The Irish believe—and we cannot gainsay them—that their island of “mists and mellow fruitfulness” was first peopled by Greeks and Scythians a thousand or more years before Christ, and that their early chieftains—Cuchalain, Conor, Conall—were sons of God.12 Himilco, the Phoenician explorer, touched Ireland about 510 B.C., and described it as “populous and fertile.”13 Perhaps in the fifth century before Christ some Celtic adventurers from Gaul or Britain or both crossed into Ireland, and conquered the natives, of whom we know nothing. The Celts apparently brought with them the iron culture of Hallstatt, and a strong kinship organization that made the individual too proud of his clan to let him form a stable state. Clan fought clan, kingdom fought kingdom, for a thousand years; between such wars the members of a clan fought one another; and when they died, good Irishmen, before St. Patrick came, were buried upright ready for battle, with faces turned toward their foes.14 Most of the kings died in battle, or by assassination.15Perhaps out of eugenic obligation, perhaps as vicars of gods who required first fruits, these ancient kings, according to Irish tradition, had the right to deflower every bride before yielding her to her husband. King Conchobar was praised for his especial devotion to this duty.16 Each clan kept a record of its members and their genealogy, its kings and battles and antiquities, “from the beginning of the world.”17
The Celts established themselves as a ruling class, and distributed their clans in five kingdoms: Ulster, North Leinster, South Leinster, Munster, Connaught. Each of the five kings was sovereign, but all the clans accepted Tara, in Meath, as the national capital. There each king was crowned; and there, at the outset of his reign, he convened the Feis or convention of the notables of all Ireland to pass legislation binding on all the kingdoms, to correct and record the clan genealogies, and to register these in the national archives. To house this assembly King Cormac mac Airt, in the third century, built a great hall, whose foundations can still be seen. A provincial council—the Aonach, or Fair—met annually or triennially in the capital of each kingdom, legislated for its area, imposed taxes, and served as a district court. Games and contests followed these conventions: music, song, jugglery, farces, story-telling, poetry recitals, and many marriages brightened the occasion, and a large part of the population shared in the festivity. From this distance, which lends enchantment to the view, such a reconciliation of central government and local freedom seems almost ideal. The Feis continued till 560; the Aonach till 1168.
The first character whom we may confidently count as historical is Tuathal, who ruled Leinster and Meath about A.D. 160. King Niall (c. 358) invaded Wales and carried off immense booty, raided Gaul, and was killed (by an Irishman) on the river Loire; from him descended most of the later Irish kings (O’Neills). In the fifth year of the reign of his son Laeghaire (Leary), St. Patrick came to Ireland. Before this time the Irish had developed an alphabet of straight lines in various combinations; they had an extensive literature of poetry and legend, transmitted orally; and they had done good work in pottery, bronze, and gold. Their religion was an animistic polytheism, which worshiped sun and moon and divers natural objects, and peopled a thousand spots in Ireland with fairies, demons, and elves. A priestly clan of white-robed druids practiced divination, ruled sun and winds with magic wands and wheels, caused magic showers and fires, memorized and handed down the chronicles and poetry of the tribe, studied the stars, educated the young, counseled the kings, acted as judges, formulated laws, and sacrificed to the gods from altars in the open air. Among the sacred idols was a gold-covered image called the Crom Cruach; this was the god of all the Irish clans; to him, apparently, sacrifice was offered of the first-born child in every family18—perhaps as a check on excessive population. The people believed in reincarnation, but they also dreamed of a heavenly isle across the sea, “where there is no wailing or treachery, nothing rough or harsh, but sweet music striking upon the ear; a beauty of a wondrous land, whose view is a fair country, incomparable in its haze.”19 A story told how Prince Conall, moved by such descriptions, embarked in a boat of pearl and set out to find this happy land.
Christianity had come to Ireland a generation or more before Patrick. An old chronicle, confirmed by Bede, writes, under the year 431: “Palladius is ordained by Pope Celestine, and is sent as their first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ.”20 Palladius, however, died within the year; and the honor of making Ireland unalterably Catholic fell to her patron saint.
He was born in the village of Bonnaventa in western England, of a middle class family, about 389. As the son of a Roman citizen, he was given a Roman name, Patricius. He received only a modest education, and apologized for his rusticitas; but he studied the Bible so faithfully that he could quote it from memory to almost any purpose. At sixteen he was captured by “Scot” (Irish) raiders and taken to Ireland, where for six years he served as a herder of pigs.21 In those lonely hours “conversion” came to him; he passed from religious indifference to intense piety; he describes himself as rising every day before dawn to go out and pray in whatever weather—hail or rain or snow. At last he escaped, found his way to the sea, was picked up, desolate, by sailors, and was carried to Gaul, perhaps to Italy. He worked his way back to England, rejoined his parents, and lived with them a few years. But something called him back to Ireland—perhaps some memory of its rural loveliness, or the hearty kindliness of its people. He interpreted the feeling as a divine message, a call to convert the Irish to Christianity. He went to Lérins and Auxerre, studied for the priesthood, and was ordained. When news reached Auxerre that Palladius was dead, Patrick was made a bishop, dowered with relics of Peter and Paul, and sent to Ireland (432).
He found there, on the throne of Tara, an enlightened pagan, Laeghaire. Patrick failed to convert the king, but won full freedom for his mission. The Druids opposed him, and showed the people their magic; Patrick met them with the formulas of the exorcists—a minor clerical order—whom he had brought with him to cast out demons. In the Confessions that he wrote in his old age Patrick tells of the perils he encountered in his work: twelve times his life was in danger; once he and his companions were seized, held captive a fortnight, and threatened with death; but some friends persuaded the captors to set them free.22 Pious tradition tells a hundred fascinating stories of his miracles: “he gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf,” says Nennius,23 “cleansed the lepers, cast out devils, redeemed captives, raised nine persons from the dead, and wrote 365 books.” But probably it was Patrick’s character, rather than his wonders, that converted the Irish—the undoubting confidence of his belief, and the passionate persistence of his work. He was not a patient man; he could dispense maledictions and benedictions with equal readiness;24 but even this proud dogmatism convinced. He ordained priests, built churches, established monasteries and nunneries, and left strong spiritual garrisons to guard his conquests at every turn. He made it seem a supreme adventure to enter the ecclesiastical state; he gathered about him men and women of courage and devotion, who endured every privation to spread the good news that man was redeemed. He did not convert all Ireland; some pockets of paganism and its poetry survived, and leave traces to this day; but when he died (461) it could be said of him, as of no other, that one man had converted a nation.
Only second to him in the affection of the Irish people stands the woman who did most to consolidate his victory. St. Brigid, we are told, was the daughter of a slave and a king; but we know nothing definite of her before 476, when she took the veil. Overcoming countless obstacles, she founded the “Church of the Oak Tree”—Cill-dara—at a spot still so named, Kildare; soon it developed into a monastery, a nunnery, and a school as famous as that which grew at Patrick’s Armagh. She died about 525, honored throughout the island; and 10,000 Irish women still bear the name of the “Mary of the Gael.” A generation later St. Ruadhan laid a curse upon Tara; after 558, when King Diarmuid died, the ancient halls were abandoned, and Ireland’s kings, still pagan in culture, became Christian in creed.