The Island of Saints

Frank Mathew & Francis S. Walker
The Island of Saints

IT is not certain that this country has now any right to be called the Island of Saints. That title was given to it a long time ago. Since it was earned by the men and women, who, dwelling in stunted bee-hive cells and cramped cloisters or going out from them to instruct the Saxons and other infidels, taught the beauty of holiness by their ways and their words, Christendom has changed a good deal. Ireland has been instructed in turn, and is beginning to resemble the rest of Christendom. Now it might be more fitly called the Island of Ruins. These titles are not unrelated, since in these times saints do not prosper. Each illuminates Ireland's history; so let us end this brief study by considering them.

Probably it was the Irish who christened their country Insula Sanctorum. Even if that is so, it must be admitted that they ought to have known best; and their choice of a title—for whether they invented it or not, they adopted it—is a sign that they venerated sanctity. That was why their separate land was sacred to them. The pale hills of Ireland have the beauty of holiness. There is in it the peace of a cloister; it is as quiet as a nun. There is an old Irish poem which has been translated thus:—

"A plenteous place is Ireland for hospitable cheer,

Uileachan dubh o!

 Where the wholesome fruit is bursting from the yellow barley ear;

Uileachan dubh o!

 There is honey in the trees where her misty veils expand,

 And her forest paths in summer are by falling waters fanned,

 There is dew at high noontide there, and springs in the yellow sand,

On the fair hills of Holy Ireland."

Does not that indicate a virginal country? The dew at high noontide and the falling of many waters in the Island of Woods—these were remembered by those who wandered away from it, as tokens of its immaculate charm, and they felt that whether the people who lived in it were sinners or not, the island was holy.


Saint Columbkille's Cross, Kells

STANDS near the foot of the round tower, the entrance door of which can be seen at the usual height from the ground. There are several crosses in this town, but this is the most perfect. The carvings on it are very interesting, those that seem the clearest—"The Destruction of Pharoah's Host"—are on the base.

There is something uncanny about Ireland. Perhaps it is merely this impression of holiness, a thing rare enough now to seem uncanny; but be that as it may, one is apt to be conscious of some unnatural chill, as if the place was haunted. And it is haunted, if one can believe its inhabitants. A man is known by his dreams; and so is a race by its superstitious beliefs. If one is afflicted by tales of Vampires or Were-wolves or grim and abominable ghosts, its character is explained by such dread. You can learn something about Ireland by studying the nature of Irish ghosts. Of these there are many; and among them are two spectral countries, the Vanishing Island and Tyrnanoge.

Nearly all the islands off the coast of the West are barren and wild; but one (so it is said) is an unearthly Paradise. According to ancient traditions, this is Hy-Brazil, The Island of the Blessed; and its inhabitants have, with every other imaginable pleasure, the necessary one of remaining within sight of their former home; but since they come from different parts of that, and had enough of monotony while they were in it, they now enjoy the privilege of travel without leaving Irish waters. This new home has been beheld (it is said) from Gweebarra in Donegal, from Achill, and from Ballysadare in Sligo, from Connemara, and from the Highlands of Kerry, and from Ballydonegan in the County of Cork. You will observe that all these places are on the Celtic shore; and you will remember that the hopes of the Celts have always turned to the West. The belief in this island brought consolation to the living, because they knew that their dead were happy and near, and because they hoped that they in their turn would find happiness with so slight a removal. But that pleasant shore was not to be attained by the living. Some who sailed out to it never returned; but there is reason to hold that they were drowned before they landed on it. Many others saw it vanish away as they approached.

This is not a mere legend handed down from the past. The belief that there is such an errant and vanishing island is still held by many; and I have spoken with several in different parts of the West who have convinced me that they were convinced. But the belief is held now with a difference. None of the witnesses I met were at all certain that it was an abode of happiness. Some, like an old fisherman who told me about it in Connemara, were sure that it was not. " 'Tis the same life over again," he said, "they live as they lived here, with little to eat and little ease. 'Tis a counthry like this same; there is no kindness in the hills, and they go fishin' on black nights." How did he know? Well, he had seen the island, he alleged, but his mournful certitude about its affairs was part of his intimate knowledge of the dead. He did not believe in ghosts; but as he told me how the dead came back, solid and only changed by their gloom, seeing with darkened eyes and speaking with hushed voices or else utterly silent, he took it for granted that this was a matter not open to any doubt. A solitary old man, who had cared for nothing in the world except his sheep, was seen more than a year after his death guiding them on the Blue Gable Mountain, while the new shepherd was drunk and allowed them to stray unbefriended; and a young mother came back to her crying child in the night, and took it up in her cold arms and soothed it, without heeding the father;—of such returns as these the fisherman spoke sadly and wearily. They were as certain to him as was the fact that the familiar voices of the dead were heard often on stormy nights wailing and calling. He was a Catholic, as the happier men who believed in Hy-Brazil were also; but he did not attempt to reconcile these things with his Creed. I have not been able to learn whether this account of the Vanishing Island—The Other Country as it is called in Connemara—is recent, or was held by some while others believed in Hy-Brazil; but I am inclined to think that this was the older form, and that the legend was derived from the sad primitive wanderers, and was altered while the peasants were happy, after which time it resumed its original darkness.

While the folk by the sea had this consolation, they shared another which was a comfort to those who, because they lived inland, could not look for Hy-Brazil. This was the belief in the Irish Fairyland, Tyrnanoge. Other races have known Fairies and Elves, but not with the same intimate and enduring affection. While others have forgotten them, this one has kept the belief in them more eagerly than you might imagine if you were to judge by the little you will hear on the subject. Fear of ridicule and respect for the Fairies inculcate silence. It is well known that they do not like to be mentioned, and that if a man should refer to them, he must be careful to call them the Little Good People. They are Irish, and therefore are pleasure-loving and quarrelsome, kindly and dangerous, and above all things, peculiarly sensitive. In a bright land of peace under the hills they live immortal and untroubled and innocent.

The certitude that so pleasant a land and such a life were so near, brought rest and consolation to many whose lot was different, and it did this the more since there was always a chance of finding the way into Tyrnanoge—the Land of the Young—and becoming one of its people. Sometimes the Fairies coveted a child, and beguiled it away to be happy for ever. In spite of the first grief of the mother, they would have been forgiven for this, if their too keen sense of justice had not caused them to leave one of their own, a Changeling, instead. These Changelings were always wizened and silent, and even if they grew up, remained exiles, apart from all ordinary people, till by dying they found the way back to Tyrnanoge. Not little children alone, but their elders too, were sometimes beguiled; and of these some returned after long years that had seemed to them no more than a morning. It was not everyone that could behold the Little Good People; but many were cheered by glimpses of them, and saw them play football with dead leaves, or dance on the green raths by the light of the moon. Such was the confident and happy belief.

I have spoken with several who stated that they had seen the Little Good People, and with one old man who appeared certain that in his youth he had almost captured the Leprechaun, the solitary Elf of whom it is told that he sits by the wayside, clad in a green coat and red knee-breeches, bending a little brown face like a withered leaf over a shoe which he always tries to repair. If a man hears the Leprechaun tapping the shoe, he ought to steal up behind him and seize him, for then he will be given a ransom of gold; but he must not take his eyes off his prisoner till it is paid in full, else he will find his treasure all changed to withered leaves. Most of these witnesses were not educated; but I found one that was. He told me that he had never believed in the Fairies till, being out alone very early in the morning, not long ago, he saw some scores of tiny people in green trooping into a rath quite near him, but that when after recovering from his natural amazement, he followed them, he could find no trace of them there. I had his word for it that he was then perfectly sane and sober; and I can bear evidence that when I disbelieved his account he was extremely annoyed.

There is only one mournful Fairy, the Banshee, whose duty it is to give a warning of death by wailing in the night. The doubtful privilege of her attention is supposed to be confined to the Old Irish families of royal descent. It is not certain whether there is one Banshee to attend to them all, or whether each is entitled to one of its own. Strictly speaking, she is not a Fairy, since the Good People are all diminutive, but a supernatural being related to the usual ghost. She is described as a tall woman in white; but on this point the evidence is weak, for she is heard but not seen. The rest of the evidence about her is strong, as is natural since her notice remains the best proof of a pedigree. Innumerable records and tales vouch for her. A lady, whose word I believe implicitly, told me how when she and her sister watched alone by their father's deathbed, on a night when there was no wind, they heard a heartrending wail repeated thrice in the outer darkness, and therefore abandoned hope. An eminent lawyer, who held no brief for the Banshee, told me how, when he was a boy at Trinity College, he was at cards one night with several others, and all of them heard a similar wailing beneath in the deserted quadrangle, and how the only one of them who was of Irish descent left them then, saying that his father was dead, and how that belief was verified by news the next morning.

In the West another warning is given. When people lie at the point of death there is heard on the drive (it is said) the sound of a carriage coming at great speed. Some allege that they have seen spectral lights and shadowy horses; but in most cases nothing is visible, there is only that urgent sound on the gravel. It is believed that this carriage is sent to take the souls away. Of course, it only comes for the rich: the poor would not expect such attention. This belief illustrates the old notion that when a man went out of doors he should ride or drive, and that only the poor should trudge.

Are all these legends lies? Should we affirm that no one has ever seen the Vanishing Island or the Little Good People, or heard the Banshee or the Carriage? If so, we must reject the evidence of numerous witnesses who are in other affairs credible and apparently sane. For my part, I am convinced that a great many queer things happen in Ireland. It would be easy to cite many authorities in support of that view—take, for instance, this passage from Trevisa's version of "Polychronicon Ranulph Higden, Monachi Cestrensis."

"In this land and in Wales old wives and women were wont, and be yet (as me pleyneth) oft for to shape themselves in likeness to hares, for to milk their neighbour's kine, and so steal their milk, and oft greyhounds run after them and pursue them, and ween that they be hares. Also, some by craft of necromancy make fat swine (that be red of colour) and none other, and sell them in cheping and in fairs; but anon as these swine pass any water they turn again into their own kynd, where it be straw, hay, grass, or other turves. But these swine may not be kept by no manner of craft for to dure in the likeness of swine over three days. Among these wonders and others, take heed that in the uttermost ends of the world full oft new marvels and wonders, as though kynd played with larger leave privily and far in the ends that openly and nigh in the middle. Therefore in this island be many grisly marvels and wonders."

From this it is plain that Ranulph Higden perceived in the air of that country something uncanny. If there is any haunted land in the world this should be it. Wander alone in it on any fine day, and see whether you will not feel some unaccountable oppression, as though you were aware of a misty remembrance of agony or of a foreboding of more. You may have the feeling which is expressed in the poem (not to be found in the Works of Mr Browning)—

"There is something gone wrong, but I don't know what:

The sky is blue, and I am too.

This, I assert, is natural.—Not!

And you?"

There are prosaic explanations, of course. It may be that we should trace the descent of the Little Good People from the early heroes, and conclude that those were derived from the primitive gods. If the tales of the Tuatha-dé-Danann, those conquering wizards, and of the Fenians, should be taken as a confusion of mythology with history that would indicate how the gigantic gods of the Celts have dwindled to diminutive heroes. In this connection it is worth noting that the Fairy raths are primitive tombs. Also, you may remember the legend of Ross Castle in Lough Leane. This was the home of the O'Donoghue of the Lakes, of whom it is told that he was a chief incredibly fortunate and beneficent, and being immune from death, still lives in Tyrnanoge, whence he returns on a May morning once in every seven years to his ruined castle, which, as he rides over the lake to it on his white horse, looms briefly from the mists of the dawn as stately and perfect as it was when he reigned. Since it is certain that there was such a chief, it may be concluded that the supernatural part of his history affords a comparatively recent example of the origin of the Fairies of Ireland. This explanation may derive some support from the fact that the men of the West are not consoled now by these tales. They do not think of the Little Good People, but of the Others: they have no trust in Tyrnanoge, but they are reluctantly sure that the Other Country exists. In their shuddering resignation they people that near and remote world with the Tuatha-da-Danann and the dead of all times.

As for the Vanishing Island, that might be ascribed to a mirage; and this explanation appears the more probable since that misty land seems altered in different bays;—for instance, the fishermen of Gweebara alleged that they saw on it a village resembling their own, while those of Ballydonegan said that it was a green and solitary place like the mountain nearest to it. So, too, it is possible that the tales of the Banshee and of the Carriage and of the voices clamouring above in the dark all were suggested by the sounds of the wind. But even if you prefer such explanations, you will see that the acceptance of these and many similar tales is a proof that the Irish were always intent on a supernatural world. For this reason they saw the Wild Hunt overhead, when another race might only have seen many clouds hurled by a storm. For this reason their country became the Island of Saints.

Just as their Cromlechs and Ogham Stones have always been kept sacred, either through veneration or else through fear founded on traditional awe, so beliefs handed down from Druidical or earlier times have survived amid their long Christianity. It may be that the tales I have mentioned are examples of these: and there were formerly many observances that must have been due to that origin. A few of them survive still in Clare and in Galway and in the islands of the West, but they are gradually dying out. I do not think that red cocks are sacrificed in Clare any longer. Most of these had nothing to do with Christianity; but there were some that had been converted. For instance, there was a custom according to which the Catholic peasants assembled in "patterns," or "patrons," coming from all the country around, and camping out for several days in holy spots, as by Croagh Patrick or in Glen Columbkille or Gougane Barra, and praying together. This custom was prevalent once; and though it has been discouraged, is still sometimes observed. There seems no doubt that it was derived from the days when the people assembled for Druidical worship. Note that nearly all these patterns were held in solitary and wild places, and that homes of this kind were chosen by the primitive saints. In this they kept to the ways of the Druids, whose shrines are always remote; and it often so happened that the mountains and glens they sanctified had been held sacred when Ireland was Pagan.

The later monks, on the other hand, chose fertile and accessible homes. For instance, in Kerry you will see the walls of Saint Finn Barr's home on an island in dark Gougane Barra, in the core of the mountains, and you will find the ruins of later monasteries in pleasant Killarney. This, I think, is a token of the phases through which Christianity passed in Ireland. When first it was preached there, it won the hearts of the Celts because it taught self-denial and was founded on sorrow. This can be inferred from the old poems in which Oisin is made to contrast the joyous life of the Fenians with the austerity introduced by Saint Patrick. But when Christianity had come to be part of the Irish nature, it was no longer associated with penitence, it was a fountain of perpetual gladness. Because the Irish were Christian, they were sorrowful but always rejoicing.

Even before they were Christian, they were deeply religious. This we can conclude not only from their Annals and from the great number of Pagan relics, but also from their tongue, for the Gaelic language has, like the Greek, an indefinable suggestion of piety. Like Greek, it has a white and austere tenderness, and some incommunicable thrill. Just as in Greek there are poignant phrases that cannot be rendered in any ordinary language; so there are in the Gaelic. Take, for instance, "Mo craoibhin cno"; you can translate it, "My cluster of nuts," but what has become of its original beauty? And when the Celts write in English they remember that native influence, for their most individual work is white and intangible, as if it was woven from the fabric of dreams. Before our time, Goldsmith and Steele, though of the English of Ireland and exiles in London, remembered it also, for the best of their work was absolutely simple and had the charm of sheer goodness. Nowadays this dominant note of the Celts is incongruous, and the simplicity is apt to seem puerile. Yet you will find it in Anglo-Saxon and early English, and in the childlike Italian of the Fioretti di San Francesco, and in the French of Aucassin et Nicolette. The Gaelic tongue has never grown old.


In Glen Columbkille

I understand there are sixteen of these stones in various states of preservation within a radius of three miles. During the month of June, pilgrimages are made to the district by great numbers of persons. All the stations are visited, and the circuit ends at St Columba's Church and Well on the hillside, where each person deposits a stone. The heap has now grown to enormous proportions.

There was a time when all classes in Ireland were pious; but with the increase of civilisation, sanctity was left more and more to the peasants. They were more purely Celtic and more mediaeval, not being altered by travel or communion with foreigners, and they needed piety more. Their lot in this world was so hard that they were prone to find comfort in dreaming of the joys of the next. This is part of the secret of their fatal content and hopefulness. These Celtic habits of mind were fostered in them by their certainty that their vicissitudes were directed by Providence, and that every temporal sorrow was for their spiritual good, and that the next world would afford compensating delight. If this was so, why should they heed transitory hunger or cold? Their Celtic fatalism now took the form of a holy resignation.

All this explains two things in their more recent history: the almost incredible way in which they were reformed by the Temperance Movement, and their unnatural quiescence when so many of them died of hunger in the days of the Famine. For a very long time drink had been their bane, not because they drank much, but because they ate little. Usquebagh means the Water of Life. Strong drink puts life and warmth in the veins of men whose one food was insufficient at best and was often but scantly provided. Then suddenly, and at the call of a single priest, they renounced it. Father Theobald Mathew was not a great orator; he told them nothing that they had not known long before. The credit of that amazing alteration is due no more to him than to them. When he preached to the English, his words fell on deaf ears; but wherever he went in Ireland, the peasants answered his call in an ecstasy of religious enthusiasm. This may have been partly due to some personal magnetism of his, or to a belief that God had given him an especial power to strengthen all who took the Pledge at his hands. But he was welcome because his hearers longed for that strength; though they were degraded, still at heart they were saints. And when so many of them fell away from him in the time of the Famine, it was because they were saints no longer, having learnt to despair. Yet in that time the victims were led still by their old sanctity. Men starved with food in sight; they saw their wives and children dying of hunger, and never lifted a hand. They were famous for courage, and their children and wives were most dear to them; but they left the loaf in the baker's shop, and the corn and the cattle in the landlord's field. Men and women alike believed that the Hunger was sent by God, and for that reason they died without complaining.

There is a story of a peasant who had known many calamities, and being asked by a friend whether he wanted anything, answered, "Only the Day of Judgment." It was in a similar spirit that the peasants endured many things, making light of them, because they looked forward to that Day when they would have justice, and after brief trouble would find eternal joy. There was an inner light that made them forget the darkness around. Though they have altered and are now more concerned with the light of common day, that intrinsic piety is deep in their hearts. "Scratch a Russian, and you will catch a Tartar." Scratch an Irishman, and you will find a saint. You may have to scratch somewhat deep, and I cannot assure you that it will be a safe operation, for Irish sanctity has often been militant, like Saint Columba's; but in the least saintly of Irishmen there is the stuff of which martyrs are made.

This is one of the causes of the old-fashioned bigotry. In studying that antipathy, you should remember that its origin was racial in part, since most of the Celts remained Catholics, and was in part political, since for a long time the Government was exclusively Protestant. Now there are many Catholics of English descent, and not a few of the leading Protestants are Celts, while there are landlords and tenants of either religion, so those excuses for bigotry are things of the past. Also you must make some allowance for the national love of fighting. But the antipathy is mainly religious; and however deplorable it may be, is a proof that the Protestants and Catholics are zealous on behalf of their creeds. The Orange riots still prove Ireland's militant sanctity.

It is plain that in this the sanctity has been detrimental; but was it ever anything else? It might be contended that Ireland has been punished far more for its virtues than for its vices. After all, were its continual misfortunes a punishment? It has a dedicated look, which was recognised long ago when it was called the Island of Destiny, Inis Fail. That name was bestowed (it is said) by the Tuatha-dé-Danann when they brought with them from Greece the Stone of Destiny, Lia Fail, "Saxen fatale," as Boetius called it. This, I may remind you, was the one on which the Kings were enthroned at Tara, and (if we can believe the historians) was afterwards taken to Scotland and thence to Westminster Abbey, where it has since been used in all coronations. Thus since the English Kings claim descent from the Scottish ones, who traced their blood from those of Ireland, that country has subjugated England;—a triumph of which Westminster Hall's roof of Irish oak and Westminster Abbey's Seat of Coronation are symbols. But, to my mind, the belief in the predestination of that stone, justified though it seems to have been, was no more than a token of the knowledge that Ireland itself was set apart in some particular way, and the Royal Seat had its name from its prominence in the Island of Destiny. Ireland has always been dedicated to sorrow. On all that quiet land has reposed the benediction of pain. Long ago an Englishman wrote a poem in which he fancied Christ saying:

"Should I alway feede thee

With children's meat? Nay, love, not so!

I will prove thy love with adversity,

Quia amore langueo."


St Kevin's Church

WITH its surrounding architectural remains, St Kevin's may be said to be the centre of the archaeological interest of the Seven Churches. Glendalough is called by Sir Walter Scott "the inestimably singular scene of Irish antiquity." It is a very fine example of the double-vaulted oratory, resembling those at Kells, Meath, and Killaloe, but unlike them it has a miniature round-tower belfry; they date from the sixth century, and are the oldest houses in Ireland.