The introduction of Christianity gave Europe a power over the world which pagan Rome could not possess. All the branches of the Japhetic family combined to form what was with justice and propriety called Christendom. Ireland, by receiving the Gospel, was really making her first entry into the European family; but there were certain peculiarities in her performance of this great act which gave her national life, already deviating from that of other European nations, a unique impulse. The first of those peculiarities consisted in her preparation for the great reception of the faith, and the few obstacles she encountered in her adoption of it, compared with those of the rest of the world.
Providence wisely decreed that redemption should be delayed until a large portion of mankind had attained to the highest civilization. It was not in a time of ignorance and barbarism that the Saviour was born. The Augustan is, undoubtedly, the most intellectual and refined age, in point of literary and artistic taste, that the world has ever seen. A few centuries before, Greece had reached the summit of science and art. No country, in ancient or modern times, has surpassed the acumen of her philosophical writers and the aesthetic perfection of her poets and artists. Rome made use of her to embellish her cities, and inherited her taste for science and literature.
But art and literature embody ideas only; and, as Ozanam says so well: "Beneath the current of ideas which dispute the empire of the world, lies that world itself such as labor has made it, with that treasure of wealth and visible adornment which render it worthy of being the transient sojourn-place of immortal souls. Beneath the true, the good, and the beautiful, lies the useful, which is brightened by their reflection. No people has more keenly appreciated the idea of utility than that of Rome; none has ever laid upon the earth a hand more full of power, or more capable of transforming it; nor more profusely flung the treasures of earth at the feet of humanity . . . .
"At the close of the second century . . the rhetorician Aristides celebrated in the following terms the greatness of the Roman Empire: 'Romans, the whole world beneath your dominion seems to keep a day of festival. From time to time a sound of battle comes to you from the ends of the earth, where you are repelling the Goth, the Moor, or the Arab. But soon that sound is dispersed like a dream. Other are the rivalries and different the conflicts which you excite through the universe. They are combats of glory, rivalries in magnificence between provinces and cities. Through you, gymnasia, aqueducts, porticoes, temples, and schools, are multiplied; the very soil revives, and the earth is but one vast garden!'
"Similar, also, was the language of the stern Tertullian: `In truth, the world becomes day after day richer and better cultivated; even the islands are no longer solitudes; the rocks have no more terrors for the navigator; everywhere there are habitations, population, law, and life.'
"The legions of Rome had constructed the roads which furrowed mountains, leaped over marshes, and crossed so many different provinces with a like solidity, regularity, and uniformity; and the various races of men were lost in admiration at the sight of the mighty works which were attributed in after-times to Caesar, to Brunehaud, to Abelard!"
It was in the midst of those worldly glories that Christ was born, that he preached, and suffered, that his religion was established and propagated. It found proselytes at once among the most polished and the most learned of men, as well as among slaves and artisans; and thus was it proved that Christianity could satisfy the loftiest aspirations of the most civilized as well as insure the happiness of the most numerous and miserable classes.
But we must reflect that the advanced civilization of Greece and Rome was in fact an immense obstacle to the propagation of truth, and, what is more to be regretted, often gave an unnatural aspect to the Christianity of the first ages in the Roman world-- a half-pagan look--so that the barbarian invasion was almost necessary to destroy every thing of the natural order; that the Church alone remaining face to face with those uncouth children of the North, might begin her mission anew and mould them all into the family called "Christendom." "Christianity," to quote Ozanam again, "shrank from condemning a veneration of the beautiful, although idolatry was contained in it; and as it honored the human mind and the arts it produced, so the persecution of the apostate Julian, in which the study of the classics had been forbidden to the faithful, was the severest of its trials. Literary history possesses no moment of greater interest than that which saw the school with its profane --that is to say pagan--traditions and texts received into the Church. The Fathers, whose christian austerity is our wonder, were passionate in their love of antiquity, which they covered, as it were, with their sacred vestments. . . . By their favor, Virgil traversed the ages of iron without losing a page, and, by right of his Fourth Eclogue, took rank among the prophets and the sibyls. St. Augustine would have blamed paganism less, if, in place of a temple to Cybele, it had raised a shrine to Plato, in which his works might have been publicly read. St. Jerome's dream is well known, and the scourging inflicted upon him by angels for having loved Cicero too well; yet his repentance was but short-lived, since he caused the monks of the Mount of Olives to pass their nights in copying the Ciceronian dialogues, and did not shrink himself from expounding the comic and lyric poets to the children of Bethlehem."
We know already that nothing of the kind existed in Ireland when the Gospel reached her, and that there the new religion assumed a peculiar aspect, which has never varied, and which made her at once and forever a preeminently Christian nation.
Among the Greeks and Romans, literature and art, although accepted by the Church, were nevertheless deeply impregnated with paganism. All their chief acts of social life required a profession of idolatry; even amusements, dramatic representations, and simple games, were religious and consequently pagan exhibitions.
We do not here speak of the attractions of an atheistic and materialist philosophy, of a voluptuous, often, and demoralizing literature and poetry, of an unimaginable prostitution of art to the vilest passions, which the relics of Pompeii too abundantly indicate.
But apart from those excesses of corruption and unbelief, which, no doubt, virtuous pagans themselves abhorred, the approved, correct, and so-called pure life of the best men of pagan Rome necessitated the contamination of idolatrous worship. Apart from the thousand duties, festivals, and the like, decreed or sanctioned by the state, the most ordinary acts of life, the enlisting of the soldier, the starting on a military expedition, the assumption of any civil office or magistracy, the civil oaths in the courts of law, the public bath, the public walk almost, the current terms in conversation, the private reading of the best books, the mere glancing at a multitude of exterior objects, constituted almost as many professions of a false and pagan worship.
How could any one become a Christian and at the same time remain a Greek or a Roman? The gloomy views of the Montanist Tertullian were, to many, frightful truths requiring constant care and self- examen. For the Christian there were two courses open--both excesses, yet either almost unavoidable: on the one side, a terrible rigorism, making life unsupportable, next to impossible; on the other, a laxity of thought and action leading to lukewarmness and sometimes apostasy.
Bearing in mind what was written on the subject in the first three ages of Christianity, not only by Tertullian, but by most orthodox writers, St. Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius, and the authors of many Acts of martyrs, we may easily understand how the doctrines of Christianity stood in danger of never taking deep root in the hearts of men surrounded by such temptations, themselves born in paganism, and remaining, after their conversion, exposed to seductions of such an alluring character.
Therefore this same "high civilization," as it is called, in the midst of which Christianity was preached, was a real danger to the inward life of the new disciple of Christ.
How could it be otherwise, when it is a fact now known to all, that, even at the beginning of the fifth century, Rome was almost entirely pagan, at least outwardly, and among her highest classes; so that the poet Claudian, in addressing Honorius at the beginning of his sixth consulship, pointed out to him the site of the capitol still crowned with the Temple of Jove, surrounded by numerous pagan edifices, supporting in air an army of gods; and all around temples, chapels, statues, without number--in fact, the whole Roman and Greek mythology, standing in the City of the Catacombs and of the Popes!
The public calendars, preserved to this day, continued to note the pagan festivals side by side with the feasts of the Saviour and his apostles. Within the city and beyond, throughout Italy and the most remote provinces, idols and their altars were still surrounded by the thronging populace, prostrate at their feet.
If in the cities the new religion already dared display something of its inherent splendor, the whole rural population was still pagan, singing the praises of Ceres and of Bacchus, trembling at Fauns and Satyrs and the numerous divinities of the groves and fountains. Christianity then held the same standing in Italy that in the United States Catholicity holds to-day in the midst of innumerable religious sects.
This is not the place to show how far the paganism of Greece and Rome had corrupted society, and how complete was its rottenness at the time. It has been already shown by several great writers of this century. Enough for our purpose to remark that even some Christian writers, of the age immediately succeeding that of the early martyrs, showed themselves more than half pagans in their tastes and productions. Ausonius in the West, the preceptor of St. Paulinus, is so obscene in some of his poems, so thoroughly pagan in others, that critics have for a long time hesitated to pronounce him a Christian. How many of his contemporaries hovered like him on the confines of Christianity and paganism! When Julian the apostate restored idolatry, many, who had only disgraced the name of Christian, openly returned to the worship of Jupiter and Venus, and their apostasy could scarcely be cause for regret to sincere disciples of our Lord.
In the East the phenomenon is less striking. Strange to say, idolatry did not remain so firmly rooted in the country, where it first took such an alluring shape; and Constantinople was in every sense of the word a Christian city when Rome, in her senate, fought with such persistent tenacity for her altars of Victory, her vestals, and her ancient worship.
Yet there, also, Christian writers were too apt to interfuse the old ideas with the new, and to adopt doctrines placed, as it were, midway between those of Plato and St. Paul. There were bishops even who were a scandal to the Church and yet remained in it. Synesius is the most striking example; whose doctrine was certainly more philosophical than Christian, and whose life, though decorous, was altogether worldly. The history of Arianism shows that others besides Synesius were far removed from the ideal of Christian bishops so worthily represented at the time by many great doctors and holy pontiffs.
Such, in the East as well as in the West, were the perils besetting the true Christian spirit at the very cradle of our holy religion.
Nor was the danger confined to the mythology of paganism, its literature and poetry. Philosophy itself became a real stumbling- block to many, who would fain appear disciples of faith, when they gave themselves up to the most unrestrained wanderings of human reason.
The truth is, that Greek philosophy, divided into so many schools in order to please all tastes, had become a wide-spread institution throughout the Roman world. The mind of the East was best adapted to it, and those who taught it were, consequently, nearly all Greeks. Cicero had made it fashionable among many of his countrymen; and although the Latin mind, always practical to the verge of utilitarianism, was not congenial to utopian speculations, still, as it was the fashion, all intellectual men felt the need of becoming sufficiently acquainted with it to be able to speak of it and even to embrace some particular school. Those patricians, who remained attached to the stern principles of the old republic, became Stoics; while the men of the corrupt aristocracy called themselves, with Horace, members of the "Epicurean herd." Hence the necessity for all to train their minds to scientific speculation, converted the Western world into a hot-bed of wild and dangerous doctrines.
In the opinion of some Eastern Fathers of the Church, Greek philosophy had been a preparation for the Gospel, and could be made subservient to the conversion of many. Thus we find St. Justin, the martyr, all his life long glorying in the name of philosopher, and continuing to wear, even after his conversion, the philosopher's cloak so much derided by the scoffer, Lucian.
Still, despite this very respectable opinion, we can entertain no doubt, in view of what happened at the time and of subsequent events, that philosophy grew to be a stumbling-block in the path of Christianity, and originated the worst and most dangerous forms of heresy; that it sowed the seed, in the European mind, of all errors, by creating that speculative tendency of character so peculiar to most branches of the Japhetic race.
Persian Dualism, and, as many think, Pantheistic Buddhism, which were then flourishing in Central and Eastern Asia, infected the Alexandrian schools, and impressed philosophy with a new and dreamy character, which became the source of subsequent and frightful errors. The Neo-Platonism of Porphyry and Plotinus was intended, in the minds of its originators, to lay a scientific basis for polytheism; and, in Jamblichus finally, became an open justification of the most absurd fables of mythology.
But, though this might satisfy Julian and those who followed him in his apostasy, it could not come to be an inner danger to the Church. With many, however, it assumed a form which at once engendered the worst errors of Gnosticism; and Gnosticism was, at first, considered a Christian heresy; so that a man might be a pantheist, of the worst kind, and still call himself Christian. St. John had foreseen the danger from the beginning, and it is said that he wrote his gospel against it because the doctrine openly denied the divinity of Christ. But the sect became much more powerful after his death, and allured many Christians who were disposed, from a misinterpretation of some texts of St. Paul on the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, to embrace a system which professed to explain the origin of that struggle.
The Alexandrian Gnosticism failed to excite in the minds of the holy monks of the East that aversion which we now feel for its tenets, inasmuch as it did not openly anathematize the Scriptures of the Old Law, nay, even preserved a certain outward respect for them, on account of the multitude of Jews living in Alexandria, and particularly because the open system of Dualism, which afterward came from Syria and in the hands of Manes established the existence of two equal and eternal principles of good and evil, found no place in the teachings of Valentinus and his school.
But even this frightful Syrian Gnosticism, which gave to the principle of evil an origin as ancient and sacred as that of God himself--Manicheism barefaced and radically immoral--so repugnant to our feelings, so monstrous to our more correct ideas, bore a semblance of truth for many minds, at that time inclined toward every thing which came from the East. We know what a firm hold those doctrines took on the great soul of Augustine, who for a long time professed and cherished them. Rome, under the pagan emperors, had received with open arms the Oriental gods and the philosophy which endeavored to explain their mythology; and many gifted minds of the third and fourth centuries lost themselves in the contemplation of those mysteries which from out Central Asia spread a lurid glare over the Western world.
This first danger, however, was warded off by the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, St. Epiphanius, Theodoret, and others, long before the time of St. Augustine, the last of them. Gnosticism was prevented from any longer imparting a wrong tendency to Christian doctrines, and it died out, until restored during the Crusades to revive in the middle ages in its most malignant form.
But at the very moment of its decline, philosophy entered the Church; almost to wreck her by inspiring Arius and Pelagius. The teachings of the first were clearly Neo-Platonic; of the second, Stoic: and all the errors prevalent in the Church from the third to the sixth century originated in Arianism and Pelagianism.
In Plato, as read in Alexandria, Arius found all the material for his doctrine, which spread like wild-fire over the whole Church. Many things conspired to swell the number of his adherents: the ardent love for philosophy so inherent in the Eastern Church, to the extent of many believing that Plato was almost a Christian, and his doctrines therefore endowed with real authority; the natural disposition of men to adopt the new and a seeming rational explanation of unfathomable mysteries; the apparent agreement of his doctrine with certain passages of Scripture, where the Son is said to be inferior to the Father; but chiefly the satisfaction it afforded to a number of new Christians who had embraced the faith at the conversion of Constantine on political rather than conscientious grounds, and who were at once relieved of the supernatural burden of believing in a God-man, born of a woman, and dying on a cross. Faith reduced to an opinion; religion become a philosophy; a mere man, let his endowments be what they might, recognized as our guide, and not overwhelming us with the dread weight of a divine nature; all this explains the historic phrase of St. Jerome after the Council of Rimini, "The world groaned and wondered to find itself Arian."
Any person acquainted with ecclesiastical history knows how the Church of Christ would have surely become converted into a mere rational school, under the pressure of these doctrines, were it not for the promises of perpetuity which she had received.
We know also what a time it took to establish truth: how many councils had to meet, how many books had to be written, the efforts required from the rulers of the Church, chiefly from the Roman pontiffs, to calm so many storms, to explain so many difficult points of doctrine, to secure the final victory.
And, after all had been accomplished, there still remained the root of the evil engrafted in what we call the philosophical turn of mind of the Western nations--that is to say, in the disposition to call every thing in question, to seek out strange and novel difficulties, to start war-provoking theories in the midst of peace, to aim at founding a new school, or at least to stand forth as the brilliant and startling expounder of old doctrines in a new form, in fine to add a last name to the list, already over-long, of those who have disturbed the world by their skill in dialectics and sophism.
Pelagius followed Arius, and his errors had the same object in view in the long-run, to strip our holy religion of all that is spiritual and divine.
In the time of St. Augustine and St. Jerome, there existed among Christians an extraordinary tendency to embrace all possible philosophical doctrines, even when directly opposed to the first principles of revealed religion; and, within the Church, the danger of subtilizing on every question connected with well- known dogmas was much greater than many imagine.
From the previous reflections we may learn how difficult it was to establish, in pagan Europe, a thoroughly Christian life and doctrine; and that, after society had come to be apparently imbued with the new spirit, it was still too easy to disturb the flowing stream of the heavenly graces of the Gospel. This resulted, we repeat, from causes anterior to Christianity, from sources of evil which the divine religion had to overcome, and which too often impeded its supernatural action. In fact, the ecclesiastical history of those ages is comprised mainly in depicting the almost continual deviations from the straight line of pure doctrine and morality, and the strenuous efforts assiduously made by the rulers of the Church against a never- ceasing falling away.
Having taken this glance at the early workings of Christianity through the rest of the world, we may now turn fairly to the immediate subject we have in hand, and trace its course in Ireland. From the very beginning we are struck by the peculiarities--blessed, indeed--which show themselves, as in all other matters, in its reception of the truth. The island, compared with Europe, is small, it is true; but the heroism displayed by its inhabitants during so many ages, in support of the religion which they received so freely, so generously, and at once, in mind as well as heart, marks it out as worthy of a special account; and, from its unique reception and adherence to the faith, as worthy of, if possible, a natural explanation of such action beyond the promptings of Divine grace, since its astonishing perseverance, its unswerving faith, form to-day as great a characteristic of the nation as they did on the day of its entry into the Christian Church.
We proceed to examine, then, the kind of idolatry which its first apostle encountered on landing in the island, and the ease with which it was destroyed, so as to leave behind no poisonous shoots of the deadly root of evil.
In order to understand the religious system of Ireland previous to the preaching of the Gospel, we must first take a general survey of polytheism, if it can be so called, in all Celtic countries, and of the peculiar character which it bore in Ireland itself.
Of old, throughout all countries, religion possessed certain things in common, which belonged to the rites and creeds of all nations, and were evidently derived from the primitive traditions of mankind, and, consequently, from a true and Divine revelation. Such were the belief in a golden age, in the fall from a happy beginning, in the penalty imposed on sin, which gave a reason for great mundane calamities--the Deluge chiefly-- the memory of which lived in the traditions of almost every nation; in the necessity of prayer and expiatory sacrifice; in the transmission of guilt from father to son, expressed in all primitive legislations, and to this day preserved in the Chinese laws and customs; in the existence of good and bad spirits, whence, most probably, arose polytheism; in the hope of the future regeneration of man, represented in Greece by the beautiful myth of Pandora's box; and, finally, in the doctrine of eternal rewards and punishments.
Each one of these strictly true dogmas underwent more or less of alteration in its passage through the various nations of antiquity, but was, nevertheless, everywhere preserved in some shape or form.
At what precise epoch did mankind begin wrongfully to interpret these primitive traditions? When did the worship of idols arise and become universal? No one can tell precisely. All we know for certain is, that a thousand years before Christ idolatry prevailed everywhere, and that even the Jewish people often fell into this sin, and were only brought back by means of punishment to the worship of the true God.
But if error tainted the whole system of worship among nations, it differed in the various races of men according to the variety of their character. Ferocity or mildness of manners, acuteness or obtuseness of understanding, activity or indolence of disposition, a burning, a cold, or a temperate climate, a smiling or dreary country, but chiefly the thousand differences of temper which are as marked among mankind as the almost in- finite variety of forms visible in creation, gave to each individual religion its proper and characteristic types, which in after-times, when truth was brought down from heaven for all, imparted to the universal Christian spirit a peculiar outward form in each people, an interior adaptation to its peculiar dispositions, destined in the Divine plan to introduce into the future Catholic Church the beautiful variety requisite to make its very universality possible among mankind.
To enter into details on the Celtic religion would carry us beyond due limits. The question as to whether the ancient Celts were idolaters or not still remains undecided, though in France alone more than six hundred volumes have been written on the subject. Julius Caesar believed that they were worshippers of idols in the same sense as his own countrymen; but he probably stood alone in his opinion. Aristotle, Pythagoras, Polyhistor, Ammianus Marcellinus, considered the Druids as monotheist philosophers. Most of the Greek writers agreed with them, as did all the Alexandrian Fathers of the Church in the third and fourth centuries.
Among the moderns the majority leans to a contrary opinion; nevertheless, many authors of weight, distinguishing the public worship of the common people from the doctrine of the Druids, assert the monotheism of this sacerdotal caste. Samuel F. N. Morus particularly, who, with J. A. Ernesti, was esteemed the master of antiquarian scholarship in Europe during the last century, maintains, in his edition of the "Commentaries" of Caesar, that "human beings, as well as human affairs, fortunes, travels, and wars, were thought by the Celts to be governed and ruled by one supreme God, and that the system of apotheosis, common to nearly all ancient nations, was totally unknown in ancient Gaul, Britain, and the adjacent islands."
The ancient authorities concurring with these conclusions are so numerous and clear spoken that the great historian of Gaul, Amedee Thierry, thinks that such a pure and mystic religion, joined to such a sublime philosophy, could not have been the product of the soil. In his endeavor to investigate its origin, he supposes that it was brought to the west of Europe by the Eastern Cymris of the first invasion; that it was adopted by the higher classes of society, and that the old idolatrous worship remained in force among the lower orders.
The unity and omnipotence of the Godhead, metempsychosis, or the doctrine and the transmigration of soul --not into the bodies of animals, as it obtained and still obtains in the East, but into those of other human beings--the eternal duration of existing substances, material and spiritual, consequently the immortality of the human soul, were the chief dogmas of the Druids, according to the majority of antiquarians.
If this be true, then it can be said boldly that, with the exception of revealed religion in Judea, which was always far more explicit and pure, no system can be found in ancient times superior to that of the Druids, more especially if we add that, in addition to religious teaching, a whole system of physics was also developed in their large academies. "They dispute," says Caesar, "on the stars and their motions, on the size of the universe and of this earth, on the nature of physical things, as well as on the strength and power of the eternal God."
To bring our question home, what were the religious belief and worship of the Irish Celts while still pagans? Very few positive facts are known on the subject; but we have data enough to show what they were not; and in such cases negative proofs are amply sufficient.
It was for a long time the fashion with Irish historians to attribute to their ancestors the wildest forms of ancient idolatry. They appeared to consider it a point of national honor to make the worship of Erin an exact reflex of Eastern, Grecian, or Roman polytheism. They erected on the slightest foundations grand structures of superstitious and abominable rites. Fire- worship, Phoenician or African horrors, the rankest idol-worship, even human sacrifices of the most revolting nature, were, according to them, of almost daily occurrence in Ireland. But, with the advancement of antiquarian knowledge, all those phantoms have successively disappeared; and, the more the ancient customs, literature, and history of the island are studied, the more it becomes clear that the pretended proofs adduced in support of those vagaries are really without foundation.
In the first place, there is not the slightest reason to believe that the human sacrifices customary in Gaul were ever practised in Ireland. No really ancient book makes any mention of them. They were certainly not in vogue at the time of St. Patrick, as he could not have failed to give expression to his horror at them in some shape or form, which expression would have been recorded in one, at least, of the many lives of the saint, written shortly after his death, and abounding in details of every kind. If not, then, during his long apostleship, we may safely conclude that they never took place before, as there was no reason for their discontinuance prior to the propagation of Christianity.
There was a time when all the large cromlechs which abound in the island were believed to be sacrificial stones; and it is highly probable that the opinion so prevalent during the last century with respect to the reality of those cruel rites had its origin in the existence of those rude monuments. After many investigations and excavations around and under cromlechs of all sizes, it is now admitted by all well-informed antiquarians that they had no connection with sacrifices of any kind. They were merely monuments raised over the buried bodies of chieftains or heroes. Many sepulchres of that description have been opened, either under cromlechs or under large mounds; great quantities of ornaments of gold, silver, or precious stones, utensils of various materials, beautiful works of great artistic merit, have been discovered there, and now go to fill the museums of the nation or private cabinets. Nothing connected with religious rites of any description has met the eyes of the learned seekers after truth. Thus it has been ascertained that the old race had reached a high degree of material civilization; but no clew to its religion has been furnished.
As to fire-worship, which not long ago was admitted by all as certainly forming a part of the Celtic religion in Ireland, so little of that opinion remains to-day that it is scarcely deserving of mention. There now remains no doubt that the round towers, formerly so numerous in Ireland, had nothing whatever to do with fire-worship. For a long time they were believed to have been constructed for no other object, and consequently long prior to the coming of St. Patrick. But Dr. Petrie and other antiquarians have all but demonstrated that the round towers never had any connection with superstition or idolatry at all; that they were of Christian origin, always built near some Christian church, and of the same materials, and had for their object to call the faithful to prayer, like the campanile of Italy, to be a place of refuge for the clergy in time of war, and to give to distant villages intimation of any hostile invasion.
The fact in the life of St. Patrick, when he appeared before the court of King Laeghaire, upon which so much reliance is placed as a proof of the existence of fire-worship, is now of proportionate weakness. It seems, to judge by the most reliable and ancient manuscripts, that, after all, the kindling of the king's fire was scarcely a religious act.
McGeoghegan, whose history is compiled, from the best- authenticated documents, says: "When the monarch convened an assembly, or held a festival at Tara, it was customary to make a bonfire on the preceding day, and it was forbidden to light another fire in any other place at the same time, in the territory of Breagh."
This is all; and the probable cause of the prohibition was to do honor to the king. Had it been an act of worship, Patrick, in lighting his own paschal-fire, would not only have shown disrespect to the monarch, but in the eyes of the people committed a sacrilege, which could scarcely have missed mention by the careful historians of the time.
But the proof that we are right in our interpretation of the ceremony is clear, from the following passage, taken from the work of Prof. Curry on "Early Irish Manuscripts:" "We see, by the book of military expeditions, that, when King Dathi-- the immediate predecessor of Laeghaire on the throne of Ire- land-- thought of conquering Britain and Gaul, he invited the states of the nation to meet him at Tara, at the approaching feast of Baltaine (one of the great pagan festivals of ancient Erin) on May-day.
"The feast of Tara this year was solemnized on a scale of splendor never before equalled. The fires of Lailten (now called Lelltown in the north of Ireland) were lighted, and the sports, games, and ceremonies, were conducted with unusual magnificence and solemnity.
"These games and solemnities are said to have been instituted more than a thousand years previously by Lug, in honor of Lailte, the daughter of the King of Spain, and wife of MacEire, the last king of the Firbolg colony. It was at her court that Lug had been fostered, and at her death he had her buried at this place, where he raised an immense mound over her grave, and instituted those annual games in her honor.
"These games were solemnized about the first day of August, and they continued to be observed down to the ninth century"- therefore, in Christian times-and consequently the lighting of the fires had as little connection with fire-worship as the games with pagan rites.
A more serious difficulty meets us in the destruction of Crom Cruagh by St. Patrick, and it is important to consider how far Crom Cruagh could really be called an idol.
With regard to the statues of Celtic gods, all the researches and excavations which the most painstaking of antiquarians have undertaken, especially of late years, have never resulted in the discovery, not of the statue of a god, but of any pagan sign whatever in Ireland. It is clear, from the numerous details of the life of St. Patrick, that he never encountered either temples or the statues of gods in any place, although occasional mention is made of idols. The only fact which startles the reader is the holy zeal which moved him to strike with his "baculus Jesu" the monstrous Crom Cruagh, with its twelve "sub-gods."
In all his travels through Ireland-and there is scarcely a spot which he did not visit and evangelize-St. Patrick meets with only one idol, or rather group of idols, situated in the County Cavan, which was an object of veneration to the people. Nowhere else are idols to be found, or the saint would have thought it his duty to destroy them also. This first fact certainly places the Irish in a position, with regard to idolatry, far different from that of all other polytheist nations. In all other countries it is characteristic of polytheism to multiply the statues of the gods, to expose them in all public places, in their houses, but chiefly within or at the door of edifices erected for the purpose. Yet in Ireland we find nothing of the kind, with the exception of Crom Cruagh. The holy apostle of the nation goes on preaching, baptizing, converting people, without finding any worship of gods of stone or metal; he only hears that there is something of the kind in a particular spot, and he has to travel a great distance in order to see it, and show the people their folly in venerating it.
But what was that idol? According to the majority of expounders of Irish history, it was a golden sphere or ball representing the sun, with twelve cones or pillars of brass, around it, typifying, probably, astronomical signs. St. Patrick, in his "Confessio," seems to allude to Crom Cruagh when he says: "That sun which we behold by the favor of God rises for us every day; but its splendor will not shine forever; nay, even all those who adore it shall be miserably punished."
The Bollandists, in a note on this passage of the "Confessio," think that it might refer to Crom Cruagh, which possibly represented the sun, surrounded by the signs of the twelve months, through which it describes its orbit during the year.
We know that the Druids were, perhaps, better versed in the science of astronomy than the scholars of any other nation at the time. It was not in Gaul and Britain only that they pursued their course of studies for a score of years; the same fact is attested for Ireland by authorities whose testimony is beyond question. May we not suppose that a representation of mere heavenly phenomena, set in a conspicuous position, had in course of time become the object of the superstitious veneration of the people, and that St. Patrick thought it his duty to destroy it? And the attitude of the people at the time of its destruction shows that it could not have borne for them the same sacred character as the statue of Minerva in the Parthenon did for the Greeks or that of Capitoline Jove for the Romans. Can we suppose that St. Paul or St. Peter would have dared to break either of these? And let us remark that the event we discuss occurred at the very beginning of St. Patrick's ministry, and before he had yet acquired that great authority over the minds of all which afterward enabled him fearlessly to accomplish whatever his zeal prompted him to do.
Whatever explanation of the whole occurrence may be given, we doubt if we shall find a better than that we advance, and the considerations arising from it justify the opinion that the Irish Celts were not idolaters like all other peoples of antiquity. They possessed no mythology beyond harmless fairy- tales, no poetical histories of gods and goddesses to please the imagination and the senses, and invest paganism with such an attractive garb as to cause it to become a real obstacle to the spread of Christianity.
Moreover, what we have said concerning the belief in the omnipotence of one supreme God, whatever might be his nature, as the first dogma of Druidism, would seem to have lain deep in the minds of the Irish Celts, and caused their immediate comprehension and reception of monotheism, as preached by St. Patrick, and the facility with which they accepted it. They were certainly, even when pagans, a very religious people; otherwise how could they have embraced the doctrines of Christianity with that ardent eagerness which shall come under our consideration in the next chapter? A nation utterly devoid of faith of any kind is not apt to be moved, as were the Irish, perhaps beyond all other nations, at the first sight of supernatural truths, such as those of Christianity. And so little were they attached to paganism, so visibly imbued with reverence for the supreme God of the universe, that, as soon as announced, they accepted the dogma.
The simple and touching story of the conversion of the two daughters of King Laeghaire will give point and life to this very important consideration. It is taken from the "Book of Armagh," which Prof. O'Curry, who is certainly a competent authority, believes older than the year 727, when the popular Irish traditions regarding St. Patrick must have still been almost as vivid as immediately after his death.
St. Patrick and his attendants being assembled at sunrise at the fountain of Clebach, near Cruachan in Connaught, Ethne and Felimia, daughters of King Laeghaire, came to bathe, and found at the well the holy men.
"And they knew not whence they were, or in what form, or from what people, or from what country; but they supposed them to be fairies--duine sidhe--that is to say, gods of the earth, or a phantasm.
"And the virgins said unto them: 'Who are ye, and whence are ye?'
"And Patrick said unto them: 'It were better for you to confess to our true God, than to inquire concerning our race.'
"The first virgin said: `Who is God?
"'And where is God?
"'And where is his dwelling-place?
"'Has God sons and daughters, gold and silver?
"'Is he living?
"'Is he beautiful?
"'Did many foster his son?
"'Are his daughters dear and beauteous to men of this world?
"'Is he in heaven or on earth?
"'In the sea?--In rivers?--In mountainous places?--In valleys?
"'Declare unto us the knowledge of him?
"'How shall he be seen?-How shall he be loved?-How is he to be found?
"'Is it in youth?-Is it in old age that he is to be found?'
"But St. Patrick, full of the Holy Ghost, answered and said:
"'Our God is the God of all men-the God of heaven and earth-of the sea and rivers. The God of the sun, and the moon, and all stars. The God of the high mountains, and of the lowly valleys. The God who is above heaven, and in heaven, and under heaven.
"'He has a habitation in the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and all that are thereon.
"'He inspireth all things. He quickeneth all things. He is over all things.
"'He hath a Son coeternal and coequal with himself. The Son is not younger than the Father, nor the Father older than the Son. And the Holy Ghost breatheth in them. The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are not divided.
"'But I desire to unite you to a heavenly King inasmuch as you are daughters of an earthly king. Do you believe?'
"And the virgins said, as of one mouth and one heart: Teach us most diligently how we may believe in the heavenly King. Show us how we may see him face to face, and whatsoever you shall say unto us we will do.'
"And Patrick said: 'Believe ye that by baptism you put off the sin of your father and your mother?'
"They answered him, 'We believe.'
"'Believe ye in repentance after sin? 'We believe . . .' etc.
"And they were baptized, and a white garment was put upon their heads. And they asked to see the face of Christ. And the saint said unto them: 'Ye cannot see the face of Christ except ye taste of death, and except ye receive the sacrifice.'
"And they answered: 'Give us the sacrifice that we may behold the Son our spouse.'
"And they received the eucharist of God, and they slept in death.
"And they were laid out on one bed-covered with garments -and their friends made great lamentations and weeping for them."
This beautiful legend expresses to the letter the way in which the Irish received the faith. Nor was it simple virgins only who understood and believed so suddenly at the preaching of the apostle. The great men of the nation were as eager almost as the common people to receive baptism: the conversion of Dubtach is enough to show this.
He was a Druid, being the chief poet of King Laeghaire--all poets belonging to the order. After the wife, the brothers, and the two daughters of the monarch, he was the most illustrious convert gained by Patrick at the beginning of his apostleship. He became a Christian at the first appearance of the saint at Tara, and immediately began to sing in verse his new belief, as he had formerly sung the heroes of his nation. To the end he remained firm in his faith, and a dear friend to the holy man who had converted him. How could he, and all the chief converts of Patrick, have believed so suddenly and so constantly in the God of the Christians, if their former life had not prepared them for the adoption of the new doctrine, and if the doctrine of monotheism had offered a real difficulty to their understanding? There was, probably, nothing clear and definite in their belief in an omnipotent God, which is said to have been the leading dogma of Druidism; but their simple minds had evidently a leaning toward the doctrine, which induced them to approve of it, as soon as it was presented to them with a solemn affirmation.
In order to elucidate this point, we add a short description of the labors and success of this apostle.
In the year 432, Patrick lands on the island. By that time, some few of the inhabitants may possibly have heard of the Christian religion from the neighboring Britain or Gaul. Palladius had preached the year before in the district known as the present counties of Wexford and Wicklow, erected three churches, and made some converts; but it may be said that Ireland continued in the same state it had preserved for thousands of years: the Druids in possession of religious and scientific supremacy; the chieftains in contention, as in the time of Fingal and Ossian; the people, though in the midst of constant strife, happy enough on their rich soil, cheered by their bards and poets; very few, or no slaves in the country; an abundance of food everywhere; gold, silver, precious stones adorning profusely the persons of their chiefs, their wives, their warriors; rich stuffs, dyed with many colors, to distinguish the various orders of society; a deep religious feeling in their hearts, preparing them for the faith, by inspiring them with lively emotions at the sight of divine power displayed in their mountains, their valleys, their lakes and rivers, and on the swelling bosom of the all- encircling ocean; superstitions of various kinds, indeed, but none of a demoralizing character, none involving marks of cruelty or lust; no revolting statues of Priapus, of Bacchus, of Cybele; no obscene emblems of religion, as in all other lands, to confront Christianity; but over all the island, song, festivity, deep affection for kindred; and, as though blood- relationship could not satisfy their heart, fosterage covering the land with other brothers and sisters; all permeated with a strong attachment to their clan-system and social customs. Such is an exact picture of the Erin of the time, which the study of antiquity brings clearer and clearer before the eyes of the modern student.
Patrick appears among them, leaning on his staff, and bringing them from Rome and Gaul new songs in a new language set to a new melody. He comes to unveil for them what lies hidden, unknown to themselves, in the depths of their hearts. He explains, by the power of one Supreme God, why it is that their mountains are so high, their valley so smiling, their rivers and lakes teeming with life, their fountains so fresh and cool, and that sun of theirs so temperate in its warmth, and the moon and stars, lighted with a soft radiance, shimmering over the deep obscurity of their groves.
He directs them to look into their own consciences, to admit themselves to be sinners in need of redemption, and points out to them in what manner that Supreme God, whom they half knew already, condescended to save man.
Straightway, from all parts of the island, converts flock to him; they come in crowds to be baptized, to embrace the new law by which they may read their own hearts; they are ready to do whatever he wishes; many, not content with the strict commandments enjoined on all, wish to enter on the path of perfection: the men become monks, the women and young girls nuns, that is to say, spouses of Christ. In Munster alone "it would be difficult," says a modern writer, Father Brenan, "to form an estimate of the number of converts he made, and even of the churches and religious establishments he founded."
And so with all the other provinces of the island. The proof's still stand before our eyes. For, as Prof. Curry justly remarks: "No one, who examines for himself, can doubt that at the first preaching in Erin of the glad tidings of salvation, by Saints Palladius and Patrick, those countless Christian churches were built, whose sites and ruins mark so thickly the surface of our country even to this day, still bearing through all the vicissitudes of time and conquest the unchanged names of their original founders."
According to the commonly-received opinion, St. Patrick's apostleship lasted thirty-three years; but, whatever may have been its real duration, certain it is that his feet traversed the whole island several times, and, at his passing, churches and monasteries sprang up in great numbers, and remained to tell the true story of his labors when their founder had passed away.
Nor was it with Ireland as with Rome, Carthage, Antioch, and other great cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Not the slaves and artisans alone filled these newly-erected Christian edifices. Some of the first men of the nation received baptism. We have already spoken of the family of Laeghaire. In Connaught, at the first appearance of the man of God, all the inhabitants of that portion of the province now represented by the County Mayo became Christians; and the seven sons of the king of the province were baptized, together with twelve thousand of their clansmen. In Leinster, the Princes Illand and Alind were baptized in a fountain near Naas. In Munster, Aengus, the King of Cashel, with all the nobility of his clan, embraced the faith. A number of chieftains in Thomond are also mentioned; and the whole of the Dalcassian tribe, so celebrated before and after in the annals of Ireland, received, with the waters of baptism, that ardent faith which nothing has been able to tear from them to this day.
Many Druids even, by renouncing their superstitions, abdicated their power over the people. We have mentioned Dubtach ; his example was followed by many others, among whom was Fingar, the son of King Clito, who is said to have suffered martyrdom in Brittany; Fiech, pupil of Dubtach, himself a poet, and belonging to the noble house of Hy-Baircha in Leinster, was raised by St. Patrick to the episcopacy, and was the first occupant of the See of Sletty.
Fiech was a regular member of the bardic order of Druids, a poet by profession, esteemed as a learned man even before he embraced Christianity; and during his lifetime he was, as a Christian bishop, consulted by numbers and regarded as an oracle of truth and heavenly wisdom.
Nevertheless, Patrick encountered opposition. Some chieftains declared themselves against him, without daring openly to attack him. Many Druids, called in the old Irish annals magi, tried their utmost to estrange the Irish people from him. But he stood in danger of his life only once. It was, in fact, a war of argument. Long discussions took place, with varied success, ending generally, however, in a victory for truth.
The final result was that, in the second generation after St. Patrick, there existed not a single pagan in the whole of Ireland; the very remembrance of paganism even seemed to have passed away from their minds ever after; hence arises the difficulty of deciding now on the character of that paganism.
After its abolition, nothing remained in the literature of the country, which was at that time much more copious than at present--nothing was left in its monuments or in the inclinations of the people--to imperil the existence of the newly-established Christianity, or of a nature calculated to give a wrong bias to the religious worship of the people, such as we have seen was the case in the rest of Europe.
May we not conclude, then, that Ireland was much better prepared for the new religion than any other country; that, when she was thus admitted by baptism into the European family, she made her entry in a way peculiar to herself, and which secured to her, once for all, her firm and undeviating attachment to truth?
She had nothing to change in her manners after having renounced the few disconnected superstitions to which she had been addicted. Her songs, her bards, her festivities, her patriarchal government, her fosterage, were left to her, Christianized and consecrated by her great apostle; clanship even penetrated into the monasteries, and gave rise later on to some abuses. But, perhaps, the saint thought it better to allow the existence of things which might lead to abuse than violently and at once to subvert customs, rooted by age in the very nature of the people, some of which it cost England, later on, centuries of inconceivable barbarities to eradicate.
As to what exact form, if any, the paganism of the Irish Celts assumed, we have so few data to build upon that it is now next to impossible to shape a system out of them. From the passage of the "Confessio" already quoted, we might infer that they adored the sun; and this passage is very remarkable as the only mention anywhere made by St. Patrick of idolatry among the people. If it was only the emblem of the Supreme Being, then would there have been nothing idolatrous in its worship; and the strong terms in which the saint condemns it perhaps need only express his fear lest the superstition of the ignorant people might convert veneration into positive idolatry. At all events, there was not a statue, or a temple, or a theological system, erected to or connected with it in any shape.
The solemn forms of oaths taken and administered by the Irish kings would also lead us to infer that they paid a superstitious respect to the winds and the other elements. But why should this feeling pass beyond that which even the Christian experiences when confronted by mysteries in the natural as well as the supernatural order? The awe-struck pagan saw the lightning leap, the tempest gather and break over him in majestic fury; heard the great voice of the mighty ocean which laved or lashed his shores: he witnessed these wonderful effects; he knew not whence the tempests or the lightnings came, or the voice of the ocean; he trembled at the unseen power which moved them --at his God.
So his imagination peopled his groves and hill-sides, his rivers and lakes, with harmless fairies; but fairy land has never become among any nation a pandemonium of cruel divinities; and we doubt much if such innocuous superstition can be rightly called even sinful error.
In fact, the only thing which could render paganism truly a danger in Ireland, as opposed to the preaching of Christianity, was the body of men intrusted with the care of religion--the Druids, the magi of the chronicles. But, as we find no traces of bloody sacrifices in Ireland, the Druids there probably never bore the character which they did in Gaul; they cannot be said to have been sacrificing priests; their office consisted merely in pretended divinations, or the workings of incantations or spells. They also introduced superstition into the practice of medicine, and taught the people to venerate the elements or mysterious forces of this world.
Without mentioning any of the many instances which are found in the histories of the workings of these Druidical incantations and spells, the consulting of the clouds, and the ceremonies with which they surrounded their healing art, we go straight to our main point: the ease and suddenness with which all these delusions vanished at the first preaching of the Gospel --a fact very telling on the force which they exercised over the mind of the nation. All natural customs, games, festivities, social relationships, as we have seen, are preserved, many to this day; what is esteemed as their religion, and its ceremonies and superstitions, is dropped at once. The entire Irish mind expanded freely and generously at the simple announcement of a God, present everywhere in the universe, and accepted it. The dogma of the Holy Spirit, not only filling all--complens omnia-
In regarding philosophy and its perils in Ireland, our task will be an easy one, yet not unimportant in its bearings on subsequent considerations. The minds of nations differ as greatly as their physical characteristics; and to study the Irish mind we have only to take into consideration the institutions which swayed it from time immemorial. They were of such a nature that they could but belong to a traditional people. All patriarchal tribes partake of that general character; none, perhaps, so strikingly as the Celts.
People thus disposed have nothing rationalistic in their nature; they accept old facts; and, if they reason upon them, it is to find proofs to support, not motives to doubt them. They never refine their discussions to hair-splitting, synonymous almost with rejection, as seems to be the delight of what we call rationalistic races. It was among these that philosophy was born, and among them it flourishes. They may, by their acute reasoning, enlarge the human mind, open up new horizons, and, if confined within just limits, actually enrich the understanding of man. We are far from pretending that philosophy has only been productive of harm, and that it were a blessed thing had the human intellect always remained, as it were, in a dormant state, without ever striving to grasp at philosophic truth and raise itself above the common level; we hold the great names of Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and so many others, in too great respect to entertain such an opinion.
Yet it cannot be denied that the excessive study of philosophy has produced many evils among men, has often been subservient to error, has, at best, been for many minds the source of a cold and desponding skepticism.
No race of men, perhaps, has been less inclined to follow those intellectual aberrations than the Celtic, owing chiefly to its eminently traditional dispositions.
Before Christianity reached them, the intellectual labors of the Celts were chiefly confined to history and genealogy, medicine and botany, law, song, music, and artistic workings in metals and gems. This was the usual curriculum of Druidic studies. Astronomy and the physical sciences, as well as the knowledge of "the nature of the eternal God," were, according to Caesar, extensively studied in the Gallic schools. Some elements of those intellectual pursuits may also have occupied the attention of the Irish student during the twelve, fifteen, or twenty years of his preparation for being ordained to the highest degree of ollamh. But the oldest and most reliable documents which have been examined so far do not allow us to state positively that such was the case to any great extent.
In Christian times, however, it seems certain that astronomy was better studied in Ireland than anywhere else, as is proved by the extraordinary impulse given to that science by Virgil of Salzburg, who was undoubtedly an Irishman, and educated in his native country.
It is from the Church alone, therefore, that they received their highest intellectual training in the philosophy and theology of the Scriptures and of the Fathers. It is known that, by the introduction of the Latin and Greek tongues into their schools in addition to the vernacular, the Bible in Latin and Greek, and the writings of many Fathers in both languages, as also the most celebrated works of Roman and Greek classical writers, became most interesting subjects of study. They reproduced those works for their own use in the scriptoria of their numerous monasteries. We still possess some of those manuscripts of the sixth and following centuries, and none more beautiful or correct can be found among those left by the English, French, or Italian monastic institutions of the periods mentioned.
During the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, the Irish schools became celebrated all over Europe. Young Anglo-Saxons of the best families were sent to receive their education in Innisfail, as the island was then often called; and, from their celebrated institutions of learning, numerous teachers and missionaries went forth to England, Germany (along the Rhine, chiefly), France, and even Switzerland and Italy.
Yet, in the history of all those intellectual labors, we never read of startling theories in philosophy or theology advanced by any of them, unless we except the eccentric John Scotus Erigena, whom Charles the Bald, at whose court he resided, protected even against the just severity of the Church. Without ever having studied theology, he undertook to dogmatize, and would perhaps have originated some heresy, had he found a following in Germany or France.
But he is the only Irishman who ever threatened the peace of the Church, and, through her, of the world. Duns Scotus, if he were Irish, never taught any error, and remained always an accepted leader in Catholic schools. To the honor of Erin be it said, her children have ever been afraid to deviate in the least from the path of faith. And it would be wrong to imagine that the preservation from heresy so peculiar to them, and by which they are broadly distinguished from all other European nations, comes from dulness of intellect and inability to follow out an intricate argumentation. They show the acuteness of their understanding in a thousand ways; in poetry, in romantic tales, in narrative compositions, in legal acumen and extempore arguments, in the study of medicine, chiefly in that masterly eloquence by which so many of them are distinguished. Who shall say that they might not also have reached a high degree of eminence in philosophical discussions and ontological theories? They have always abstained from such studies by reason of a natural disinclination, which does them honor, and which has saved them in modern times, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, from the innumerable evils which afflict society everywhere else, and by which it is even threatened with destruction.
Thus, among the numerous and versatile progeny of Japhet one small branch has kept itself aloof from the universal movement of the whole family; and, in the very act of accepting Christianity and taking a place in the commonwealth of Western nations, it has known how to do so in its own manner, and has thus secured a firm hold of the saving doctrines imparted to the whole race for a great purpose--the purpose, unfortunately often defeated--of reducing to practice and reality the sublime ideal of the Christian religion.
The details given in this chapter on the various circumstances connected with the introduction of our holy faith into Ireland were necessarily very limited, as our chief object was to speak of the nation's preparation for it. In the following we treat directly of what could only be touched upon in the latter part of this.