Pestilence of the Blefed—The Cursing of Tara by St. Rodanus—Extent
and Importance of Ancient Tara—The First Mill in Ireland—The Lia
Fail—Cormac's House—The Rath of the Synods—The Banqueting
Hall—Chariots and Swords—St. Columba—St. Brendan and his
Voyages—Pre-Columbian Discovery of America—The Plague again—St.
Columba and St. Columbanus—Irish Saints and Irish Schools—Aengus the
rom time to time, in the world's history, terrible and mysterious
pestilences appear, which defy all calculation as to their cause or
probable reappearance. Such was the Blefed, or Crom Chonaill,
which desolated Ireland in the year 543.
The plague, whatever its nature may have been, appears to have been
general throughout Europe. It originated in the East; and in Ireland was
preceded by famine, and followed by leprosy. St. Berchan of Glasnevin
and St. Finnen of Clonard were amongst its first victims.
Diarmaid, son of Fergus Keval, of the southern Hy-Nial race, was
Ard-Righ during this period. In his reign Tara was cursed by St. Rodanus
of Lothra, in Tipperary, in punishment for violation of sanctuary; and so complete was its subsequent desertion, that in 975 it was
described as a desert overgrown with grass and weeds.
But enough still remains to give ample evidence of its former
magnificence. An inspection of the site must convince the beholder of
the vast extent of its ancient palaces; nor can we, for a moment,
coincide with those who are pleased to consider that these palaces
consisted merely of a few planks of wood, rudely plastered over, or of
hollow mounds of earth. It is true that, from an association of ideas,
the cause of so many fallacies, we naturally connect "halls" with marble
pavements, magnificently carved pillars, and tesselated floors; but the
harp that once resounded through Tara's halls, may have had as
appreciating, if not as critical, an audience as any which now exists,
and the "halls" may have been none the less stately, because their floor
was strewn with sand, or the trophies which adorned them fastened to
walls of oak.
According to Celtic tradition, as embodied in our annals, Tara became
the chief residence of the Irish kings on the first establishment of a
monarchical government under Slainge:—
"Slaine of the Firbolgs was he by whom Temair was first raised."
One hundred and fifty monarchs reigned there from this period until its
destruction, in 563. The Fes, or triennial assembly, was instituted by
Ollamh Fodhla. The nature of these meetings is explained in a poem,
which Keating ascribes to O'Flynn, who died A.D. 984. It is clear that
what was then considered crime was punished in a very peremptory manner;
In the reign of Tuathal a portion of land was separated from each of the
four provinces, which met together at a certain place: this portion was
considered a distinct part of the country from the provinces. It was
situated in the present county of Meath.
In the tract separated from Munster, Tuathal built the royal seat
of Tlachtga, where the fire of Tlachtga was ordained to be kindled. On
the night of All Saints, the druids assembled here to offer sacrifices,
and it was established, under heavy penalties that no fire should be
kindled on that night throughout the kingdom, so that the fire which was
used afterwards might be procured from it. To obtain this privilege, the
people were obliged to pay a scraball, or about three-pence, yearly, to
the King of Munster.
On the 1st of May a convocation was held in the royal palace of the King
of Connaught. He obtained subsidies in horses and arms from those who
came to this assembly. On this occasion two fires were lit, between
which cattle were driven as a preventative or charm against the murrain
and other pestilential distempers. From this custom the feast of St.
Philip and St. James was anciently called Beltinne, or the Day of Bel's
The third palace, erected by Tuathal, was on the portion of land taken
from the province of Ulster. Here the celebrated fair of Tailtean was
held, and contracts of marriage were frequently made. The royal tribute
was raised by exacting an ounce of silver from every couple who were
contracted and married at that time. The fair of Tailtean had been
instituted some years before, in honour of Tailte, who was buried here.
This fair, says Keating, was then kept upon the day known in the Irish
language as La Lughnasa, or the day ordained by Lughaidh, and is called
in English Lammas-day.
The fourth and the most important of the royal seats was the palace of
Temair, or Tara: here, with the greatest state and ceremony, the affairs
of the nation were discussed and decided. On these occasions, in order
to preserve the deliberations from the public, the most strict secrecy
was observed, and women were entirely excluded.
The Dinnseanchus, a topographical work, compiled in the twelfth century
from ancient MSS., is the principal source of information on this
subject. Dr. Petrie, in his famous Essay, has given both the original
and translation of this tract, and of other documents on the same
subject; and he remarks how exactly the accounts given by the poet
historians coincide with the remains which even now exist. In fact, each
site has been ascertained with precise accuracy—an accuracy which
should very much enhance our appreciation of the value of our ancient
The well Neamhnach was first identified. Tradition asserts that the first
mill erected in Ireland was turned by the stream which flowed from
it, and even at the present day a mill is still worked there. The
situation of the Rath-na-Riogh was then easily ascertained. This is
the most important of these ancient sites, but it is now, unfortunately,
nearly levelled to the ground. This rath is oval and measures about 853
feet from north to south; it contains the ruins of the Forradh and of Teach Cormac (the House of Cormac). A pillar-stone was removed in 1798
to the centre of the mound of the Forradh. It formerly stood by the side
of a small mound lying within the enclosure of Rath-Riogh. This stone
Dr. Petrie considers identical with the famous Lia Fail, or Stone
of Destiny, which other authorities suppose to have been removed to
Scotland, and subsequently to Westminster. The Rath-na-Riogh is
identical with Teamur, and is, in fact, the ancient Tara, or royal
residence, around which other scarcely less important buildings were
gradually erected. It was also called Cathair Crofinn. The name of Cathair was exclusively applied to circular stone fortifications built
without cement; and stones still remain which probably formed a portion
of the original building. In ancient Irish poems this fortification is
sometimes called the Strong Tower of Teamur, an appellation never
applied to a rath, but constantly to a Cathair, or circular stone
The Rath of the Synods obtained its name at a comparatively recent
period. The situation is distinctly pointed out both in the prose and
verse accounts. Here was held the Synod of Patrick, the Synod of Ruadhan
and Brendan, and lastly, the Synod of Adamnan. The next existing
monument which has been identified with certainty, is the Teach-Miodhchuarta, or Banqueting Hall, so famous in Irish history and
bardic tradition. This was also the great house of the thousand
soldiers, and the place where the Fes or triennial assemblies were
held. It had fourteen doors—seven to the east and seven to the west.
Its length, taken from the road, is 759 feet, and its breadth was
probably about 90 feet. Kenneth O'Hartigan is the great, and indeed
almost the only authority for the magnificence and state with which the
royal banquets were held herein. As his descriptions are written in a
strain of eloquent and imaginative verse, his account has been too
readily supposed to be purely fictitious. But we have already shown that
his description of the gold vessels which were used, is amply
corroborated by the discovery of similar articles. His account of the
extent, if not of the exterior magnificence, of the building, has also
been fully verified; and there remains no reason to doubt that a
"thousand soldiers" may have attended their lord at his feasts, or that
"three times fifty stout cooks" may have supplied the viands. There was
also the "House of the Women," a term savouring strangely of eastern
customs and ideas; and the "House of the Fians," or commons soldiers.
Two poems are still preserved which contain ground-plans of the
different compartments of the house, showing the position allotted to
different ranks and occupations, and the special portion which was to be
assigned to each. The numerous distinctions of rank, and the special
honours paid to the learned, are subjects worthy of particular notice.
The "saoi of literature" and the "royal chief" are classed in the same
category, and were entitled to a primchrochait, or steak; nor was the
Irish method of cooking barbarous, for we find express mention of a spit
for roasting meat, and of the skill of an artificer who contrived a
machine by which thirty spits could be turned at once. The five
great Celtic roads have already been mentioned. Indistinct traces
of them are still found at Tara. The Slighe Môr struck off from the
Slope of the Chariots, at the northern head of the hill, and joined
the Eiscir Riada, or great Connaught road, from Dublin via Trim. Dr.
Petrie concludes his Essay on Tara thus: "But though the houses were
unquestionably of these materials [wood and clay, with the exception of
the Tuatha Dé Danann Cathair], it must not be inferred that they were
altogether of a barbarous structure. It is not probable that they were
unlike or inferior to those of the ancient Germans, of which Tacitus
speaks in terms of praise, and which he describes as being overlaid with
an earth so pure and splendid, that they resembled painting." And the
historian Moore, writing on the same subject, observes: "That these
structures were in wood is by no means conclusive either against the
elegance of their structure, or the civilization, to a certain extent,
of those who erected them. It was in wood that the graceful forms of
Grecian architecture first unfolded their beauties; and there is reason
to believe that, at the time when Xerxes invaded Greece, most of her
temples were still of this perishable material."
But the cursing of Tara was by no means the only misfortune of
Diarmaid's reign. His unaccountable hostility to St. Columba involved
him in many troubles; and, in addition to these, despite famine and
pestilence, the country was afflicted with domestic wars. It is said
that his war with Guaire, King of Connaught, was undertaken as a
chastisement for an injustice committed by that monarch, who, according
to an old chronicle, had deprived a woman, who had vowed herself to a
religious life, of a cow, which was her only means of support. It is
more probable, however, that the motive was not quite so chivalric, and
that extortion of a tribute to which he had no right was the real cause.
The high character for probity unanimously attributed to Guaire, makes
it extremely unlikely that he should have committed any deliberate act
The first great convention of the Irish states, after the abandonment of
Tara, was held in Drumceat, in 573, in the reign of Hugh, son of
Ainmire. St. Columba and the leading members of the Irish clergy
attended. Precedence was given to the saint by the prelates of North
Britain, to honour his capacity of apostle or founder of the Church in
Two important subjects were discussed on this occasion, and on each the
opinion of St. Columba was accepted as definitive. The first referred to
the long-vexed question whether the Scottish colony of Alba should still
be considered dependent on the mother country. The saint, foreseeing the
annoyances to which a continuance of this dependence must give rise,
advised that it should be henceforth respected as an independent state.
The second question was one of less importance in the abstract, but far
more difficult to settle satisfactorily. The bards, or more probably
persons who wished to enjoy their immunities and privileges without
submitting to the ancient laws which obliged them to undergo a long and
severe course of study before becoming licentiates, if we may use the
expression, of that honorable calling, had become so numerous and
troublesome, that loud demands were made for their entire suppression.
The king, who probably suffered from their insolence as much as any of
his subjects, was inclined to comply with the popular wish, but yielded
so far to the representations of St. Columba, as merely to diminish
their numbers, and place them under stricter rules.
Hugh Ainmire was killed while endeavouring to exact the Boromean
Tribute. The place of his death was called Dunbolg, or the Fort of the
Bags. The Leinster king, Bran Dubh, had recourse to a stratagem, from
whence the name was derived. Finding himself unable to cope with the
powerful army of his opponent, he entered his camp disguised as a leper,
and spread a report that the Leinster men were preparing to submit.
In the evening a number of bullocks, laden with leathern bags, were seen
approaching the royal camp. The drivers, when challenged by the
sentinels, said that they were bringing provisions; and this so tallied
with the leper's tale, that they were permitted to deposit their burdens
without further inquiry. In the night, however, an armed man sprang from
each bag, and headed by their king, whose disguise was no longer needed,
slaughtered the royal army without mercy, Hugh himself falling a victim
to the personal bravery of Bran Dubh.
The deaths of several Irish saints, whose lives are of more than
ordinary interest, are recorded about this period. Amongst them, St.
Brendan of Clonfert demands more than a passing notice. His early youth
was passed under the care of St. Ita, a lady of the princely family of
the Desii. By divine command she established the Convent of Cluain
Credhuil, in the present county of Limerick, and there, it would
appear, she devoted herself specially to the care of youth. When Brendan
had attained his fifth year, he was placed under the protection of
Bishop Ercus, from whom he received such instruction as befitted his
advancing years. But Brendan's tenderest affection clung to the gentle
nurse of his infancy; and to her, in after years, he frequently
returned, to give or receive counsel and sympathy.
The legend of his western voyage, if not the most important, is at least
the most interesting part of his history. Kerry was the native home of
the enterprising saint; and as he stood on its bold and beautiful
shores, his naturally contemplative mind was led to inquire what
boundaries chained that vast ocean, whose grand waters rolled in mighty
waves beneath his feet. His thoughtful piety suggested that where there
might be a country there might be life—human life and human souls dying
day by day, and hour by hour, and knowing of no other existence than
that which at best is full of sadness and decay.
Traditions of a far-away land had long existed on the western coast of
ancient Erinn. The brave Tuatha Dé Dananns were singularly expert in
naval affairs, and their descendants were by no means unwilling to
impart information to the saint.
The venerable St. Enda, the first Abbot of Arran, was then living, and
thither St. Brendan journeyed for counsel. Probably he was encouraged in
his design by the holy abbot; for, he proceeded along the coast of Mayo,
inquiring as he went for traditions of the western continent. On his
return to Kerry, he decided to set out on the important expedition. St.
Brendan's Hill still bears his name; and from the bay at the foot of
this lofty eminence he sailed for the "far west." Directing his course
towards the south-west, with a few faithful companions, in a
well-provisioned bark, he came, after some rough and dangerous
navigation, to calm seas, where, without aid of oar or sail, he was
borne along for many weeks. It is probable that he had entered the great
Gulf Stream, which brought his vessel ashore somewhere on the Virginian
coasts. He landed with his companions, and penetrated into the interior,
until he came to a large river flowing from east to west, supposed to be
that now known as the Ohio. Here, according to the legend, he was
accosted by a man of venerable bearing, who told him that he had gone
far enough; that further discoveries were reserved for other men, who
would in due time come and christianize that pleasant land.
After an absence of seven years, the saint returned once more to
Ireland, and lived not only to tell of the marvels he had seen, but even
to found a college of three thousand monks at Clonfert. This voyage took
place in the year 545, according to Colgan; but as St. Brendan must have
been at that time at least sixty years old, an earlier date has been
suggested as more probable.
The northern and southern Hy-Nials had long held rule in Ireland; but
while the northern tribe were ever distinguished, not only for their
valour, but for their chivalry in field or court, the southern race fell
daily lower in the estimation of their countrymen. Their disgrace was
completed when two kings, who ruled Erinn jointly, were treacherously
slain by Conall Guthvin. For this crime the family were excluded from
regal honours for several generations.
Home dissensions led to fatal appeals for foreign aid, and this
frequently from the oppressing party. Thus, Congal Caech, who killed the
reigning sovereign in 623, fled to Britain, and after remaining there
nine years, returned with foreign troops, by whose assistance he hoped
to attain the honours unlawfully coveted. The famous battle of
Magh-Rath, in which the auxiliaries were utterly routed and the
false Congal slain, unfortunately did not deter his countrymen from
again and again attempting the same suicidal course.
In 656 the country was once more visited by the fatal Crom Chonaill,
and again holy prelates and sainted religious were foremost amongst its
victims. Many orphans were of necessity thrown on the mercy of those to
whom charity was their only claim. Nor was the call unheeded. The
venerable Bishop of Ardbraccan, St. Ultan, whom we may perhaps term the
St. Vincent of Ireland, gathered these hapless little ones into a safe
asylum, and there, with a thoughtfulness which in such an age could
scarcely have been expected, sought to supply by artificial means for
the natural nourishment of which they had been deprived.
Venerable Bede mentions this pestilence, and gives honorable testimony
to the charity of the Irish, not only to their own people, but even to
strangers. He says: "This pestilence did no less harm, in the island of
Ireland. Many of the nobility and of the lower ranks of the English
nation were there at that time, who, in the days of Bishop Finan and
Colman, forsaking their native land, retired thither, either for the
sake of divine studies, or for a more continent life. The Scots
willingly received them all, and took care to supply them with food, as
also to furnish them with books to read and their teaching gratis."
In 673 Finnachta Fleadhach, or the Hospitable, began his reign. He
yielded to the entreaties of St. Moling, and remitted the Boromean
Tribute, after he had forced it from the Leinster men in a bloody
battle. In 687 he abdicated, and showed his respect for religion still
further by embracing the monastic state himself. In 684 the Irish coasts
were devastated, and even the churches pillaged, by the soldiers of
Egfrid, the Saxon King of Northumbria. Venerable Bede attributes his
subsequent defeat and death, when fighting against the Picts, to the
judgment of God, justly merited by these unprovoked outrages on a nation
which had always been most friendly to the English (nationi Anglorum
It has been supposed that revenge may have influenced Egfrid's conduct:
this, however, does not make it more justifiable in a Christian king.
Ireland was not merely the refuge of men of learning in that age; it
afforded shelter to more than one prince driven unjustly from his
paternal home. Alfred, the brother of the Northumbrian monarch, had fled
thither from his treachery, and found a generous welcome on its
ever-hospitable shores. He succeeded his brother in the royal dignity;
and when St. Adamnan visited his court to obtain the release of the
Irish captives whom Egfrid's troops had torn from their native land, he
received him with the utmost kindness, and at once acceded to his
St. Adamnan, whose fame as the biographer of St. Columba has added even
more to the lustre of his name than his long and saintly rule over the
Monastery of Iona, was of the race of the northern Hy-Nials. He was born
in the territory of Tir-Connell, about the year 627. Little is known of
his early history; it is generally supposed that he was educated at
Iona, and that, having embraced the monastic rule, he returned to his
own country to extend its observance there. He presided over the great
Abbey of Raphoe, of which he was the founder, until the year 679, when
he was raised to the government of his order, and from that period he
usually resided at Iona. The fact of his having been chosen to such an
important office, is a sufficient testimony to his virtues, and of the
veneration and respect in which he was held by his contemporaries.
St. Adamnan paid more than one visit to his friend the Northumbrian
monarch (regem Alfridem amicum). On the second occasion he went with
the Abbot Ceolfrid, and after some conversation with him and other
learned ecclesiastics, he adopted the Roman paschal computation. Yet,
with all his influence and eloquence, he was unable to induce his monks
to accept it; and it was not until the year 716 that they yielded to the
persuasions of Egbert, a Northumbrian monk. Adamnan was more successful
in his own country. In 697 he visited Ireland, and took an important
part in a legislative council held at Tara. On this occasion he procured
the enactment of a law, which was called the Canon of Adamnan, or the
Law of the Innocents, and sometimes "the law not to kill women." We have
already referred to the martial tendencies of the ladies of ancient
Erinn—a tendency, however, which was by no means peculiar at that
period of the world's history. The propensity for military engagements
was not confined to queens and princesses—women of all ranks usually
followed their lords to the field of battle; but as the former are
generally represented as having fallen victims to each other's prowess
in the fight, it appears probable that they had their own separate line
of battle, or perhaps fought out the field in a common mêlée of
Had we not the abundant testimony of foreign writers to prove the
influence and importance of the missions undertaken by Irish saints at
this period of her history, it might be supposed that the statements of
her annalists were tinged with that poetic fancy in which she has ever
been so singularly prolific, and that they rather wrote of what might
have been than of what was. But the testimony of Venerable Bede (to go
no further) is most ample on this subject.
Irish missionary zeal was inaugurated in the person of St. Columba,
although its extension to continental Europe was commenced by another,
who, from similarity of name, has been frequently confounded with the
St. Columbanus was born about the year 539. The care of his education
was confided to the venerable Senile, who was eminent for his sanctity
and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. It was probably through his
influence that the young man resolved to devote himself to the monastic
life. For this purpose he placed himself under the direction of St.
Comgall, who then governed the great Monastery of Bangor (Banchorr).
It was not until he entered his fiftieth year that he decided on
quitting his native land, so that there can be no reason to doubt that
his high intellectual attainments were acquired and perfected in
With the blessing of his superior, and the companionship of twelve
faithful monks, he set forth on his arduous mission; and arduous truly
it proved to be. The half-barbarous Franks, then ruled by Thierry or
Theodoric, lived more a pagan than a Christian life, and could ill brook
the stern lessons of morality which they heard from, and saw practised
by, their new teacher. The saint did not spare the demoralized court,
and the Queen-Dowager Brunehalt became his bitterest foe. He had already
established two monasteries: one at Luxovium, or Luxeuil, in a forest at
the foot of the Vosges; the other, on account of its numerous springs, was called Ad-fontanas (Fontaines). Here the strict discipline of the
Irish monks was rigidly observed, and the coarsest fare the only
refection permitted to the religious.
For a time they were allowed to continue their daily routine of prayer
and penance without molestation; but the relentless Brunehalt, who, from
the basest motives, had encouraged the young king in every vice, could
no longer brave either the silent preaching of the cloister or the bold
denunciations of the saint. As Columbanus found that his distant
remonstrances had no effect on the misguided monarch, for whose eternal
welfare he felt the deep interest of true sanctity, he determined to try
a personal interview. For a brief space his admonitions were heard with
respect, and even the haughty queen seemed less bent on her career of
impiety and deceit; but the apparent conversion passed away as a summer
breeze, and once more the saint denounced and threatened in vain.
Strict enclosure had been established in the monasteries professing the
Columbanian rule and this afforded a pretext for the royal
vengeance. Theodoric attempted to violate the sanctuary in person; but
though he was surrounded by soldiers, he had to encounter one whose
powers were of another and more invincible character. The saint remained
in the sanctuary, and when the king approached addressed him sternly:
"If thou, sire," he exclaimed, "art come hither to violate the
discipline already established, or to destroy the dwellings of the
servants of God, know that in heaven there is a just and avenging power;
thy kingdom shall be taken from thee, and both thou and thy royal race
shall be cut off and destroyed on the earth."
The undaunted bearing of Columbanus, and, perhaps, some lingering light
of conscience, not yet altogether extinguished, had its effect upon the
angry monarch. He withdrew; but he left to others the task he dared not
attempt in person. The saint was compelled by armed men to leave his
monastery, and only his Irish and British subjects were permitted to
bear him company. They departed in deep grief, not for the cruel
treatment they suffered, but for their brethren from whom they were thus
rudely torn. As the monks who were left behind clung weeping to their
father, he consoled them with these memorable words: "God will be to you
a Father, and reward you with mansions where the workers of sacrilege
can never enter."
Nantes was the destination of the exiled religious. Here they were put
on board a vessel bound for Ireland; but scarcely had they reached the
open sea, when a violent storm arose, by which the vessel was driven
back and stranded on the shore, where it lay all night. The captain
attributed the misfortune to his travelling companions, and refused to
carry them any farther. Columbanus, perceiving in this accident an
indication of the will of heaven in their regard, determined to seek a
settlement in some other part of the Continent. In the third year after
his expulsion from Luxeuil, he arrived at Milan, where he was hospitably
received by the Lombard king, A.D. 612. On his journey thither he had
evangelised Austrasia, then governed by Theodebert. This prince, though
a brother of the monarch by whom he had been expelled, entertained him
with the utmost courtesy. At Mentz, the bishop vainly endeavoured to
detain him. Zeal for the conversion of souls led the saint to desire a
less cultivated field of labour. As he passed along the Lake of Zurich,
and in the Canton of Zug, he reaped a rich harvest; from, thence he
directed his course to Bregentz, then inhabited by an idolatrous people.
Here he was repulsed by those who most needed his apostolic labours;
but, undaunted, he retired to the neighbouring county, where he secured
a band of zealous converts. Surrounded by these, and attended by his
faithful monks, he once more entered the idolatrous city, and proceeded
boldly to the temple where their false gods were enshrined. Here he
invoked the Holy Name, and by its power the idols were miraculously
overthrown, and a multitude of the people were converted, including in
their number some of the principal inhabitants of Bregentz.
The theological controversy, known as that of the "Three Chapters," was
now prevalent in northern Italy. A letter is still extant which St.
Columbanus addressed to Pope Boniface on this subject, in which, while
he uses the privilege of free discussion on questions not defined by the
Church, he is remarkably, and perhaps for some inconveniently, explicit
as to his belief in papal supremacy. A brief extract from this important
document will show that the faith for which Ireland has suffered, and
still suffers so much, was the same in the "early ages" as it is now. He
writes thus to the Holy Father:—
"For we Irish [Scoti] are disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul, and of
all the divinely inspired canonical writers, adhering constantly to the
evangelical and apostolical doctrine. Amongst us neither Jew, heretic,
nor schismatic can be found; but the Catholic faith, entire and
unshaken, precisely as we have received it from you, who are the
successors of the holy Apostles. For, as I have already said, we are
attached to the chair of St. Peter; and although Rome is great and
renowned, yet with us it is great and distinguished only on account of
that apostolic chair. Through the two Apostles of Christ you are almost
celestial, and Rome is the head of the churches of the world."
In the year 613 St. Columbanus founded the world-famed Monastery of
Bovium, or Bobbio, in a magnificently romantic site on the
Apennines. Near his church was an oratory dedicated to the Mother of
God, who, as we shall presently see, was as devoutly worshipped in
ancient as in modern Erinn.
Agilulph, the Lombardian monarch, was ever a warm patron of the monks.
Clothaire had now ascended the French throne. He earnestly pressed the
saint to return to Luxeuil, but Columbanus excused himself on the plea
of age and infirmities. He did not fail, however, to send advice for the
government of the monasteries which he had founded, where his rule had
continued to be observed with the utmost fervour.
St. Columbanus died at Bobbio, on the 21st of November, 615, at the age
of seventy-two years. His name is still preserved in the town of St.
Columbano. His memory has been ever venerated in France and Italy.
While the saint was evangelizing in Switzerland, one of his disciples
became seriously ill, and was unable to travel farther. It was a
providential sickness for the Helvetians. The monk was an eloquent
preacher, and well acquainted with their language, which was a dialect
of that of the Franks. He evangelized the country, and the town of St.
Gall still bears the name of the holy Irishman, while his abbey contains
many precious relics of the literature and piety of his native land. St.
Gall died on the 16th October, 645, at a very advanced age. The
monastery was not erected until after his decease, and it was not till
the year 1798 that the abbey lands were aggregated to the Swiss
Confederation as one of the cantons.
Another Irish saint, who evangelized in France, was St. Fiacre. He
erected a monastery to the Blessed Virgin in a forest near Meaux. The
fame of his sanctity became so great, and the pilgrimage to his tomb so
popular, that the French hackney coaches (fiacre) obtained their name
from their constant employment in journeys to his shrine.
About the same period, St. Fursey founded a monastery near Burgh Castle,
in Suffolk, where he was kindly received by Sigbert, King of the East
Angles. From thence he proceeded to Lagny, in France, where his
missionary zeal was long remembered. His brothers, St. Foillan and St.
Altan, were his constant companions. St. Fursey died on the 16th
January, 650, at Macerius. His remains were subsequently translated to
Peronne, in Picardy. The evangelic labours of many of his Irish
disciples, are matter of history in the Gallic Church. It is said that
the fame of the Irish for their skill in music, was so well known on the
Continent at this period, that St. Gertrude, daughter of King Pepin, and
Abbess of Nivelle, in Brabant, invited the brothers of St. Fursey to
instruct her community in sacred music. They complied with her request,
and soon after erected a monastery at Fosse, near Nivelle. Nor were the
Scoti without their missionary martyrs, amongst whom the great St.
Kilian holds a distinguished place. The spirit of devotion to the Holy
See seems almost to be an heirloom in the little island of the western
sea. True to the instincts of his native land, the martyr-saint would
not undertake his mission in Franconia, great as was its necessity,
until he knelt at the feet of the Vicar of Christ to obtain his
permission and blessing. Thus fortified, he commenced his glorious race,
so happily crowned with the martyr's palm. His bold rebuke of the open
scandal given by the conduct of the ruling prince, was the immediate
cause of his obtaining this favour. St. Kilian was assassinated at
midnight, while singing the Divine Office, with two of his faithful
companions. Their remains were interred in the church of Wurtzberg,
where St. Kilian is still revered as its patron and apostle.
We can but name St. Mailduf, from whom Malmsbury has been named; St.
Livin, who converted the inhabitants of Flanders and Brabant; St.
Cataldus and his brother, St. Donatus, the former patron of the
metropolitan see of Tarentum, and whose name is still preserved in the
little town of San Cataldo, the latter Bishop of Lecce, in the kingdom
of Naples, and both famous for miracles and sanctity of life; St.
Virgilius, called in the ancient annals "Ferghil the Geometer," and by
Latin writers Solivagus, or the "solitary wanderer," who died
Bishop of Saltzburg, distinguished for literary fame; St. Fridolin, "the
traveller," son of an Irish king, who evangelized Thuringia, and was
appointed by the Pope Bishop of Buraburgh, near Fritzlar, in the year
741; St. Sedulius the younger, who wrote commentaries on Holy Scripture,
and assisted at a council held in Rome, in the year 721, under Gregory
II. It is noticeable that this saint was consecrated Bishop of Oreto, in
Spain, while in Rome. When he entered on the mission thus confided to
him, he wrote a treatise to prove that, being Irish, he was of Spanish
descent; thus showing that at this period the idea of a Milesian origin
was common to men of learning in Ireland.
But if Ireland gave saints and martyrs to foreign lands, her charity was
in some measure repaid in kind. True, she needed not the evangelic
labours of other missionaries, for the gospel-seed had taken deep root,
and borne a rich harvest on her happy shores; still, as the prayers of
saints are the very life and joy of the Church, she could not choose but
rejoice in the hundreds of pure and saintly souls who gathered round her
altars at home, who crowded her monasteries, or listened devoutly to the
teachers of her distinguished schools. In the Litany of Aengus the
Culdee we find hundreds of foreign saints invoked, each grouped
according to their nation. "The oldest tract, or collection of the
pedigrees of the saints of Erinn," says Professor O'Curry, "of which we
have now any recognizable copy remaining, is that which is ascribed to
Aengus Ceilé Dé, commonly called Aengus the Culdee. The genuineness of
this composition is admitted by all writers of modern times, Protestant
and Catholic, by Usher and Ware as well as by Colgan."
Aengus wrote about the year 798. He was descended from the illustrious
chieftains of Dalriada, and completed his education in the Monastery of
Cluain Eidhneach, in the present Queen's county. The remains of a church
he founded at Disert Aengusa, near Ballingarry, in the county of
Limerick, may still be seen.
The Monastery of Tamhlacht (Tallaght), near Dublin, was founded in the
year 769, by St. Maelruain, on a site offered "to God, to Michael the
Archangel, and to Maelruain," by Donnach, the pious and illustrious King
of Leinster. St. Aengus presented himself at this monastery as a poor
man seeking for service, and was employed for some time in charge of the
mill or kiln, the ruins of which have but lately yielded to "the
improving hand of modern progress." Here he remained hidden for many
years, until, by some happy accident, his humility and his learning were
at once discovered.
Aengus composed his "Festology" in the reign of Hugh Oirdnidhe (the
Legislator), who was Monarch of Ireland from the year 793 to the year
817. Hugh commenced his reign by attaching the province of Leinster, and
then marched to the confines of Meath. The Archbishop of Armagh and all
his clergy were commanded to attend this expedition, for such had
hitherto been the custom. The ecclesiastics, however, protested against
the summons, and complained to the king of the injustice and
inconsistency of demanding their presence on such occasions. Hugh
referred the matter to Fothadh, his poet and adviser. The learning and
piety of the bard were well known; and a decision favourable to the
clergy was the result. This decision was given in a short poem of four
quatrains which is preserved in the preface to the "Martyrology" of
Aengus. The following is a literal translation:—
Touch her not, nor waste;
Let her rights be reserved,
As best ever they were.
Possessed of a pious conscience,
To the church to which it is due
Let him act as any servant.
Who is not bound by vows of obedience,
Has liberty to join in the battles
Of Aedh (Hugh) the Great, son of Nial.
Certain it is not more, not less:
Let every one serve his lot,
Without defect, and without refusal."
This decision obtained the name of a canon, and henceforth its author
was distinguished as Fothadh na Canoiné, or Fothadh of the Canons.
At the time of the promulgation of this canon, Aengus was residing at
his church of Disert Bethech, near the present town of Monasterevan, not
far from where the Irish monarch had pitched his camp.
The poet visited Aengus, and showed him the canon before presenting it
to the king. An intimacy was thus commenced, which must have proved one
of singular pleasure to both parties. Aengus had just finished his
"Festology," and showed it for the first time to his brother poet, who
expressed the warmest approbation of the work.
This composition consists of three parts. The first part is a poem of
five quatrains, invoking the grace and sanctification of Christ for the
poet and his undertaking:—
O Lord of the seven heavens!
Grant me the gift of wisdom,
O Sovereign of the bright sun!
The heavens with all Thy holiness!
O King, who governest the angels!
O Lord of all the people!
O King, all righteous and good!
May I receive the full benefit
Of praising Thy royal hosts.
Because Thou art my sovereign;
I have disposed my mind
To be constantly beseeching Thee.
That I be purified from my sins,
Through the peaceful bright-shining flock,
The royal host whom I celebrate."
Then follows a metrical preface, consisting of eighty stanzas. These
verses are in the same measure as the invocation, Englished by
modern Gaedhilic scholars as "chain-verse;" that is, an arrangement of
metre by which the first words of every succeeding quatrain are
identical with the last words of the preceding one.
After the invocation follows a preface, the second part of this
remarkable poem. In this there is a glowing account of the tortures and
sufferings of the early Christian martyrs; it tells "how the names of
the persecutors are forgotten, while the names of their victims are
remembered with honour, veneration, and affection; how Pilate's wife is
forgotten, while the Blessed Virgin Mary is remembered and honoured from
the uttermost bounds of the earth to its centre." The martyrology
proper, or festology, comes next, and consists of 365 quatrains, or a
stanza for each day in the year.
It commences with the feast of the Circumcision:—
Let the King take the front place;
Unto the noble dispensation did submit
Christ—on the kalends of January."
St. Patrick is commemorated thus, on the 17th of March:—
The apostle of stainless Erinn,
Patrick, with his countless thousands,
May he shelter our wretchedness."
On the 13th of April, Bishop Tussach, one of the favourite companions of
the great saint, is also mentioned as—
Who administered, on his arrival,
The Body of Christ, the truly powerful King,
And the Communion to Patrick."
It will be remembered it was from this saint that the great apostle
received the holy viaticum. In the third division of his great work,
Aengus explains its use, and directs the people how to read it.
It will be manifest from these poems that the religious principles of
the Culdees and of the Irish ecclesiastics generally, were those of the
Universal Church at this period. We find the rights of the Church
respected and advocated; the monarchs submitting to the decision of the
clergy; invocation of the saints; the practice of administering the holy
viaticum; and the commemoration of the saints on the days devoted to
Usher observes, that the saints of this period might be grouped into a
fourth order. Bede says: "That many of the Scots [Irish] came daily
into Britain, and with great devotion preached the word and administered
baptism.... The English, great and small, were by their Scottish [Irish] masters instructed in the rules and observances of regular
discipline." Eric of Auxerre writes thus to Charles the Bald: "What
shall I say of Ireland, which, despising the dangers of the deep, is
migrating with her whole train of philosophers to our coast?" Rency,
after describing the poetry and literature of ancient Erinn as perhaps
the most cultivated of all Western Europe, adds, that Ireland "counted a
host of saints and learned men, venerated in England and Gaul; for
no country had furnished more Christian missionaries." It is said that
three thousand students, collected from all parts of Europe, attended
the schools of Armagh; and, indeed, the regulations which were made for
preserving scholastic discipline, are almost sufficient evidence on this
The discussions of the Irish and English ecclesiastics on the time of
keeping of Easter, with their subsequent decision, and all details
concerning domestic regulations as to succession to office and church
lands, are more properly matters for elucidation in a Church History,
for which we reserve their consideration.