still call himself Christian.
St. John had foreseen the danger from the beginning, and it is
said that he wrote his gospel against it because the doctrine
openly denied the divinity of Christ. But the sect became much
more powerful after his death, and allured many Christians who
were disposed, from a misinterpretation of some texts of St.
Paul on the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, to
embrace a system which professed to explain the origin of that
The Alexandrian Gnosticism failed to excite in the minds of the
holy monks of the East that aversion which we now feel for its
tenets, inasmuch as it did not openly anathematize the
Scriptures of the Old Law, nay, even preserved a certain outward
respect for them, on account of the multitude of Jews living in
Alexandria, and particularly because the open system of Dualism,
which afterward came from Syria and in the hands of Manes
established the existence of two equal and eternal principles of
good and evil, found no place in the teachings of Valentinus and
But even this frightful Syrian Gnosticism, which gave to the
principle of evil an origin as ancient and sacred as that of God
himself--Manicheism barefaced and radically immoral--so
repugnant to our feelings, so monstrous to our more correct
ideas, bore a semblance of truth for many minds, at that time
inclined toward every thing which came from the East. We know
what a firm hold those doctrines took on the great soul of
Augustine, who for a long time professed and cherished them.
Rome, under the pagan emperors, had received with open arms the
Oriental gods and the philosophy which endeavored to explain
their mythology; and many gifted minds of the third and fourth
centuries lost themselves in the contemplation of those
mysteries which from out Central Asia spread a lurid glare over
the Western world.
This first danger, however, was warded off by the writings of St.
Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of
Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, St. Epiphanius, Theodoret, and
others, long before the time of St. Augustine, the last of them.
Gnosticism was prevented from any longer imparting a wrong
tendency to Christian doctrines, and it died out, until restored
during the Crusades to revive in the middle ages in its most
But at the very moment of its decline, philosophy entered the
Church; almost to wreck her by inspiring Arius and Pelagius. The
teachings of the first were clearly Neo-Platonic; of the second,
Stoic: and all the errors prevalent in the Church from the third
to the sixth century originated in Arianism and Pelagianism.
In Plato, as read in Alexandria, Arius found all the material
for his doctrine, which spread like wild-fire over the whole
Church. Many things conspired to swell the number of his
adherents: the ardent love for philosophy so inherent in the
Eastern Church, to the extent of many believing that Plato was
almost a Christian, and his doctrines therefore endowed with
real authority; the natural disposition of men to adopt the new
and a seeming rational explanation of unfathomable mysteries;
the apparent agreement of his doctrine with certain passages of
Scripture, where the Son is said to be inferior to the Father;
but chiefly the satisfaction it afforded to a number of new
Christians who had embraced the faith at the conversion of
Constantine on political rather than conscientious grounds, and
who were at once relieved of the supernatural burden of
believing in a God-man, born of a woman, and dying on a cross.
Faith reduced to an opinion; religion become a philosophy; a
mere man, let his endowments be what they might, recognized as
our guide, and not overwhelming us with the dread weight of a
divine nature; all this explains the historic phrase of St.
Jerome after the Council of Rimini, "The world groaned and
wondered to find itself Arian."
Any person acquainted with ecclesiastical history knows how the
Church of Christ would have surely become converted into a mere
rational school, under the pressure of these doctrines, were it
not for the promises of perpetuity which she had received.
We know also what a time it took to establish truth: how many
councils had to meet, how many books had to be written, the
efforts required from the rulers of the Church, chiefly from the
Roman pontiffs, to calm so many storms, to explain so many
difficult points of doctrine, to secure the final victory.
And, after all had been accomplished, there still remained the
root of the evil engrafted in what we call the philosophical
turn of mind of the Western nations--that is to say, in the
disposition to call every thing in question, to seek out strange
and novel difficulties, to start war-provoking theories in the
midst of peace, to aim at founding a new school, or at least to
stand forth as the brilliant and startling expounder of old
doctrines in a new form, in fine to add a last name to the list,
already over-long, of those who have disturbed the world by
their skill in dialectics and sophism.
Pelagius followed Arius, and his errors had the same object in
view in the long-run, to strip our holy religion of all that is
spiritual and divine.
In the time of St. Augustine and St. Jerome, there existed among
Christians an extraordinary tendency to embrace all possible
philosophical doctrines, even when directly opposed to the first
principles of revealed religion; and, within the Church, the
danger of subtilizing on every question connected with well-
known dogmas was much greater than many imagine.
From the previous reflections we may learn how difficult it was
to establish, in pagan Europe, a thoroughly Christian life and
doctrine; and that, after society had come to be apparently
imbued with the new spirit, it was still too easy to disturb the
flowing stream of the heavenly graces of the Gospel. This
resulted, we repeat, from causes anterior to Christianity, from
sources of evil which the divine religion had to overcome, and
which too often impeded its supernatural action. In fact, the
ecclesiastical history of those ages is comprised mainly in
depicting the almost continual deviations from the straight line
of pure doctrine and morality, and the strenuous efforts
assiduously made by the rulers of the Church against a never-
ceasing falling away.
Having taken this glance at the early workings of Christianity
through the rest of the world, we may now turn fairly to the
immediate subject we have in hand, and trace its course in
Ireland. From the very beginning we are struck by the
peculiarities--blessed, indeed--which show themselves, as in all
other matters, in its reception of the truth. The island,
compared with Europe, is small, it is true; but the heroism
displayed by its inhabitants during so many ages, in support of
the religion which they received so freely, so generously, and
at once, in mind as well as heart, marks it out as worthy of a
special account; and, from its unique reception and adherence to
the faith, as worthy of, if possible, a natural explanation of
such action beyond the promptings of Divine grace, since its
astonishing perseverance, its unswerving faith, form to-day as
great a characteristic of the nation as they did on the day of
its entry into the Christian Church.
We proceed to examine, then, the kind of idolatry which its
first apostle encountered on landing in the island, and the ease
with which it was destroyed, so as to leave behind no poisonous
shoots of the deadly root of evil.
In order to understand the religious system of Ireland previous
to the preaching of the Gospel, we must first take a general
survey of polytheism, if it can be so called, in all Celtic
countries, and of the peculiar character which it bore in
Of old, throughout all countries, religion possessed certain
things in common, which belonged to the rites and creeds of all
nations, and were evidently derived from the primitive
traditions of mankind, and, consequently, from a true and Divine
revelation. Such were the belief in a golden age, in the fall
from a happy beginning, in the penalty imposed on sin, which
gave a reason for great mundane calamities--the Deluge chiefly--
the memory of which lived in the traditions of almost every
nation; in the necessity of prayer and expiatory sacrifice; in
the transmission of guilt from father to son, expressed in all
primitive legislations, and to this day preserved in the Chinese
laws and customs; in the existence of good and bad spirits,
whence, most probably, arose polytheism; in the hope of the
future regeneration of man, represented in Greece by the
beautiful myth of Pandora's box; and, finally, in the doctrine
of eternal rewards and punishments.
Each one of these strictly true dogmas underwent more or less of
alteration in its passage through the various nations of
antiquity, but was, nevertheless, everywhere preserved in some
shape or form.
At what precise epoch did mankind begin wrongfully to interpret
these primitive traditions? When did the worship of idols arise
and become universal? No one can tell precisely. All we know for
certain is, that a thousand years before Christ idolatry
prevailed everywhere, and that even the Jewish people often fell
into this sin, and were only brought back by means of punishment
to the worship of the true God.
But if error tainted the whole system of worship among nations,
it differed in the various races of men according to the variety
of their character. Ferocity or mildness of manners, acuteness
or obtuseness of understanding, activity or indolence of
disposition, a burning, a cold, or a temperate climate, a
smiling or dreary country, but chiefly the thousand differences
of temper which are as marked among mankind as the almost in-
finite variety of forms visible in creation, gave to each
individual religion its proper and characteristic types, which
in after-times, when truth was brought down from heaven for all,
imparted to the universal Christian spirit a peculiar outward
form in each people, an interior adaptation to its peculiar
dispositions, destined in the Divine plan to introduce into the
future Catholic Church the beautiful variety requisite to make
its very universality possible among mankind.
To enter into details on the Celtic religion would carry us
beyond due limits. The question as to whether the ancient Celts
were idolaters or not still remains undecided, though in France
alone more than six hundred volumes have been written on the
subject. Julius Caesar believed that they were worshippers of
idols in the same sense as his own countrymen; but he probably
stood alone in his opinion. Aristotle, Pythagoras, Polyhistor,
Ammianus Marcellinus, considered the Druids as monotheist
philosophers. Most of the Greek writers agreed with them, as did
all the Alexandrian Fathers of the Church in the third and
Among the moderns the majority leans to a contrary opinion;
nevertheless, many authors of weight, distinguishing the public
worship of the common people from the doctrine of the Druids,
assert the monotheism of this sacerdotal caste. Samuel F. N.
Morus particularly, who, with J. A. Ernesti, was esteemed the
master of antiquarian scholarship in Europe during the last
century, maintains, in his edition of the "Commentaries" of
Caesar, that "human beings, as well as human affairs, fortunes,
travels, and wars, were thought by the Celts to be governed and
ruled by one supreme God, and that the system of apotheosis,
common to nearly all ancient nations, was totally unknown in
ancient Gaul, Britain, and the adjacent islands."
The ancient authorities concurring with these conclusions are so
numerous and clear spoken that the great historian of Gaul,
Amedee Thierry, thinks that such a pure and mystic religion,
joined to such a sublime philosophy, could not have been the
product of the soil. In his endeavor to investigate its origin,
he supposes that it was brought to the west of Europe by the
Eastern Cymris of the first invasion; that it was adopted by the
higher classes of society, and that the old idolatrous worship
remained in force among the lower orders.
The unity and omnipotence of the Godhead, metempsychosis, or the
doctrine and the transmigration of soul --not into the bodies of
animals, as it obtained and still obtains in the East, but into
those of other human beings--the eternal duration of existing
substances, material and spiritual, consequently the immortality
of the human soul, were the chief dogmas of the Druids,
according to the majority of antiquarians.
If this be true, then it can be said boldly that, with the
exception of revealed religion in Judea, which was always far
more explicit and pure, no system can be found in ancient times
superior to that of the Druids, more especially if we add that,
in addition to religious teaching, a whole system of physics was
also developed in their large academies. "They dispute," says
Caesar, "on the stars and their motions, on the size of the
universe and of this earth, on the nature of physical things, as
well as on the strength and power of the eternal God."
To bring our question home, what were the religious belief and
worship of the Irish Celts while still pagans? Very few positive
facts are known on the subject; but we have data enough to show
what they were not; and in such cases negative proofs are amply
It was for a long time the fashion with Irish historians to
attribute to their ancestors the wildest forms of ancient
idolatry. They appeared to consider it a point of national honor
to make the worship of Erin an exact reflex of Eastern, Grecian,
or Roman polytheism. They erected on the slightest foundations
grand structures of superstitious and abominable rites. Fire-
worship, Phoenician or African horrors, the rankest idol-worship,
even human sacrifices of the most revolting nature, were,
according to them, of almost daily occurrence in Ireland. But,
with the advancement of antiquarian knowledge, all those
phantoms have successively disappeared; and, the more the
ancient customs, literature, and history of the island are
studied, the more it becomes clear that the pretended proofs
adduced in support of those vagaries are really without
In the first place, there is not the slightest reason to believe
that the human sacrifices customary in Gaul were ever practised
in Ireland. No really ancient book makes any mention of them.
They were certainly not in vogue at the time of St. Patrick, as
he could not have failed to give expression to his horror at
them in some shape or form, which expression would have been
recorded in one, at least, of the many lives of the saint,
written shortly after his death, and abounding in details of
every kind. If not, then, during his long apostleship, we may
safely conclude that they never took place before, as there was
no reason for their discontinuance prior to the propagation of
There was a time when all the large cromlechs which abound in
the island were believed to be sacrificial stones; and it is
highly probable that the opinion so prevalent during the last
century with respect to the reality of those cruel rites had its
origin in the existence of those rude monuments. After many
investigations and excavations around and under cromlechs of all
sizes, it is now admitted by all well-informed antiquarians that
they had no connection with sacrifices of any kind. They were
merely monuments raised over the buried bodies of chieftains or
heroes. Many sepulchres of that description have been opened,
either under cromlechs or under large mounds; great quantities
of ornaments of gold, silver, or precious stones, utensils of
various materials, beautiful works of great artistic merit, have
been discovered there, and now go to fill the museums of the
nation or private cabinets. Nothing connected with religious
rites of any description has met the eyes of the learned seekers
after truth. Thus it has been ascertained that the old race had
reached a high degree of material civilization; but no clew to
its religion has been furnished.
As to fire-worship, which not long ago was admitted by all as
certainly forming a part of the Celtic religion in Ireland, so
little of that opinion remains to-day that it is scarcely
deserving of mention. There now remains no doubt that the round
towers, formerly so numerous in Ireland, had nothing whatever to
do with fire-worship. For a long time they were believed to have
been constructed for no other object, and consequently long
prior to the coming of St. Patrick. But Dr. Petrie and other
antiquarians have all but demonstrated that the round towers
never had any connection with superstition or idolatry at all;
that they were of Christian origin, always built near some
Christian church, and of the same materials, and had for their
object to call the faithful to prayer, like the _campanile_ of
Italy, to be a place of refuge for the clergy in time of war,
and to give to distant villages intimation of any hostile
The fact in the life of St. Patrick, when he appeared before the
court of King Laeghaire, upon which so much reliance is placed
as a proof of the existence of fire-worship, is now of
proportionate weakness. It seems, to judge by the most reliable
and ancient manuscripts, that, after all, the kindling of the
king's fire was scarcely a religious act.
McGeoghegan, whose history is compiled, from the best-
authenticated documents, says: "When the monarch convened an
assembly, or held a festival at Tara, it was customary to make a
bonfire on the preceding day, and it was forbidden to light
another fire in any other place at the same time, in the
territory of Breagh."
This is all; and the probable cause of the prohibition was to do
honor to the king. Had it been an act of worship, Patrick, in
lighting his own paschal-fire, would not only have shown
disrespect to the monarch, but in the eyes of the people
committed a sacrilege, which could scarcely have missed mention
by the careful historians of the time.
But the proof that we are right in our interpretation of the
ceremony is clear, from the following passage, taken from the
work of Prof. Curry on "Early Irish Manuscripts:" "We see, by
the book of military expeditions, that, when King Dathi-- the
immediate predecessor of Laeghaire on the throne of Ire- land--
thought of conquering Britain and Gaul, he invited the states of
the nation to meet him at Tara, at the approaching feast of
Baltaine (one of the great pagan festivals of ancient Erin) on
"The feast of Tara this year was solemnized on a scale of
splendor never before equalled. The fires of Lailten (now called
Lelltown in the north of Ireland) were lighted, and the sports,
games, and ceremonies, were conducted with unusual magnificence
"These games and solemnities are said to have been instituted
more than a thousand years previously by Lug, in honor of Lailte,
the daughter of the King of Spain, and wife of MacEire, the
last king of the Firbolg colony. It was at her court that Lug
had been fostered, and at her death he had her buried at this
place, where he raised an immense mound over her grave, and
instituted those annual games in her honor.
"These games were solemnized about the first day of August, and
they continued to be observed down to the ninth century"-
therefore, in Christian times-and consequently the lighting of
the fires had as little connection with fire-worship as the
games with pagan rites.
A more serious difficulty meets us in the destruction of Crom
Cruagh by St. Patrick, and it is important to consider how far
Crom Cruagh could really be called an idol.
With regard to the statues of Celtic gods, all the researches
and excavations which the most painstaking of antiquarians have
undertaken, especially of late years, have never resulted in the
discovery, not of the statue of a god, but of any pagan sign
whatever in Ireland. It is clear, from the numerous details of
the life of St. Patrick, that he never encountered either
temples or the statues of gods in any place, although occasional
mention is made of idols. The only fact which startles the
reader is the holy zeal which moved him to strike with his
"baculus Jesu" the monstrous Crom Cruagh, with its twelve "sub-gods."
In all his travels through Ireland-and there is scarcely a spot
which he did not visit and evangelize-St. Patrick meets with
only one idol, or rather group of idols, situated in the County
Cavan, which was an object of veneration to the people. Nowhere
else are idols to be found, or the saint would have thought it
his duty to destroy them also. This first fact certainly places
the Irish in a position, with regard to idolatry, far different
from that of all other polytheist nations. In all other
countries it is characteristic of polytheism to multiply the
statues of the gods, to expose them in all public places, in
their houses, but chiefly within or at the door of edifices
erected for the purpose. Yet in Ireland we find nothing of the
kind, with the exception of Crom Cruagh. The holy apostle of the
nation goes on preaching, baptizing, converting people, without
finding any worship of gods of stone or metal; he only hears
that there is something of the kind in a particular spot, and he
has to travel a great distance in order to see it, and show the
people their folly in venerating it.
But what was that idol? According to the majority of expounders
of Irish history, it was a golden sphere or ball representing
the sun, with twelve cones or pillars of brass, around it,
typifying, probably, astronomical signs. St. Patrick, in his
"Confessio," seems to allude to Crom Cruagh when he says: "That
sun which we behold by the favor of God rises for us every day;
but its splendor will not shine forever; nay, even all those who
adore it shall be miserably punished."
The Bollandists, in a note on this passage of the "Confessio,"
think that it might refer to Crom Cruagh, which possibly
represented the sun, surrounded by the signs of the twelve
months, through which it describes its orbit during the year.
We know that the Druids were, perhaps, better versed in the
science of astronomy than the scholars of any other nation at
the time. It was not in Gaul and Britain only that they pursued
their course of studies for a score of years; the same fact is
attested for Ireland by authorities whose testimony is beyond
question. May we not suppose that a representation of mere
heavenly phenomena, set in a conspicuous position, had in course
of time become the object of the superstitious veneration of the
people, and that St. Patrick thought it his duty to destroy it?
And the attitude of the people at the time of its destruction
shows that it could not have borne for them the same sacred
character as the statue of Minerva in the Parthenon did for the
Greeks or that of Capitoline Jove for the Romans. Can we suppose
that St. Paul or St. Peter would have dared to break either of
these? And let us remark that the event we discuss occurred at
the very beginning of St. Patrick's ministry, and before he had
yet acquired that great authority over the minds of all which
afterward enabled him fearlessly to accomplish whatever his zeal
prompted him to do.
Whatever explanation of the whole occurrence may be given, we
doubt if we shall find a better than that we advance, and the
considerations arising from it justify the opinion that the
Irish Celts were not idolaters like all other peoples of
antiquity. They possessed no mythology beyond harmless fairy-
tales, no poetical histories of gods and goddesses to please the
imagination and the senses, and invest paganism with such an
attractive garb as to cause it to become a real obstacle to the
spread of Christianity.
Moreover, what we have said concerning the belief in the
omnipotence of one supreme God, whatever might be his nature, as
the first dogma of Druidism, would seem to have lain deep in the
minds of the Irish Celts, and caused their immediate
comprehension and reception of monotheism, as preached by St.
Patrick, and the facility with which they accepted it. They were
certainly, even when pagans, a very religious people; otherwise
how could they have embraced the doctrines of Christianity with
that ardent eagerness which shall come under our consideration
in the next chapter? A nation utterly devoid of faith of any
kind is not apt to be moved, as were the Irish, perhaps beyond
all other nations, at the first sight of supernatural truths,
such as those of Christianity. And so little were they attached
to paganism, so visibly imbued with reverence for the supreme
God of the universe, that, as soon as announced, they accepted
The simple and touching story of the conversion of the two
daughters of King Laeghaire will give point and life to this
very important consideration. It is taken from the "Book of
Armagh," which Prof. O'Curry, who is certainly a competent
authority, believes older than the year 727, when the popular
Irish traditions regarding St. Patrick must have still been
almost as vivid as immediately after his death.
St. Patrick and his attendants being assembled at sunrise at the
fountain of Clebach, near Cruachan in Connaught, Ethne and
Felimia, daughters of King Laeghaire, came to bathe, and found
at the well the holy men.
"And they knew not whence they were, or in what form, or from
what people, or from what country; but they supposed them to be
fairies--_duine sidhe_--that is to say, gods of the earth, or a
"And the virgins said unto them: 'Who are ye, and whence are ye?'
"And Patrick said unto them: 'It were better for you to confess
to our true God, than to inquire concerning our race.'
"The first virgin said: `Who is God?
"'And where is God?
"'And where is his dwelling-place?
"'Has God sons and daughters, gold and silver?
"'Is he living?
"'Is he beautiful?
"'Did many foster his son?
"'Are his daughters dear and beauteous to men of this world?
"'Is he in heaven or on earth?
"'In the sea?--In rivers?--In mountainous places?--In valleys?
"'Declare unto us the knowledge of him?
"'How shall he be seen?-How shall he be loved?-How is he to be found?
"'Is it in youth?-Is it in old age that he is to be found?'
"But St. Patrick, full of the Holy Ghost, answered and said:
"'Our God is the God of all men-the God of heaven and earth-of
the sea and rivers. The God of the sun, and the moon, and all
stars. The God of the high mountains, and of the lowly valleys.
The God who is above heaven, and in heaven, and under heaven.
"'He has a habitation in the heavens, and the earth, and the sea,
and all that are thereon.
"'He inspireth all things. He quickeneth all things. He is over
"'He hath a Son coeternal and coequal with himself. The Son is
not younger than the Father, nor the Father older than the Son.
And the Holy Ghost breatheth in them. The Father, and the Son,
and the Holy Ghost, are not divided.
"'But I desire to unite you to a heavenly King inasmuch as you
are daughters of an earthly king. Do you believe?'
"And the virgins said, as of one mouth and one heart: Teach us
most diligently how we may believe in the heavenly King. Show us
how we may see him face to face, and whatsoever you shall say
unto us we will do.'
"And Patrick said: 'Believe ye that by baptism you put off the
sin of your father and your mother?'
"They answered him, 'We believe.'
"'Believe ye in repentance after sin? 'We believe . . .' etc.
"And they were baptized, and a white garment was put upon their
heads. And they asked to see the face of Christ. And the saint
said unto them: 'Ye cannot see the face of Christ except ye
taste of death, and except ye receive the sacrifice.'
"And they answered: 'Give us the sacrifice that we may behold
the Son our spouse.'
"And they received the eucharist of God, and they slept in death.
"And they were laid out on one bed-covered with garments -and
their friends made great lamentations and weeping for them."
This beautiful legend expresses to the letter the way in which
the Irish received the faith. Nor was it simple virgins only who
_understood_ and _believed_ so suddenly at the preaching of the
apostle. The great men of the nation were as eager almost as the
common people to receive baptism: the conversion of Dubtach is
enough to show this.
He was a Druid, being the chief poet of King Laeghaire--all
poets belonging to the order. After the wife, the brothers, and
the two daughters of the monarch, he was the most illustrious
convert gained by Patrick at the beginning of his apostleship.
He became a Christian at the first appearance of the saint at
Tara, and immediately began to sing in verse his new belief, as
he had formerly sung the heroes of his nation. To the end he
remained firm in his faith, and a dear friend to the holy man
who had converted him. How could he, and all the chief converts
of Patrick, have believed so suddenly and so constantly in the
God of the Christians, if their former life had not prepared
them for the adoption of the new doctrine, and if the doctrine
of monotheism had offered a real difficulty to their
understanding? There was, probably, nothing clear and definite
in their belief in an omnipotent God, which is said to have been
the leading dogma of Druidism; but their simple minds had
evidently a leaning toward the doctrine, which induced them to
approve of it, as soon as it was presented to them with a solemn
In order to elucidate this point, we add a short description of
the labors and success of this apostle.
In the year 432, Patrick lands on the island. By that time, some
few of the inhabitants may possibly have heard of the Christian
religion from the neighboring Britain or Gaul. Palladius had
preached the year before in the district known as the present
counties of Wexford and Wicklow, erected three churches, and
made some converts; but it may be said that Ireland continued in
the same state it had preserved for thousands of years: the
Druids in possession of religious and scientific supremacy; the
chieftains in contention, as in the time of Fingal and Ossian;
the people, though in the midst of constant strife, happy enough
on their rich soil, cheered by their bards and poets; very few,
or no slaves in the country; an abundance of food everywhere;
gold, silver, precious stones adorning profusely the persons of
their chiefs, their wives, their warriors; rich stuffs, dyed
with many colors, to distinguish the various orders of society;
a deep religious feeling in their hearts, preparing them for the
faith, by inspiring them with lively emotions at the sight of
divine power displayed in their mountains, their valleys, their
lakes and rivers, and on the swelling bosom of the all-
encircling ocean; superstitions of various kinds, indeed, but
none of a demoralizing character, none involving marks of
cruelty or lust; no revolting statues of Priapus, of Bacchus, of
Cybele; no obscene emblems of religion, as in all other lands,
to confront Christianity; but over all the island, song,
festivity, deep affection for kindred; and, as though blood-
relationship could not satisfy their heart, fosterage covering
the land with other brothers and sisters; all permeated with a
strong attachment to their clan-system and social customs. Such
is an exact picture of the Erin of the time, which the study of
antiquity brings clearer and clearer before the eyes of the
Patrick appears among them, leaning on his staff, and bringing
them from Rome and Gaul new songs in a new language set to a new
melody. He comes to unveil for them what lies hidden, unknown to
themselves, in the depths of their hearts. He explains, by the
power of one Supreme God, why it is that their mountains are so
high, their valley so smiling, their rivers and lakes teeming
with life, their fountains so fresh and cool, and that sun of
theirs so temperate in its warmth, and the moon and stars,
lighted with a soft radiance, shimmering over the deep obscurity
of their groves.
He directs them to look into their own consciences, to admit
themselves to be sinners in need of redemption, and points out
to them in what manner that Supreme God, whom they half knew
already, condescended to save man.
Straightway, from all parts of the island, converts flock to him;
they come in crowds to be baptized, to embrace the new law by
which they may read their own hearts; they are ready to do
whatever he wishes; many, not content with the strict
commandments enjoined on all, wish to enter on the path of
perfection: the men become monks, the women and young girls nuns,
that is to say, spouses of Christ. In Munster alone "it would
be difficult," says a modern writer, Father Brenan, "to form an
estimate of the number of converts he made, and even of the
churches and religious establishments he founded."
And so with all the other provinces of the island. The proof's
still stand before our eyes. For, as Prof. Curry justly remarks:
"No one, who examines for himself, can doubt that at the first
preaching in Erin of the glad tidings of salvation, by Saints
Palladius and Patrick, those _countless_ Christian churches were
built, whose sites and ruins mark so thickly the surface of our
country even to this day, still bearing through all the
vicissitudes of time and conquest the _unchanged names of their
According to the commonly-received opinion, St. Patrick's
apostleship lasted thirty-three years; but, whatever may have
been its real duration, certain it is that his feet traversed
the whole island several times, and, at his passing, churches
and monasteries sprang up in great numbers, and remained to tell
the true story of his labors when their founder had passed away.
Nor was it with Ireland as with Rome, Carthage, Antioch, and
other great cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Not the slaves
and artisans alone filled these newly-erected Christian edifices.
Some of the first men of the nation received baptism. We have
already spoken of the family of Laeghaire. In Connaught, at the
first appearance of the man of God, all the inhabitants of that
portion of the province now represented by the County Mayo
became Christians; and the seven sons of the king of the
province were baptized, together with twelve thousand of their
clansmen. In Leinster, the Princes Illand and Alind were
baptized in a fountain near Naas. In Munster, Aengus, the King
of Cashel, with all the nobility of his clan, embraced the faith.
A number of chieftains in Thomond are also mentioned; and the
whole of the Dalcassian tribe, so celebrated before and after in
the annals of Ireland, received, with the waters of baptism,
that ardent faith which nothing has been able to tear from them
to this day.
Many Druids even, by renouncing their superstitions, abdicated
their power over the people. We have mentioned Dubtach ; his
example was followed by many others, among whom was Fingar, the
son of King Clito, who is said to have suffered martyrdom in
Brittany; Fiech, pupil of Dubtach, himself a poet, and belonging
to the noble house of Hy-Baircha in Leinster, was raised by St.
Patrick to the episcopacy, and was the first occupant of the See
Fiech was a regular member of the bardic order of Druids, a poet
by profession, esteemed as a learned man even before he embraced
Christianity; and during his lifetime he was, as a Christian
bishop, consulted by numbers and regarded as an oracle of truth
and heavenly wisdom.
Nevertheless, Patrick encountered opposition. Some chieftains
declared themselves against him, without daring openly to attack
him. Many Druids, called in the old Irish annals _magi_, tried
their utmost to estrange the Irish people from him. But he stood
in danger of his life only once. It was, in fact, a war of
argument. Long discussions took place, with varied success,
ending generally, however, in a victory for truth.
The final result was that, in the second generation after St.
Patrick, there existed not a single pagan in the whole of
Ireland; the very remembrance of paganism even seemed to have
passed away from their minds ever after; hence arises the
difficulty of deciding now on the character of that paganism.
After its abolition, nothing remained in the literature of the
country, which was at that time much more copious than at
present--nothing was left in its monuments or in the
inclinations of the people--to imperil the existence of the
newly-established Christianity, or of a nature calculated to
give a wrong bias to the religious worship of the people, such
as we have seen was the case in the rest of Europe.
May we not conclude, then, that Ireland was much better prepared
for the new religion than any other country; that, when she was
thus admitted by baptism into the European family, she made her
entry in a way peculiar to herself, and which secured to her,
once for all, her firm and undeviating attachment to truth?
She had nothing to change in her manners after having renounced
the few disconnected superstitions to which she had been
addicted. Her songs, her bards, her festivities, her
patriarchal government, her fosterage, were left to her,
Christianized and consecrated by her great apostle; clanship
even penetrated into the monasteries, and gave rise later on to
some abuses. But, perhaps, the saint thought it better to allow
the existence of things which might lead to abuse than violently
and at once to subvert customs, rooted by age in the very nature
of the people, some of which it cost England, later on,
centuries of inconceivable barbarities to eradicate.
As to what exact form, if any, the paganism of the Irish Celts
assumed, we have so few data to build upon that it is now next
to impossible to shape a system out of them. From the passage
of the "Confessio" already quoted, we might infer that they
adored the sun; and this passage is very remarkable as the only
mention anywhere made by St. Patrick of idolatry among the
people. If it was only the emblem of the Supreme Being, then
would there have been nothing idolatrous in its worship; and the
strong terms in which the saint condemns it perhaps need only
express his fear lest the superstition of the ignorant people
might convert veneration into positive idolatry. At all events,
there was not a statue, or a temple, or a theological system,
erected to or connected with it in any shape.
The solemn forms of oaths taken and administered by the Irish
kings would also lead us to infer that they paid a superstitious
respect to the winds and the other elements. But why should
this feeling pass beyond that which even the Christian
experiences when confronted by mysteries in the natural as well
as the supernatural order? The awe-struck pagan saw the
lightning leap, the tempest gather and break over him in
majestic fury; heard the great voice of the mighty ocean which
laved or lashed his shores: he witnessed these wonderful effects;
he knew not whence the tempests or the lightnings came, or the
voice of the ocean; he trembled at the unseen power which moved
them --at his God.
So his imagination peopled his groves and hill-sides, his rivers
and lakes, with harmless fairies; but fairy land has never
become among any nation a pandemonium of cruel divinities; and
we doubt much if such innocuous superstition can be rightly
called even sinful error.
In fact, the only thing which could render paganism truly a
danger in Ireland, as opposed to the preaching of Christianity,
was the body of men intrusted with the care of religion--the
Druids, the _magi_ of the chronicles. But, as we find no traces
of bloody sacrifices in Ireland, the Druids there probably never
bore the character which they did in Gaul; they cannot be said
to have been sacrificing priests; their office consisted merely
in pretended divinations, or the workings of incantations or
spells. They also introduced superstition into the practice of
medicine, and taught the people to venerate the elements or
mysterious forces of this world.
Without mentioning any of the many instances which are found in
the histories of the workings of these Druidical incantations
and spells, the consulting of the clouds, and the ceremonies
with which they surrounded their healing art, we go straight to
our main point: the ease and suddenness with which all these
delusions vanished at the first preaching of the Gospel --a fact
very telling on the force which they exercised over the mind of
the nation. All natural customs, games, festivities, social
relationships, as we have seen, are preserved, many to this day;
what is esteemed as their religion, and its ceremonies and
superstitions, is dropped at once. The entire Irish mind
expanded freely and generously at the simple announcement of a
God, present everywhere in the universe, and accepted it. The
dogma of the Holy Spirit, not only filling all--_complens omnia_-
- but dwelling in their very souls by grace, and filling them
with love and fear, must have appeared natural to them. Their
very superstitions must have prepared the way for the truth, a
change --or may we not say a more direct and tangible object
taking the place of and filling their undefined yearnings--was
alone requisite. Otherwise it is a hard fact to explain how,
within a few years, all Druidism and magic, incantations, spells,
and divinations, were replaced by pure religion, by the
doctrine of celestial favors obtained through prayer, by the
intercession of a host of saints in heaven, and the belief in
Christian miracles and prophecies; whereas, scarcely any thing
of Roman or Grecian mythology could be replaced by corresponding
Christian practices, although popes did all they could in that
regard. Nearly all the errors of the Irish Celts had their
corresponding truths and holy practices in Christianity, which
could be readily substituted for them, and envelop them
immediately with distrust or just oblivion. Hence we do not see,
in the subsequent ecclesiastical history of Ireland, any thing
to resemble the short sketch we have given of the many dangers
arising within the young Christian Church, which had their
origin in the former religion of other European nations.
In regarding philosophy and its perils in Ireland, our task will
be an easy one, yet not unimportant in its bearings on
subsequent considerations. The minds of nations differ as
greatly as their physical characteristics; and to study the
Irish mind we have only to take into consideration the
institutions which swayed it from time immemorial. They were of
such a nature that they could but belong to a traditional people.
All patriarchal tribes partake of that general character; none,
perhaps, so strikingly as the Celts.
People thus disposed have nothing rationalistic in their nature;
they accept old facts; and, if they reason upon them, it is to
find proofs to support, not motives to doubt them. They never
refine their discussions to hair-splitting, synonymous almost
with rejection, as seems to be the delight of what we call
rationalistic races. It was among these that philosophy was born,
and among them it flourishes. They may, by their acute
reasoning, enlarge the human mind, open up new horizons, and, if
confined within just limits, actually enrich the understanding
of man. We are far from pretending that philosophy has only been
productive of harm, and that it were a blessed thing had the
human intellect always remained, as it were, in a dormant state,
without ever striving to grasp at philosophic truth and raise
itself above the common level; we hold the great names of
Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and so many others, in too
great respect to entertain such an opinion.
Yet it cannot be denied that the excessive study of philosophy
has produced many evils among men, has often been subservient to
error, has, at best, been for many minds the source of a cold
and desponding skepticism.
No race of men, perhaps, has been less inclined to follow those
intellectual aberrations than the Celtic, owing chiefly to its
eminently traditional dispositions.
Before Christianity reached them, the intellectual labors of the
Celts were chiefly confined to history and genealogy, medicine
and botany, law, song, music, and artistic workings in metals
and gems. This was the usual _curriculum_ of Druidic studies.
Astronomy and the physical sciences, as well as the knowledge of
"the nature of the eternal God," were, according to Caesar,
extensively studied in the Gallic schools. Some elements of
those intellectual pursuits may also have occupied the attention
of the Irish student during the twelve, fifteen, or twenty years
of his preparation for being _ordained_ to the highest degree of
ollamh. But the oldest and most reliable documents which have
been examined so far do not allow us to state positively that
such was the case to any great extent.
In Christian times, however, it seems certain that astronomy was
better studied in Ireland than anywhere else, as is proved by
the extraordinary impulse given to that science by Virgil of
Salzburg, who was undoubtedly an Irishman, and educated in his
It is from the Church alone, therefore, that they received their
highest intellectual training in the philosophy and theology of
the Scriptures and of the Fathers. It is known that, by the
introduction of the Latin and Greek tongues into their schools
in addition to the vernacular, the Bible in Latin and Greek, and
the writings of many Fathers in both languages, as also the most
celebrated works of Roman and Greek classical writers, became
most interesting subjects of study. They reproduced those works
for their own use in the _scriptoria_ of their numerous
monasteries. We still possess some of those manuscripts of the
sixth and following centuries, and none more beautiful or
correct can be found among those left by the English, French, or
Italian monastic institutions of the periods mentioned.
During the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, the Irish
schools became celebrated all over Europe. Young Anglo-Saxons of
the best families were sent to receive their education in
Innisfail, as the island was then often called; and, from their
celebrated institutions of learning, numerous teachers and
missionaries went forth to England, Germany (along the Rhine,
chiefly), France, and even Switzerland and Italy.
Yet, in the history of all those intellectual labors, we never
read of startling theories in philosophy or theology advanced by
any of them, unless we except the eccentric John Scotus Erigena,
whom Charles the Bald, at whose court he resided, protected even
against the just severity of the Church. Without ever having
studied theology, he undertook to dogmatize, and would perhaps
have originated some heresy, had he found a following in Germany
But he is the only Irishman who ever threatened the peace of the
Church, and, through her, of the world. Duns Scotus, if he were
Irish, never taught any error, and remained always an accepted
leader in Catholic schools. To the honor of Erin be it said, her
children have ever been afraid to deviate in the least from the
path of faith. And it would be wrong to imagine that the
preservation from heresy so peculiar to them, and by which they
are broadly distinguished from all other European nations, comes
from dulness of intellect and inability to follow out an
intricate argumentation. They show the acuteness of their
understanding in a thousand ways; in poetry, in romantic tales,
in narrative compositions, in legal acumen and extempore
arguments, in the study of medicine, chiefly in that masterly
eloquence by which so many of them are distinguished. Who shall
say that they might not also have reached a high degree of
eminence in philosophical discussions and ontological theories?
They have always abstained from such studies by reason of a
natural disinclination, which does them honor, and which has
saved them in modern times, as we shall see in a subsequent
chapter, from the innumerable evils which afflict society
everywhere else, and by which it is even threatened with
Thus, among the numerous and versatile progeny of Japhet one
small branch has kept itself aloof from the universal movement
of the whole family; and, in the very act of accepting
Christianity and taking a place in the commonwealth of Western
nations, it has known how to do so in its own manner, and has
thus secured a firm hold of the saving doctrines imparted to the
whole race for a great purpose--the purpose, unfortunately often
defeated--of reducing to practice and reality the sublime ideal
of the Christian religion.
The details given in this chapter on the various circumstances
connected with the introduction of our holy faith into Ireland
were necessarily very limited, as our chief object was to speak
of the nation's preparation for it. In the following we treat
directly of what could only be touched upon in the latter part
HOW THE IRISH RECEIVED CHRISTIANITY.
For the conversion of pagans to Christianity, many exterior
proofs of revelation were vouchsafed by God to man in addition
to the interior impulse of his grace. Those exterior proofs are
generally termed "the evidences of religion." They produce their
chief effect on inquiring minds which are familiar with the
reasoning processes of philosophy, and attach great importance
to truth acquired by logical deduction. To this, many pagans of
Greece and Rome owed their conversion; by this, in our days,
many strangers are brought, on reflection, to the faith of
Christ, always presupposing the paramount influence of divine
grace on their minds and hearts.
But it is easy to remark that, except in rare cases, those who
are gained over to truth by such a process are with some
difficulty brought under the influence of the supernatural,
which forms the essential groundwork of Christianity. This
influence, it is true, is only the effect of the operation of
the Holy Ghost on the soul of the convert; but the Holy Ghost
acts in conformity with the disposition of the soul; and we know,
by what has been said on the character of religion among the
Romans and the Greeks in the earlier days of the Church, that it
took long ages, the infusion of Northern blood, and the
simplicity of new races uncontaminated by heathen mythology, to
inspire men with that deep supernatural feeling which in course
of time became the distinguishing character of the ages of faith.
Ireland imbibed this feeling at once, and thus she received
Christianity more thoroughly, at the very beginning, than did
any other Western nation.
The fact is--whatever may be thought or said--the Christian
religion, with all the loveliness it imparts to this world when
rightly understood, though never destroying Nature, but always
keeping it in mind, and consecrating it to God, truly endowed,
consequently, with the promises of earth as well as those of
heaven--the Christian religion is nevertheless fundamentally
supernatural, full of awe and mystery, heavenly and
incomprehensible, before being earthly and the grateful object
Without examining the various formularies which heresy compelled
an infallible Church to proclaim and impose upon her children
from time to time, the Apostles' Creed alone transfers man at
once into regions supernatural, into heaven itself. The Trinity,
the Incarnation, the Redemption, the mission of the Hold Ghost
on earth, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and
the resurrection of the dead, are all mysteries necessitating a
revelation on the part of God himself to make them known to and
believed by man. Do they not place man, even while on earth, in
direct communication with heaven?
The firm believer in those mysteries is already a celestial
citizen by faith and hope. He has acquired a new life, new
senses, as it were, new faculties of mind and will--all things,
evidently, above Nature.
And it is clear, from many passages of the New Testament, that
our Lord wished the lives of his disciples to be wholly
penetrated with that supernatural essence. They were not to be
men of the earth, earthly, but citizens of another country which
is heavenly and eternal. Hence the holiness and perfection
required of them--a holiness, according to Christ, like that of
the celestial Father himself; hence contempt for the things of
this world, so strongly recommended by our Lord; hence the
assurance that men are called to be sons of God, the eternal Son
having become incarnate to acquire for us this glorious
privilege; hence, finally, that frequent recommendation in the
Gospel to rely on God for the things of this life, and to look
above all for spiritual blessings.
That reliance is set forth in such terms, in the Sermon on the
Mount, that, taken literally, man should neglect entirely his
temporal advantages, forget entirely _Nature_, and think only of
_grace_, or rather, expect that the things of Nature would be
given us by our heavenly Father "who knows that we need them."
Nature, consequently, assumes a new aspect in this system. It is
no longer a complexity of temporal goods within reach of the
efforts of man, and which it rests with man alone to procure for
himself. It is, indeed, a worldly treasure, belonging to God, as
all else, and which the hand of God scatters profusely among his
creatures. God will not fail to grant to every one what he needs,
if he have faith. Thus God is always visible in Nature; and
redeemed man, raised far above the beasts of the field, has
other eyes than those of the body, when he looks around him on
Had Christianity been literally understood by those who first
received it, it would have completely changed the moral, social,
and even natural aspect of the universe. The change produced
throughout by the new religion was indeed remarkable, but not
what it would have been, if the supernatural had taken complete
possession of human society. This it did in Ireland, and, it may
be said, in Ireland alone.
To begin with the preaching of St. Patrick, we note his care to
impart to his converts a sufficient knowledge of the Christian
mysteries, but, above all, to make those mysteries influence
their lives by acting more powerfully on the new Christian heart
than even on the mind.
Thus, in the beautiful legend of Ethne and Felimia, the saint,
not content with instructing them on the attributes of God, the
Trinity, and other supernatural truths, goes further still; he
requires a change in their whole being--that it be spiritualized:
by deeply exciting their feelings, by speaking of Christ as
their spouse, by making them wish to receive him in the holy
Eucharist, even at the expense of their temporal life, he so
raises them above Nature that they actually asked to die. "And
they received the Eucharist of God, and they slept in death."
Again, in the hymn of Tara, the heavenly spirit, which consists
in an intimate union with God and Christ, is so admirably
expressed, that we cannot refrain from presenting an extract
from it, remarking that this beautiful hymn has been the great
prayer of all Irishmen through all ages down even to our own
times, though, unfortunately, it is not now so generally known
and used by them as formerly:
"At Tara, to-day, may the strength of God pilot me, may the
power of God preserve me, may the wisdom of God instruct me, may
the eye of God view me, may the ear of God hear me, may the word
of God render me eloquent, may the hand of God protect me, may
the way of God direct me, may the shield of God defend me, etc.
"Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ after me, Christ in
me, Christ under me, Christ over me, Christ at my right, Christ
at my left; . . . Christ be in the heart of each person whom I
speak to, Christ in the mouth of each person who speaks to me,
Christ in each eye which sees me, Christ in each ear which hears
Could any thing tend more powerfully to make of those whom he
converted, true supernatural Christians--forgetful of this world,
thinking only of another and a brighter one?
The island, at his coming, was a prey to preternatural
superstitions. The Druids possessed, in the opinion of the
people, a power beyond that of man; and history shows the same
phenomenon in all pagan countries, not excepting those of our
time. A real supernatural power was required to overcome that of
Hence, according to Probus, the magicians to whom the arrival of
Patrick had been foretold, prepared themselves for the contest,
and several chieftains supported them. Prestiges were, therefore,
tried in antagonism to miracles; but, as Moses prevailed over
the power of the Egyptian priests, so did Patrick over the
Celtic magicians. It is even said that five Druids perished in
one of the contests.
The princes were sometimes also punished with death. Recraid,
head of a clan, came with his Druids and with words of
incantation written under his white garments; he fell dead.
Laeghaire himself, the Ard-Righ of all Ireland, whose family
became Christian, but who refused to abandon his superstitions,
perished with his numerous attendants.
But a more singular phenomenon was, that death, which was often
the punishment of unbelief, became as often a boon to be desired
by the new Christian converts, so completely were they under the
influence of the supernatural. Thus Ruis found it hard to
believe. To strengthen his faith, Patrick restored to him his
youth, and then gave him the choice between this sweet blessing
of life and the happiness of heaven; Ruis preferred to die, like
Ethne and Felimia.
Sechnall, the bard, told St. Patrick, one day, that he wished to
sing the praises of a saint whom the earth still possessed.
"Hasten, then," said Patrick, "for thou art at the gates of
death." Sechnall, not only undisturbed, but full of joy, sang a
glorious hymn in honor of Patrick, and immediately after died.
Kynrecha came to the convent-door of St. Senan. "What have women
in common with monks?" said the holy abbot. "We will not receive
thee." "Before I leave this place," responded Kynrecha, "I offer
this prayer to God, that my soul may leave the body." And she
sank down and expired.
The various lives of the apostle of Ireland and his successors
are full of facts of this nature. Supposing that a high coloring
was given to some of these by the writers, one thing is certain:
the people who lived during that apostleship believed in them
firmly, and handed down their belief to their children. Moreover,
nothing was better calculated to give to a primitive people,
like the Irish, a strong supernatural spirit and character, than
to make them despise the joys of this earth and yearn for a
There are, indeed, too many facts of a similar kind related in
the lives of St. Patrick and his fellow-workers, to bear the
imputation, not of imposition, but even of delusion. The desire
of dying, to be united with Christ; the indifference, at least,
as to the prolongation of existence; the readiness, if not the
joy, with which the announcement of death was received, are of
such frequent mention in those old legends, as matters of
ordinary occurrence, surprising no one, that they must be
conceded as facts often taking place in those early ages.
And, more striking still, this feeling of accepting death,
either as a boon or as a matter of course, and with perfect
resignation to the will of God, seems to have been throughout,
since the introduction of Christianity, a characteristic of the
Irish people. It is often witnessed in our own days, and
manifested, equally by the young, the middle-aged, or the old.
The young, closing their eyes to that bright life whose
sweetness they have as yet scarcely tasted, never murmur at
being deprived of it, though hope is to them so alluring; the
middle-aged, called away in the midst of projects yet
unaccomplished, see the sudden end of all that before interested
them, with no other concern than for the children they leave
behind them; the old, among other races generally so tenacious
of life, are, as a rule, glad that their last hour has come, and
speak only of their joy that at last they "go home" to that
country whither so many of their friends and kindred have gone
This in itself would stamp the Celtic character with an
indelible mark, distinguishing it from all other, even most
The second sign we find of the firm hold the supernatural had
taken of the Irish from the very beginning is their strong
belief in the power of the priesthood. This is so striking among
them that they have been called by their enemies and those of
the Church "a priest-ridden people." Let us consider if this is
If Christianity be true, what is the priesthood? Even among the
Greeks, from whom so many heresies formerly sprang before they
were smitten into insignificance by schism and its punishment--
Turkish slavery--when the great doctors sent them by Providence
spoke on the subject, what were their words, and what impression
did they make on their supercilious hearers? St. John Chrysostom
will answer. His long treatise, written to his friend Basil, is
but a glowing description of the great privileges given to the
Christian priest by the High-Priest himself--Christ our Lord.
When the great preacher of Antioch, though not yet a priest,
describes the awful moment of sacrifice, the altar surrounded by
angels descended from heaven, the man consecrated to an office
higher than any on earth, and as high as that of the incarnate
Son of God--God himself coming down from above and bringing down
heaven with him--who can believe in Christianity and fail to be
struck with awe?
Who can read the words of Christ, declaring that any one
invested with that dignity is sent by him as he was himself sent
by his Father, and not feel the innate respect due to such
divine honors? Who can read the details of those privileges with
respect to the remission of sin, the conferring of grace by the
sacraments, the infallible teaching of truth, the power even
granted to them sometimes over Nature and disease, without
feeling himself transported into a world far above this, and
without placing his confidence in what God himself has declared
so powerful and preeminent in the regions beyond?
Such, in a few words, is the Christian priesthood, if
Christianity possesses any reality and is not an imposture.
Among all nations, therefore, where sound faith exists, the
greatest respect is shown to the ministers of God; but the Irish
have at all times been most persistent in their veneration and
trust. And if we would ascertain the cause of their standing in
this regard, we shall find that other nations, while firmly
believing the words of Christ, keep their eyes open to human
frailty, and look more keenly and with more suspicion on the
conduct of men invested with so high a dignity, but subject at
the same time to earthly passions and sins; while the Irish, on
the contrary, abandon themselves with all the impulsiveness of
their nature to the feeling uppermost in their hearts, which is
ever one of trust and ready reliance.
But this statement, whatever may be its intrinsic value, itself
needs a further explanation, which is only to be found in the
greater attraction the supernatural always possessed for the
Irish nature, when developed by grace. They accept fully and
unsuspiciously what is heavenly, because they, more than others,
feel that they are made for heaven, and the earth, consequently,
has for them fewer attractions. They cling to a world far above
this, and whatever belongs to it is dear to them.
Hence, from the first preaching of Christianity among them, all
earthly dignities have paled before the heavenly honors of the
priesthood. They have been taught by St. Patrick that even the
supreme duties of a real Christian king fall far below those of
a Christian bishop.
The king, according to the apostle of Ireland - and his words
have become a canon of the Irish Church - "has to judge no man
unjustly; to be the protector of the stranger, of the widow, and
the orphan; to repress theft, punish adultery, not to keep
buffoons or unchaste persons; not to exalt iniquity, but to
sweep away the impious from the land, exterminate parricides and
perjurers; to defend the poor, to appoint just men over the
affairs of the kingdom, to consult wise and temperate elders, to
defend his native land against its enemies rightfully and
stoutly; in all things to put his trust in God."
All this evidently refers only to the exterior polity and
administration. But "the bishop must be the hand which supports,
the pilot who directs, the anchor that stays, the hammer that
strikes, the sun that enlightens, the dew which moistens, the
tablet to be written on, the book to be read, the mirror to be
seen in, the terror that terrifies, the image of all that is
good; and let him be all for all."
Under this metaphorical style we here discern all the interior
qualities of a spiritual Christian guide, teaching no less by
authority than example.
And, in the opinion of the converts of Patrick, were not the
bishops, abbots, and priests, supported by an invisible power,
stronger than all visible armies and guards of kings and princes?
"When the King of Cashel dared to contend against the holy abbot
Mochoemoc, the first night after the dispute an old man took the
king by the hand and led him to the northern city-walls; there
he opened the king's eyes, and he beheld all the Irish saints of
his own sex in white garments, with Patrick at their head; they
were there to protect Mochoemoc, and they filled the plain of
"The second night the old man came again and took the king to
the southern wall, and there he saw the white-robed glorious
army of Ireland's virgins, led by Bridget: they too had come to
defend Mochoemoc, and they filled the plain of Monael." 1
(1 Many quotations in this chapter are from the "Legend. Hist."
by J. G. Shea.)
In the annals of no other Christian nation do we see so many
examples of the power of the ministers of God to punish the
wicked and help and succor the good, as we do in the hagiography
of Ireland. Bad kings and chieftains reproved, cursed, punished;
the poor assisted, the oppressed delivered from their enemies,
the sick restored to health, the dead even raised to life, are
occurrences which the reader meets in almost every page of the
lives of Irish saints. The Bollandists, accustomed as they were
to meet with miracles of that kind, in the lives they published,
found in Irish hagiography such a superabundance of them, that
they refused to admit into their admirable compilation a great
number already published or in manuscript. Nevertheless, the
critics of our days, finding nothing impossible to or unworthy
of God in the large collection of Colgan and other Irish
antiquarians, express their surprise at their exclusion from
that of Bollandus.
No one at least will refuse to concede that, true or not, the
facts related in those lives are always provocative of piety and
redolent of faith. They certainly prove that at all periods of
their existence the Irish have manifested a holy avidity for
every thing supernatural and miraculous. Do they not know that
our Lord has promised gifts of this description to his apostles
and their successors? And what the acts of the Apostles and many
acts of martyrs positively state as having happened at the very
beginning of the Church, is not a whit less extraordinary or
physically impossible than any thing related in the Irish
Every Christian soul naturally abhors the unbelief of a Strauss
or of a Renan as to the former; is it not unnatural, then, for
the same Christian soul to reject the latter because they fall
under the easy sneer of "an Irish legend," and are not contained
in Holy Writ?
At all events, the faith of the Irish has never wavered in such
matters, and to-day they hold the same confidence in the
priests' power that meets us everywhere in the pages of Colgan
and Ward. The reason is, that they admit Christianity without
reserve; and in its entirety it is supernatural. The criticisms
of human reason on holy things hold in their eyes something of
the sacrilegious and blasphemous; such criticisms are for them
open disrespect for divine things; and, inasmuch as divine
things are, in fact, more real than any phenomena under natural
laws can be, skepticism in the former case is always more
unreasonable than in the latter, supposing always that the
narrative of the Divine favors reposes on sufficient authority.
It is clear, therefore, that since the preaching of Christianity
in Ireland, the world showed itself to the inhabitants of that
country in a different light to that in which other men beheld
it. For them, Nature is never separated from its Maker; the hand
of God is ever visible in all mundane affairs, and the frightful
parting between the spiritual and material worlds, first
originated by the Baconian philosophy, which culminates in our
days in the almost open negation of the spiritual, and thus
materializes all things, is with justice viewed by the children
of St. Patrick with a holy horror as leading to atheism, if it
be not atheism itself.
Without going to such extremes as the avowed infidels of modern
times, all other Christian nations have seemed afraid to draw
the logical conclusions whose premises were laid down by
revelation. They have tried to follow a _via media_ between
truth and error; they have admitted to a certain extent the
separation of God and Nature, supposing the act of creation to
have passed long ages ago, and not continuing through all time;
and thus they are bound by their system to hold that miracles
are very extraordinary things, not to be believed _prima facie_,
requiring infinite precautions before admitting the supposition
of their having taken place; all which indicates a real
repugnance to their admission, and an innate fear of supposing
God all-powerful, just, and good. It is the first step to
Manicheism and the kindred errors; and most Christian nations
having, unfortunately, imbibed the principles of those errors in
the philosophy of modern times, have almost lost all faith in
the supernatural, and reduced revelation to a meagre and cold
system, unrealized and not to be realized in human life.
Not so the Irish Religion has entered deep into their life. It
is a thing of every moment and of every place. Nature, God's
handiwork, instead of repelling them from God himself, draws
them gently but forcibly toward Him, so that they feel
themselves to be truly recipients of the blessings of God by
being sharers in the blessings of Nature.
And must God's ministers, who have received such extraordinary
powers over the supernatural world, be entirely deprived of
power over the inferior part of creation? Who can say so, and
have true faith in the words of our Lord? Who can say so, and
truly call himself the follower and companion of the saints who
have all believed so firmly in the constant action of God in
this, the lesser part of his creation?
And this faith of the Irish in the power of the priesthood is
not a thing of yesterday. It dates from their adoption of
Christianity, to continue, we hope, forever. It ought, therefore,
to be carefully distinguished from that love for every priest
of God which beats so ardently in the hearts of them all, and
which was so strengthened by a long community of persecution and
In Ireland, as in every other Christian country, the priesthood
has always sided with the people against their oppressors.
During the early ages of Christianity in the island, the bishops,
priests, and monks, were often called upon to exercise their
authority and power against princes and chiefs of clans,
accustomed to plunder, destroy, and kill, on the slightest
pretext, and unused to control their fierce passions, inflamed
by the rancor of feuds and the pride of strength and bravery.
Some of those chieftains even opposed the progress of religion;
and it is said that Eochad, King of Ulster, cast his two
daughters, whom Patrick had baptized and consecrated to God,
into the sea.
For several centuries the heads of clans were generally so
unruly and so hard to bring under the yoke of Christ, that the
saints, in taking the side of the poor, had to stand as a wall
of brass to stem the fury of the great and powerful.
Bridget even, the modest and tender virgin, often spoke harshly
of princes and rulers. "While she dwelt in the land of Bregia,
King Connal's daughter-in-law came to ask her prayers, for she
was barren. Bridget refused to go to receive her; but, leaving
her without, she sent one of her maidens. When the nun returned:
'Mother,' she asked, 'why would you not go and see the queen?
you pray for the wives of peasants.' 'Because,' said the servant
of God, 'the poor and the peasants are almost all good and pious,
while the sons of kings are serpents, children of blood and
fornication, except a small number of elect. But, after all, as
she had recourse to us, go back and tell her that she shall have
a son; he will be wicked, and his race shall be accursed, yet he
shall reign many years.'"
We might multiply examples such as this, wherein the saints and
the ministers of God always side with the poor and the helpless;
and their great number in the lives of the old saints at once
gives a reason for the deep love which the lower class of the
Irish people felt for the holy men who were at once the servants
of God and their helpers in every distress.
The same thing is to be found in the whole subsequent history of
the island, chiefly in the latter ages of persecution. But, as
we said before, this affection and love must be distinguished
from the feeling of reverence and awe resulting from the
supernatural character of their office. The first feeling is
merely a natural one, produced by deeds of benevolence and holy
charity fondly remembered by the individuals benefited. The
second was the effect of religious faith in the sacredness of
the priestly character, and remained in full force even when the
poor themselves fell under reproof or threat in consequence of
some misdeed or vicious habit.
Hence the universal respect which the whole race entertains for
their spiritual rulers, and their unutterable confidence in
their high prerogatives. In prosperity as in adversity, in
freedom or in subjection, they always preserve an instinctive
faith in the unseen power which Christ conferred on those whom
He chose to be his ministers. This feeling, which is undoubtedly
found among good Christians in all places, is as certainly only
found among particular individuals; but among the Irish Celts it
is the rule rather than the exception.
Well have they merited, then, in this sense, from the days of St.
Patrick down, the title of a "priest-ridden" people, which has
been fixed on them as a term of reproach by those for whom all
belief in the supernatural is belief in imposture.
Another and a stronger fact still, exemplifying the extent to
which the Irish have at all times carried their devotion to the
supernatural character of the Christian religion, is the
extraordinary ardor with which, from the very beginning, they
rushed into the high path of perfection, called the way of
"evangelical counsels." Nowhere else were such scenes ever
witnessed in Christian history.
For the great mass of people the common way of life is the
practice of the commandments of God; it is only the few who feel
themselves called on to enter upon another path, and who
experience interiorly the need of being "perfect."
In Ireland the case was altogether different from the outset. St.
Patrick, notwithstanding his intimate knowledge of the leanings
of the race, expresses in his "Confessio" the wonder and delight
he experienced when he saw in what manner and in what numbers
they begged to be consecrated to God the very first day after
their baptism. Yet were they conscious that this very eagerness
would excite the greater opposition on the part of their pagan
relatives and friends. Thus we read of the fate of Eochad's
daughters, and the story of Ethne and Felimia.
The whole nation, in fact, appeared suddenly transported with a
holy impetuosity, and lifted at once to the height of Christian
life. Monasteries and nunneries could not be constructed fast
enough, although they contented themselves with the lightest
fabrics--wattles being the ordinary materials for walls, and
slender laths for roofs.
Nor was this an ephemeral ardor, like a fire of stubble or straw,
flashing into a momentary blaze, to relapse into deeper gloom.
It lasted for several centuries; it was still in full flame at
the time of Columba, more than two hundred years after Patrick;
it grew into a vast conflagration in the seventh and eighth
centuries, when multitudes rushed forth from that burning island
of the blest to spread the sacred fire through Europe.
How the nation continued to multiply, when so many devoted
themselves to a holy celibacy, is only to be explained by the
large number of children with which God blessed those who
pursued an ordinary life, and who, from what is related in the
chronicles of the time, must have been in a minority.
Of the first monasteries and convents erected not a single
vestige now remains, because of the perishable materials of
which they were constructed; yet each of them contained hundreds,
nay thousands, of monks or nuns.
But, even in our days, we are furnished with an ocular
demonstration of what men could scarcely bring themselves to
believe, or at least would term an exaggeration, did not
standing proof remain. God inspired his children with the
thought of erecting more substantial structures, of building
walls of stone and roofing them in with tiles and metal; and the
island was literally covered, not with Gothic castles or
luxurious palaces and sumptuous edifices, but with large and
commodious buildings and churches, wherein the religious life of
the inmates might be carried on with greater comfort and
seclusion from the world.
At the time of the Reformation all those asylums of perfection
and asceticism were of course profaned, converted to vile or
slavish uses, many altogether destroyed to the very foundations;
a greater number were allowed to decay gradually and become
heaps of ruins.
And what happened when the English Government, unable any longer
to resist public opinion, was compelled to consent that a survey
be made of the poor and comparatively few remains still in
existence, in order to manifest a show of interest for the past
history of the island; when commissioners were appointed to
publish lists and diagrams of the former dwellings of the
"saints," which the "zeal" of the "reformers" had battered down
without mercy? To the astonishment of all, it was proved by the
ruins still in existence that the greater portion of the island
had been once occupied by monasteries and convents of every
description. And Prof. O'Curry has stated his conviction, based
on local traditions and geographical and topographical names,
that a great number of these can be traced back to Patrick and
his first companions.
It is clear enough, then, that, from the beginning, the Irish
were not only "priest-ridden," but also very attached to
Yet we could not form a complete idea of that attachment were we
to limit ourselves to an enumeration of the buildings actually
erected, supposing such an enumeration possible at this time.
For we know, by many facts related in Irish hagiology, that a
great number of those who devoted themselves to a life of
penance and austerity, did not dwell even in the humble
structures of the first monks, but, deeming themselves unworthy
of the society of their brethren, or condemned by a severe but
just "friend of their soul," as the confessor was then called,
hid themselves in mountain-caves, in the recesses of woods or
forests, or banished themselves to crags ever beaten by the
waves of the sea.
Yes, there was a time when those dreadful solitudes of the
Hebrides, which frighten the modern tourist in his summer
explorations, teemed with Christian life, and every rock, cave,
and sand-bar had its inhabitant, and that inhabitant an Irish
They sometimes spent seven years on a desert islet doing penance
for a single sin. They often passed a lifetime on a rock in the
midst of the ocean, alone with God, and enjoying no communion
but that of their conscience.
Who knows how many thousands of men have led such a life,
shocking, indeed, to the feelings of worldlings, but in reality
devoted to the contemplation of what is above Nature--a life,
consequently, exalted and holy?
Passing from the solitudes to the numerous hives where the bees
of primitive Christianity in Ireland were busy at work
constructing their combs and secreting their honey, what do we
see? People generally imagine that all monastic establishments
have been alike; that those of mediaeval times were simply the
reproduction of earlier ones. An abbot, the three vows,
austerity, psalmody, study--such are the general features common
to all; but those of Ireland had peculiarities which are worthy
of examination. We shall find in them a stronger expression of
the supernatural, perhaps; certainly a more heavenly cast, a
greater forgetfulness of the world, its manners and habits, its
passions and aims.
Patrick had learned all he knew of this holy life in the
establishment of Lerins, wherein the West reflected more truly
than it ever did subsequently the Oriental light of the great
founders of monasticism in Palestine and Egypt.
The first thing to be remarked is the want, to a great extent,
of a strict system. The Danes, when Christianized, and the Anglo-
Normans, introduced this afterwards; but the genius of the Irish
race is altogether opposed to it, and the Scandinavian races in
following ages could hardly ever bring them under the cold
uniformity of an iron rule.
Did St. Patrick establish a rule in the monasteries which he
founded? Did St. Columba two centuries later? Did any of the
great masters of spiritual life who are known to have exercised
an influence on the world of Irish convents? Not only has
nothing of the kind been transmitted to us, but no mention of it
is made in the lives of holy abbots which we possess.1 (1 The
"Irish Penitentials," quoted at length in Rev. Dr. Moran's
"Early Irish Church," are not monastic rules, although many
canons have reference to monks.) St. Columbanus's rule is the
only one which has come down to us; but the monasteries founded
by him were all situated in Burgundy, Switzerland, Germany, and
Italy--that is to say, out of Ireland, out of the island of
saints. He was compelled to furnish his monasteries with a
written rule, because they were surrounded by barbarous peoples,
some of whom his establishments often received as monks, and to
whom the holiness of Ireland was unfamiliar or utterly unknown.
But why should the people of God, living in his devoted island,
redeemed as soon as born by the waters of baptism, be shackled
by enactments which might serve as an obstacle to the action of
the Holy Ghost on their free souls?
According to the common opinion, each founder of a monastery had
his own rule, which he himself was the first to follow in all
its rigor; if disciples came, they were to observe it, or go
elsewhere; if, after having embraced it, they found themselves
unable to keep it to the letter, the abbot was indulgent, and
did not impose on them a burden which they could no longer bear,
after having first proved their willingness to practise it.
Thus, it is reported that St. Mochta was the only one who
practised his own rule exactly, his monks imitating him as well
as they could. St. Fintan, who was inclined to be severe,
received this warning in a vision: "Fight unto the end thyself;
but beware of being a cause of scandal to others, by requiring
all to fight as thou doest, for one clay is weaker than another."
Thus, every founder, every abbot even, left to the guidance of
the Holy Spirit, practised austerities which in our days of self-
indulgence seem absolutely incredible, and showed themselves
severe to those under their authority. But this severity was
tempered by such zeal for the good of souls, and consequently by
such an unmistakable charity, that the penitent monk carried his
burden not only with resignation, but with joy. This, in after-
ages, became a characteristic feature of Irish monasticism.
The life of Columba is full of examples of this holy severity.
In St. Patrick's life we read that Colman died of thirst rather
than quench it before the time appointed by his master.
How many facts of a similar nature might be mentioned! Enough to
say that, after so many ages, in which, thanks to barbarous
persecutions, all ecclesiastical and monastic traditions were
lost to Ireland, through the sheer impossibility of following
them up, the Irish still show a marked predilection for the holy
austerity of penance, though the rest of the Christian world
seems to have almost totally forgotten it.
But if the Irish convents lacked system, there was at the same
time in them an exuberance of feeling, an enthusiastic impulse,
which is to be found nowhere else to the same extent, and which
we call their second peculiar feature after they received
Christianity. This is beautifully expressed in a hymn of the
office of St. Finian: "Behold the day of gladness; the clerks
applaud and are in joy; the sun of justice, which had been
hidden in the clouds, shines forth again."
As soon as this primitive enthusiasm seemed to slacken in the
least, reformers appeared to enkindle it again. Such was Bridget,
such was Gildas, such were the disciples of St. David of
Menevia in Wales, such was any one whom the Spirit of God
inspired with love for Ireland. Thus the scenes enacted in the
time of Patrick were again and again repeated.
And when a monastery was built, it was not properly a monastery,
but a city rather; for the whole country round joined in the
goodly work. As some one has said, "it looked as if Ireland was
going to cease to be a nation, and become a church."
With regard to the question of ground and the appropriation of
landed property, what matters it who is the owner? If it be clan
territory, there is the clan with nothing but welcome, applause,
and assistance. If it be private, the owner is not consulted
even; how could he think of opposing the work of God? Thus, we
never read in Irish history - in the earlier stages at least -
of those long charters granted in other lands by kings, dukes,
and counts, and preserved with such care in the archives of the
monastery. It seems that the Danes, after they became Christians,
were the first to introduce the custom; after them, the Anglo-
Normans, in the true spirit of their race, made a flourishing
business of it. The Irish themselves never thought of such at
first. There was no fear of any one ever claiming the ground on
which God's house stood. The buildings were there: the ground
needed to support them: what Irishman could think of driving
away the holy inmates and pulling the walls about their ears?
The whole surrounding population is busy erecting them. Long
rows of wattles and tessel-work are set in right order; over
them a rough roof of boards; within small cells begin to appear,
as the slight partitions are erected between them. Symmetry or
no symmetery, the position of the ground decides the question;
for there is no need of the skill of a surveyor to establish the
grade. Does not the rain run its own way, once it begins?
How far and how wide will those long rows reach? They seem the
streets of a city; and in truth they are. The place is to
receive two, three thousand monks, over and above the students
committed to their care. And, in addition to the cells to dwell
in, there are the halls wherein to teach; the museums and
repositories of manuscripts, of sacred objects; the rooms to
write in, translate, compose; the sheds to hold provisions, to
prepare and cook them, ready for the meal.
For the most important edifice--the temple of God--alone stones
are cut, shaped, and fitted each to each with care and precision.
A holy simplicity surrounds the art; yet are there not wanting
carven crosses and other divine emblems sculptured out. Within,
the heavenly mysteries of religion will be performed. Should you
ask, "Why so small?" the answer is ready. That large space empty
around holds room enough for the worshippers, whose numbers
could be accommodated in no edifice. The minds of Irish
architects had not yet expanded to the conception of a St.
Peter's. Inside is room enough for the ministers of religion;
without, at the tinkling of the bell, in the round tower
adjoining, the faithful will join in the services.
Nor was it only in the erection of those edifices that a cheerful
impulse, which overlooked or overcame all difficulties, was
displayed. The monastic life was not all the time a life of
penance and gloomy austerity, but of active work also and
overflowing feeling, of true poetry and enthusiastic exultation.
We read in the fragments we still possess how, on the arid rock
of Iona, Columba remembered his former residence at Derry, with
its woods of oaks and the pure waters of its loughs. In all the
lives of Irish saints we read of the deep attachment they always
preserved for their country, relatives, and friends; what they
did and were ready to do for them. And though all this was at
bottom but a natural feeling, the extent to which it was carried
will make us better acquainted with the Irish character, and
explain more clearly that extraordinary expansion of soul which,
in the domains of the supernatural, surpassed every thing
"In a monastery two brothers had lived from childhood. The elder
died, and while he was dying the other was laboring in the
forest. When he came back, he saw the brethren opening a grave
in the cemetery, and thus he learned that his brother was dead.
He hastened to the spot where the Abbot Fintan, with some of his
monks, were chanting psalms around the corpse, and asked him the
favor of dying with his brother, and entering with him into the
heavenly kingdom. 'Thy brother is already in heaven,' replied
Fintan, 'and you cannot enter together unless he rise again.'
Then he knelt in prayer, the angels who had received the holy
soul restored it, and the dead man, rising in his bier, called
his brother: 'Come,' said he, 'but come quickly; the angels
await us.' At the same time he made room beside him, and both,
lying down, slept together in death, and ascended together to
the kingdom of God."
This anecdote may tend better than any thing else to show us how
Nature and grace were united in the Irish soul, to warm it,
purify it, exalt it above ordinary feelings and earthly passions,
and keep it constantly in a state of energy and vitality
unknown to other peoples. For, in what page of the
ecclesiastical history of other nations do we read of things
such as these?
With regard to their country, also, grace came to the aid of
Nature; the supernatural was, therefore, seldom absent from the
natural in their minds, and something of this double union has,
remained in them in every sense, and has, no doubt, contributed
to render their nationality imperishable in spite of persecution.
How ardent and pure in the heart of Columba was the love of
Ireland, from which he was a voluntary exile! Patrick, also,
though not native born, yielded to none in that sacred feeling;
one of the three things he sought of God on dying was, that Erin
should not "remain forever under a foreign yoke:" Kieran offered
the same prayer, and their reason for thus praying was that she
was the "island of saints," destined to help out the salvation
Religion has been invariably connected with that acute sentiment
ever present in the minds of Irishmen for their country; and it
is, doubtless, that holy and supernatural feeling which has
preserved a country which enemies strove so strenuously to wrest
But it was not love of country alone, of relatives and friends,
which enkindled in their hearts a spirit of enthusiasm; their
whole monastic life was one of high-spirited devotedness, and
energy, and action, more than human.
We see them laboring in and around their monastic hive. How they
pray and chant the divine office; how they study and expound the
holy doctrine to their pupils; how they are ever travelling,
walking in procession by hundreds and by thousands through the
island, the interior spirit not allowing them to stand still.
There are so many pilgrimages to perform, so many shrines to
venerate, so many works of brotherly love to undertake. Other
monks in other countries, indeed, did the same, but seldom with
such universal ardor. The whole island, as we said, is one
church. On all sides you may meet bishops, and priests, and
monks, bearing revered relics, or proceeding to found a new
convent, plant another sacred edifice, or establish a house for
the needy. The people on the way fall in and follow their
footsteps, sharers of the burning enthusiasm. Many-how many!-
were thus attracted to this mode of life, wherein there was
scarce aught earthly, but all breathing holiness and heavenly
Thus the island was from the beginning a holy island. But zeal
for God in their own country alone not being enough for their
ardor, those men of God were early moved by the impulse of going
abroad to spread the faith. Volumes might be written of their
apostleship among barbarous tribes; we have room only for a few
They first went to the islands north of them, to the Hebrides,
the Faroe Isles, and even Iceland, which they colonized before
the Norwegian pirates landed there. Then they evangelized
Scotland and the north of England; and, starting from
Lindisfarne, they completed the work of the conversion of the
Anglo-Saxons, which was begun by St. Augustin and his monks in
Finally, the whole continent of Western Europe offered itself to
their zeal, and at once they were ready to enter fully and
unreservedly into the current of new ideas and energies which at
that time began to renew the face of that portion of the world
Back to Full Books