The ancient Irish church/Chapter 3

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On the subject of Patrick's missionary labours, he gives us but little information himself. He excuses himself, saying, 'It would be a long task to enumerate one by one my labours, or even a part of them. Briefly I may say that the very loving God has often delivered me from slavery, and from twelve perils by which my very life was endangered, besides many snares, and that which I am not able to express in words.'

But if he does not tell us much about his labours, he is not at all reticent as to the results which followed. 'Truly I am debtor to God,' he says, 'who has bestowed such great grace upon me, that through me many people should be born again in God, and that ministers should everywhere be ordained for this people newly come to the faith, whom the Lord took from the ends of the earth.' He tells us that the number of his converts is to be counted by many thousands;—that 'those who never had any knowledge of God and worshipped only idols and abominations have lately become the people of the Lord, and are called the sons of God,' and that these 'sons of the Scots and daughters of princes' were ready to suffer reproaches and persecution for the sake of Christ. That all this should be accomplished within the life of one man, and principally as the result of his exertions, is a fact almost unexampled in the history of the Church.

This success must be attributed to a variety of causes: the earnestness and zeal and faith of Patrick himself, the methods he employed, and the state of preparedness in which he found the people. The extracts already given from his own writings show sufficiently how truly the spirit of the missionary breathed in him. The methods that he employed show him to have been as wise and judicious as he was pious.

We shall often have occasion to speak of the tribal system of the Irish. During Patrick's life it was in full force. Each chieftain was like the father of a family, and those who belonged to his clan looked to him for direction and leadership in everything. Recognising this fact, Patrick always endeavoured in the first place to gain if possible the favour of the petty kings and bring them to the obedience of the faith. In many cases he was successful, and the conversion of the tribe followed as a matter of course. But the converts thus made were not left in what must have been at best a mere nominal Christianity. As soon as permission was obtained from those in power, a Christian settlement was formed, a small church was erected—generally an unpretending structure made of wattles and clay—and some one was placed in charge who was consecrated to the office of the ministry, and who undertook the further instruction of those who had expressed their willingness to adhere to the new faith.

On his arrival in Ireland, Patrick's first care was to visit his old master, in order that he might pay in money for his own ransom, and that so no loss might be sustained by the slave's desertion. He also hoped to gain him as a convert, and thus bestow on him a richer kind of wealth. This charitable project was frustrated by the strange conduct of the master. He heard that Patrick was approaching, and he knew that his former slave's persuasive powers were such that he could convince him of anything that he wished. Lest therefore he should be converted by the instrumentality of him who had once been his bondsman, he gathered all his valuables together into a house, set fire to it, and himself perished in the flames.

Having thus ineffectually endeavoured to discharge what he considered to be his first duty, Patrick hastened to present himself at the court of King Leary, the monarch of all Ireland. This was an undertaking of the greatest risk, but it was one which if successful would open the way as nothing else could for the spread of the Gospel.

It may be well here to explain that there were at this time five kings in Ireland, each of whom ruled over one of the provinces, nearly conterminous with those into which Ireland is at present divided, except that a fifth province, Meath, now included in Leinster, was then a separate kingdom. One of these kings—generally the ruler of Meath—was styled Ard-Righ, or chief king; and to him the provincial kings were supposed to render the same loyalty as was in turn paid to them by the lesser chieftains who held sway in their several districts.

The story as told by the biographers is a striking one, though overloaded with those embellishments of miracle which they deemed essential to the proper dignity of a saint. They tell us that on Easter Eve in the year 433, Saint Patrick found himself on the Hill of Slane, in the county Meath. Here, although the elevation is inconsiderable, a very extensive view of the surrounding country is obtained. Beneath flows the river Boyne—beyond is the great plain of Magh Breagh—and the horizon is bounded by gentle hills, on one of which, the Hill of Tara, there stood at that time the king's palace, the chief residences of the Druids, and some other buildings connected with the seat of government.

Among the Christian ceremonies of that age was the custom of having illuminations on Easter Eve, to symbolize the enlightening of those who on Easter Day were to be admitted by baptism into the Church, and also as setting forth the issuing of the Light of Life from the darkness of death. In accordance with this custom Patrick and his companions had lighted their Easter fire on the night in question. At the same time a druidical ceremony was taking place on Tara Hill. This consisted also in the kindling of a fire.

Among all the Celtic nations these fire festivals have held a prominent place. At certain seasons—notably on the first day of May (Beltaine) and on the first day of November (Samhain)—all the fires in the country were extinguished under pain of death. The 'needfire,' obtained by friction, was then solemnly ignited by the Druids, and from this sacred flame all the domestic hearths were kindled. The custom no doubt had its origin in the worship of fire, though it afterwards came to be regarded as magical rather than a religious act. While the spark was being procured certain incantations were repeated, and it was believed that the prosperity of the ensuing season was secured by the due performance of the rite, because it was in this way that the sorcery to which famine and disease were invariably attributed would be rendered powerless. But it was also believed that if by any mischance the ceremony was not rightly carried out—if the correct words of the incantation were not used, or, worst of all, if any of the old fire were allowed to remain unquenched, the spell was broken; the witches and magicians could work their evil will unchecked, and disasters of every kind would most certainly follow.

The different versions of this story which have been handed down to us are not quite consistent. All agree in saying that it happened at Eastertide; but some say that the pagan festival was the Feast of Tara, which we know to have been held in November; according to some it was the Feast of Beltaine, which comes nearer to the time required; others again say that it was the king's birthday. It seems, however, that no pagan festival of which we have any record was held at exactly the same time as the Christian Easter. This should not lead us to reject the story altogether; for besides the fact that it is probable in itself, it must be remembered that the Celtic Druids did not use the Julian Calendar, and that therefore it is impossible for us to say exactly when any of their feasts were held; and besides, it was not unusual, in times of calamity—particularly when pestilence appeared among the cattle, to have a special kindling of the 'needfire.' Indeed, this last explanation is suggested to us by the fact that Patrick is said not to have been aware that the festival was being held, which could scarcely have been the case if it had been one of the ordinary annual ceremonies.

The spread of education and enlightenment have happily made it difficult for us to understand the terror which must have seized the assembly at Tara on that eventful night when in the midst of their solemnities, and while the Druids were still repeating their incantations, a light was discerned shining in the distance—the Easter flame kindled by Saint Patrick. No conclusion seemed possible but that this was the work of a magician, and one too who would cast his evil spell over the land and bring to them desolation and death. The priests on being consulted gave it as their opinion that if the fire were not quenched before morning it would fill the whole land, and they therefore urged the monarch to execute immediate vengeance on him who had transgressed the laws of their religion.

Accordingly, King Leary ordered horses and chariots to be got ready, and set off with a considerable retinue in the middle of the night, towards the Hill of Slane, at the foot of which he arrived after two or three hours' travelling. There he paused, having been advised not to trust himself within the circle of the magic fire, lest he should be bewitched by the mysterious stranger. A messenger was then sent, summoning Patrick to appear before the king. The Christian teacher gladly embraced the opportunity, hastened to present himself to the monarch, and when he perceived the armed retinue that came against him, he commenced chanting with his companions the appropriate words, 'Some put their trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God.'

If he had at this moment shown the least timidity, nothing would have saved him; but the fearless manner in which he approached, though unarmed, together with the strange chanting, must have confirmed the idea in the minds of the pagans that they were in presence of a great magician. Patrick followed up his advantage vigorously, and offered to appear before the court at Tara. We can well believe that the king and his retinue would have been much better pleased if he had remained away, but they were afraid to refuse his offer, and accordingly within a few days he presented himself at the king's palace, ready to preach the Gospel and confute the Druids.

Amid all the extravagances and impossible miracles with which the story of his preaching at Tara has been embellished, it is easy to recognise the general drift of the arguments used on that occasion. Patrick did not deny the power of the Druids. He would have been entirely too far in advance of his age if he had not believed that all ministers of the false religions were more or less in league with the devil, and were able with his assistance to work many wonders. But though he admitted the power of the Druids, he contended that their power was limited, and that the great God, whose religion he proclaimed, was able to protect those who trusted in Him 'from every hostile savage power, the incantations of false prophets, the black laws of heathenism, the spells of witches and smiths and Druids, the knowledge that blinds the soul.'

He also seems to have urged that the Druids could use their powers only for destruction and evil, whereas the power of God was a manifestation of goodness. The heathen priests could bring calamities of different kinds—they could turn summer into winter and light into darkness; but they were unable to reverse the process. Even the evils which they were able to inflict they were powerless to remove. But the almightiness of God was not only infinitely beyond any power wielded by the Druids—it was different in kind. It brought light and healing and blessing instead of cursing and destruction.

It will easily be understood that reasoning of this kind could scarcely fail to convince. The preacher stood before his audience as a living proof of the doctrine that he preached. The Druids professed to be able to destroy with their curse any one that opposed them. They were never weary of citing the case of Cormac Mac Art, the greatest of the ante-Christian kings, who, they said, was choked by a fish-bone because he had denied the truth of their idolatrous religion. But Patrick publicly defied them, and showed in himself that they were utterly powerless.

On more than one occasion they tried to destroy him by stealth. On his way to Tara they laid wait for him, but he managed to elude the ambush, and when the would-be assassins reported that nothing passed them except eight deer followed by a fawn, the astonished people jumped to the conclusion that this herd of deer was nothing else than the saint and his companions miraculously disguised.

All this explains to some extent the fact that Patrick was listened to from the first, and that his success was assured from the moment he stood before the king. But there was another and still more powerful reason which must not be kept out of sight. It is this; that Patrick was a man of faith, that he had the love of God in his heart, and an earnest desire to bring men to the knowledge of the truth, and that the truth which he preached was the simple Gospel of the grace of God.

As an example of the doctrines that he preached, and as showing to some extent the spirit in which he undertook his work, we may here quote the hymn commonly known as Saint Patrick's Breastplate. The original is written in Irish of a very ancient dialect, and it is quoted in the seventh century as the work of Saint Patrick. As it partakes somewhat of the nature of a Creed, it will tell us some of the beliefs of the ancient Irish Church.


I bind to myself to-day,
The strong power of an invocation of the Trinity,
The faith of the Trinity in Unity,
The Creator of the Elements.

I bind to myself to-day
the power of the Incarnation of Christ, with that of His Baptism,
The power of the Crucifixion, with that of His Burial,
The power of the Resurrection, with the Ascension,
The power of the coming to the Sentence of Judgment.

I bind to myself to-day,
The power of the love of Seraphim,
In the obedience of Angels,
In the hope of Resurrection unto reward,
In the prayers of the noble Fathers,
In the predictions of the Prophets,
In the preaching of Apostles,
In the faith of Confessors,
In the purity of Holy Virgins,
In the acts of Righteous Men.

I bind to myself to-day,
The power of Heaven,
The light of the Sun,
The whiteness of Snow,
The force of Fire,
The flashing of Lightning,
The velocity of Wind,
The depth of the Sea,
The stability of the Earth,
The hardness of Rocks.

I bind to myself to-day,
The Power of God to guide me,

The Might of God to uphold me,
The Wisdom of God to teach me,
The Eye of God to watch over me,
The Ear of God to hear me,
The Word of God to give me speech,
The Hand of God to protect me,
The Way of God to prevent me,
The Shield of God to shelter me,
The Host of God to defend me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the temptations of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against every man who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
With few or with many.

I have set around me all these powers,
Against every hostile savage power,
Directed against my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women and smiths and Druids,
Against all knowledge which blinds the soul of man.

Christ protect me to-day,
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot-seat,
Christ in the poop.

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself to-day,
The strong power of an invocation of the Trinity,

The faith of the Trinity in Unity,
The Creator of the Elements.
Salvation is of the Lord,
Salvation is of the Lord,
Salvation is of Christ,
May Thy salvation, O Lord, be with as evermore.

It is said that this hymn was composed by Patrick when he was about to appear before King Leary. In after times it was used as a kind of charm. It was believed that those who recited it were thereby protected from the assaults of demons, from poison, envy and from sudden death. Most of the old Irish hymns were put to a similar use at one time or another. 'Saint Columba's Breastplate,' for example, another composition of the early age, used to be recited by travellers as a protection on their journeys. There is nothing in the hymns themselves which would countenance the idea that they were originally composed with any such intent.

In Saint Patrick's Hymn it will be noticed that all those doctrines which a modern Evangelical Protestant would consider to be of the first importance are prominently asserted; the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, His Death and Resurrection, the need of God's help in all the varied circumstances of life, the intimate union of the soul with Christ, and the great fact that the Lord is the Author of our salvation.

On the other hand, the peculiarities of the Church of Rome are simply ignored. It has been urged that a mere omission proves nothing, and that Saint Patrick may have been as ready to invoke the Blessed Virgin and the saints as he was undoubtedly ready in every moment of difficulty to seek the help of the Lord Jesus Christ. But we have given characteristic extracts, the Confession of Saint Patrick, and from his Letter to Coroticus. and have quoted his hymn in extenso. These are the only extant works, and they speak for themselves. We have no contemporary evidence that he held any other beliefs. One thing is quite certain: the man who wrote such works as these was one who exalted Christ, and preached Christ, and realized the abiding presence of Christ, and knew well what was the great hope to place before perishing sinners.

Having dwelt at such length on Saint Patrick's preaching at Tara, it is not necessary that we should pursue his career any further. He went through the length and breadth of the land, but his method of procedure was always the same. He appealed in the first instance to the chiefs, and obtained from each one when possible a site on which to found a religious establishment. Here he left a small community, who continued the enterprise after he had gone; these in turn became centres of life and light; and thus the good work was carried on and strengthened. The accounts of his success may possibly be greatly exaggerated; but there can be little doubt that before his death there was scarcely a district in which the Gospel had not been preached, and few places where there were not some found who gave themselves up to the work of evangelization. Many—perhaps the great majority—may have been converts only in name; but even the mere outward profession brought them under the influence of Christian teaching; and doubtless it must have often happened that the man who had accepted baptism without much thought of its real import, was led afterwards to a true consecration of heart and mind to the Saviour.

  1. From Todd's Life of 8t. Patrick, p. 246.