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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

Now, however, that Patrick had established his own primatial See at Armagh, his first care would be to establish a seminary for the education of his own clergy, and also for the training of such professors and students as might come to the primatial City from all parts of Ireland. We may assume, therefore, that the School of Armagh dates from the very foundation of the See of Armagh. It has always been regarded as one of the primary duties of every bishop to make suitable provision for the education of his clergy, as far as possible under his own immediate supervision. We have seen how Patrick, from the very beginning, sought to discharge that imperative duty, so far as circumstances permitted. Now that he had settled down by direction of God’s Angel in the city of Armagh, we may be sure he took measures at once to found the School of his primatial See.

This School of Armagh was, of course, primarily a theological seminary for the professional education of the clergy. This is quite natural; the seat of authority should be also the fountain of sound doctrine. But theology in those days was taught in a very different way from that with which we are familar in our own times. The theology of the schools in the time of St. Patrick and of his successors for many years, mainly consisted in the study of Sacred Scripture and the Writings of the Fathers, as known to them. The Sacred Scripture was always in the hands of our ancient scholars. They read and re-read it; they meditated upon it; they discussed it in their conferences; they recited it for their prayers. It was light for their minds and food for their souls, their hope, their consolation, their abiding joy. The beautiful psalm ‘Beati immaculati in via’ was ever on their lips and deep in their hearts. Every one of them might say ‘Oh, how I have loved thy law, O Lord! it is my meditation all the day. Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my paths.’ It was the ‘Seven Books of the Law’ Patrick left to Bishop Mucna for his school over Focluth Wood. The Books of the Law were his own study and meditation night and day. In his Confession he thinks and writes in the language of the Law, and so we must infer the Books of the Law of the Lord were the foundation of all the studies at Armagh.

Then the study of the Fathers and the narratives of the Lives of Saints were next in order of importance. The Lives of the Saints show us the Gospel reduced to practice, and were constantly read in our Irish schools. In the Book of Armagh we have a copy of the beautiful Life of St. Martin, by Sulpicius Severus, which shows us how highly it was prized by St. Patrick and his disciples. At a later period the ‘Morals of St. Gregory the Great’ became a famous class book in all our Irish schools, but it could not have been in their hands at this early date. In their Scriptural studies, it would appear, from references at a later period, that the Irish teachers chiefly followed St. Jerome, whose works had a very wide circulation, and were greatly esteemed throughout the whole Church.

In what is now called Dogmatic Theology, that is, the history, exposition, and defence of the doctrines of the Church, they relied chiefly on the apologetic writings of the early Latin Fathers, and, of course, they could not follow safer guides. But the system was entirely different from our own. It is, however, a difference which regards the form rather than the matter, for in all cases the matter is derived from divine revelation. “The Fathers enforced and explained the great principles of Christian doctrine and morality, with rhetorical fulness and vigour, exhibiting much fecundity of thought and richness of imagery, but not attending so closely as the great Scholastics to scientific arrangement, or the accurate development of their principles, and the logical cogency of their proofs. Each of these systems has its own merits and defects; the former is better suited for the instruction and exhortation of the faithful, the latter for the refutation of error; the Positive Theology was of spontaneous growth; the Scholastic system has been elaborately constructed; the one is a stately tree that, with the years of its life, has gradually grown in size and beauty to be the pride of the forest; the other is a Gothic cathedral that, from its broad and deep foundations, has been laboriously built up, stone by stone, into the glory of its majestic proportions and the strength of its perfect unity.

From the contents of the Book of Armagh itself we can get glimpses of other studies pursued in the School of Armagh from its earliest period. Besides the historical documents connected with St. Patrick and his Church of Armagh, we also find:—

1              A complete copy of the New Testament;

2              St Jerome’s Preface to his version of the Four Gospels;

3              The Ten Canons of the Concordances of the Gospels;

4              A Brief Interpretation of each of the Gospels;

5              St. Martin’s Life by Sulpicius Severus;

6              The Dialogues and Epistles of the same about St. Martin;

7              The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans.

We know that there was also a ‘School of Psalm-Singing’ or Plain Chant, at Armagh, for Benen is described as Patrick’s Psalmist, that is, the teacher and conductor of his choir in the public offices of the Church. We know, too, that Patrick had what we may call a technical school of ecclesiastical art, in which his smiths and his bronze-workers produced all the various articles in stone, iron, and bronze, necessary for the service of the altar and the use of the church, such as bells, altar-stones, chalices, patens, book-covers, reliquaries, and so forth. In ancient Ireland these crafts were hereditary in certain families, but Patrick appears to have set apart certain members of his clerical family for this purpose, whose duty it would be to train apprentices to continue their work, who also belonged to the clerical order. There was also a school of embroidery for making the vestments and altar cloths used by the clergy in their ministrations; and we are told the names of the nuns who gave their lives to the work, and, doubtless, trained their successors. A class of scribes or copyists would also be deemed an essential department in a large school like Armagh. In his old age Patrick could no longer write ‘Alphabets’ himself for his favourite pupils; but he would take good care to have certain clerics of his school specially trained for that most important work. At a later period frequent reference is made in the Annals to those scribes of Armagh; and the choice scribe of the school not unfrequently was raised to the supreme dignity of Heir of Patrick.

It is not unlikely that Benignus, skilled as he was both in the learning of the Church and of the Gael, was the first Rector of the School of Armagh, which in the sixth century attracted most distinguished scholars and great numbers of students from Britain as well as from all parts of Ireland. Gildas the Wise is described as Rector or Regent of the School of Armagh in the opening years of the sixth century by his biographer, Caradoc of Llancarvan. The dates are uncertain, but it appears that Gildas returned to Wales in 508, where he heard that his brother Huel was slain by King Arthur. Gildas is described as ‘a holy preacher of the Gospel, who went from Wales to Ireland, and there converted many to the true faith.’ He is likewise known as ‘the Historian of the Britons,’ and deserved the name, for his chief work, ‘The Destruction of Britain,’ has come down to us; and is by no means complimentary to the military chiefs of his own nation. It is fairly certain that this Gildas the Historian is identical with Gildas who was for many years Rector of the great School of Armagh, whose fame largely helped to make the College of Armagh so well known to his own countrymen. We cannot pursue the subject further here, except to note that so great was the number of students flocking to Armagh in the sixth and seventh centuries that the city came to be divided, for peace sake, we presume, into three wards or thirds, named respectively the Trian Mor, the Trian Masain, and the Trian Saxon, the last taking its name from the crowds of students from Saxon-land, who took up their abode therein, where, according to the express testimony of the Venerable Bede, they were all supplied gratuitously with books, education, and maintenance. No more honourable testimony has been ever borne to Irish hospitality and love of learning than this. In later ages the men of Saxon-land made an ungrateful return, when they utterly destroyed the Catholic schools of Erin, and drove away, pitilessly, both professors and students to seek shelter and education in foreign lands, from which it was made penal to return home, except at the peril of their lives.

St. Patrick’s School of Armagh, in spite of foreign and domestic wars, continued to flourish down to the period of the Anglo-Norman invasion. In the Synod of Clane, held in 1162, it was enacted that no person should be allowed to teach Divinity in any school in Ireland who had not, as we now say, graduated in Armagh.

To aid in making Armagh worthy of its scholastic renown, we find that in 1169—the very year in which the Anglo-Normans first landed at Bannow Bay, Rory O’Conor, the last King of Ireland, granted ‘ten cows every year from himself and from every King that should succeed him for ever to the Chief-professor of Ard-macha, in honour of St. Patrick, to instruct the youths of Erin and Alba in learning.’ The Chief Professor at the time was Florence O’Gorman, ‘head moderator of this school and of all the schools in Ireland, a man well skilled in Divinity, and deeply learned in all the sciences.’ He ruled the schools of Armagh under Gelasius, the Heir of Patrick, for twenty years, until his death in 1174. Not too soon he died; four years afterwards John De Curci and his freebooters swooped down on Patrick’s Royal City; they plundered its shrines, carried off its most sacred books and reliquaries; drove away its students or slaughtered them all—priests, professors, and scholars—and so the glory of the primatial City and its ancient school was extinguished in a deluge of blood. Shall we ever see the torch of sacred learning kindled once more on Macha’s Hill in all its ancient radiance? Time alone can tell; we have seen even stranger things come to pass, in our own generation.






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