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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

PATRICK was now at the gates of the North, for coming to the crest of the hill east of Bundoran he saw spreading out before him that fair valley:—

Where the sunny waters fall at Assaroe,

By Erna’s shore;

and no one has ever seen it without admiring it. There the mighty river, filled with half the waters of the North, rushes down its foaming staircase from Belleek, and takes, its final plunge into the sea over a great ledge of limestone rock. Just below the great fall is the islet where the first colonist that ever came to Erin landed and fortified himself. Rising high over the foaming waters on the right bank is that Sid Aed, where the drowned warrior, who gave his name to the cataract, dwelt in his fairy palace and kept nightly watch and ward over that fair land of his love. The deep pools beneath the cataract are nearly always filled with salmon, which may be seen taking mighty leaps in their efforts to surmount the fall. Then seaward Patrick might see the great ocean surges breaking on the bar which always prevented Ballyshannon from being the emporium of all the North. He saw the whole scene. He had seen the banks of the Boyne from the Hill of Slane, the swelling plains of Roscommon from Oran, the glories of Clew Bay from Croaghpatrick, but here was a scene that surpassed them all—even the beautiful valley and lake that he had seen a short time before from the ‘Ridge of the Sheds,’ when sunset flushed the bowery spray of peerless Lough Gill. In his own heart he said to himself, “I would it were God’s high will to leave me here and found my See in this beautiful valley beside these fishful, murmuring waters.” But when he looked across the river his heart misgave him, for he saw Cairbre, whom he had met before at Telltown, with his grim warriors on the northern bank waiting as if to dispute his passage, and certainly affording him scant hope of ‘setting up’ on the beautiful banks of the Erne.

This is not imagination—the dry record bears us out in all its details, for we are told that the Saint ‘desired to set up there in the place where are Disert Patraic and Lecc Patraic’—most likely on the northern bank of the river. But Cairbre, who then owned the land northwards as far as Racoon, resisted him; and he sent two of his people, Carbacc and Cuangus, to drive him forcibly away from the place. “What you do is not good,” said Patrick. “If a dwelling were given to me here, my city, with its Eas-Ruaid flowing through it, would be a second Rome of Latium, with its Tiber through it; and your children would be my successors therein.” With his keen eye for natural beauty, Patrick admired and loved that beautiful valley with its wealth of fishful waters. But the wicked Cairbre was obdurate, and his graceless servant Carbacc ‘set a dog at Patrick’; whereupon his fellow-servant, with some sense of decency, ‘smote the dog with a rod.’

Then Patrick said that the race of the rude Carbacc, who had treated God’s servants with so much contumely, ‘would be few in number, and that no dignity of laymen or clerics would ever arise from his family.’ And that has been fulfilled. No one has ever heard of them since. Cuangus, too, was to be punished for having consented to expel Patrick by having his race reduced to a small band; but as he showed some respect to the Saint, amongst them there would be the dignity of ordained men. ‘And so,’ adds the Tripartite, ‘it has come to pass.’

It seems, indeed, that Cuangus was reluctant to undertake the odious task of expelling Patrick; so Cairbre promised him, if he undertook the work, all the land that he could see to the north of Slieve Cise. This is probably the conspicuous summit now called Bulbin Hill, about a mile and a half north-east of Ballyshannon. It affords a fine view of Magh Sereth by the Sea, from the Erne estuary northward towards Ballintra; but when Cuangus turned round on the crest of the hill to mark the limits of his wide domain, a dark cloud closed round about him, so that he could see nothing to the north; he only saw ‘as far as the sea, that is, the estuary of the Erne westward, and as far as the Uinsenn eastward.’ The Unshin river is the small stream that rises in the Unshin Lake, which is situated about a mile east of Bulbin peak, and there flows round the hill, first to the north and afterwards to the west, until it falls into the Erne at Abbey Assaroe. So this dark cloud made the promised reward very small indeed, as small as the race that was destined to inherit it. It is very remarkable how accurately the author of the Tripartite defines the locality; and the ancient name both of lake and river still survive.

Cairbre, too, was to be punished for his churlish opposition to the Gospel. “The river,” said Patrick, “that God has given thee, Cairbre, thy share therein shall not be fruitful as regards fishing,” that is, ‘the northern half of the river lengthwise was Cairbre’s share, to wit the half towards the Cenel Conaill,’ for Cairbre at that time had the territory of Conall as far as Rath Cungai—now Racoon, near Ballintra. “But,” he added, “the share of Conall (the half to the south of it), will be fruitful.” And so it came to pass, until Muirguis, son of Moel Duin, son of Scannlan, a wonderful king of the race of Cairbre, gave his barren shore to Columcille, ‘and now that Columcille has it, it has become fruitful.’ His prayers and merits annulled the curse of barrenness pronounced by Patrick.

Cairbre’s river is, of course, the Erne, and it appears that at that time his territory extended as far north as Racoon; but, as explained by the writer of the Tripartite, the head of the tribe afterwards gave it to Columcille, that is, to him and his monks, who had a great monastery at Drumhome, by the sea-shore, beyond Ballintra. So the whole territory, from the Drowes to Barnesmore, became a part of ancient Tirconnell; but it was specially known by the name of Tirhugh, which the barony still bears. King Aedh Mac Ainmire, from whom the barony took its name, was a contemporary of Columcille, and both were present at the great Synod of Drumceat in 575.

The river Erne is still a fishful river, abounding in salmon. It is one of the most productive salmon rivers in all Ireland. Some years ago the fishing was sold to a private company for £50,000; and it was considered a great bargain.

But the Erne at Ballyshannon has more than its valuable fisheries to make it interesting. As we have said, history, poetry, and romance have flung their radiance around that fair scene, and have peopled it with teeming associations. That little island just below the waterfall is Inis Saimer, and it has taken its name from Saimer, a hound of Partholan, one of the first of the great heroes who landed in Ireland. The bards tell us that he landed there for caution sake, and fortified it; but in a fit of jealousy, in regard to his wife, he killed her faithful hound, whence the island, and the river, and the neighbouring Cistercian monastery have ever since been called from the name of the hound. The poets speak of the river valley as Saimer’s ‘green vale;’ the Cistercians called their great abbey close by ‘De Samario;’ and so the whole place is aglow with the light of bardic story.

The waterfall gets its name from Aed Ruad, the father of Macha of the Golden Hair, who founded Emania; the hill over the cataract is still called from him Sid Aedha (Ruaidh), because he was buried there; and the old abbey will be for ever immortal as the first home and school of the founder of the O’Clerys of Tirconnell.

Patrick now continued his journey between Assaroe and the sea, through the modern parish of Kilbarron, until he came to Conall’s territory, ‘where to-day is Rath Chungai’ or Racoon. This was the mearing at that time between Cairbre and Conall; and Racoon itself seems to have been in the territory of Prince Conall, for we do not read that Patrick founded any church in the territory of the accursed Cairbre, who drove him away from his lands. ‘But he set a stake there at Racoon, and said it would be a territory for seven bishops, and there is Bite (buried), the son of the brother of Asicus from Elphin;’ and there also, we may add, as we have already stated, is Assicus himself, Bishop of Elphin, and there also, no doubt, other prelates rest in Christ beneath His Cross.

The phrase, ‘he set a stake there,’ seems to mean that he traced out the site of a church in the place, and marked with a cross the place of the altar, as we do still. Tirechan calls this place Rath Argi in Magh Sereth; and he adds that Patrick encamped in the plain near where he founded the church. There he found a good man of the race of Lathron, whom he baptised, together with his young son Hina or Ineus by name, and he was so-called because he was born by the wayside as his parents were coming down from the hills, and his father carried the child in a cloth tied around his neck. This youth Patrick caused to be instructed, and he wrote an alphabet for the boy; and afterwards he was consecrated by Patrick ‘with the consecration of a bishop.’ It was he who afterwards extended hospitality to Assicus of Elphin and his monks at Ard Roissen, ‘that is in Rath Chungai,’ of Magh Sereth, and that was in the time of ‘Kings Ferghus and Fothadh.’ Ferghus Cennfada, son of Conall, was grandfather of Columcille, and his brother Fothadh, who appears to have been with him joint king of the tribe, died in 546, according to the Four Masters. It was from this Fothadh, son of Conall, that Ard Fothaidh, close to Racoon, appears to have derived its name. Patrick prepared to found a church in that place, and had set up a stake to mark the spot—probably a wooden cross—but on the morrow, when they were about to begin the church, Patrick found the stake ‘bent,’ whence he concluded that it was not destined to be the site of a church, but of a royal palace; and he prophesied that Domhnall, son of Aedh, son of Ainmire, would build his royal dun in that place, which afterwards came to pass. This was Domhnall, King of Erin, of the line of Conall Gulban, whose death is marked by the Four Masters in A.D. 642. He was fifth in descent from Conall Gulban, and before he became King of Erin had his royal palace at Ard Fothaidh, near Racoon.

The Tripartite here adds that on Sid Aedha Patrick blessed Conall, son of Niall; and he also placed his hands on the head of Ferghus, son of Conall, and fervently blessed him. This was a marvel to Conall that he should bless the child; but Patrick, in the spirit of prophecy, explained the blessing, saying:—

A youth (Columcille) will be born of his tribe,

He will be a sage, a prophet, a poet;

Who will not utter falsehood.

St. Brigid is represented as uttering a similar prophecy, but it must have been at a later period.

The order given in the Tripartite would seem to imply that Sid Aedha was near Racoon or Aid Fothaidh; but the fairy hill of Hugh still bears its name, and is now called Mullaghshee, the hill on which the Protestant church stands, just over the Erne on the right bank of the river at Ballyshannon. At that time it appears to have been in Cairbre’s territory on the north side of the river; but the modern Tirhugh now includes the whole district from the Erne to Barnesmore.

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