St. Patrick (5)

Patrick Weston Joyce

The saint and his little company arrived at the hill of Slane on the north bank of the Boyne on Easter Eve, A.D. 433.

Here he prepared to celebrate the festival; and towards nightfall, as was then the custom, he lighted the Paschal fire on the top of the hill.

It so happened that at this very time the king and his nobles were celebrating a festival of some kind at Tara; and the attendants were about to light a great fire on the hill, which was part of the ceremonial.

Now there was a law that while this fire was burning no other should be kindled in the country all round on pain of death; and accordingly when the king and his courtiers saw the fire ablaze on the hill of Slane, nine miles off, they were much astonished at such an open violation of the law.

The monarch instantly called his druids and questioned them about it; and they said:—

“If that fire which we now 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.”[7]

Whereupon the king, in great wrath, instantly set out in his chariot with a small retinue, nine chariots in all; 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; and to this day there is, on the bank of the Boyne near Slane, a little ruined oratory called from him St. Erc’s Hermitage.

The result of this interview was what St. Patrick most earnestly desired: he was directed to appear next day at Tara and give an account of his proceedings before the assembled court.

On the summit of the hill of Slane, at the spot where Patrick lighted his Paschal fire, there are still the ruins of a monastery erected in commemoration of the event.

The next day was Easter Sunday.

Early in the morning 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 noble and beautiful hymn which is called in Irish Faed Fiada or the “Deer’s Cry,” from the legend that Patrick and his companions appeared in the shape of deer to the intended assassins, 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. There are also many translations of it.

In the history of the spread of Christianity, it would be difficult to find a more singular and impressive scene than was presented at the court of king Laeghaire on that memorable Easter morning.

Patrick was robed in white, as were also his companions; he wore his mitre and carried his crosier—called Bachall Isa or the Staff of Jesus—in his hand; and when he presented himself before the assembly, Dubthach [Duffa], Laeghaire’s chief poet, rose to welcome him, contrary to the express commands of the king.

The saint, all aflame with zeal and unawed by the presence of the king and court, explained to the assembly the leading points of the Christian doctrine, and silenced the king’s druids in argument.

Dubthach 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.

The king himself however was not converted; and for the remaining thirty years of his life he remained an unbeliever, while the paganism of the whole country was rapidly going down before the fiery energy of the great missionary.

Patrick next proceeded to Tailltenn[8] 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, with that intrepidity and decision of character for which he was so remarkably distinguished, making straight for Moy Slecht where stood the great national idol Cromm Cruach surrounded by twelve lesser idols (p. 124 above). These he destroyed, and thus terminated for ever the abominations enacted for so many ages at that ancient haunt of gloomy superstition.


[7] This prophecy came to pass in a spiritual sense; for Patrick overturned the kingdom of paganism. But Laeghaire understood it in a temporal sense.

[8] For Tailltenn and its great fairs and athletic games see my Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, p. 499; and p. 30 above.