Saint Patrick

Patrick Weston Joyce

109. It is commonly supposed that the druidic religion prevailed in pagan Ireland; but we know very little of the nature and ceremonials of this Irish druidism.

In the oldest Irish traditions the druids figure conspicuously. All the early colonists had their druids, who are mentioned as holding high rank among kings and chiefs. They are often called men of science to indicate their superior knowledge. Many worshipped idols of some kind: some worshipped water; some, fire; some, the sun.

They were skilled in magic—indeed they figure more conspicuously as magicians than in any other capacity—and were believed to be possessed of tremendous preternatural powers. They practised divination, and foretold future events from dreams and visions, from sneezing and casting lots; from the croaking of ravens and the chirping of wrens. They bitterly opposed Christianity; and we know that there were druids in the country long after St. Patrick's time, who continued to exercise powerful influence.

110. Our most ancient secular and ecclesiastical literature attests the universal belief in the side [Shee] or fairies, who, as we are told, were worshipped by the Irish. These were local deities who were supposed to live in the interior of pleasant green hills or under great rocks or sepulchral cairns, where they had splendid palaces. Many of these fairy hills are still known all over the country, each with its tutelary deity; and they are held in much superstitious awe by the peasantry.

The fairies were also believed to inhabit the old raths and lisses, so numerous through the country, a superstition that still lingers everywhere among the people.

111. In some places idols were worshipped. There was a great idol, called Crom Cruach, covered all over with gold, on Moy-Slecht (the plain of adoration) in the present county of Cavan, surrounded by twelve lesser idols, all of which were destroyed by St. Patrick. These thirteen idols were all pillar-stones; and according to our ancient authorities pillar-stone idols were worshipped in many other parts of Ireland as well as at Moy-Slecht.

112. We know that there were Christians in Ireland long before the time of St. Patrick, but we have no evidence to show how Christianity was introduced in those early ages. In the year 431, Pope Celestine sent Palladius "to the Scots believing in Christ" to be their first bishop. There must have been Christians in considerable numbers when the Pope thought this measure necessary; and such numbers could not have grown up in a short time. Palladius landed in Wicklow, from which he was expelled by the local chief; and he died soon afterwards in Scotland.

113. The next mission had very different results. "Although Christianity was not propagated in Ireland by the blood of martyrs, there is no instance of any other nation that universally received it in as short a space of time as the Irish did;" and in the whole history of Christianity we do not find a missionary more successful than St. Patrick.

114. It is pretty certain that Patrick was born either in Scotland or in Armoric Gaul: the weight of authority tends to Dumbarton in Scotland. His parents were Christians: his father Calpurnius was a deacon, and also a decurion or magistrate in a Roman colony. When Patrick was a boy of sixteen he was taken captive with many others and brought to Ireland about the year 403, in one of these predatory excursions, already spoken of (106), by Niall of the Nine Hostages. He was sold as a slave and spent six years of his life herding sheep on the bleak slopes of Slemish mountain in Antrim. Here in his solitude his mind was turned to God, and while carefully doing the work of his hard master Milcho, he employed his leisure hours in devotions. We know this from his own words in the Confession (19):—"I was daily tending the flocks and praying frequently every day that the love of God might be more enkindled in my heart; so much so that in one day I poured out my prayers a hundred times and as often in the night: nay, even in woods and mountains I remained and rose before the light to my prayers, in frost and snow and rain, and suffered no inconvenience, nor yielded to any slothfulness, for the Spirit of the Lord was fervent within me."

115. At the end of six years he escaped and made his way through many hardships and dangers to his native country. During his residence in Ireland he had learned the language of the people; and brooding continually on the state of pagan darkness in which they lived, he formed the resolution to devote his life to their conversion. He set about his preparation very deliberately. He first studied under St. Martin in his monastic school at Tours, and spent some time subsequently with St. Germain of Auxerre.

During all this time he applied himself fervently to works of piety; and he had visions and dreams in which he heard the Irish people calling to him to return to Ireland and walk among them with the light of faith. At length the time came to begin the great work of his life; and he repaired to Rome with a letter from St. Germain recommending him to Pope Celestine as a suitable person to attempt the conversion of the Irish nation.

116. Having received authority and benediction from the Pope he set out for Ireland.[1] On his way through Gaul news came of the death of Palladius, and as this left Ireland without a bishop, Patrick was consecrated bishop by a certain holy prelate named Amator. Embarking for Ireland he landed, in the year 432, on the Coast of Wicklow, at the mouth of the Vartry river, the spot where the town of Wicklow now stands, He was then about forty-five years of age. Soon after landing he was expelled from Wicklow like his predecessor; and coasting northwards and resting for a time at the little island of Holmpatrick on the Dublin Coast near Skerries, he and his companions finally landed at Lecale in Down. Dicho, the chief of the district, instantly sallied forth with his people to drive them back; but when he caught sight of them he was so struck by their calm and dignified aspect that he saluted them respectfully and invited them to his house.

Here the saint announced his mission and explained his doctrine; and Dicho and his whole family became Christians and were baptized: the first of the Irish converted by St. Patrick. He celebrated Mass in a sabhall [saval] or bam presented to him by the chief, on the site of which a monastery was subsequently erected, which for many ages was held in great veneration. And the memory of the auspicious event was preserved in the name by which the place was subsequently known, Saval-Patrick or Patrick's Barn, now shortened to Saul.

117. During the whole of St. Patrick's mission his invariable plan was to address himself in the first instance to the kings and chiefs. He now resolved to go straightway to Tara, where king Laeghaire and his nobles happened at this time to be celebrating a festival of some kind. Bidding farewell to his friend Dicho, he sailed southwards to the mouth of the Boyne, from which he set out on foot with his companions for Tara, and arrived at Slane on Saturday, Easter eve, A. D. 433. Here he prepared to celebrate the Easter festival, and towards nightfall, as was then the custom, lighted the Paschal fire on the hill of Slane.

118. At this very time it happened that the king's people were about to light the festival fire at Tara, which was a part of their ceremonial; and there was a law that while this fire was burning no other should be kindled in the country all round, on pain of death. The king and his courtiers were much astonished when they saw the fire ablaze upon the hill of Slane, nine miles off; and when the monarch inquired about it his diuids said:—"If that fire which we see be not extinguished to-night it will never be extinguished, but will over-top all our fires: and he that has kindled it will overturn thy kingdom." Whereupon the king, in great wrath, instantly set out in his chariot with a small retinue; and having arrived near Slane, he summoned the strangers to his presence. He had commanded that none should rise up to show them respect; but when they presented themselves, one of the courtiers, Erc the son of Dego, struck with the saint's commanding appearance, rose from his seat and saluted him. This Erc was converted and became afterwards bishop of Slane. The result of this interview was what St, Patrick most earnestly desired; he was commanded to appear next day at Tara and give an account of his proceedings before the assembled court.

119. The next day was Easter Sunday. Patrick and his companions set out for the palace, and on their way they chanted a hymn in the native tongue—an invocation for protection against the dangers and treachery by which they were beset; for they had heard that persons were lying in wait to slay them. This hymn was long held in great veneration by the people of this country, and we still possess copies of it in a very old dialect of the Irish language.

In the history of the spread of Christianity, it would be perhaps difficult to find a more singular and impressive scene than was presented at the court of king Laeghaire on that memorable Easter morning. The saint was robed in white, as were also his companions; he wore his mitre, and carried his crozier in his hand; and when he presented himself before the assembly, Dubhthach [Duffa] the chief poet, rose to welcome him, contrary to the express commands of the king. In presence of the monarch and his nobles, the saint explained the leading points of the Christian doctrine, and silenced the king's druids in argument.

120. The proceedings of this auspicious day were a type of St. Patrick's future career. Dubhthach became a convert and thenceforward devoted his poetical talents to the service of God; and Laeghaire gave permission to the strange missionaries to preach their doctrines throughout his dominions. Patrick next proceeded to Tailltenn, where during the celebration of the national games he preached for a week to the assembled multitudes, making many converts, among whom was Conall Gulban, brother to king Laeghaire, the ancestor of the O'Donnells of Tirconnell.

We find him soon after making straight for Moy Slecht, where stood the great national idol Crom Cruach, surrounded by twelve lesser idols. These he destroyed, and thus terminated for ever the abominations enacted for so many ages at that ancient haunt of gloomy superstition.

121. In his journey through Connaught he and his companions met the two daughters of king Laeghaire—Ethnea the fair and Fedelma the ruddy—near the royal palace of Croghan. The virgins inquired whence they came, and Patrick answered them, "It were better for you to confess to our true God than to inquire concerning our race." They eagerly asked about God, his attributes, his dwelling-place—whether in the sea, in rivers, in mountainous places, or in valleys—how knowledge of him was to be obtained, how he was to be found, seen, and loved, with other inquiries of a like nature. The Saint answered their questions, and explained the leading points of the faith; and the virgins were immediately baptized and consecrated to the service of religion.

122. On the approach of Lent he retired to the mountain which has since borne his name—Croagh Patrick or Patrick's hill—where he spent some time in fasting and prayer. At this time, A.D. 449, the seven sons of Amalgaidh [Awley] king of Connaught had convened a great assembly, to which Patrick repaired. He expounded his doctrines to the wondering assembly; and the seven princes with twelve thousand persons were baptized.

123. After spending seven years in Connaught, he visited successively Ulster, Leinster, and Munster. Soon after entering Leinster, he converted at Naas—then the residence of the Leinster kings—the two princes Ilann and Olioll, sons of the king of Leinster, who both afterwards succeeded to the throne of their father. And at Cashel, the seat of the kings of Munster, he was met by the king, Aengus the son of Natfree, who conducted him into the palace with the highest reverence and was at once baptized.

124. Wherever he went he founded churches, and left them in charge of his disciples. In his various journeys, he encountered many dangers and met with numerous repulses; but his failures were few and unimportant, and success attended his efforts in every part of his wonderful career. He founded the see of Armagh about the year 455, and constituted it the metropolitan see of all Ireland.

The greater part of the country was now filled with Christians and with churches; and the mission of the venerable apostle was drawing to a close. He was seized with his last illness in Saul, the scene of his first spiritual triumph; and he breathed his last on the seventeenth of March, in or about the year 465, in the seventy-eighth year of his age.[2]

The news of his death was the signal for universal mourning. From the remotest districts of the island, the clergy turned their steps towards the little village of Saul —bishops, priests, abbots and monks—all came to pay the last tribute of love and respect to their great master. They celebrated the obsequies for twelve days and nights without interruption, joining in the solemnities as they arrived in succession; and in the language of one of his biographers, the blaze of myriads of torches made the whole time appear like one continuous day. He was buried with great solemnity at Dun-da-leth-glas, the old residence of the princes of Ulidia; and the name, in the altered form of Downpatrick, commemorates to all time the saint's place of interment.

125. It must not be supposed that Ireland was completely Christianized by St. Patrick. There still remained large districts never visited by him or his companions; and in many others the Christianity of the people was merely on the surface. Much Pagan superstition remained, even among the professing Christians, and the druids still and for long after retained great influence; so that there was ample room for the missionary zeal of St. Patrick's successors.

[1] Some dispute his mission from the Pope.

[2] There is much uncertainty both as to St Patrick's age and as to the year of his death. I have given the age and the year that seem to me most probable.