The Travelling Scholars

Ethna Carbery
Chapter II

UPON the wind-swept bosom of Loch Lein, in the Kingdom of Kerry, lie many beautiful and well-wooded islands, where birds sing at dawn and twilight most enchanting strains. Very sweet and far-reaching is their singing, silvery and heart-moving, tender and jubilant, a paean of grateful praise to the Lord of sky and earth and sea. And Echo, the Son of the Rock, steals out of his fastnesses to listen, and enraptured joins his voice to the concert of rippling melody until the tremulous warble of the birds is hurled strong and loud across the blue waters, down misty glen and deep ravine; over slow rivers winding through green meadow-lands, to die away at last above the cloud-capped crest of the distant purple mountains.

But loveliest of all these lovely islands, where songbirds have their home among blossoms and fluttering leaves, is Innisfallen, the fairy isle. Here it was that Saint Finan built his great monastery in the ages long ago, and here did Maelsoohan O'Carroll rule as eminent scholar and chief Doctor of the western world during the reign of Brian the Ard-righ of Erin. It was by Maelsoohan that Brian in his boyhood was educated and taught the duties of a king, and in after years when the renowned Dalcassian was monarch over all the land, mindful of the love and reverence his heart held ever towards the teacher of his youth, he sent for the sage, and raised him to the dignity of Anmchara or Counsellor to the King. It was during this period that the event which I am about to relate occurred; a wonderful tale and a true one.

There came one day, at the same hour, three students from Connor, in Ulster, to receive education from Maelsoohan O'Carroll in his monastery on Innisfallen. These three students resembled each other in figure, in features, and in their name, which was Domnall. They remained three years learning with him, and their talent was so marvellous that his pride in them became very great. At the end of the three years they said to their preceptor—"It is our desire to go to Jerusalem, in the land of Judea, that our feet may tread every path our Saviour walked in when on earth. This is our wish, oh master, and we pray thee hinder us not, but give us thy blessing, and let us go." And while his heart was sad at parting with them Maelsoohan made answer—"You shall not go until you have left with me the reward of my labour."

In grief and amazement the pupils said, "We have not anything that we can give you, oh master, to compensate for all the care and affection you have spent upon us, but we will remain three years more to serve you humbly if it be your will." "I do not wish that," replied the sage, "but I have a demand to make, which you shall grant, or my curse will rest heavy upon you."

"Name it," said they, "and if it lies within our power we shall do what you decree."

Then Maelsoohan bound them by an oath on the Gospel of the Lord that their promise might be kept. "You shall go and make your pilgrimage in the path that your souls desire," said he, "and you shall die, at the same time, all together. The demand I require from you is that you wend not to heaven after your deaths, until you have first visited me, to tell me the length of my life and whether I shall obtain the peace of the Lord."

"We promise you all this," said the three, "for the sake of the Lord," and leaving him their blessing they departed.

In due time they reached the land of Judea, and walked in the footsteps of the Saviour. They came at last to Jerusalem, and there death overtook them, all three together at the same hour, as their master had foretold, and they were buried with much honour in that holy place. Then Michael the Archangel came from God for them, but they said—"We will not go until we have fulfilled the promise which we made to our preceptor, under our oaths on the Gospel of Christ."

"Go," commanded the angel, "and tell him that he has three years and a half to live," and that he goes to hell for all eternity after the sentence of the Day of Judgment."

"And wherefore?"

"For three causes," replied the angel—"namely, because of how much he interpolates the canon, and because of his love for women, and also for having abandoned the Altus."*

The reason why Maelsoohan abandoned the Altus was this. He had a very good son named Maelpatrick, who became seized with a mortal sickness, and the Altus was seven times sung round him that he should not die. This was, however, of no avail, since the son died forthwith, and the father then declared that he would no longer sing the hymn, as he did not see that God honoured it. Therefore Maelsoohan had been seven years without singing the Altus when his three pupils came to talk to him in the form of white doves.

"Tell me," said he, "what shall be the length of my life, and if I shall receive the heavenly reward?"

"You have," replied they, "three more years to live, and after that time you go to hell for ever."

"Why should I go to hell?" queried Maelsoohan, in great awe and wonderment.

"For three causes," and they related to him the three causes already known.

"It is not true that I shall go to the place of the wicked," said their master, "for those three vices that are mine this day shall not be mine even this day, nor shall they be mine from this time forth, for I will abandon these vices, and God will forgive me for them, as He Himself has promised, when He said—"The impiety of the impious, in whatever hour he shall be turned from it, shall not injure him." I will put no sense of my own into the canons, but such as I shall find in the Divine Books. I will perform a hundred genuflections every day. Seven years have I been without singing the Altus; now I will sing it seven times every night while I live; and I will keep a three days' fast every week. Go you now to heaven, and come back on the day of my death to tell me the result."

"We will come," they promised, so the three departed as they came, first leaving a blessing with him, and receiving his blessing in return.

When, at the end of three years, Maelsoohan lay on his death-bed, the three pupils appeared to him in the same forms—that of white doves. They saluted him, and he returned their salutations, saying—"Is my life the same before God as it was on the former day when you came to talk to me, oh my children?" and they replied—

"It is not, indeed, the same, for we were shown your place in heaven, and we are satisfied with its goodness. We are now here, as we promised, to take you with us to the place which is prepared for you that you may be in the presence of God, in the unity of the Trinity, and of the hosts of heaven, till the Day of Judgment."

There were assembled about Maelsoohan many priests and ecclesiastics; he was annointed, and his pupils parted not with him until they all went to heaven together. And in the Monastery of Innisfallen, on Loch Lein, there was exceeding sorrow and regret because of the loss of so learned and holy a man. But in the truly wonderful books he had compiled the priests and scholars found much food for study and reflection in after years; hence it is that the name and fame of Maelsoohan O'Carroll is handed down even to us of this day as a sage Doctor of far-extending renown—the preceptor and counsellor of Brian Boroimbhe, Ard-righ of Erin, and victor of the bloody field of Cluaintairbh.

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The Altus.—This was the celebrated poem or hymn written by Saint Columcille at Iona in honour of the Trinity, when the messengers of Pope Gregory came to him with the great cross and other presents.