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THE ISLAND OF SAINTS AND
BY CANON D'ALTON, M. R. I. A., LL.D.
IKE the natives of Britain and Scotland, the Irish in
pre-Christian times were not brought into contact with Roman institutions or Roman culture. In consequence they created and developed a civilization of their own that was in some respects without equal. They were far advanced in the knowledge of metal work and shipbuilding; they engaged in commerce; they loved music and had an acquaintance with letters; and when disputes arose among them, these were settled in duly constituted courts of justice, presided over by a trained lawyer, called a brehon, instead of being settled by the stern arbitrament of force. Druidism was their pagan creed. They believed in the immortality and in the transmigration of souls; they worshipped the sun and moon, and they venerated mountains, rivers, and wells; and it would be difficult to find any ministers of religion who were held in greater awe than the Druids.
Commerce and war brought the Irish into contact with Britain and the continent, and thus was Christianity gradually introduced into the island. Though its progress at first was not rapid, there were, by 431, several Christian churches in existence, and in that year Palladius, a Briton and a bishop, was sent by Pope Celestine to the Irish who already believed in Christ. Discouraged and a failure, Palladius returned to Britain after a brief stay on his mission, and then, in 432, the same Pope sent St. Patrick, who became the Apostle of Ireland.
Because of the great work he did, St. Patrick is one of the prominent figures of history; and yet, to such an extent has the dust of time settled down on his life and acts that the place and year of his birth, the schools in which he was educated, and the year of his death, are all matters of dispute. There is, however, no good reason to depart from the traditional account, which is, that the Apostle was born at Dumbarton in Scotland, in the year 372; that in 388 he was cap
tured by the Irish king Niall, who had gone on a plundering raid into Scotland; that he was brought to Ireland and sold as a slave, and that as such he served a pagan chief named Milcho who lived in what is now the county of Antrim; that from Antrim he escaped and went back to his own country; that he had many visions urging him to return to Ireland and preach the Gospel there; that, believing these were from God, he went to France, and there was educated and ordained priest, and later consecrated bishop; and then, accompanied by several ecclesiastics, he was sent to Ireland.
From Wicklow, where he landed, he proceeded north and endeavored, but in vain, to convert his old pagan master Milcho; thence he proceeded south by Downpatrick and Dundalk to Slane in Meath, where, in sight of Tara, the highking's seat, he lighted the paschal fire. At Tara he confounded the Druids in argument, baptized the high-king and the chief poet; and then, turning north and west, he crossed the Shannon into Connacht, where he spent seven years. From Connacht he passed into Donegal, and thence through Tyrone and Antrim, after which he entered Munster, and remained there seven years. Finally, he returned to Armagh, which he made his episcopal see, and died at Saul, near Downpatrick, in 493.
St. Patrick wrote two short works, both of which have survived, his Confession and his Epistle to Coroticus. In neither are there any graces of style, and the Latin is certainly not that of Cicero or Livy. But in the Confession the character of the author himself is completely revealed—his piety, his zeal, his self-sacrifice, his courage in face of every danger and every trial. Not less remarkable was the skill with which he handled men and used pagan institutions for the purposes of Christianity; and equally so was the success with which his bloodless apostolate was crowned.
One great difficulty which St. Patrick had was to provide the people with a native ministry. At first he selected the chief men-princes, brehons, bards-and these, with little training and little education, he ordained. Thus, slenderly equipped with knowledge, the priest, with his ritual, missal, and a catechism, and the bishop, with his crozier and bell, went forth to do battle for the Lord. This condition of things was
soon ended. In 450 a college was founded at Armagh, which in a short time grew to be a famous school, and attracted students from afar. Other schools were founded in the fifth century, at Noendrum, Louth, and Kildare. In the sixth century arose the famous monastic schools of Clonfert, Clonard, Clonmacnois, Arran, and Bangor; while the seventh century saw the rise of Glendalough and Lismore.
St. Patrick was educated in Gaul, at the monasteries of Marmoutier and Lerins; and, perhaps as a result, the monastic character of the early Irish church was one of its outstanding features; moreover it was to the prevalence of the monastic spirit, the desire for solitude and meditation, that so many of the great monastic establishments owed their existence. Fleeing from society and its attractions, and wishing only for solitude and austerity, some holy man sought out a lonely retreat, and there lived a life of mortification and prayer. Others came to share his poverty and vigils; a grant of land was then obtained from the ruling chief, the holy man became abbot and his followers his monks; and a religious community was formed destined soon to acquire fame. It was thus that St. Finnian established Clonard on the banks of the Boyne, and St. Kieran, Clonmacnois by the waters of the Shannon; and thus did St. Enda make the wind-swept Isles of Arran the home and the resting place of so many saints. Before the close of the sixth century, 3,000 monks followed the rule of St. *Comgall at Bangor; and in the seventh century, St. Carthage made Lismore famous and St. Kevin attracted pious men from afar to his lonely retreat in the picturesque valley of Glendalough.
And there were holy women as well as holy men in Ireland. St. Brigid was held in such honor that she is often called the Mary of the Gael. Even in St. Patrick's day, she had founded a convent at Kildare, beside which was a monastery of which di St. Conleth was superior, and she founded many other convents in addition to that at Kildare. Her example was followed by St. Ita, St. Fanchea, and many others; and if at the close of the sixth century there were few districts which had not monasteries and monks, there were few also which had not convents and nuns.
Nor was this all. Fired with missionary zeal, many men left
Ireland to plant the faith in distant lands. Thus did St. Columcille settle in Iona, whence he converted the Picts. Under his successors, St. Aidan and his friends went south to Lindisfarne to convert Northumbria in England; and the ninth abbot of Iona was the saintly Adamnan, whose biography of St. Columcille has been declared by competent authority to be the best of its kind of which the whole Middle Ages can boast. Nor must it be forgotten that the monasteries of Luxeuil and Bobbio owed their origin to St. Columbanus; that St. Gall gave his name to a town and canton in Switzerland; that St. Fridolin labored on the Rhine and St. Fursey on the Marne; and that St. Cathaldus was Bishop of Tarentum, and is still venerated as the patron of that Italian see.
And if we would know what was the character of the schools in which these men were trained, we have only to remember that Colgu, who had been educated at Clonmacnois, was the master of Alcuin; that Dicuil the Geographer came from the same school; that Cummian, Abbot and Bishop of Clonfert, combated the errors about the paschal computation with an extent of learning and a wealth of knowledge amazing in a monk of the seventh century; and that at the close of the eighth century two Irishmen went to the court of Charlemagne and were described by a monk of St. Gall as "men incomparably skilled in human learning". The once pagan Ireland had by that time become a citadel of Christianity, and was rightfully called the School of the West, the Island of Saints and Scholars.
With this state of progress and prosperity the Danes played sad havoc. Animated with the fiercest pagan fanaticism, they turned with fury against Christianity, and especially against monks and religious foundations. Armagh, Clonmacnois, Bangor, Kildare, and many other great monastic establishments thus fell before their fury. Ignorance, neglect of religion, and corruption of manners followed, and from the eighth to the twelfth century there was a noted falling off in the number of Irish scholars. At home indeed were Cormac and Maelmurra, O'Hartigan and O'Flynn, and abroad was John Scotus Erigena, whose learning was so great that it excited astonishment even at Rome. The love of learning and
zeal for religion lived on through this long period of accumulated disasters. After the triumph of Brian Boru at Clontarf, there was a distinct revival of piety and learning; and, when a century of turmoil followed Brian's fall and religion again suffered, nothing was wanted to bring the people back to a sense of their duty but the energy and reforming zeal of St. Malachy.
Gerald Barry, the notorious Anglo-Norman, who visited Ireland towards the close of the twelfth century, has been convicted out of his own mouth when he states that Ireland was a barbarous nation when his people came there. He forgot that a people who could illuminate the Book of Kells and build Cormac's Chapel could not be called savages, nor could a church be lost to a sense of decency and dignity that numbered among its children such a man as St. Laurence O'Toole. Abuses there were, it is true, consequent on long continued war, though these abuses were increased rather than lessened by the coming of the Anglo-Normans, and to such an extent that for more than two centuries there is not a single great name among Irish scholars except Duns Scotus.
The fame of Duns Scotus was European, and the Subtle Doctor, as he was called, became the great glory of the Franciscan, as his rival St. Thomas was the great glory of the Dominican, order. But he left no successor, and from his death, at the opening of the fourteenth century, till the seventeenth century the number of Irish scholars or recognized Irish saints was small. Yet, in the midst of disorders within, and despite oppression from without, at no time did the love of learning disappear in Ireland; nor was there ever in the Irish church either heresy or schism.
The attempted reformation by Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth produced martyrs like O'Hurley and O'Hely; and there were many more martyrs in the time of the Stuarts, and especially under the short but sanguinary rule of Cromwell.
Those were the days of the penal laws, when they who clung to the old religion suffered much. But nothing could shake their faith; neither the proclamations of Elizabeth and James, the massacres of Cromwell, nor the ferocious proscriptions of the eighteenth century. The priest said Mass, though