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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 16 - Patrick's Day of Tara; Conversion of Ireland, etc


We have followed the footsteps of our missionary as he scatters the good seed amid the rural populations and the provincial towns of the north of Ireland. His journeys had yet extended beyond the limits of the Irish Dalriada, the second cradle of the Scottish race, and the seat, as yet, of the body of the nation. But within these bounds the evangelistic labours of Patrick had been prosecuted with untiring assiduity. With a lion-like courage and a popular eloquence that remind us of Luther, Patrick would seem to have carried captive the understandings and hearts of the nation. So sudden an awakening we do not meet with till we come down to the era of the Reformation. In truth, there are certain great traits common to both Reformations—that of the fifth century and that of the sixteenth. Patrick may be said to have been the Luther of the earlier evangelisation, and Columba—though at a vast distance—its Calvin. Patrick gave the first touch to the movement; Columba came after and gave the laws by which its course must be governed, if it would not expend itself in a burst of emotion and enthusiasm. And for both Calvin and Columba a secure retreat was provided, where, in the very presence of countless foes, they might carry on their work. To Calvin was given the little town at the foot of the Alps, which had as its impregnable defense the rival and conflicting interests of the four great monarchies that lay around it. What Geneva was to Calvin, the rock of Iona was to Columba. It had for its rampart the stormy seas of the west. The gates of Geneva were opening day by day to send forth missionaries and martyrs into France and Switzerland, as at an earlier day trained evangelists from the feet of the elders of Iona were constantly crossing the narrow strait to spread the light amongst the British tribes and the pagan nations that were pouring into Europe.

Of the petty chieftains of the north of Ireland several had been won to the Gospel, and among the first fruits of their devotion were gifts of land for the service of the mission. On these plots of ground Patrick erected humble churches, into which he gathered his first converts, for instruction and worship. These young congregations he committed to the care of pastors, whom he had converted and trained, and himself went forward into the surrounding heathenism to make other converts, whom he committed in like manner to the care of other pastors. Never did warrior pant more earnestly for new realms to subdue, than Patrick longed to win fresh triumphs for the Cross; and never was joy of conqueror so ecstatic as was that of the missionary over these flocks gathered out of the arid wilderness of Druidism and now led to the clear waters and green pastures of the Gospel.

Before Patrick began his mission in Ireland, it was the inviolable abode of almost every species of oppression and every form of evil. But now, we may well believe, its northern part began to wear the aspect of a Christian land. Wherever the feet of the missionary had passed, there was seen in the wilds a tract of light, and there was felt the sweetness and fragrance of Christianity. The terrible hardness and selfishness of pagan life had departed; a secret charm was infused into existence; and though the relation of master and serf still subsisted, it had been wondrously mellowed and sweetened. Every duty was somehow easier. Faces formerly dark with hatred or suspicion, now beamed with kindly looks; and the very soil bore testimony to the moral and social amelioration which had been effected, in the better husbandry of the fields, and the air of peace and comfort that began to surround the dwellings.

Patrick could now reflect with satisfaction that his mission had got a foothold in the country. The organization of the infant church had reached a stage where it would be able to maintain itself, and even to make progress without the presence and the labours of its founder. But the missionary was not content with what he had accomplished. There were other septs, there were wider provinces, and there were more powerful chieftains to be subjected to the sway of the Gospel. The time was come, he judged, to carry the evangelical banners into the West and South of Ireland. It was now that his movement opened out into national breadth, and that Patrick from being the evangelist of a province became the apostle of a nation, and the herald of a movement that ultimately extended to the Celtic nations of northern Europe.

The fear of Patrick had already fallen upon the priests of the old religion. This helped to open his way into the land. In the footsteps of the missionary the priests of the groves heard the knell of the downfall of Druidism. "Who is this," we hear then say, as they turned on one another pale faces, and spoke in trembling accents,—" who is this who marches through the land casting down the altars of the country's faith, and withdrawing the hearts of the people from their fathers' gods? Whence comes he, and who gave him this power?" Prophecy from its seat amid the hills of Judah had announced the coming of a Great King who was to sway His scepter over all the world. The echoes of that Divine voice had gone round the earth, awakening expectation in some, terror in others. Nations groaning in chains listened to it as the Israelite did to the silver trumpet which at dawn of the year of Jubilee sent its glad peal throughout all his coasts, telling every Hebrew bondsman that his forfeited inheritance had come lack, and that his lost freedom was restored. So had this great prophecy sent its reverberations through all lands, awakening, even among savage tribes, the hope that the period of oppression would soon run out, and a golden age bless the earth. Even the bards of Druidism had sung in halting strains the coming of this King, and the happiness and peace that would illustrate His reign.

Fiacc records a prediction of the poets of Erin, similar to the vaticination that prevailed among the classic nations previous to the advent of the Saviour, to the effect that a King would arise who should sway His scepter over all the earth, and establish peace among all nations. And he adds, that no sooner did Patrick appear preaching than the Druids told King Logaire that the time for the fulfillment of the prophecy was come, and that Temor, the place of their great annual festival, was about to be deserted. We give below an extract front the hymn of Fiacc.[1]

This brings us to the "Day of Tara," the greatest day in the career of Patrick. This day transferred the scene of his labours from the rural hamlet, with its congregation of rustics, to the metropolitan Temor, with its magnificent gathering of the clans and chieftains of Ireland. The year when the event we are about to relate took place, it is impossible to fix. The legends of fourteen hundred years leave in great uncertainty both the object of the festival and the season of the year when it was usually celebrated. The modern writers who have attempted to clear up the matter, after hazarding a multitude of guesses, and expending no little critical lore, have left the matter very much where they found it. We shall not follow their example by indulging a profitless discussion over the subordinate circumstances of an event, the substance and issues of which are all that concern us; and in these all are agreed. Like all the great festivals of the age, that of Tara was, probably partly religious, partly political; the priesthood, to whom the regulation of such affairs was mainly committed, taking care, doubtless, to make the former character predominate. We shall keep as clear as possible of the mythicism of legend, and guide ourselves by the probabilities of the case.

The great annual festival of Tara, called "Baal's fire," was at hand. No other occasion or spot in all Ireland, Patrick knew, would offer him an equal opportunity of lifting his mission out of provincial obscurity and placing it full in the eye of the nation. The king, accompanied by the officers of his court, would be present. To Tara, too, in obedience to the annual summons, would come the chieftains of the land, each followed by his clan, over which he exercised the power of a king. The priests would there assemble, as a matter of course; nor would the bards be wanting, the most influential class, after the priests, in the nation. The assembly would be swelled by a countless multitude of the common people out of all the provinces of Ireland. Patrick resolved to lift high the standard of the cross in presence of this immense convocation. The step was a bold one. If he should convince the monarch and his people that Druidism was false, and that the Gospel alone was true, the victory would be great, and its consequences incalculable. But should he fail to carry the assembly on Tara with him, what could he expect but that he should become the victim of Druidic vengeance, and die on the altar he had hoped to overthrow? That his blood should fall on the earth was a small matter, but that the evangelization of Ireland should be stopped, as it would be should he perish, was with Patrick, doubtless, the consideration of greatest moment. But full of faith, he felt assured that Ireland had been given him as his spiritual conquest. So girding up his loins, like another Elijah, he went on to meet the assembled Druids at Tara, and threw down the gage of combat in the presence of those whom they had so long misled by their arts, and oppressed by their ghostly authority.

Mixing with the multitudes of all ranks which were crowding to the scene of the festival, Patrick pursued his journey, and arrived in the neighbourhood of Tara without attracting observation. He and his attendants immediately began their preparations. Ascending the hill of Slane, which, though distant from the scene of the festival, was distinctly visible from it, the little party collected the broken branches and rotten wood which were lying about and piling them up on the summit of the hill, they applied the torch and set the heap in a blaze. The flame shot high into the air. Its gleam cast a ruddy glow far and wide over the country around. On that night the fire on every hearth in Ireland must by law be extinguished. If even a solitary lamp were seen to burn, the rash or profane man who had lit it drew down upon himself the heavy penalties which fenced round the great annual solemnity of Tara. And yet on yonder hill of Slane, growing ever the brighter as the dusk deepened, a bonfire was seen to blaze. How came this? Some impious hand had kindled this unhallowed flame! The priests beheld the inauspicious portent with surprise and indignation. The ancient and venerable rites of Tara had been mocked, and the great act of worship, the solemn celebration of which, year by year, called together the whole nation of Ireland, had been studiously and openly outraged. Terrible calamity was sure to follow so flagrant an act if permitted to go unpunished. If the altar was thus contemned, how long would the throne continue to receive the reverence and obedience of the people? Let the king look to it. So reasoned the priests. They loudly demanded that the perpetrator of this odious deed should be sought for and made answerable for his crime.[2] The fire that continued to blaze on the summit of Slane guided the pursuers to the man whom the king and the Magi sought. Nor was Patrick loath to accompany the messengers to the presence of the king, seeing it was with this object that he had kindled this fire, to Druid so prophetic and ill-omened.

At last we behold Patrick at the gates of the citadel of Irish idolatry. If he shall succeed in storming this stronghold and replacing the black flag of the Druid, which for ages has floated over it, with the banner of the Cross, Patrick will have enlisted in the service of Christianity a race rude and unprofitable at this hour, but rich in noble gifts, which need only to be awakened by the Gospel to burst into the fair blossoms of literature, and ripen into heroic deeds of faith and grand evangelistic enterprises. The apostle of Ireland now maintains the great controversy betwixt Druidism and Christianity in presence of the king, the priests, the chieftains, and the septs of Ireland. No chronicle records the arguments he employed on this great occasion. Tradition has forgotten to carry down these, though it has carefully treasured up and transmitted a load of prodigies and wonders which transform the preacher of truth who yields only the "Sword of the Spirit" unto a necromancer who conquers by magic. Not so the man who now stood before Logaire, the reigning king. The monarch beheld in Patrick a man plain in dress, like one who dwelt more in the wilderness than in cities, his features roughened by exposure to sun and storm, yet stamped with an air of great dignity. On his brow the close-knit gathered lines of resolve; in his eye the fire of a lofty zeal; his voice strung with energy; his words courageous, but calm and wise; every step and movement of his person betokening self-possession. No such man had Logaire ever before looked upon. Rugged, weather-beaten though he was, no one of all the Druids at his court had ever inspired him with such awe as this prophet-like man. He must hear what he has to say. The king motions to the courtiers to stand aside and let the strange figure approach; he bids the Druids be still. There is silence, and Patrick speaks. Respectfully, yet not flatteringly, fearlessly, yet not offensively, does Patrick address Logaire. To know what is in man is to possess the secret of moving and ruling him. Patrick knew that in the heart of the monarch, as in that of the serf, is a deep-seated sense of guiltiness, and an equally deep-seated foreboding of punishment, and that no sooner does reason unfold than this burden begins to press. It is a shadow that will not depart. To find a region where this specter cannot follow one, a region where the heart, weary of its burden, may lay it down, is the object of desire and pursuit to all living. But before showing Logaire how this craving of his heart was to he met, Patrick must first stir yet more deeply the sense of guiltiness within him. He must awaken his conscience. With this view he appeals to his sense of sin; and what is this sense but just the being within himself testifying that there is a law which he has transgressed. He points to the forebodings and terrors which haunt him; and what are these but witnesses that cannot lie, and that will not be silenced, that there is a penalty attached to transgression—a judgment to come. Thus does the preacher avail himself of the monitions of the moral sense, the lights of nature, not yet wholly extinguished, to lead his vast audience around him through the deep night that enshrouds them to a clearer light. He asks them whether it is not these fears—this pale specter—which has driven them to the altars and sacrifices of the Druid? whether they have not sought these bloody oblations in the vague hope of expiation and relief? Well, have you found the rest you seek? At the altar of the Druid, has the sense of guilt left you? Has the blood that streams on it washed out the stain? If you shall permit your hearts to speak, they will answer, No, the sin is still unpurged, and the terror is still unconquered. Why, multiply rites which are as profitless as they are cruel? Flee from these altars whereon never yet came victim that could avail for expiation. Cease from these sacrifices of blood, which pollute, but do not cleanse, the offerer. Listen to me. I will tell you of a better altar, and a greater Priest—a Priest who has opened to you the road to the skies. I will tell you of a Father who sent His Son to be a sacrifice in your room. That Son, having offered His sacrifice, and returned from the tomb, as the conqueror of death, has ascended into the heavens, and now sitteth on the right hand of His Father, the crown of an everlasting dominion on His head. He is sending His ambassadors to all nations to proclaim that there is not a wanderer on the face of the earth, there is not one of the sons of men, the humblest, the vilest, the guiltiest, who is not welcome to return, and who shall not be received by the Father, coming by that Priest, who, having no sin of His own, was able to make a real and complete expiation of the sin of others.

On these lines, doubtless, did Patrick proceed in announcing the "good news " to this great assembly. With a Divine message there ever comes the co-operating influence of a Divine power. That power meeting the sense of guilt within, opened, doubtless, not a few hearts for the entrance of that message—a message of a grace and love so stupendous, of a compassion and benignity so boundless, surpassing even in its scope and grasp the wide extent of their own vast misery and helplessness, that they felt that such a purpose could have its origin in no human heart; it infinitely surpassed the measure of man; it could originate only in the bosom of the great Father. On that bosom did many of those now around Patrick cast themselves. Turning away from the fires of Baal, and the altars of the Druids, they clung to the one sacrifice and the one Saviour whom Patrick had preached to them.

Among the converts of the day of Tara were some who held high rank and enjoyed great consideration in the nation. The king remained unconverted, but the queen and her two daughters transferred their faith from the altars of the groves to the Cross of Calvary. A few days after the queen's conversion, the Christian party in the royal court was reinforced by the accession of the king's brother, Connal, who was not ashamed to confess himself a disciple of the Saviour. There followed, lower in rank, but perhaps higher in influence, Dubbach, chief of the bards, whom we should now call poet laureate, but who possessed an authority far beyond any known to this functionary in our day. To these is to be added a name not less eminent than any of the preceding ones, that of Fiecc. Logaire remained on the side of the old religion, though, it would seen, cooled in his attachment to it.

If the address of Patrick had not resulted in the conversion of the monarch, it had at least overcome his scruples to having the Gospel preached throughout his dominions. The Druids, it is said, had assured him that if this new doctrine should prevail, his throne would not be secure. The king had listened, but had failed to discover any ground other than illusory, for the fears with which it was sought to inspire him. Patrick might go wherever he would throughout his territories and proclaim the new faith. If his people should embrace it, well, the Druid might be less potential, but his subjects would be none the less loyal, nor his own throne any the less secure. These were the triumphs of the day of Tara.

This great victory was followed up by strenuous efforts to advance the standard of the Cross into the south and west of Ireland. From Tara, Patrick proceeded to Meath. A vast concourse was annually drawn to this spot by the games which were there wont to be celebrated, and Patrick resolved to go thither, and proclaim the "good news" to the assembled multitudes. The actors in the games had some cause to complain. A formidable competitor had unexpectedly entered the lists with them. From the moment the strange man stood up and began to tell his strange story, the players ceased to monopolise the attention of the on-lookers. Those who came to feast their eyes on feats of dexterity and strength, were compelled, in spite of themselves, to forget the sports, and to have their attention absorbed by other and far more serious matters. They were made to feel that they themselves were runners in a race, were wrestlers in a combat, and that they should win or miss a prize infinitely higher than that for which the combatants in the arena were at that moment straining their every power to the uttermost. The words which fell from the lips of the preacher had, they felt, a strange power; they refused to leave their memory. They carried them back with them to their homes. They imparted them to their neighbours, and, in cases not a few, these words doubtless became the seeds of a new life. Thenceforth the games of Tailtenn (Telltown) were to them one of the more memorable epochs in their past lives.

From Meath, Patrick set out westward across the country. In those days the toil and danger attendant on such a journey were great. The country to be traversed was inhabited by wild tribes. The pathways were infested by robbers; the chieftains often held the traveler to ransom; and in the case of Patrick there were special dangers to be feared, springing out of the malice of the Druids. The seven sons of a chieftain who ruled in those parts formed his escort; nevertheless he, and the "holy bishops"—that is, the preachers whom he had trained, and who were the companions of his journey, and the sharers of his labours—were oftener than once exposed to violence and subjected to loss. Nevertheless they held on their way, till at last they arrived on the western shores of Connaught, where their farther progress was stopped by the waters of the Atlantic. This region, with its bleak surface, its uncivilised inhabitants, and its frequent tempests breaking in the thunder of ocean, and drenching its sea-board with the salt spray of the Atlantic, was one of touching interest to Patrick. Here was the Wood of Focloid, which recalled some deep and tender memories. He had first heard the name in his dreams when a youth, for from the wood of Focloid, as it seemed to him, proceeded those voices which called to him, to come over and walk among them. Fully fulfilled was now his dream, and in its fulfillment he read a new and striking authentication of his mission. This doubtless quickened the ardour with which he laboured in those parts; and he had the joy of seeing these labours crowned with success. He opened his mission on the assembly ground of the clan Amaldaigh. This place is near the mouth of the Moy, between Ballina and Killala. Here he found the clan assembled in force, their chieftains at their head; and, standing up before the multitude, he preached to these rude men who had known no god but that of the Druid, Him who made the sea and the dry land, and Jesus whom He had raised from the dead." He penetrated the hearts of all," says the author of the "Tripartite Life," and led them to embrace cordially the Christian faith and doctrine." "The seven sons of Amaldaioh, with the king himself, and twelve thousand men, were baptised," says Dr. Todd, quoting from the "Tripartite Life," " and St. Patrick left with them as their pastor, St. Manchem, surnamed the Master, a man of great sanctity, well versed in Holy Scripture. It is to these labours and their results, doubtless, that Patrick refers in his "Confessio," where he says, "I went among you, and everywhere, for your sakes, in many dangers, even to those uttermost parts, beyond which no man was, and whither no man had ever gone to baptise." Having attacked and in part dispersed the darkness in this remote region, so long the abode of night, Patrick took his departure from Connaught, and went on to kindle the light in other parts of Ireland.

Following on the faint tract of the chroniclers as they dimly trace the steps of the missionary, we are led next into Leinster. Here, too, Patrick's mission was successful. He is said to have preached at Naas, then a royal residence, and baptized the two sons of the king of Leinster. His reception by the chieftains was various: some repelled his advances; others met him with cordial welcome, and in the Gospel which crossed the threshold along with him they had an ample recompense. He next visited the Plain of the Liffey; from thence he went onward to the Queen's County, preaching and founding churches. He passed next into Ossory, as the "Tripartite Life" informs us; and so pleased was he with the reception he there met with, that he pronounced a special blessing on the district, promising that Ossory should never feel the yoke of the stranger so long as its people continued in the faith which he had preached to them.

Our apostle is next found evangelising in Munster, although the "Book of Armagh" is silent on this portion of his labours. The chroniclers that record his visit to this province tell us that the idols fell before him, as Dagon before the Ark; that the king of Cashel came forth to meet him, and conducted him, with every mark of reverence and honour, into his palace, and received baptism at his hands. But here, it is evident, we tread on the verge of legend. These great spiritual victories were not won in a day, nor were they the result of a few stirring addresses delivered as the missionary passed rapidly over his various fields of evangelization. His biographers assign him a term of seven years labour in Connaught, and another term of seven years in Leinster and Munster. Even a shorter period would have sufficed to nourish into spiritual manhood those whom by baptism Patrick had admitted into the Church. He could reckon his converts by thousands, but what pleasure could he have in them if they were only nominal disciples? What satisfaction could it be to administer the Christian rite to men who were immediately thereafter to lapse into paganism? He took every care that his labours should not thus miscarry, nor his dearest hopes be thus blasted. He erected churches for his converts, he formed them into congregations, and he ordained as pastors those whom he knew would watch over their flocks with diligence, and feed them with knowledge. His "Confessio" written at the close of his life, may be regarded as his farewell to his converts, and in it he discloses a heart full of the tenderest solicitude for his children in the faith, whom he alternately warns, exhorts, and entreats to stand fast, that they may be to him "a joy and crown" in the great day.

We cannot further pursue the labours of Patrick in Ireland. We must return to another land, where his evangelisation, continued through the instrumentality of others, was to yield its more permanent fruits. The light of the Gospel had now been carried from the northern extremity of the island to a line so far south that it met an earlier evangelisation, which had probably entered Hibernia from the neighbouring coast of Gaul, or the more distant shore of Spain. Rescued from a form of paganism specially polluting and enslaving, Ireland was now a Christian land. Not Christian as the countries afterwards evangelised by the Reformation of the sixteenth century are Christian. Patrick was a man of the fifth, not of the sixteenth century. He knew the Scriptures; he often quotes them; but the circle of truths in which he moved was that of his own times, not that of an age lying far in the future, and of which it had been foretold, "Knowledge shall be increased." True, the Bible of the fifth was the Bible of the sixteenth century. The sun is as full of light at the hour of morning as at the hour of noon; but his beams shining upon us through the not yet wholly dispersed vapours of night lack the brilliance which they possess when they fall direct upon us from the mid heaven. The Bible was as full of light in the fifth century as in the sixteenth, but its rays, struggling through the lingering fogs of paganism, reached the church in measure less full and clear than in after days. As time went on, the study of devout minds, the sharp contrasts of error, the severe siftings of controversy, the bold denials of skepticism, above all, the teaching of the Holy Spirit, brought out more fuller the meaning of the Bible. We do not say that they put into the Bible anything that was not in it before—that they added so much as one ray to this source of light, or supplemented by a single new truth this storehouse of supernatural knowledge—but they enabled the Church more deeply to perceive, more accurately and comprehensively to arrange, and more perfectly to harmonize the several parts of that system of truth which was "delivered to the saints once for all." Patrick, though "a burning and shining light," attained the stature neither of an apostle nor of a reformer. Though ahead of all his contemporaries, he was yet in some respects a man of like weaknesses, like misconceptions, and like superstitious fears with them. He appears to have believed that the demons of Druidism had power to do hurt, and that a subordinate empire had been assigned them over the elements of the external world—a belief that descended far beyond his day. But if tainted somewhat with the superstition that was passing away, he was wholly free from that which was preparing new fables and inventions to mislead the human mind and forging for it the fetters of a second bondage. The doctrine which he so indefatigably preached was drawn, not from the font of Roman tradition, but from the unpolluted well of Holy Scripture; and if the Christianity which he propagated in Ireland was rudimentary, which, doubtless, it was, it is ever to be borne in mind that the feeblest Christianization is both a higher and and beneficent agency than the most advanced and refined paganism. The one is a fructifying dew which silently penetrates to the roots of national and social virtue, the other is a blazing sun which burns up that which it burnishes.


Footnotes

1. The diviners of Erin predicted—
New days of PEACE shall come;
Which shall endure for ever,
The country of Temor shall be deserted.
His Druids from Logaire,
The coming of Patrick concealed not
The predictions were verified,
Concerning the KING whom they foretold."

And again in a very ancient dialect of the Irish language, and preserved by the scholiast on Fiacc's hymn, is the following prophecy:—

" He comes, he comes, with shaven crown, from off the storm-tossed sea,
His garment pierced at the neck, with cork-like staff comes he,
Far in his house, at its east end, his cups and patens lie,
His people answer to his voice, amen, amen, they cry. Amen, Amen."

The time of celebration was, probably, the first day of May, or the last day of October. The first date was the Druidical festival of Beltine, or Baal's fire. The second date was the Feast of Temor, or Convention of Tara. One of the bards of Erin, Eochaidh O'FIynn (984), describes this festival as of the nature of a Parliament or legislative assembly but partaking also of a religious character.

2. "On the king's Inquiring," says Dr Lanigan, "what could be the cause of it, and who could have thus dared to infringe the law, the Magi told him that it was necessary to have that fire extinguished immediately, whereas, if allowed to remain, it would get the better of their fires, and bring about the downfall of the kingdom. "—Petrie on Tara Hill, Trans. Of Royal Academy, vol. xviii., part ii. p. 54. Dublin, 1839.


 

 


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