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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

WE now come to Patrick’s labours in his own Royal City of Armagh, which occupied the last thirty years of his life, and are, in many respects, the most important and fruitful of his apostolate in Ireland. First of all, however, it is well to give a brief sketch of pre-Christian Armagh before we come to speak of the founding of Patrick’s primatial City.

There can be no doubt that the name Armagh means ‘Macha’s Height,’ not the Height of the Plain, as Usher thought, for the Book of Armagh itself gives the Latin equivalent as Altitudo Machae, which settles the question. Why, however, the Ridge of the Willows, as Daire called it, came to be known as Macha’s Height is more open to discussion. In our opinion the narrative of the founding of the pre-Christian Armagh given in the Dindsenchas is at once the most ancient and the most natural. In substance it is as follows:—

There were three kings equally entitled to the joint sovereignty of Ireland, to wit—Dithorba, son of Dimman of Usnach, Aed the Red, son of Badurn of Tirhugh in Donegal, and Cimbaeth, son of Fintan, of Magh Inis, now Lecale, County Down. These three princes, being sons of three brothers, had an equal right to the kingship of Erin; wherefore, for the sake of peace, it was agreed that each should rule the kingdom in turn for seven years, and then peaceably yield the throne to the next brother. This arrangement, too, was solemnly sanctioned and guaranteed by seven Druids, seven Bards, and seven Kings. Under this agreement each king had ruled for three terms, that is, twenty-one years in all, when it came to pass that Aed the Red was drowned just at the close of his own term, in the waterfall at Ballyshannon, which has ever since borne his name, as we have already explained.

He left one child only, the maiden Macha of the Golden Hair, who claimed to inherit his kingly rights. Now, when Cimbaeth and Dithorba had completed their years of kingship and the turn of her father arrived again, if he had been alive, Macha claimed the sovereignty as her father’s representative. But they refused to yield it to a woman; whereupon Macha, like a queen, gathered her own and her father’s friends, who routed her uncles’ forces, and took the throne by right of the strong arm. When her term of seven years was over she declined to resign what she had won by force, and, moreover, she routed the rival claimants in the great battle of Corann, driving them into the wilds of Boirenn.

Nay, more, she had, it is said, recourse to a stratagem, to seize the fugitive princes, which is more creditable to her cunning and valour than to her modesty. To secure her own power Macha, having disposed of Dithorba, now married Cimbaeth, the remaining claimant to the sovereignty, and thus became undisputed mistress of the whole island. It appears that Cimbaeth dwelt somewhere near Armagh, for we are told that Macha carried thither the captive sons of Dithorba to build her a royal rath, which would be the home of her race for ever. She traced the site of the fortress with the golden brooch from her own fair neck—eo muin—whence the palace got the name of Emain, or in Latin Emania, and it became after Tara the most famous of all the royal raths of Erin. According to the Dindsenchas this took place 405 years before the birth of Christ, but the more accurate computation of Tighernach assigns its foundation to some 330 years before the Christian era.

The existing remains of Navan Fort fully bear out the traditional accounts of its ancient strength and splendour. In mere extent it is one of the largest, if not the very largest, fort in Ireland. There was a double line of circumvallation around the hill—one around the summit, which contained the royal buildings properly so called; the other, of much greater extent, surrounded a large area of the hill, and was, no doubt, intended for the tents of the troops and camp followers, whose duty it was to keep watch and ward over the royal enclosure on the summit. A glance at those portions of the ancient moat still remaining will show at once the great strength and extent of the fortified enclosure, especially in ancient days, where there were neither shells nor Mauser rifles to disturb the defenders. If it were to be taken at all it must be taken by the strong hand in face of almost insurmountable difficulties.

We have personally examined the chief royal forts of ancient Erin, and, so far as we can judge, there were only three other fortresses comparable to Emania in extent and natural strength. Tara was older; its area too, is greater, for it included many separate raths; but its natural position and artificial defences do not appear to be at all equal to those of Emania. Cuchullin’s fort at Castletown, near Dundalk, was, in our opinion, the strongest of all the royal raths of Erin, except, perhaps, Downpatrick, but the area was rather limited; its sides, however, were very steep, thus rendering it almost inaccessible to a foe who could not elude the vigilance of the defenders. The fort most like that of Emania is the celebrated stronghold of Finn M‘Cool, on the summit of Dun Allen, near Old Kilcullen, in the County Kildare. It is grandly situated on the very summit of a round hill rising over the plain to a height of 600 feet, and commanding a magnificent prospect of the surrounding country. There was only a single line of circumvallation enclosing an area of some fifteen acres; but the ditch was deep and the fence was high, so that; in our humble opinion, it was, for a numerous garrison like the Feine, the strongest and most commanding position in Erin. Cruachan, in the County Roscommon, another great and famous royal stronghold, was not at all comparable to these, either in its artificial defences or the strength of its natural position.

This fort of Emania, built by Queen Macha of the Golden Hair, will be for ever renowned as the greatest school of chivalry in ancient Erin. The fame of the Red Branch Knights will never die. The tragic story of the fate of the sons of Uisnach still gilds the ancient rath with a glory that no storm-clouds can darken. It is the very seat and centre of all the bardic legends that float around King Connor and Cuchullin, Fergus, and Conal Cerneach. Those heroes of ancient Uladh stand out in heroic lineaments like the men who fought and fell around Troy. There is nothing mean or commonplace in all their glorious story. They were noble, even when criminal. They could not break their faith—even the least of them. They renounced their allegiance to a perjured prince for the sake of the hapless maiden whose woeful tale still lights up the Royal Hill, and who was faithful to her love in life and in death, so that even Christian chronicles can show no more pathetic, no more loving, no truer woman than the ill-fated Deirdre of Emania. The grandest tales of Erin still hover over the fateful ridge of Macha’s glorious Hill. The story of its queens and warriors touch our hearts with more than Homeric power. We are caught, despite ourselves, by the nobility and grandeur of those heroic figures who peopled the ancient dun. Whether real or imaginary, it matters little—they are very real for us; and their fame lights up the Height of Macha with a glory that can never fade.

Emania was destroyed by the three Collas after the great battle of Achad-leth-deirg in the year A.D. 332, and was waste and silent, therefore, in the time of St. Patrick. Twice, at least, in after times, the Ultonians sought to return to the palace of their fathers, but were again and again overthrown in battle, and the remnant were driven back to Ulidia.

But even in the time of its greatest glory it does not appear that the King himself dwelt at Emania. It was the palace of the Red Branch Knights. So far as we can judge, Emain Macha, in the time of Conor Mac Nessa, was not the royal palace of the Ulidian Kings. It seems that the fortress was set apart as a kind of great barracks for the heroes of the Red Branch, who formed the royal regiment of guards at the time. The King himself appears to have dwelt in a palace, which tradition still points out somewhat nearer to Armagh, and not far off was the college of the Royal Druids, whose sacred enclosure can still be traced, about one mile to the north-east of Armagh, but within view both of Emania and of the royal dun, which was still nearer to the college of the Druids. We cannot here examine these points in detail, but we wish to point out distinctly that Emania was at least two miles to the west of Armagh, that the dun of King Daire was about a mile to the north-west of the city of Patrick, and that the Druids had their college near the royal court. It is well, then, to bear in mind that the sacred sites of Christian Armagh were quite distinct from the Pagan forts, and that when Patrick asked the Ridge of the Willows for his church, he asked a commanding site, no doubt, not far from the royal dun, but still quite outside its bounds, and further still from that Height of Macha which has given its name even to Patrick’s Christian stronghold.






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