Tara, Pagan and Christian

From Irish Essays: Literary and Historical by John Healy

« Cormac Mac Art | Start of Essay | The Cursing of Tara »

ST. PATRICK AT TARA.

Cormac was the link connecting Pagan and Christian Ireland. The next scene on the Hill of Tara brings the two religions face to face in the person of St. Patrick and the Druids of King Laeghaire. My description of this meeting must be very brief, yet it was the most momentous event that ever took place in the history of Ireland, for it was a struggle to the death between the old religion and the new.

Here let me observe that Druidism was not an immoral and debasing superstition, such, for instance as now may be seen in many parts of Africa. It taught the immortality, or at least the transmigration of souls; it inculcated the necessity of many natural virtues, and, though it was idolatrous and tolerant of fratricidal strife, its very superstitions were romantic, for it defied all nature. Hence the cult, as a whole, was very dear to the hearts of our Celtic forefathers, and was closely interwoven with their national life. As McGee has well said of the Druids:—

"Their mystic creed was woven round
The changeful year—for every hour
A spirit and a sense they found,
A cause of piety and power.

The crystal wells were spirit springs,
The mountain lakes were peopled under
And in the grass the fairy rings
Excelled rustic awe and wonder.

Far down beneath the western sea
Their paradise of youth was laid,
In every oak and hazel tree
They saw a fair immortal maid,—
Such was the chain of hopes and fears
That bound our sires a thousand years."

The battle then between Patrick and the Druids was a battle to the death; and the Saint could not conquer without visible help from on high. There are critics that accept the natural but reject the supernatural facts in the narrative. The testimony for both is precisely the same; so then proceeding is extremely foolish. That Patrick could conquer the Druids on Tara Hill without a miracle would, in my judgment, be as strange a thing as any miracle he wrought there.

It was Easter Sunday morning, A.D. 433. Laeghaire with the remnant of his followers had returned at dawn of day from his disastrous journey to Slane. He and his chiefs and Druids were gathered together to take a meal they needed much in the great mid-court or banquet-hall, and at the same time to take counsel for the future, when suddenly and unexpectedly, although not uninvited, Patrick with his few companions having divinely escaped the ambushes of the king, stood before them. Laeghaire was confounded at the sight, but the laws of Irish hospitality were imperative, and being there, Patrick was invited to sit beside the king, and eat and drink. Patrick accepted the invitation; but just before he took the cup the wicked Druid found time to pour in a drop of poison unnoticed into the ale. Patrick blessed the cup with the sign of the cross; the poison curdled, and when the cup was slightly turned fell out; whereupon the Saint drained the cup as if nothing had happened.

Failing in this, the Druid challenged him to work wonders. Patrick accepted the challenge, and the Druid brought a fall of snow on the plain, but he could not remove it: he was powerful for evil, but not for good; whereupon Patrick blessed the plain, and the snow instantly disappeared. Then the Druid brought a thick darkness over all the face of the country, yet he could not at Patrick's challenge remove it. But the moment the Saint made the sign of the Cross the darkness disappeared, and the sun shone out in its splendour. Still the contest was not yet over.

Both sides had books—books of power—the Gospel of Patrick, and the magic rolls of the Druids. "Fling them into the water," said Laeghaire, "into the stream close by, that we may see which comes out uninjured." "No," said the Druid, "water is his God." "Then cast them into the fire," said Laeghaire. "No," said the Druid, "fire he has also for his God," alluding to the fire of the Holy Ghost. Then said Patrick to the Druid: "Let the matter be settled in another way. Let a house be made, and do thou, if thou wilt, go into that house, which shall be completely shut up, with my chasuble around thee; a cleric of my household will also go in with thy Druid's tunic around him. Let the house be fired; and so may God deal doom on you both therein."

The men of Ireland thought that a fair challenge, and it was reluctantly accepted; yet even there Laeghaire was false, for he caused the Druid's part of the house to be built of green timber, and Benen's part to be built of dry wood. Then a mighty marvel came to pass when the house was fired; the green part thereof was burned, and the Druid within it too, although Patrick's chasuble in which he was clothed was not even singed; whilst Benen's part of the house, though dry, was not burned at all; only the Druid's cloak around him was burnt to ashes, he himself being untouched by the flames.

The site of Benen's house is still shown on the hill. The wicked king being enraged at the death of his Druid would slay Patrick, but God scattered his men and destroyed many thousands of them on that day. Then the king himself was sore afraid, and he knelt to St. Patrick, and believed in God; "but he did not believe with a pure heart," but continued to be half a Pagan all his life, and he died a Pagan's death, and was buried like a Pagan in his grave. Many thousands of the King's people also believed on that same day, when they saw the wondrous signs wrought by Patrick on the Royal Hill.

This was the crowning victory of the Cross at Tara; but it had for a thousand years been the chief seat of idolatry and druidism in the kingdom, and the same spirit lurked there long afterwards.

Oilioll Molt, the immediate successor of Laeghaire, does not seem to have been a Christian; Laeghaire's son, Lughaidh, who reigned for twenty-five years towards the close of Patrick's life, was not a Christian, and was struck by lightning from heaven at Achadh-Farcha for his impiety. Druidism was not indeed finally destroyed at Tara until the year A.D. 565, when another memorable scene was enacted on the Royal Hill to which I must now briefly refer.

« Cormac Mac Art | Start of Essay | The Cursing of Tara »


Library Ireland Facebook