Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Rule of the Saints

Saint patrick, the greatest of all the saints of Ireland, was brought to the island as a slave when he was in his seventeenth year. He is said to have been born about 390 A,D., but the place of his birth is uncertain, some scholars asserting that it was in Scotland and others in the west of Gaul.

St. Patrick became the property of Milcho, a prince of Ulster, who sent him to herd swine on Slemish Mountain in Antrim and made him perform such hard service that he was minded to buy his freedom and return to his country. Yet he prayed "at least a hundred times a day and as many times during the night," and when he was instructing the Irish pagans in Christianity many years later, he was eager to convert his master.

St. Patrick escaped to his own country after six years of slavery and studied with all his might to learn everything that would help him to turn the minds of heathens to the true god. He had constant dreams of the people of Ireland in their darkness, and voices seemed to come to him crying for his return. Before he was ready for the journey of conversion, the Pope blessed him and made him a bishop. He landed on the coast of Wicklow, but the people drove him away and he sailed northwards. Dicho and his followers were the first to receive baptism from St. Patrick, and afterwards a monastery rose in his honour, near Downpatrick.

It was always St. Patrick's aim to win the hearts of the great chiefs, wherever he went, because he knew that the people would follow their example. He found Laegaire, King of Meath, very hard to touch, though the people of Meath showed themselves willing to hear Christian teaching. With the idea of keeping Easter on the Hill of Slane, St. Patrick lit a Paschal fire, which was seen by the king from Tara. Now there was a law to forbid any man to kindle a beacon before the fire was lit for the king's pagan festival, and Laegaire was filled with wrath against the saint. The Druids told him that the fire which had been lit could never be put out after that night had passed, so the king sent at once for St. Patrick to appear before him. At this meeting, some of the bards were converted, falling under the strange spell that St. Patrick seems to have cast over all who heard him. The king allowed them to spread Christian doctrine, but he was one of the few to cling to the ancient religion of Ireland while the missionaries journeyed through the country. From Tara the saint went to Connacht and thence to Ulster, drawing men after him in thousands, for none had ever greater glory as a minister of God. Wherever he went, churches and monasteries were built to carry on his work, and his disciples lived in toil and poverty, strengthened by the faith which he had taught them. Some brought their own neighbours to Christianity, while others risked every danger to sail to foreign lands, where they sought to approach half-savage people.

St. Patrick is said to have received a sign of his successor when he went on a visit to King Conall Gulban. When the king asked for a blessing, the saint turned to his son Fergus, saying, "Of his lineage will be born a son that is Columbkille." As he returned, the axle of his chariot broke at the ford of the river Deele; when mended, it broke again as a sign that the land north of that river had no need for him, but must be left for another saint to bless.

Columbkille, "Dove of the Churches," was born at Gartan, to the North of Ireland, in the year of our Lord 5 2 1.

He was of royal birth, son of the princess Ethne and a chief Feidilnid, but he gave up all claim to the kingdom for the sake of God. He was given to a priest for "fosterage," and the priest taught him to read, they say, by writing the letters on a cake.

Columbkille built the church of Derry, then Daire, "an oak-grove." The king gave him a dwelling in this place, which he loved so dearly that he wrote fine verses in its praise. The cutting of the trees was sad to him, and he left Daire with a heavy heart to go to "Scotland of the ravens." He had caused many battles in his own country, and some think he had to take refuge in Iona on that account.

Iona or Hy became the seat of a great monastery, where all the arts of peace were taught. The monks of Ireland busied themselves with painting, carving, and bookbinding. Many of them "illuminated" very beautiful manuscripts, which are still treasured, among them being the Cathrach, a famous copy of the Psalter made by Columbkille, who also wrote three hundred copies of the New Testament with his own hand. A great struggle raged over the possession of the Cathrach, because Columbkille had copied it from a book belonging to St. Tinian, who claimed the copy as his own. When the case was brought before the king, he laid down the law that as the calf went with the cow, so the copy went with the book. In spite of this, Columbkille seems to have kept possession of the Cathrach, which was preserved as a precious relic by the O'Donnells. "It is covered with silver under gold; and it is not lawful to open it; if it be sent thrice, rightwise, around the army of Kinell Conaill when they are going to battle, they will retire safe with victory." From this custom it took its name—Cathrach, the Battler.

In his exile at Iona, the saint was still consulted by his country on such great questions as the position of the bards, who had become troublesome by writing bad verses about the hosts whose entertainments did not please them. Some of the Irish would have done away with the bards altogether, but Columbkille was too great a friend of learning, and proposed that their number should be reduced, while certain laws were laid down to govern their conduct.

Columbkille died on the isle of Iona on the Sunday of Pentecost, and many saw a light in the sky on the night of his death, and some heard the voices of angels high in the air. The bards, gathered under an ancient yew tree, told how an angel came to them to bear the sad news. There is an old saying, too, that Columbkille may have died in Hy, yet his soul is in Daire, and his body under a flagstone in Ardmacha.

The days when the saints ruled Ireland were the most blessed days of all St. Patrick bore the surname of Succath, the Warlike, and Columbkille was quite unlike a dove in spirit; but the country, under their sway, waxed strong in prosperity and civilization. Its monasteries were famous throughout Europe Slane in Meath, where a King of France received his learning; Kildare, where the fire of St. Brigit was kept alight for centuries; Armagh, where a fine cathedral rose. There has never been a period in her history when the fame of Ireland spread so far.