Paganism in Ireland

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter IX. ...continued

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The secular history of Ireland, during the mission of St. Patrick, affords but few events of interest or importance. King Laeghairé died, according to the Four Masters, A.D. 458. The popular opinion attributed his demise to the violation of his oath to the Leinster men. It is doubtful whether he died a Christian, but the account of his burial [1] has been taken to prove the contrary. It is much to be regretted that persons entirely ignorant of the Catholic faith, whether that ignorance be wilful or invincible, should attempt to write lives of Catholic saints, or histories of Catholic countries. Such persons, no doubt unintentionally, make the most serious mistakes, which a well-educated Catholic child could easily rectify. We find a remarkable instance of this in the following passage, taken from a work already mentioned: "Perhaps this [King Laeghairé's oath] may not be considered an absolute proof of the king's paganism. To swear by the sun and moon was apparently, no doubt, paganism. But is it not also paganism to represent the rain and wind as taking vengeance? .... for this is the language copied by all the monastic annalists, and even by the Four Masters, Franciscan friars, writing in the seventeenth century."

The passage is improved by a "note," in which the author mentions this as a proof that such superstitions would not have been necessarily regarded two centuries ago as inconsistent with orthodoxy. Now, in the first place, the Catholic Church has always [2] condemned superstition of every kind. It is true that as there are good as well as bad Christians in her fold, there are also superstitious as well as believing Christians; but the Church is not answerable for the sins of her children. She is answerable for the doctrine which she teaches; and no one can point to any place or time in which the Church taught such superstitions. Secondly, the writers of history are obliged to relate facts as they are. The Franciscan fathers do this, and had they not done it carefully, and with an amount of labour which few indeed have equalled, their admirable Annals would have been utterly useless. They do mention the pagan opinion that it was " the sun and wind that killed him [Laeghairé], because he had violated them;" but they do not say that they believed this pagan superstition, and no one could infer it who read the passage with ordinary candour.

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[1] Burial.—"The body of Laeghairé was brought afterwards from the south, and interred with his armour of championship in the south-east of the outer rampart of the royal rath of Laeghairé, at Tara, with his face turned southwards upon the men of Leinster, as fighting with them, for he was the enemy of the Leinster men in his lifetime."—Translated from the Leabhar na Nuidhre. Petrie's Tara, p. 170.

[2] Always.—National customs and prejudices have always been respected by the Church: hence she has frequently been supposed to sanction what she was obliged to tolerate. A long residence in Devonshire, and an intimate acquaintance with its peasantry, has convinced us that there is incalculably more superstitions believed and practised there of the grossest kind, than in any county in Ireland. Yet we should be sorry to charge the Established Church or its clergy, some of whom are most earnest and hard-working men, with the. sins of their parishioners. The following extract from St. Columba's magnificent Hymn, will show what the early Irish saints thought of pagan superstitions:

"I adore not the voice of birds,
Nor sneezing, nor lots in this world,
Nor a boy, nor chance, nor woman:
My Druid is Christ, the Son of God;
Christ, Son of Mary, the great Abbot,
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.'


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