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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The Great Wood of Veagh extended, as far as we can judge, from Leck to the place now called Manorcunningham. It is likely the meeting took place either at the old church of Leck or at the old rath which has given its name to the parish of Ramochy. The woods have long, been cleared; and the district, which was planted with Scottish settlers after the Flight of the Earls, is now one of the most fertile and highly cultivated in Ulster. But even in ancient times it was fertile and beautiful, for the ancient monastery of Bellaghan, near Manorcunningham, means in Irish the ‘town of the beautiful field,’ and well deserves the name.

Here on the shore, by the rushing tides of Lough Swilly, Patrick and Eoghan had a long and momentous interview, to which the lively Celtic imagination of later days has, we suspect, added some extraordinary incidents. Muiredach, son of Eoghan, claimed a reward for believing at Donaghmore, so far as we can judge; and now Eoghan himself, according to the strange account in the Tripartite, makes a similar demand. “Not stately am I,” said Eoghan, “and my brothers upbraid me often for my ugliness.” “What shape would you like to have?” said Patrick. “The countenance and shape of the youth who is carrying your box, namely Rioc” (of Inisboffin, in Lough Ree). Patrick, we are told, then covered them both with one mantle, the two arms of each of them around the other. They sleep thus, and afterwards awake with exactly the same countenance, their tonsures only, or style of the hair-cutting, being different. Rioc had the clerical tonsure, and Eoghan, we may presume, had the flowing locks of a Gaelic warrior.

But Eoghan was not yet content. “My size is not to my liking.” “What stature would you like to have?” said Patrick. “This high,” replied Eoghan, raising his spear high over his head. And straightway he grows that height! There is nothing of this in the Book of Armagh, and we may set it down as altogether fanciful. At that time Eoghan was an old and famous warrior, for mention is made of his grandsons, and at that age it is not likely he was so anxious about either his stature or his appearance; but he was always what his clansmen valued much more—the bravest of the brave.

Then Patrick blessed Eoghan and his sons. “Which of them is dearest to thee?” said Patrick. “Muiredach,” said Eoghan. “Kingship will be from him for ever,” said Patrick. “And next to him?” said Patrick. “Fergus,” said Eoghan. “Ordained men will descend from him,” said Patrick; “and whom next do you prefer?” “Eochy the Melodious,” said Eoghan. “Warriors will spring from him,” said the Saint; “and after him, who is next in your estimation?” “All the rest are equally beloved by me,” said Eoghan. “Then let them share your favours according to their merits,” said Patrick—a very fair award.

Patrick then, accompanied by Eoghan and his sons, went northward about seven miles by the fertile shore of Lough Swilly, until he came to the ancient road that led up from the lough to the far-famed Ailech of the Kings. It was a steep ascent on that side, for the royal hill rises from the lough to the height of 802 feet, and the ancient fortress crowns its very summit. Even then it had fronted the storm for well nigh 1,500 years, for it is said to date back at least 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and was commonly regarded both in splendour and antiquity as second to Tara alone. Emania had fallen more than a hundred years before Patrick founded Armagh; but Ailech was still in its glory, and flourished down to the year A.D. 1101, when it was finally dismantled as a royal fortress by Murtagh O’Brien, in revenge for the destruction of Kincora by Donnell McLoughlin some twelve years before. The name was kept long after as a title of the Northern Hy Niall; but they had transferred their chief residence to Inis Enaigh, in the Co. Tyrone.

Even still the grand old walls crown the hill and front the storm as proudly as of old, although the O’Neill no more holds rule in any part of Ulster, and the stranger reaps the harvests of golden grain along the Foyle and winding Swilly. According to Michael O’Clery, the name Ailech merely means a stone palace. It is rudely circular, about 70 feet in diameter, that is, the inner cashel or stone fort, which seems to have been always open to the sky. There was only a single entrance, but there are galleries in the walls, and steps to reach the parapets, which are like those found in Dun Aengus in Aranmore, and similar stone forts of ancient Erin. This inner cashel was surrounded with several outer concentric ramparts of stone and earth, which rendered the access of an enemy extremely difficult. The walls have recently been restored, and the visitor can now realise the general character of the ancient inner fort almost as distinctly as St. Patrick and his familia could have done.

From its height and commanding position the Grianan of Ely, as it is now called, affords a magnificent panorama of all the surrounding country, to the farthest summits of the distant mountains. At its feet, as it were, the tourist sees the two noble estuaries of the Foyle and the Swilly stretching away on either hand seaward to the north-east and north-west. He can look down into the streets of Derry and trace the outline of its historic walls. He will see the smoke of the trains from Enniskillen and Donegal, for an hour before their arrival, as they cross and recross the gleaming windings of the Finn and Foyle far away to the south. The dark mass of Slieve Snaght, buttressed by surrounding hills, rises in gloomy grandeur far away to the north; the great sun-lit cone of Errigal overtops all its rivals on the west; the massive summits of Tyrone bound the horizon on the east; so that at every point far and near the prospect is full of variety and grandeur. St. Patrick knew how to appreciate such a scene; and no doubt gazed with a full heart over these far-reaching hills and fertile valleys which God had given to him to be the field and the crown of his labours.

We are told that Patrick blessed the fortress, that is Ailech of the Kings; and he left his flagstone there, and he prophesied that kings and prelates from Ailech would hold rule over Erin, and we know that the prophecy was fulfilled for many ages; and that the last vain but glorious stand against foreign rule in Erin was made by the gallant princes of the North, whose fathers had ruled in Ailech for more than one thousand years.

Furthermore, apparently addressing Eoghan, Patrick said, “Whenever you or your successors after you put your foot out of bed (to go on an expedition) the men of Erin will tremble before you.” And he not only blessed the palace, but from Belach Ratha he raised his hand and blessed in the distance before him all the land of Inis-Eoghan where the sons of the King then ruled, and into which Patrick now proposed to journey himself.

This Belach Ratha appears to be the highest point of ‘the broad ancient road which leads to the summit between two natural ledges of rock.’ The fortress itself is frequently called a dun and a rath as well as an ailech or stone cashel; and this ancient road descending to the Lough on the west gave from its crest a magnificent view of Inis-Eoghan in the distance. The old poetic blessing is given in the Tripartite:—

My blessing on the tribes

I give from Belach Ratha;

On you descendants of Eoghan

Grace till Doomsday.

So long as the fields shall be under crops

Victory in battle be with their men;

The head of the men of Erin’s hosts be in their place,

They shall attack every high ground,

The seed of Eoghan, son of Niall,

Bless, O fair Bridgid.

Provided that they do good,

Rule shall be from them for ever.

The blessing of us both

On Eoghan, son of Niall,

On every one who shall be born of him,

Provided he act according to our will.

We are also told that Echaid, son of Fiachra, son of Eoghan (that is his grandson) was baptised along with Eoghan on this great occasion; and that Patrick told them that if they kept not their sacred promises on that day they would be childless, and without burial in the earth.

It is uncertain what is meant by Patrick’s flagstone which he left in Ailech. The word sometimes means an altar stone, but there is no reference to a church in the place, and no trace of one has ever been found there, nor is it probable Patrick would leave a consecrated altar stone in this barbaric palace of warlike kings. There is now preserved at Belmont, near Derry, a great flat slab, rudely rectangular, more than seven feet across, which is called Columba’s Stone. O’Donovan thinks it was the stone used in the inauguration of the Kings of Ailech, and that it was originally kept there for that purpose. Patrick, blessing Ailech and all its belongings, would naturally bless also this historic stone. Columba would probably do the same, when the princes of his own lineage came to rule there, and thus the stone would bear his name also. But when Ailech ceased to be a royal fortress the stone was likely transferred to some place near Derry, whence it found its way to its present abode. But all this is mere conjecture.






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