by Thomas John Mulvey, PhD
|Childhood reflections of rural, 1870s Ireland and Celtic history.|
Edited by Eric C. Biemiller and William L. Mulvey|
Grandsons of Thomas John Mulvey, PhD
Copyright© William L. Mulvey, all rights reserved
Illustrations from The Book of Kells
The back door of our cottage gave, as I have said, on a cabbage patch and truck garden, by the end of which a causeway led to a path through a beautiful meadow along which was the road that led into the town of Drumshanbo. Along side the end of the meadow flowed the river, at times a mere stream, at other times a torrent in full flood fed by the rains or the melting snows on the mountains which formed a background to the prospect that we had from our garden. My father often told me the name of this mountain range. It stuck in my memory. I should have written it Slieve an Iran, according to the lingering idea in my mind of what the Irish spelling of it should be. What was my delight to find it in the Encyclopedia Britannica in the article on County Leitrim. There it was, spelled just as my father had pronounced it to me, Slieve Anieran.
This verification of the substantial correctness of the name he used for the mountain was a great lift to my belief in whatever he told me about other things, a lift as to their correctness; at least as to the correctness of the traditions. It gave color to the tales of the exploits of Irish heroes, which he had in great store and which I took in with all the avidity of a boy of romantic turn of mind. It was proof, and proof enough, that he knew what he was talking about. It gave great support to my confidence in him as a teller of stories, however disconnected those stories might be. It was up to me to put them together in what seemed to be some sort of chronological order.
Many a time he told me that in those same mountains, and in many like them, there was coal and iron galore, but the mines were not worked because the English would not let them be worked.
England feared that Irish industries would grow strong and so compete with hers. England was jealous of Ireland's wealth beneath her soil, was jealous of her natural resources and consequently frowned upon, to put it mildly, their development.
The same thing was true, he said, of England's unwillingness to make use of or to let use be made of Ireland's excellent harbors on her west coast. In illustration he told me of beautiful Bantry Bay in which the three fleets of England found anchorage, all at one time, and with plenty of room to spare. Then there was Galway Bay, he said, at one time frequented by the merchant ships of all nations; but now its waters were seldom stirred by the keel of any ship. The silence of its shores was seldom broken by the rattling of any foreign rigging, nor was the landscape in the background made more picturesque by the fluttering of any foreign flags in the morning or afternoon breeze. For the matter of that, no Union Jack ever flew there—another evidence of England's fear of a strong Ireland, whether through the development of her natural resources or from the growth of a merchant marine to make use of her beautiful and spacious harbors. And here my father told me of ancient Irish mariners who followed the sea into the setting sun and brought back tales of "The Blessed Isles," as well as of the more substantial visits of discovery, that they made. There was no doubt in his mind that the Irish were sailors and explorers even before the Christian era and that their ships fought along side of those stout vessels of the Breton fleet that Caesar dispersed at Vannes after an obstinate struggle.
Three or four centuries after the beginning of the Christian era, we find Niall of the Nine Hostages making forays on the coasts of Britain and of Gaul, from one of which plundering expeditions he brought back to Ireland a young native of Gaul whom we have come to know as Patrick. Him he sold as a slave to one Milcho in the north of Ireland. "There is every probability," says William H. Babcock in a volume called "The Glories of Ireland" and printed by the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., "that ships of the island conveyed some at least of the 'Scots' (Irish) whom Gildas in the sixth century describes as joining the Picts in furiously storming the Roman wall."
Niall's nephew, Dathi, an ard-ri, was a great sea king. He invaded England, crossed over to Gaul and marched as far as the Alps, where he was killed by lightning. He was the last pagan king of Ireland. Under him the Irish built and manned ships and sailed them to distant coasts, landed and penetrated far inland in quest of booty.
And here it would be well to mention that the Irish were called “Scots” and Ireland was called "Scotia" by foreigners in the early centuries, perhaps from the Milesians under Queen Scotia, that people who overran Ireland after it had disappeared in a storm conjured up by those necromancers, the Firbolgs, who had blended with the Formorians, or men from beneath the sea. Several contingents of the Irish, or “Scots” had settled in Scotland and gave their name to the country, the land of the "Scotia," or Irish. For Ireland, or Scotia, was then famous in many fields in general culture as well as in the prowess of their fighting men.
Duns Scotus was an Irishman, as was John Scotus Esigina of early Scholastic fame. He was called "Scotus," or the "Irishman," as was the custom in those days, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, from d'Aquino, his family, so named from the country of their origin. "Scotus," as "Aquinas", was a sort of patronymic to distinguish the bearer of the name. It was a sort of surname, as family names are today. Incidentally, Duns Scotus was known as "The Subtle Doctor," just as St. Thomas Aquinas was, and is, known as "The Angelic Doctor."
It is almost inconceivable that the Gael should not have early responded to the call of the sea, to the call of high adventure, fraught with danger, to the mountainous bellows, the rumblings and the cracklings of thunderbolts, the splendor of the lightning, as they played around the topmasts—all this must have been a challenge to the Gael's natural daring, to his innate sense of the presence of the unseen. For the Irishman walks ever with one foot on this earth, the other treading the hills and dales of Heaven. "You may kill the body, but you cannot touch my immortal soul," was the common saying of the Irishman, when arraigned in the dock before an English judge in an English court on a political charge that generally carried with it the death penalty. "Great scorners of death" could be applied to them, as well in the prisoners' pen as on the field of battle.
As so the sea held no terrors for the Irish mariner as he grasped the tiller or climbed the mast to unfurl the sail of his ship as she drove before the storm through the billowing and foaming sea.
My father had stories of Irish sailors who were not afraid to sail west and north and south over the broad Atlantic, Gaels who brought back wondrous tales of beautiful islands visited and vast expanses of land seen on their voyages of discovery and adventure.
It is strange, as I look back on my boyhood study of geography and of the so-called discoverers of America, South and North, that no mention was ever made, or if made, treated as a fairy tale, of other mariners before Columbus, who sailed westward in quest of new lands. They sailed, not merely to find a shorter, or at least, a more direct route to the wealth of China and of Asia. Eric, the Norseman was mentioned, of course; but that was all there was to it—just mentioned, and then dismissed. But there was no mention made of other voyagers, and I, a boy of nine, ten, or eleven years of age, was too shy and too much afraid of ridicule to mention what I, too, regarded as the fairy tales of an Irish father.
But the tales I had heard of Brendan, Bran, and the others, stuck in my mind and haunted my sub-consciousness. So I sought confirmation or refutation of those tales and found that they had a basis, in fact. I found that they were not chicken-hearted mariners who like Columbus' crews, sought to mutiny against their Captain and to force him to turn back lest they should come to the brink of the world and fall off into the void. No, they were stout-hearted Milesians or Celts, or a blending of both, who stood up against the storm, against the mounting waves and the yawning valleys of water, the pealing of thunder and the flashing of lightning, who looked upon the sun going down in a wealth of crimson and gold to await its reappearance in the east "at daybreak strewn with fancied roses." They sailed on until they found land, whether it was the Canary Islands, the Madeiras, or the Azores. Atlantic islands "fair enough or wonderful enough to tempt the shore-dwellers of Ireland far away and hold them spell-bound for years." There they found islands of a delightful climate and of exceeding beauty. They told of their discoveries upon their return, told tall tales, you may be sure, of the lands they had visited.
Those tales make up "that extraordinary series of Irish sea-sagas, the Immrama, comprising the voyages of Bran, Maeldrim, the Hui Corra, and St. Brendan—the last-mentioned deservedly the most famous. These vary in their literary merits and the merits of their several parts…but under all may be dimly traced, as in a palimpsest, the remote pagan original. At their best they embody a lofty and touching poetry very subtle and significant, as when we read of Bran's summoning by a visitant of supernatural beauty to the Isles of undying delight, where a thousand years are but as a day; his return with a companion who had been overcome by longing for Ireland and home; the man's falling to ashes at the first touch of his native soil, as though he had been long dead; of the flight of Bran and his crew from the real living world to the islands of the blessed. At least equally fine and stirring in Saint Brendan's interview with the exiled spirit of Heaven, whose ‘sin was but little,’ so that he and his fellows were given only the pleasing penance of singing delightfully, in the guise of beautiful birds, the praises of the God who showed them mercy and grace, amid the charms of an earthly paradise. Then all the birds sang evensong, so that it was a heavenly noise to hear."
So writes William H. Babcock, in the "The Irish and the Sea," in the volume, "Glories of Ireland."
Some have supposed that Saint Brendan even made his way to America. There are maps of the fourteenth century by Dulcert in 1339, and Pizigani in 1367, both plainly labeling Madeira, Porto Santo, and Las Desertas as "The Fortunate Islands of St. Brendan." "Of course the fourteenth century was a long way from the sixth, when the voyage was supposed to have been made by Saint Brendan, and we cannot take so late a verdict as convincing proof of any fact," says Babcock, who continues:
"Whatever Brendan did, there is no doubt that Irish mariners, incited by the awakening which followed St. Patrick's mission, covered many seas in their frail vessels during the next three or four centuries. They set up a flourishing religious establishment in Orkney, made stepping stones of the intervening islands, and reached Iceland some time in the eight century, if not earlier. The Norsemen, following in their tracks, as always, found them there, and the earliest Icelandic writings record their departure, leaving behind them books, bells, and other souvenirs on an islet off shore which still bears their name."
"Did they keep on before the Norsemen to America too? At least the Norsemen thought so. For centuries the name of Great Ireland or Whitemen's Land was accepted in Norse geography as meaning a region far west of Ireland, a parallel to Great Sweden (Russia), which lay far east of Sweden. The saga of Thorfinn Karlsefni, first to attempt colonizing America, makes it plain that his followers believed Great Ireland to be somewhere in that region and it is explicitly located near Wineland by the twelfth century Landnamabok. Also, there were specific tales afloat of a distinguished Icelander lost at sea, who was afterwards found in a western region by an Irish vessel long driven before the storm. The version most relied on came through one Rafn, who had dwelt in Limerick; also through Thorfinn, Earl of the Orkneys."
Thus, we see that the Irish had the reputation, founded on past and tradition, of being a seafaring people, mariners whom even the Norsemen, the Vikings of the North, followed as leaders in their ventures on the sea to the west and to the north. But the exploits of the Irish mariners were the victims of that conspiracy of silence as to all things Irish, while writers were glad to make mention of the daring of the ancestors of the Normans, those Vikings, or Inlet-men of the North, or the Norsemen of general school-histories. Vik means a fiord, or inlet, and these so called Vikings were inlet-men from Denmark and Norway, close kin to the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded Britain permanently in 449. They came in long black galleys, and made little use of sails. Their incursions were mostly from the fifth to the ninth centuries.
When the Scots and Picts stormed the Roman Wall built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the second century, or about 125 A.D., who built it to keep those barbarians out of what is now England, which even then was constituted a Roman province; when, I say, the Scots met this challenge of Roman disposition to encroach upon their country, the Scotic clans of Alba (for so Scotland was then called) "turned to their motherland for help, and the sea was 'white with hurrying oars' of the men of Erin speeding to the call of their Highland kinsman, threatened with imperial servitude."
Thus the first external record that we possess; that is, the first reference written by men about Irishmen, and not written by an Irishman himself, bears testimony to the fact that the Irish loved liberty, whether for themselves or for others. When they went to wage war abroad, it was not "to impose their yoke upon other peoples, or to found an empire, but to battle against the Empire of the World," in this case, the Roman Empire which sought to enslave England as it had already partly done, and then Scotland, and, according to Agricola's advice to the empire-builders of his day, as we find it recorded in Tacitus, the Roman historian, to "war down and take possession of Ireland, so that freedom might be put out of sight." The Irish answered the call of their kinsmen in Scotland or Alba, to repel the Roman invader. That was their role in all history: to guard the freedom of their own beloved isle and to rush to the aid of others fighting to protect their freedom against any aggressor who would rob them of it.
"In this early Roman reference to Ireland, we get the keynote to all later Irish history—a warring down on the one hand, so that freedom might be put out of sight; an eternal resistance, on the other, so that it might be upheld.
This struggle against every form of enslavement Ireland sought to maintain all through her recorded history. First it was the Danes from the early ninth century onward until they were finally defeated by Brian Boru on that Good Friday in 1014 at Clontarf. The general name of Danes is given to these Scandinavians, these Viking rovers and raiders. They had become a nation of pirates. They were undaunted fighters and able mariners who built their shapely long ships and galleys of northern pine and oak. They swept down on the coast of England, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy, and even on the islands of the Levant, surprising, massacring, and plundering. They planted colonies nearly everywhere they went, in Normandy, in England, and lastly in Ireland. The Irish coastline particularly took them with its many indentations made by the sea, indentations that they likened to their own fiords in Norway. These Northmen are sometimes, in early Irish accounts, called Lochlamni, or people of Lakeland, meaning Norway. The mildness of the climate of Ireland appealed to them; it was so different from the harsh cold of their own Norway and Jutland.
They planted settlements at Dublin Bay, at Waterford Harbor, at Belfast Lough, and at the Cove of Cork. They pushed up the River Shannon and settled at the site of Limerick where its salmon fisheries held them. Everywhere they pillaged and burned churches and monasteries. These Viking rovers and raiders carried away the sacred vessels, used them in their drinking bouts; they tore off the jewels of the missals and wore them on their arms and armor.
"To these onslaughts by the myriad wasps of the northern seas, again and again renewed, the Irish responded manfully. In 812 they drove off the invaders with great slaughter, only to find fresh hordes descending a year or two later. In the tenth century, Turgesius, the Danish leader, called himself monarch of Ireland, but he was driven out by the Irish king, Malachi."
Finally, all Ireland became united under their great Ard-Ri of Tara, Brian Boru. He massed an army of 30,000 good men and true with which he defeated the Danes of Dublin and the Danes from over seas who had come to the assistance of their kinsmen. This was the famous battle of Clontarf, on the northern sickle of the Harbor of Dublin, of which my father told me many a story. It was fought on a Good Friday in the year 1014, but the echoes of it still rang out clear and bold in the traditions of the Irish. The battle was won and the Danish power in Ireland was broken; but the victor, Brian Boru, "one of the most successful warrior princes of my age," was slain in his tent by a fleeing Dane who came upon him unaware as he was kneeling in prayer of thanksgiving for the redemption of Ireland on the anniversary (Good Friday) of the Redemption of the whole human race.
Thus, Ireland was rid of the Danes as an occupying force of conquerors, though isolated families and parts of Danish communities remained to coalesce with the Irish, to become imbued thoroughly with the Irish point of view and love for and devotion to the Emerald Isle, and to contribute something to the race.
While this period of the Danish invasions and occupation, lasting roughly for about two hundred years, was one of the most grievous chapters of Irish history, those same years literally shine with Irish valor and tenacity of purpose. As Plowden says:
"Ireland stands conspicuous among the nations of the universe, a solitary instance in which neither the destructive hand of time, nor the devastating arm of oppression, nor the widest variety of changes in the political system of government could alter or subdue, much less wholly extinguish, the national genius, spirit, and character of its inhabitants." This is true not only of the Danish wars, which ended over nine hundred years ago, but of many a dreadful century since and nearly to this very day.
But, if the Danish invasions were a scourge to Ireland, they were as nothing to the scourges that followed and have continued, intermittently at first, for eight hundred years. Cousins of those same Northmen that plagued and plundered Ireland during the Danish, or Norse, invasions had spread over most of western and central Europe from the ninth century onward. In Ancient Gaul they had become Franks and Normans. They had imbibed the culture of civilization of the decaying Roman Empire. The Latin language of the Romans had become, or was in the process of becoming Norman French. With it, Roman law and Roman customs, accommodated to changing times and the genius of a Northern race, were imposed upon, or accepted by the Celts of Gaul, who thus became gradually Romanized.
It is noteworthy to remark here that this Roman influence, whether of language, or of comity, or of polity never extended to Ireland. She maintained her ancient estate which she had developed and brought to a high degree of perfection before the Roman Eagles flew over England. Unlike the inhabitants of England and of France, the Irish were uninfluenced by Roman institutions, and that was true of Ireland even before her conversion to Christianity in the fifth century." Ireland alone among all western nations knew her own past, from the very dawn of history and before the romance of Romulus began, down to the present day, in the tongue of her own island people and in the light of her own native mind. Early Irish history is not the record of the clan-strivings of a petty and remote population, far from the centre of civilization. It is the authentic story of all western civilization before the warm solvent of Mediterranean blood and iron melted and molded it into another and ridged shape.
"The Irishman called O'Neill, O'Brien, O'Donnell, steps out of the past well-nigh co-eval with the heroism and tragedies that uplifted Greece and laid Troy in ashes, and swept the Mediterranean with an Odyssey of romance that still gives its name to each chief island, cape, promontory of the mother sea of Europe. Ireland, too, steps out of a story just as old. Well nigh every hill or mountain, every lake or river, bears the name today it bore a thousand, two thousand, years ago, and one recording some dramatic human or semi-divine event."
That is the statement of Sir Roger Casement, C.M.G., a man who knew Irish history, and who laid down his life in consequence of his trying to right its wrongs, for which he was sentenced by an English court of justice (save the mark!) to be hanged. The statement is to be found in his article "The Romance of Irish History" in the volume sponsored by the Catholic University of America, Washington, D. C., "Know the truth and the truth shall make you free."
If the Danes scourged Ireland, by pillaging her of her art treasures during one hundred and fifty years ending with their overthrow by Brian Boru, the Norman kings of England, the Tudors, the Stuarts, The Covenanters, under Cromwell, and succeeding English rulers of Dutch and German lineage down to and including the scions of the House of Hanover, lately changed in name to the House of Windsor, continued the sorrowful story by crucifying her.
Thierry, the French historian of the Norman Conquest of England, has this tribute to pay to Ireland's indomitable role through those trying years. He tells us that Ireland still remained the one "lost cause" of history that refused to admit defeat. "This indomitable persistency, this faculty of preserving through centuries of misery the remembrance of lost liberty and of never despairing of a cause always defeated, always fatal to those who dared to defend it, is perhaps the strangest and noblest example ever given by any nation."
This continued crucifixion of Ireland began in the twelfth century under the Plantagenet king, Henry the Second, of England. It was inevitable that the Normans, after they had become entrenched in England under William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, should turn eventually envious and covetous, not to say greedy, eyes westward toward Ireland. Why was this?
Ireland had a much longer recorded history than had England. The fame of her learning had long been spread throughout Europe. It was well known to Charlemagne in the beginning of the ninth century as well as to Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons at the end of the same century. He it was, this same Alfred, who strove to bring some learning to his barbarous people. When Alfred became king, "there were very few ecclesiastics," he says, "on this side of the Humber who could understand in English their own Latin prayers, or translate any Latin writing into English," as he is quoted by Taine in the latter's “History of English Literature," who then goes on to say, "he tried, like Charlemagne, to instruct his people, and turned into Saxon for their use several works, above all some moral books, as the ‘de Consolatione' of Boethius (of the fifth century); but this very translation bears witness to the barbarism of his audience. He adapts the text in order to bring it down to their intelligence." Thus Taine on the absence of culture and learning among the Anglo-Saxons toward the end of the ninth century. But Ireland, even before the return of Patrick in 432 A. D., and certainly when he had finished his labors and founded monasteries and schools of learning all over Ireland before his death in 492 A.D., was a seat of learning that grew and grew.
In the sixth, seventh and eight centuries her reputation had been spread by her sons and daughters from her own shores to Iona Island, to English Northubaia, to Gaul, to Germany, to Tarcutum in Italy, and throughout the decadent Roman Empire.
As my father said, to see an example of this early Irish culture, one has only to look at and examine the Book of Kells in the "Gold Room" of Trinity College, Dublin. And not only the Book of Kells, but also the other treasures kept in that same "Gold Room." There they will find, besides the Book of Kells, the famous so-called Tara Brooch and many other relics of the culture and craftsmanship of Ireland in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. Then in the ninth century came that series of Danish invasions when the Vikings of the North pillaged and vandalized the monasteries of Ireland, tearing precious illuminated pages from Missals and decorating with them their coats of armor; desecrating gold chalices by using them in their drinking bouts, carrying off pyxes and ostenoria as loot. When the Danish scourge was put to an end by Brian Boru, Irish art and Irish learning, for three centuries arrested but not obliterated, germinated and blossomed anew.
It was before the Danish incursions, at a time when Irish monastic schools enjoyed their greatest growth, that an Irish monk transcribed the Gospels in an abbey, founded by Saint Columbia, at Kells in Meath. This monk was, according to H. N. Morton in the volume entitled "In Search of Ireland," “one of the world's greatest artists. In Italy of the Renaissance he might have been another Michelangelo." But, just as "The Lady of the Lake," "Mannion," and other poetry of Scott, has made Scotland known to readers and travelers, so have tourist agencies and travel bureaus made Switzerland, Italy and the great Italian artists, known to countless numbers of people who have made those countries the objects of their tours. Not that I would blame them; but some day, maybe when the present "trouble" between nations is over, there will be employed the power of advertising to make known to millions, the treasures of early Irish culture and learning, not to mention the wealth and beauty of the scenery of Ireland. Then will come a stream of tourists, not merely of retuning Irishmen, but of men and women of all classes in all nations to admire and store in their memories pictures and impressions of Ireland's contributions in handicraft, skill and artwork that she produced in the ages of her greatest development.
Be it noted that when this Book of Kells was being produced in Ireland, England was in a state of desolation, a truly distressful country, if there ever was one. The Roman legions had abandoned it to itself. London was but a crude city on a hill that the East Angles in their marshes were afraid to enter. Paris was a desolate place, and Rome's sun was setting…had been setting before the Goths, Visigoths, and Vandals. During all this time Ireland was the only repository of learning in Europe. Armagh, the religious capital of Ireland, was the center of European culture. Monks in her monasteries were laboring away with a holy zeal, copying the Scriptures and the classics of Greece and Rome. During these three darkest centuries of English history, Ireland was saving Greek and Latin culture for the rest of Europe. England was torn by petty wars with the Danes and finally in 1013, a year before Brian Boru had put an end to Danish power in Ireland, a Danish king, Canute, reigned in England and not only in England, but in Denmark and Norway.
This is the same king Canute who taught his courtiers a lesson on the insincerity of retainers who would fawningly attribute omnipotent powers to their king. The story was told, it seems to me, in one of the early readers that I had in school.
Canute's courtiers praised him to the skies, said he was lord of land and sea, that his word was law and must be obeyed everywhere. So, one day, as he and his court were strolling by the seashore at ebb tide, he ordered his chair be brought and placed at the water's edge, just a few feet from where the tide turned. Sitting in the chair, his bare feet on the sandy beach, he commanded the sea to come no farther. But the tide refused to obey; soon the seawater covered the kingly toes, feet, and ankles. He was obliged to move his chair. "See,” he said, "how the sea obeys me!"
For a time, under Canute and his sons, it seemed possible that a great confederation of the Northmen might have established itself. For the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who had conquered and occupied the most of England in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries were blood brothers to the Danes. Like them, they were ruthless in their treatment of the early Britons, who they gradually drove before them into the marshes and borders of what is now Wales, where they stopped the Saxons, Angles and Jutes in their drive westward.
Even before the Vikings, whom history knows as Danes, began their depredations not only upon Ireland but upon England too, as well as upon the Continent of Europe, there labored in the Abbey of Kells a humble monk with a passion for anonymity characteristic of all his brothers who had vowed themselves to poverty, chastity, and especially to humility. They did not demand a "By Line" for their transcriptions to spread their names abroad, or to hand their names down to posterity. It has been well said that the real distinguishing characteristic of a genuinely great man is the virtue of humility. This monk and all his brethren had the virtue of humility in its essence. It was one of the vows they took at the time of their profession as monks.
The labors of this unnamed monk were expended on transcribing the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The result of his painstaking labors is now known as the Book of Kells. It is according to one writer on the subject, "acknowledged to be the most beautiful book in the world." The wonder to me is that the fame of this "most beautiful book in the world" has not been bruited abroad as such, that its existence is known to so few, that it should not have been made the lode-stone to draw all lovers and admirers of the beautiful in art to the Gold Room in Trinity College, Dublin. And yet my father knew of its existence as well as of its excellence, and not only he, but my grandfather Mulvey too, and both of them discoursed on this and other works of the monks in the seventh and eight centuries. I suppose this reticence about or ignorance of the contribution made by Irishmen, specifically, by Irish Catholic monks and monasteries, to the culture, the craftsmanship, and the learning of the world, is due to prejudice against everything Irish in the minds of a few generations ago.
It is gratifying to note that in the last twenty or thirty years, and even a little before this, books have been published on the beauties of Ireland from a merely scenic point of view, on the richness of her early art, on the extent of her early learning, and on the consequent contributions she has made to the development of culture in the world.
The Book of Kells was thought to be the work of Saint Columcille who had founded a monastery on the island of Iona in the year 563. Columcille was an Irishman of the County Donegal, a man of royal descent whose kinsman, King Conall, bestowed Iona upon him and his brethren in Christ. He died in 597, whereas the Book of Kells is probably the work of a monk of the eighth century.
This Book of Kells is the unsurpassed specimen of Irish art in the golden age of that art. It is a testimony to the high degree to which monastic devotion to religion as well as to art had attained in Ireland even before the eight century. Nor is it alone in its testimony. It is not a solitary specimen of the painstaking calligraphy of one unknown monk. We should be justified in concluding that there were similar, even if unequal, copies of the Gospels transcribed at the same time and in the years proceeding. They at least would parallel the production of the Book of Kells. Its author must have had instructors, must have been one of others who wrote with similar skill, even if inferior to the master's. He had contemporaries and, perhaps pupils. For all the great artists had pupils and imitators who were taught by the great maestro. It was so of Michelangelo, of Raphael, of many others; and the works of the pupils have sometimes been taken for that of the Master himself.
Into the vellum pages of the Book of Kells have been "woven such a wealth of ornament, such an ecstasy of art, such a miracle of design that the book is today not only one of Ireland's greatest glories but one of the world's greatest wonders," to quote Louis Ely O'Carroll, B.A., B.L., in his article on "Irish Manuscripts" in "The Glories of Ireland."
He continues: "After twelve centuries the ink is as black and lustrous and the colors are as fresh and soft as though but the work of yesterday. The whole range of colors is there—green, blue, crimson, scarlet, yellow, purple, violet—and the same color is at times varied in tone and depth and shade, thereby achieving a more exquisite combination and effect. In addition to the numerous decorative pages and marvelous initials, there are portraits of the evangelists and full-page miniatures of the Temptation of Christ, His Seizure by the Jews, and the Madonna and Child surrounded by angels with censers. Exceptionally beautiful are these angels and other angelic figures throughout the book, their wings shining with glowing colors amid woven patterns of graceful design. The portraits and miniatures and numerous faces centered in initial letters are not to be adjudged by the standards of anatomical drawing and delineation of the human figure, but rather by their effect as part of a scheme of ornamentation; for the Celtic illuminator was imaginative rather than realistic, and aimed altogether at achieving beauty by means of color and design. The Book of Kells is the Mecca of the illuminative artist, but it is the despair of the copyist. The patience and skill of the olden scribe have baffled the imitator; for, on examination with a magnifying glass, it has been found that, in the space of a quarter of an inch, there are no fewer than a hundred and fifty-eight interlacements of a ribbon pattern of white lines edged by black ones on a black background."
Another writer, H. V. Morton, an Englishman, in his book, "In Search of Ireland," has this tribute to pay to the workmanship displayed in The Book of Kells. "He, (the author of the artistry in the Book) "enriched his book with a thousand fantasies and a thousand beauties of intricate design. He poured into this book all the power of his imagination. Men looking at it today (1930), wonder not only at the fertility of his brain but also at the keenness of his eyes. How is it possible that man, unless he employed a type of magnifying glass unknown in his day, could pen such microscopic designs, so perfect that sections of them no bigger than a postage stamp, when photographed and enlarged, show no flaw in the intricate interlocking of lines and spirals?"
Was there in the middle of the fifth or at the beginning of the sixth century a Christian in the whole of Great Britain, that is, in England and Scotland combined? Says one writer, "I doubt it." And yet, there are those who claim Scotland as the birthplace of St. Patrick, who was the Christian son of a saintly Christian mother and who was taken as a captive and sold as a slave into Ireland. This must have been at the close of the fourth century or in the early years of the fifth century in order to let him return to Ireland in 432 A.D. after his escape to the Continent of Europe, then allow time for his studies there, for his ordination as priest, and his consecration as bishop! There were a few Christians in the western shores of Caledonia to call the country to the north of England by its right name. They may have emigrated from Ireland, for the Gospel was preached to the Irish some years before the advent of Saint Patrick as a Christian missionary, in 432 A.D., therefore in the first third of the fifth century. But that early attempt at the evangelizing of Ireland did not take. Palladius, a Briton and a bishop, was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431 to those who already believed in Christ; but Palladius was a failure. He returned to Briton in that year of 431. Then Pope Celestine sent Patrick, who had studied in Gaul, had been there ordained priest and consecrated bishop, not in Scotland, mind you, for that country, Caledonia, had not yet been Christianized. It had to wait for Saint Columcille, who in 563 crossed the sea in currachs of wickerwork and hides and sought with twelve companions to land in Caledonia. They reached instead the Isle of Iona.
Some year before, colonies of Irishmen had settled on the western shores of Scotland. North of the Clyde River, the settlement was known as the Kingdom of Dalriada, composed of Dalriadan Irish, who, at least in name, were Christians, but their neighbors in the Pictish Highlands were pagans. Adamnan, another great Irishman and the biographer of Saint Columcille, says that Columcille came to Caledonia "for the love of Christ's name." At this time Columcille was forty-four years of age, and therefore in the vigor of mature manhood.
The name of Saint Columcille is almost as familiar to the majority of the Irish as is that of Saint Patrick himself. He was born in 521 at Gartan in the County of Donegal of a noble Irish family, in fact, with royal blood in his veins, for he belonged to the Hy Neills, who were descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages. His first name was Crimthann, but his childhood companions nicknamed him "Colum from the Cill"—Columcille, because they saw him coming daily from the church nearby. As a mere child he went to the school of St. Finnan at Movihe on Lough Foyle. He then went to the Seinster School of Bards where the ancient poet Gemman must have taught him the old Demidic lore of Ireland. From there he went to the great college of Clonard on the Boyne, where St. Finnan taught three thousand pupils from every part of Europe.
An interesting and authentic story is told of St. Columcille's having borrowed a manuscript of St. Jerome's translation of the Vulgate, borrowed it from his old master, St. Finnan who had brought it from Rome. St. Columcille copied it, sitting up night to do so secretly. When St. Finnan heard this, he was furious, for he prized his transcript highly and not wished to have it copied. He appeal to the High King at Tara and thus brought the first action on record for the infringement of copyright. The King decided in favor of Finnan on the theory that as every cow owned her calf, so every book owned its copy.
Saint Columcille, assisted by Irish monks who had flocked to the monastery founded by him on the Isle of Iona, did for Caledonia what his great prototype, Saint Patrick, did for Ireland. He, too, was a fearless missionary who preached the gospel to the Pictish rulers, for he realized the importance of example in high places. Therefore, he did not hesitate to approach King Brude in his castle on the banks of the river Ness. He converted and baptized the royal convert. By degrees the people followed the example set then and were likewise converted and baptized. Of course all this was not accomplished without opposition from the Druids, the religious leaders of the pagan Picts. But Saint Columcille was successful, not only among the Dalriadans but also among the Picts. King Aidan Gabhran, who succeeded to the throne about this time, not only was converted and baptized, but also sought regal consecration at the hands of Columcille. When the Saint died in 597, a little more than a century after the death of Saint Patrick, the same thing was true of Scotland as of Ireland: the entire kingdom of Caledonia had been Christianized and covered with churches and Monasteries. Today the name of St. Columcille is honored, not by Irishmen alone, but by both Catholics and Protestants in the land of his adoption, Caledonia.
From the island of Iona, St. Aidan and his friends went south to Lindisfarne, that sandy little island off the Northumbrian coast to convert the Northumbrians to Christianity. The ninth abbot of Iona was the Saintly Adamnan, who wrote the biography of St. Columcille, declared by competent authority to be the best of its kind of which the whole Middle Ages can boast. It was a few years later that Augustine was sent by Pope St. Gregory the Great, to the South of England.
"If there is an Englishman who believes that early Ireland was as savage as Anglo-Saxon England, let him go to the "Gold Room"—one of the most interesting rooms in Dublin—and examine the beaten gold torcs, the shining lumulin, the jeweled shrines, the metal crosiers, the exquisite cups and vases, all stamped with a vigorous art and a stern convention as different from anything known to us as the art of Egypt differs from that of Greece, " according to Morton.
Henry the Second, lately come to the throne of England was unquestionably aware of what Irishmen of missionary zeal and learning had done to spread a knowledge of Christianity, as well as the culture that went hand in hand with it, not only to the pagan Picts, but also to the untutored, to say the least, tribes of Northumbria. Outside the British Isles, they traveled to distant lands, to Gaul, to Switzerland, where the city of St. Gaul bears testimony to that disciple of Columbanus, Gaul by name, for who the city of St. Gaul perpetuates the memory of his labors in ancient Helvetia.
Another Irishman, St. Frigidian, took up his abode in Italy at Monte Pisano, not far from the city of Lucca of which city he became bishop. Here this Celtic apostle is still honored by the name of San Frediano. St. Gregory the Great wrote of him that "he was a man of rare virtue."
Piesole in Tuscany venerates two Irish eight-century saints, Donatus and Andrew. The former, St. Donatus, was received with great honor by both people and clergy, who requested him to fill their vacant bishopric. He took the burden upon himself with great hesitancy and bore it for many years. His biographer says of him that "he was liberal in almsgiving, sedulous in watching, devout in prayer, excellent in doctrine, ready in speech, holy in life." Andrew, his deacon, founded the church and monastery of St. Martin in Mensola, and is known in Piesole as St. Andrew of Ireland or St. Andrew the Scot, that is, the Irishman.
In that far-off time in the history of Ireland, the twin lamps of faith and learning went out one by one all over Europe until only in Ireland was there the Light. I would like to impress this indisputable fact upon the minds of those who are at all interested in the history of Western civilization, in the history of how that civilization has been preserved to us its beneficiaries. It had been preserved largely by the work, the self-denial, the zeal for learning itself by the monks and scholars of Ireland and by their disciples all over the Continent of Europe.
"In this time," says Morton tn "In search of Ireland," “when the barbarian armies marched and counter-marched across Europe, gathering like vultures round the corpse of Rome, this little island in the West knew its Golden Age. The weeds pushed apart the Roman pavements all over England. The nettles and brambles grew on London Wall. The wild Saxon war-bands halted outside London and blew their horns, but there was no answer. Roman London was dead."
"In France, in Spain, in Germany the barbaric cavalry of Vandal and Hun swept to the four corners of the world; and there was no sound in Europe but the whistle of swords and the death-cry of civilization."
"Then the great army of Irish saints set out to re-kindle the Faith of Europe. Century after century saw them sailing off into sunrise or sunset to clothe the land with Christ."
It must not be thought that learning, and the love of it for its own sake, began only with the return to Ireland of St. Patrick in 432 A. D. He had spent some years in Ireland as the slave of one Milcho and had a chance to become impressed by the learning and culture of the Druids and its transmission by them to all classes of the Irish people. No wonder that he was impressed by the natural intelligence of the race, by their literature, their sagas, their workmanship in metal. Learning to know them, he longed to bring them mysteries of the Christian religion as he had learned them at his mother's knee. For she was a woman of noble birth and a resident of Gaul where she and her son Patricious had imbibed the principles of Christianity from the missionaries of Rome as well as Roman culture.
It is to be noted once again that some of the many learned and saintly men who hailed from Ireland in the sixth, seventh, and eight centuries were known to Continental Europe as Scotch, from the name by which Ireland was known to foreigners, namely, Scotia, from the name of Queen Scotti, who was reputed to have led the Milesians through Spain to the conquest of Ireland in the days of necromancy and legend.
"If we would know," says Canon D'Alton in "the Glories of Ireland," what was the character of the schools in which these men were trained, we have only to remember that Colgu, who had been educated at Clonmacrois, was the master of Alcain; that Dicuil the Geographer came from the same school; that Cummian, Abbot and Bishop of Clonfert, combated the errors about the Paschal computation with an extent of learning and a wealth of knowledge amazing in a monk of the seventh century; and that at the close of the eight century two Irishmen went to the court of Charlemagne and were described by a monk of St. Gaul as 'men incomparably skilled in human learning.' The once pagan Ireland had by that time become a citadel of Christianity, and was rightfully called the School of the West, the Island of Saints and Scholars."
For, unlike the natives of Britain and Scotland, the Irish were not brought into contact with Roman institutions or Roman culture. Consequently they created and developed a civilization of their own that was in some respects without equal. The songs of the Munster and Connacht poets linked the Ireland of yesterday with the Ireland of Finn and Oscar with that of Diarmid and Giainne, of Deirdre of the Sorrows and the Sons of Usneck and with that of Cuchulain the Hound of Ulster. A people bred on such soul-stirring deeds as these, linked by a language "the most expressive of any spoken on earth" in thought and verse and song with the very dawn of their history, wherein there moved, as familiar figures, men with the attributes of gods—great in battle, grand in danger, strong in loving, vehement in death—such a people never could be vulgar, could never be mean, but must repeat in their own time and in their own manhood actions and efforts thus ascribed as a vital part of their very origin. Hence the inspiration that gave the name of Fenian, in the late nineteenth century, to a band of men who sought to achieve by arms the freedom of Ireland, was the same inspiration that lifted the hearts and made strong the arms of those older Irishmen who followed Finn and Oscar in the second and third centuries. Some may deny to Finn and his Fenians corporeal existence, "yet nothing is surer than that Ireland claims these ancestral embodiments of a heroic tradition by a far surer title of native record that gives to the Germans, Arminius, to the Gauls, Arioviatus, to the British, Caractacus. This conception of a national life, one with the land itself, was very clear to the ancient Irish, just as it has been and is the foundation of all later national effort.”
"The law of the Fenian in the days of Marcus Aurelius was the law of the Fenian in the days of Victoria—to give all—mind, body, and strength of purpose—to the defense of his country, 'to speak truth and harbor no greed in his heart.'"
Thus says Sir Roger Casement in "The Romance of Irish History” in "The Glories of Ireland." He continues by quoting from a letter by Professor Eoin MacNeill to Mrs. A.S. Green, January 1914:
"If ever the idea of nationality becomes the subject of a thorough and honest study, it will be seen that among all the peoples of antiquity, not excluding the Hellenes and the Hebrews, the Irish held the clearest and most conscious and constant grasp of that idea; and that their political divisions, instead of disproving the existence of the idea, in their case intensely strengthens the proof of its existence and emphasizes its power….
"Though pride of race is evident in the dominant Gaelic stock, their national sentiment centers not in the race, but altogether in the country, which is constantly personified and made the object of a sort of cult.
"It is worth noting that just as the Breton Laws are the laws of Ireland without distinction of province or district; as the language of Irish literature is the language of Ireland without distinction of dialects; as the Dindshenchas contains the topographical legends of all parts of Ireland, and the Festology commemorate the saints of all Ireland; so the Irish chronicles from first to last are histories of the Irish nation. The true view of the ‘Book of Invasions’ is that it is the epic of Irish Nationality."
Sir Roger Casement continues, and sums up the idea of Irish Nationality so well that I cannot forbear quoting him at length. He says: "The 'Book of Invasions,' which Professor MacNeill here speaks of, was compiled a thousand years ago. (This article was published in 1914) To write the history of Ireland is merely to prolong the 'Book of Invasions,' and thus bring the epic of Irish resistance down to our own day. All Irish valor and chivalry whether of soul or of body, have been directed for a thousand years to this same end. It was for this that Sarsfield died at the Battle of Landen no less than Brian at Clontarf. The monarch of Ireland at the head of a great Irish army driving back the leagued invaders from the shores of Dublin Bay in 1014, and the exiled leader in 1693, heading the charge that routed King William's cause in the Netherlands, fell on one and the same battlefield. They fought against the invader of Ireland.
"We are told that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Wherever an Irishman had fought in the name of Ireland, it has not been to acquire fortune, land or fame, but to give all, even life itself, not to found an Empire, but to strike a blow for an ancient land and assert the cause of a sword-less people. Wherever Irishmen have gone, in exile or in fight, they have carried this image of Ireland with them. The cause of Ireland has found a hundred fields of foreign fame, where the dying Irishman might murmur with Sarsfield, "Would that this blood were shed for Ireland," and history records the sacrifice as made in no other cause.
"Ireland, too, owns an empire on which the sun never sets."
The Irish were far advanced in the knowledge of metalwork and shipbuilding; they engaged in commerce, loved music, and had an acquaintance with letters. When dispute arose amongst them, they settled them in duly constituted courts of justice, presided over by a trained lawyer, called a brehon, instead of trying to settle them by the stern arbitrament of arms. Druidism was their pagan creed. They believed in the immortality and in the transmigration of souls. They worshiped the sun and moon. They venerated mountains, rivers, and wells. It would be difficult to find any ministers of religion who were held in greater awe and reverence than the Druids, the priests of the pagan religion. This trait is manifested by the Irish both at home and abroad to this present day.
Contrast with all this Irish culture and Irish learning, the condition of the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England from the fifth to the eleventh centuries when the Duke of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, and his Norsemen, received that invitation to invade England in 1066 to settle a dispute between two contenders as to which of them had the right to rule.
When Rollo, or Hroff, led his Vikings of Norway by sea into what is now France, the ranks, while in the main Scandinavian, had yet adventurers and desperadoes of all kinds. They were men of strong bodies, intolerant of restraint, longing for a violent deed. They were heroes and robbers, who, as an escape from their solitude, plunged into adventure, seeking either to conquer a new country—Sicily, Portugal, Spain, Palestine, or England; or else to win Paradise by falling in combat while fighting the Saracen for the recovery of the Holy Places.
To give you an idea of their prowess in general, we read in the accounts of the first Crusade that Godfrey clove a Saracen down to the waist with one stroke of his great sword.
But Rollo, having divided that portion of France, or Normandy, among his followers proceeded to hang the thieves and thugs and desperadoes. Security and good stern justice were so rare, says Taine in his "History of English Literature," that a display of them backed up by a strong man, was enough to re-people the land. Rollo invited strangers, say the old writers, "and made one people out of so many folk of different natures."
“This assemblage of barbarians, refugees, robbers, immigrants," continues Taine, "spoke Romance, or French, so quickly that the second duke, wishing to have his son taught Danish had to send him to Bayeux, where it was still spoken. The great masses always form the race in the end, and generally the genius and language. Thus, this people, so transformed, quickly became polished," no doubt due to the influence of the Latin tongue and what they could get of Latin literature, which for nigh on to a thousand years had made some impression through Roman law and, later, through Roman Liturgy. For, the first Duke of Normandy (Northman-dy), a Norwegian Viking (Viking, an Inlet-man) had married the daughter of Charles the Third of France, had accepted Christianity, and had recognized the King of France as his feudal emperor.
This race of Northmen, or Normans, bade fair at one time to overrun all Europe and establish a great empire. Blended of so many elements and racial strains which so quickly became assimilated under the influence of the humanizing Latin French language, the race showed itself a ready genius, far more wary than the dull, heavy and phlegmatic Saxons across the Channel.
"The Saxons," says William of Malmesbury in the beginning of the twelfth century (1095 to 1142), "vied with each other in their drinking feats and wasted their goods by day and night in feasting, while they lived in wretched hovels."
The Saxons, "still weighted by the German phlegm, were gluttons and drunkards, now and then aroused by poetical enthusiasm; "the Normans, made sprightlier by their transplantation and their alloy, felt the cravings of genius already making themselves manifest.... Taste had come to them at once—that is, the desire to please the eye, and to express a thought by outward representation, which was quite a new idea."
Compare this Saxon drunkenness and gluttony with the natural urge in the Norman for the expression of taste in the pleasing lines of architecture, an expression which shows itself as well in their incipient literature. The Saxon transplanted to England was a Saxon still.
"Amid the woods and fens and snows, under a sad, inclement sky, gross instincts have gained the day. The German has not acquired gay humor, unreserved facility, the idea of harmonious beauty; his great phlegmatic body continues fierce and coarse, greedy, and brutal; his rude and un-pliable mind is still inclined to savagery and restive under culture. Dull and congealed, his ideas cannot expand with facility and freedom."
Here the sluggish and heavy temperament, according to Tacitus, remains long buried in a brutal life. The Latin writer sees in them gross beasts, clumsy and ridiculous when not dangerous, and when enraged. Up to the sixteenth century, says an old historian, the greater parts of the Saxon nation were herdsmen, keepers of beasts for flesh and fleece. It reminds one, or rather, makes one see them in the "Beefeaters," tricked out in their variegated costumes in the Tower of London, guarding the treasures of the Crown to this day if those treasures have not now been removed from the Tower to unknown places of greater safety.
Even at the end of the eighteenth century, the recreation of the higher ranks in England was drunkenness; it was still the recreation, or indulgence, of the lower classes in 1870, when Taine wrote. “When I was in England in 1909 and 1910, the English Pub was still doing business, at least in the little town of Stratford-on-Avon, when I saw it over the weekend of an evening or two. But there was no drunkenness evident.”
This outward show of temperance and sobriety was due of course, to the softening influence and the refinement of civilization as well as to the accompanying moderating influence of Christian temperance. To be sure, the carnivorous, warlike, drinking savage still shows beneath the conventions of modern society and the veneer of our modern polish.
But, in those early days of the Saxon invasion of England, when this Low German tribe, accompanied by Angles, Jutes, and others of their neighbors, landed in this new country to become settlers for the first time, they saw the pastures of the bordering lands; they saw great primitive forests which furnished stags for the chase and acorns for their pigs. Both of these things appealed to their flesh-craving appetites. For, as Craig and MacFarlane in their "Pictorial History of England," as well as William of Malmesbury, tell us, the Saxons were possessed of a great and coarse taste, and were in fact a carnivorous people. Even in the time of the Norman Conquest the custom of eating and drinking to excess was a common vice among men of the highest rank. They passed in this way whole days and nights without intermission. Henry of Huntingdon, in the twelfth century, says the Norman kings provided but one meal a day for their courtiers, while the Saxon kings were wont to provide four.
The difference between these two races, the Saxon and the Norman, is well illustrated by what preceded and took place at the Battle of Hastings, or Senlac, to give it the Saxon name. William of Normandy, like the methodical and painstaking conqueror that he was, organized an expedition and an army of which he kept a written roll. Once in England, he proceeded to register the whole population in his famous Domesday Book.
Sixteen days after the landing on the soil of England, the contrast between the two peoples, the stolid, phlegmatic Saxon who knew only how to cleave his adversary by main strength put behind his battleaxe, and the sprightly, imaginative Norman, was manifested at the Battle of Hastings in its visible effects, according to Robert Wace, their historian and compatriot.
According to him, the Saxons ate and drank the whole night. You might have seen them struggling much and leaping and singing, with shouts of laughter and noisy joy. In the morning they crowded the dense masses of their heavy infantry behind their palisades and, with battleaxes hung round their necks, awaited the attack.
The wary Normans weighted the chances of heaven or hell and tried to enlist God on their side. They were for the most part bowmen and horsemen, well skilled, nimble, and clever. Taillefer, the jongleur, who asked for the honor of striking the first blow, went singing like a true French volunteer, performing tricks all the while, says Taine, following Robert Wace in his "Roman du Rou."
Having arrived before the Saxon army, Taillefer cast his lance three times in the air, then his sword, and caught them again by the handle. Harold's clumsy foot-soldiers, who knew only how to cleave coats of mail by blows from their battle-axes, "were astonished, saying to one another that it was magic." As for William, among a score of prudent and cunning actions, he performed two well-calculated ones which brought him safe out of his difficulties. He ordered his archers to shoot into the air. The arrows wounded many of the Saxons in their upturned faces and one of them pierced Harold, the Saxon King, in the eye and killed him.
After this, William simulated flight. The Saxons, intoxicated with wrath and joy, quitted their entrenchments and exposed themselves to the lances of the Norman knights. During the remainder of the contest they only made a stand by small companies, fought with fury, and ended by being slaughtered. The strong, mettlesome, brutal race threw themselves on the enemy like a savage bull; the dexterous Norman hunters wounded them, subdued them, and drove them under the yoke.
What was this England, this Saxon-land, during those six centuries from the first landing of the Saxons and the rest in Britain in 449 A. D. to the Norman Conquest at least, in the middle of the eleventh century and onward, until the Norman culture, such as it was, seeped through and gradually changed the phlegmatic German nature? Be it noted that this culture did not seep very far, for the Saxon still maintained, and maintains, his stolidity, his taciturnity, his aloofness, for all of the French sprightliness, that could not get much farther with the Saxon than skin-deep.
When St. Patrick returned to Ireland to begin his missionary labors there in 432 A.D., therefore about the time that the Saxon penetration of Britain began, England was still a pagan land with an inhospitable and fog-drenched clime, covered largely with marshes and forest, and but thinly populated by naked savages, a kind of wild beasts, according to Taine. "The inhabitants were "fishers and hunters," he says, "even hunters of men," Saxons, Angles (which means fishermen), Jutes from Denmark, Frisians, who spoke a dialect closely akin to English. These are the peoples who over ran England in 449 A.D, and took a century and a half to drive the Britons, a Celtic race, out of it to the west and into Cornwall and Wales where they preserved their ancient Celtic tongue for centuries.
This was England when Saint Columcille, the Irish monk from county Donegal, founded his monastery on the island of Iona in 563 A.D. and converted the Picts of Caledonia, or Scotland. This was England when Saint Aidan and his monks, toward the close of the sixth century, set out from the monastery on the island of Iona for Lindisfarne, that barren island off the east coast of Northumbria, to labor among the inhabitants of the northeastern part of Saxon England.
Christianity had already been introduced into England during the Roman occupation of that island; that is, while Britain was a part of the Roman Empire. It was already there when St. Alban, the martyr, lived and gave his name to the town of Saint Albans. Every visitor to Canterbury has probably visited little Old St. Martin's church, which was used during Roman times. But Imperial Rome had to recall her legions from Britain to defend the Empire against the barbarian hordes from the north and east in the fourth, fifth and following centuries.
In the beginning of the seventh century, Christianity had been well nigh wiped out in the north of England by the pagan Saxons and the more vandal Danes. Then St. Oswald, who had become overlord of practically all England, except Kent, turned to the monks of Iona for missionaries. They answered his call by sending the Irish bishop, St. Aidan, with several companions, to labor among the pagan Northumbrians. When he, at the head of a procession bearing a silver crucifix, came chanting a litany, the spectacle so impressed the barbarians that the high priest of the Northumbrians declared in the presence of the chieftains that the old gods were powerless, and confessed that formerly "he knew nothing of that which he adored." Thereupon he among the first, lance in hand, assisted in overthrowing their pagan temple.
At his side a chieftain arose in the assembly, and said: "You remember, it maybe, O king, that which sometimes happens in winter when you are seated at table with your earls and hanes. Your fire is lighted and your hall warmed, and without is rain and snow and storm. Then comes a swallow flying across the hall; he enters by one door and leaves by another. The brief moment while he is within is pleasant to him; he feels not rain nor cheerless winter weather; but the moment is brief—the bird flies away in the twinkling of an eye, and he passes from winter to winter. Such, me thinks, is the life of man on earth, compared with the uncertain time beyond. It appears for a while; but what is the time which comes after—the time which was before? We know not. If, then, this new doctrine may teach us something of greater certainty, it were well that we should regard it."
We may well imagine what effect this speech had upon those who heard it. All is concrete; all is a picture of a common occurrence within the memory of each of them. Nothing obtuse, nothing metaphysical; the symbol can be understood by the dullest mind, the slowest imagination there. Perhaps, often while in their cups, they ruminated upon the mystery of life and death, and what was to come after the mortal blow that snuffed out the candle. They were barbarians, savages indeed, only a little removed from the time when they had left those low German countries where they sat by the fire in smoke-filled, one-room fuls, day and night, and downed horn after horn of heavy ale or mead upon heavier portions of wild boar, or bison, the aurochs of the chase, in Germany. Was it, "What oft before was thought, but ne'er so well expressed" that caught and appealed to their lingering subconscious ideas, left there when the fumes of mead and ale had died away and their stomachs were relieved of the meat that had been gorged? They probably did some heavy thinking in the long hours that they spent in a maudlin condition and after that condition had passed. There must have been a restlessness, a feeling for the infinite and the dark beyond. There is a sober, melancholy eloquence in the picture that the chieftain drew which appealed to his hearers. It struck a spark that ignited something that gradually glowed with the spiritual life. "These utter barbarians embrace Christianity straightway, through sheer force of mood and clime." Brutal they were and heavy in mind and thinking; yet, they possessed the idea of God and pondered the all-absorbing mystery of man's destiny, the violence, the way, and the whither that has always occupied the thinking both of primitive man and man in the highest state of his development.
While St. Aiden, the Irishman, labored together with his monks in the conversion of the Northumbrians, a similar evangelization was going forward in the southern English kingdoms conducted by Saint Augustine, the Roman missionary, with whom the monks from Iona labored in harmony. They, the monks of Saint Aidan, even seemed to excel those from Rome in their zeal for Christ. After all, it was the report of the success of these Irish missionaries under Saint Columcille in Caledonia and now of his disciples under Saint Aidan of Iona in Northumberland that inspired the sending of missionaries from Rome.
It is narrated that one day as a monk, afterwards known to history as Pope Gregory the Great, was walking with a companion named Augustine through the streets of Rome, they passed through the slave market. There they saw some handsome, fair-haired youths offered for sale. To the monk's query as to their nationality, Augustine replied: "Angli sunt," they are Angles, or English. Gregory said, "Not Angles, but Angels, had they but the Gospel."
Shortly after, when Gregory became Pope, for he did not sit in the Chair of Peter at the time of this purported dialogue, he sent for his friend Augustine and commissioned him apostle to the English.
The Roman missionaries worked in and from the South of England and soon met the Monks of Ions under St. Aidan the Irish bishop, whose monasteries in the kingdom of Northumbria had become "a center of light and learning," to quote H. G. Wells in his "Outline of History," who, by the way, is very sparing of credit to Ireland and Irish missionaries in this period from the sixth to the ninth centuries. Wells, the Englishman, ignores this fact demonstrated fully in Montalambert's “Monks of the West,” that stands out as a historical beacon beckoning the narrator of the facts of history; or in “Joyce's social History of Ancient Ireland” or Healy's “Ireland's Ancient Schools and Scholars.” He does say of the Kingdom of Northumbria, an Irish offshoot of missionary zeal, that it had become "a center of light and learning," and that "while Greek was utterly unknown in the west of Europe, it was mastered by some of the pupils of Theodore. The monasteries contain many monks who were excellent scholars."
Now, while, according to brehonic Irish law, "The calf follows the cow," that is, the offspring belongs to the mother, it follows that the monasteries founded by Irishmen, and all the achievements, of those monasteries, would be credited to the Irish race which begot them. Thus when Charlemagne attracted scholars to his court, among others who came was Alcuin, "a learned Englishman." But Alcuin, while an Englishman, was a product of Irish schooling and learning. His teacher had been Colgu who had been educated at Clonmacroise, that famous school of learning, founded by St. Kieran, by the waters of the Shannon. Other Irish monks and scholars were known all over the west of Europe early in the sixth and seventh centuries. St. Cammian [Brendan?], Abbot and Bishop of Clonfert, showed in his disputations on the date when Easter should be celebrated, such an extent of learning and such a wealth of knowledge as was "amazing in a monk of the seventh century." At the close of the eighth century, two Irishmen went to the court of Charlemagne and were described by a monk of St. Gall in Switzerland as "men incomparably skilled in human learning," according to Canon D'Alton. "The once pagan Ireland had by that time become a citadel of Christianity and was rightfully called "the School of the west, the Island of Saints and Scholars," and the “Second Theobald,” so named in comparison with ancient Thebes of Egypt, of which city Alexander Pope, in his translation of Homer's Iliad, sings:
That spreads her conquests o'er a thousand states,
And pours her heroes through a hundred gates,
Two hundred horsemen and two hundred cars
From each wide portal issuing to the wars."
All this must have been known to Henry the Second and must have caused him to cast covetous eyes toward Ireland and toward its people as a desirable possession to add to his crown. He could appreciate the difference between her monasteries, between the work and fame of her monks, both in religion and in the fine arts, and he could compare this culture with the crude condition of the Saxon inhabitants of the land with which the relatively polished Normans were mixing and trying to uplift for one hundred years. Her reputation for learning had reached the most of Western Europe.
The opportunity for the Norman-English invasion of Ireland came when an Irish chieftain, Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, fled to England after abducting the wife of O'Rourke, prince of Breffni, while the latter was absent from home on a pilgrimage. MacMurrough sought the protection of Henry the Second, surnamed Plantagenet, or Sprig of a Broom, the then Angevin King of England.
This occurrence prompted Thomas Moore to write The Song of O'Ruark, known in all that part of Ireland as, "The Valley Lay Smiling Before Me." My father liked the song very much and played the air to which it was sung on the violin, or fiddle, with which in his younger days he had some skill. The melody had a lively lilt to it that fitted the words, which are as follows:
Where lately I left her behind;
Yet I trembled, and something hung o'er me,
That saddened the joy of my mind.
I looked for the lamp which she told me,
Should shine, when her Pilgrim returned;
But, though darkness began to enfold me,
No lamp from the battlements burned.
There was a time, falsest of women,
When Breffni's good sword would have sought
That man thro' a million of foemen,
Who dared but to wrong thee in thought!
While no—oh degenerate daughter
Of Erin, how fallen is thy fame!
And through ages of bondage and slaughter
Our country shall bleed for thy shame.
Already, the curse is upon her,
And strangers her valleys profane;
They come to divide, to dishonour,
And tyrants they long will remain.
But onward! - the green banner rearing,
Go, flesh every sword to the hilt;
On our side is Virtue and Erin,
On theirs is the Saxon and guilt.
Then, if ever, Irishmen were fighting men. They fought against their old enemy, by descent, the Norsemen, Inlet-men, or Vikings, under a new flag, the flag of Saxon England. Ireland had put an end, or so she thought, to the Viking, or Danish invasion when, in 1014, Brian Boru had been victorious over the Vandal Dane; but no, behold, he was back again under Henry the Second of England, blood-cousin of the Norseman, who had made himself strong in England.
The valley, which "lay smiling before" Thomas Moore was the Valley of Breffni. Standing at the point when County Cavan, Songfore, and Leitrim touch one another, you have, in almost whatever direction you turn your eyes, a prospect that pleases.
As Wallace Nutting says in his volume of photographs of pleasing spots of Ireland, "It is a parlous venture to make choice of the most attractive county in Ireland. The choice depends on so many considerations. The almost purely rural counties have a charm indescribable. Cavan and Monaghan and Leitrim, small and inland, display rolling hills covered with fair fields…meeting the gaze at every rise in the road, that they win upon us till we forget every other consideration. Doubtless, fertile fields, little farms, and snug cottages have another appeal, and one rooted deeper in our ancestral loves than any other aspect on earth."
That Bull, a Papal document of State, was supposed to have been issued by Pope Adrian IV in 1154. Pope Adrian himself was the only Englishman who ever sat in the Chair of Peter to rule over the Roman Sec. His English name was Nicholas Breakspear.
As a result of the appeal for assistance made by the Irish King of Leister, Dermot MacMurrough, a small expedition under Strongbow in 1169 was sent to Ireland; Waterford, Wexford, and Dublin were occupied. Then, 1171, came Henry himself with a fleet of 240 ships, 400 knights, and 4,000 men. They landed at Waterford.
This expedition under an English King was the beginning of the attempted conquest of Ireland. That attempt lasted for 800 years through ruin and bloodshed, nor is it completed yet and it never will be.
Henry at once began to introduce the feudal system into that portion of the island which he then controlled. He seized great estates and divided them among his followers according to the English feudal system and English laws. He placed his followers in all the positions of power, holding their land and their authority under the feudal conditions of rendering him and his successors homage and military service. This was the root of that alien landlordism and foreign political control which became the chief curse of Ireland for centuries, the prolific source of her innumerable woes.
From the curse of that first landing of Englishmen on the shores of Ireland, be they Englishmen under Norman leadership, or Welshmen recruited by Strongbow from among the sons and retainers of Nesta, that Welshwoman of unsavory repute, from that day onward Irish patriotism, Irish prowess displayed by Irish fighting men, and Irish perseverance in the face of superior numbers, superior wealth, and superior armament, were shown as probably never before or since in struggle for racial and national liberty and independence.
Thierry, the historian of the Norman Conquest, tells us that Ireland still remained the one "lost cause" of history that refused to admit defeat. "This indomitable persistency, this faculty of preserving through centuries of misery the remembrance of lost liberty and of never despairing of a cause always defeated, always fatal to those who dared to defend it, is perhaps the strangest and noblest example ever given by any nation."
Hugh O'Neill together with Red Hugh O'Donnell challenged the might of Elizabeth of England with nothing to rely upon save the stout hearts and arms of their followers. Of arms and implements of war they had but few. English shipping held the sea. The purse of England compared with that of Ireland was inexhaustible. "Yet for nine years," as Sir Roger Casement says, "the courage, the chivalry, the daring and skill of these northern clansmen, perhaps 20,000 in all, held all the might of England at bay."
The Earl of Essex, that ill-fated nobleman of Elizabeth's court, in a dispatch to that same Elizabeth, explained the failure of his great expedition in 1599 against O'Neill and O'Donnell. "These rebels…have (though I do unwillingly confess it,) better bodies and perfecter use of the arms than those men whom your Majesty sends over." There you have it—the prowess of the Irish as fighting men.
And again from the same Earl of Essex we have this confession as to Irishmen as warriors: Writing from Cork, the Earl of Essex says: "I am confined in Cork…but still I have been unsuccessful; my undertakings have been attended with misfortune…The Irish are stronger and handle their arms with more skill than our people; they [best] us also in point of discipline. They likewise avoid pitched battles where order must be observed, and prefer skirmishes and petty warfare and are obstinately opposed to the English government."
Of course. The English government was an alien government. It was not native; therefore, the Irishmen fought against it as an invading force that would impose upon them a government not of their own choosing. For the Irish were largely Milesian, that race which reached Ireland through Spain and came quickly to power well over one thousand years before the dawn of the Christian era. Their Ardri ruled the whole country in a loosely knit confederacy, but a confederacy loyal to clan and soil, the beloved soil of Erin. Dr. Leland says that robustness of frame, vehemence of passion, and an exalted imagination characterized this people. Yes, and exalted imagination; for they leaned toward poetry and song, and were strong for whatever religion they practiced, be it Druidism or Christianity brought them by St. Patrick, to which they have adhered through all the centuries.
As Joseph I. C. Clarke, president of the American Irish Historical Society, puts it: "The great heroes whose names have come down to us, such as Finn, son of Cumhal, and Cuchulain, were reared in a school of arms. Bravery was the sign of true manhood. The songs of the bards were songs of battle. The great Irish epic of antiquity was the Tain Bo Cuailnge, or Cattle-rain of Codey, and it is full of combats and feats of strength and prowess. So are the Iliad of Homer and the Aeneid of Virgil, the great epics of the Mediterranean.” To continue about the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Clarke says, "High character meant high pride, always ready to give account of itself and strike for its ideals: ‘Irritable and bold,’ as one historian has it. They were jealous and quick to anger, but lighthearted laughter came easily to the lips of the ancient Irish. They worked cheerfully, prayed fervently to their gods, loved their women and children devotedly, clung passionately to their clan, and fought at the call with alacrity."
|Chapter One||Chapter Two||Chapter Three||Chapter Four||Chapter Six|
|Chapter Seven||My Father Leaves
|Chapter Nine||Chapter Ten||Chapter Eleven|
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