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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

We now come to narrate the foundation of the Primatial See in Armagh; and the chief events which occurred during St. Patrick’s sojourn in his Royal City. In many respects it is the most interesting and important chapter of the laborious and varied life of our national Apostle.

The narrative in the Tripartite, and also in the Book of Armagh, gives a brief, but a very graphic, account of Patrick’s arrival and introduction to the chieftain of the district.

‘Thereafter,’ says the Tripartite, ‘Patrick went at the word of the Angel (from Louth) to Armagh, to the place where Rath Dari—that is, Dari’s Fortress—stands to-day.’ The Book of Armagh more accurately calls the chieftain Daire, and describes him as a rich and honourable man, who dwelt ‘in regionibus Orientalium,’ or, as it was then called in Irish, Orior; and the name is still retained, although now applied to a portion of the Co. Armagh still further to the east. The Tripartite says that this Daire was son of Finchad, son of Eogan, son of Niallan; and in virtue of his descent he was chief of the Hy Niallain (a race sprung from Colla da Crioch), whose name is still preserved in the two great baronies of North Armagh, Oneilland East and Oneilland West. They were the ruling race of Eastern Orghialla; just as the race of Crimthann, sprung from the same stock, were the royal race of Western Orghialla; and as Clogher was the royal seat of the latter, so Armagh was the royal seat of the former tribe.

Having come to Armagh, Patrick, according to his custom, went straight to the royal dun and asked Daire to give him a site for his church. Said Daire then in reply: “What place dost thou desire?” “I wish,” said Patrick, “to get the high ground, called the Ridge of the Willows, that I may build thereon my church.”—‘It is the place where Armagh stands to-day,’ adds the Tripartite—that is, the ancient Cathedral of Armagh. But Daire was unwilling to give to Patrick that commanding eminence which was, in fact, higher than his own royal fort about a mile away to the north-west. So he replied: ‘I will not give you the Ridge of the Willows; but I will give you a site for your church in the lower ground’—the place where Fertæ Martyrum, adds the writer, that is, the Grave of the Martyrs, stands to-day. Patrick accepted the gift, and built his first church there, and dwelt therein with his family, ‘close to Ardmacha’ for a good while.

Now, while dwelling there a strange thing came to pass. Daire, still greedy of what he had given to God, sent his horse or horses to graze in the grassy meadow which surrounded the Church of the Martyrs. Then Patrick was angry because Daire thus trespassed on God’s acre; and he said: “You have acted foolishly in sending your horses to disturb the little field which you gave to God.” But the chief relented not, whereupon the same night his horses died in the churchyard field. The King’s gillie, going to his master in the morning, said:—“The Christian has killed thy horses because they grazed on the grass growing round his church.” Then Daire, in great wrath, said: “Let him be slain; go ye now and kill him on the spot.” But lo! whilst they were making ready to carry out the King’s orders a deadly sickness—‘a sudden colic,’ the Tripartite calls it—seized upon Daire, so that he was at death’s door—‘death was nigh to him,’ says the Tripartite. Then his wife said to him that the cause of his death was the unjust attack made upon Patrick; and she forbade her servants to carry out the orders of the King. Moreover, she sent two of her attendants to the ‘Christian,’ and they, concealing the illness of Daire, merely asked holy water for the Queen. “Only for her,” said Patrick, “Daire’s resurrection from death would never take place.” So for the wife’s sake he blessed the water, and gave it to the messengers, who carried it to the Queen. When she sprinkled the water over her husband he became well again, and, moreover, the horses that were dead when sprinkled with the same holy water also came to life.

This was a sharp lesson for Daire, and what happened afterwards showed that he needed it. He went to pay a grateful visit to Patrick, and carried with him as a present a great brazen cauldron ‘brought from over the sea’—a gift not unworthy of a king, and likely to be useful to the Saint, whose familia was large. Handing it over to Patrick he said—“It is yours.” “Gratzacham,” said Patrick—that is, ‘Gratias agam,’ let me thank you. The phrase ‘Deo gratias,’ or ‘Gratias agam,’ was always on his lips, and so he used it now to thank the king for the cauldron. But the rude Irish chief did not understand it. For the time he said nothing, but when he went home he said “He is a rude man to say no word of thanks for my wonderful three-measure cauldron, except ‘Gratzacham.’ Go,” he said in anger to his servants, “and bring it back to me again.” They went and told Patrick that they were ordered to take home the pot. “Gratzacham,” said Patrick; “take it with you.” They took it and brought it home. “What did the Christian say to you when you asked for the pot?” said Daire. “He only said ‘Gratzacham,’ ” they replied. “ ‘Gratzacham’ when it is given,” said Daire; and “ ‘Gratzacham’ when it is taken away. The word must be good; bring it back to him again.” Daire himself went with the bearers and said to Patrick, “Lo, the pot is thine; thou art a man of constancy and courage. Moreover, I will give now that plot of land on the Hill of the Willows which you asked for before. It is thine; go and dwell there.” ‘And that hill is the city now called Ard Macha,’ that is, Macha’s Height—a name of old renown in pagan times, but of world-wide fame since Patrick made it the seat of his Primatial City and the Rome of the Church of Ireland.

The next paragraph, both in the Book of Armagh and the Tripartite, is most significant, and deserves to be recorded word for word. We give the version in the Book of Armagh:—

Then the two went out together—Patrick, to wit, and Daire—to examine that wonderful oblation and most pleasing gift, and together they walked up the hill, and on the summit they found a doe with her fawn lying on the spot where now stands the altar of the left-hand chapel in Armagh; and the companions of Patrick wished to seize and slay the doe and her fawn. But Patrick said ‘No.’ He would not permit it. Nay, more, he himself took the fawn and carried it on his own shoulders, and the doe followed him quite tamely and confidently, just as a ewe follows the shepherd when he carries her lamb, until he let the fawn loose in a brake situated to the north of Ard Macha, where even up to our own time there are not wanting marvellous signs, as the learned say.

But the greatest sign of all has happened in our own time. For this northern hill, which in the time of St. Patrick was a wooded brake, is now the site of the new Cathedral of St. Patrick, the largest and the most commanding church in Ireland. Its site is indeed unrivalled; it is even higher ground, and is certainly more striking, because more isolated, than the site of Patrick’s first cathedral on Macha’s Hill, and was procured with no less difficulty. It is a glorious building, too, in every respect, but its most striking features are the twin western towers overlooking the city and the old cathedral, whose square stunted tower, though venerable from its antiquity, has no such architectural features to enhance its commanding position.

Patrick would not allow his followers to hurt the startled doe. Like the Good Shepherd, he carried the fawn on his own shoulders to a place of rest. A wild fawn it was, like the wild people round about him; the more need he had to teach them a lesson of pity and forbearance. Patrick, who saw through the mystic veil of the future, no doubt saw, too, how that doe with her fawn was a figure of his own church of Armagh, destined to be hunted and persecuted so often in the future—‘so often doomed to death, yet fated not to die’—and he, too, must have got a vision of the glory that awaited his church on that northern hill in the far distant ages. All the facts are typical of the history of the Church of Armagh, and it is clear that the ancient annalists who recorded them felt them to be such.

The Tripartite, in describing the visit of Daire and Patrick to the crown of Macha’s Hill, gives us more information than the Book of Armagh. They were attended by the nobles of Orior, and they went up the hill ‘to mark it out and bless it and consecrate it.’ In another paragraph, which seems to have been misplaced, we are told how the ‘consecration’ took place—that is the dedication of the site. The way in which Patrick measured the rath (or site of his church) was this:—‘The angel before him, and Patrick behind the angel with his household, and with Ireland’s Elders, and with the Staff of Jesus in his hand; and he said that great would be the crime of him who should sin therein, even as great should be the reward of him who would do God’s will therein. Then Patrick laid out the ferta or cemetery of the church. Seven score feet in its circular enclosure—probably its diameter—with seven and twenty feet in the great house, and seventeen feet in the kitchen, and seven feet in the oratory, and in that way it was he used to found his convents or cloisters always.’

The sacred function here described appears to have been that which is now called the Blessing and Laying of the Foundation Stone. It is, like the Dedication of the Church, a very ancient ceremonial to which St. Athanasius appears to refer in his reply to the charge that he had made use of an undedicated church. He pleads the necessity of the case, and adds that the building was called ‘The Lord’s House from the laying of its foundations.’ It essentially includes the marking out and blessing of the sacred enclosure, the erection of the Cross, and taking possession of the place by the bishop or his delegate in the name of God and the Church, for the purposes of public worship. The presence of the king and his nobles with the clergy and the people added great solemnity to the sacred function, making a great public act of faith. Patrick, with mitre and crozier, represented the Church, and the angel going before him referred, doubtless, to the invisible presence of Victor, his own guardian Angel, who was his guide and counsellor in all the great events of his life, and now fitly appears to Patrick to bring the approbation of heaven to the most solemn act of his life—the foundation of his Primatial Church and See on the ‘fair crown of that sacred Hill.’

Patrick, too, most fitly took occasion to explain the nature of the ceremony to his rude audience, dwelling particularly on the sanctity of the place which they had given to God, and on the awful nature of the crime of profaning it; whilst, on the other hand, he pointed out the special reward that would be given to those who would do God’s will therein, either by aiding in the erection of the church, or joining in the public worship of God within that sacred enclosure.

As to the dimensions given above, they are taken from Stokes’ translation of the Tripartite. But in our opinion the Irish word ‘traiged,’ which certainly means feet or the tracks of the feet, must be understood here of the footprints left by a walker measuring the ground. In that case the seven score ‘feet’ will mean the space covered by the man who left after him seven score tracks or footprints—in other words, seven score single paces or yards. Then the diameter of the ‘lis’ or enclosure would be one hundred and forty yards; and that would, of course, include the cemetery. The ‘great house,’ that is the church, would be about sixty-eight feet in length, if we take the pace or track to be about two feet and a half. The kitchen, including, no doubt, the refectory, would be about forty-two feet in length, and the ‘airegal,’ or sacristy, adjoining the church would be something like eleven feet long. The word ‘ferta’ here appears to mean in its secondary sense the cemetery or the entire area of the enclosure, which in Irish is called the ‘lis.’

These measurements bear out the statement that such was Patrick’s manner of founding his monastic churches. Sixty feet long by twenty-six feet wide was the standard measurement of the largest Patrician churches; and if, in the case of Armagh, the dimensions were somewhat enlarged, it is only what we should expect from the importance of the primatial church and its surroundings.






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