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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

St. Patrick himself does not tell us in what part of Ireland he lived as a slave, but all the ancient authorities, including the Book of Armagh, say that his master was Milcho, king of North Dalaradia, and that Patrick’s chief work was herding sheep and swine on the slopes of Sliabh Mis, a mountain in the heart of the Co. Antrim, about six miles east of the town of Ballymena. It still retains its ancient name under the form Slemish, and is a very conspicuous object in the district, for it rises up a huge, dark cone to the height of 1,437 feet, thus overtopping all the surrounding hills.

North Dalaradia, of which Milcho was king, extended from Belfast Lough to the river Braid, which separated it from Dalriada. But in the time of St. Patrick Milcho seems to have ruled over the whole valley of the Braid south of the ridge of hills rising on the northern bank of the river. For Skerry Church, where the angel appeared to St. Patrick, was north of the Braid, and so it seems was the dun where Milcho himself lived. The real boundary between Dalaradia and Dalriada in the time of St. Patrick—for it varied at later times—was the range of hills extending from Glenarm inland in a north-west direction to the modern Bushmills, which is built on the Buas, as it was called in the time of our Saint. The valley of the Braid, extending from Ballymena nearly all the way to Carnlough on the coast, is a fertile and, in our time, a highly cultivated valley, producing all our Irish crops in great abundance. It is no wonder, therefore, that the king of Dalaradia chose it as his own demesne and dwelt somewhere in the district—for there is a difference of opinion as to the exact situation of his dun.

St. Patrick himself tells us that his daily occupation during his captivity was to feed swine and sheep, large numbers of which were fed in the woods and on the slopes of the mountains. The swine-herd constantly attended them with his dogs to drive away the wolves from the flock, and give notice of the approach of robbers, for both were quite common at the time. At night in winter the herd was usually driven home to the neighbourhood of the master’s dun for shelter and protection. But by day and night, both at home and abroad, the young captive was responsible for the safety of his flock.

It was a hard lot for a boy of sixteen, brought up in the midst of the comforts of a civilized ‘Roman’ home. In summer he probably slept in the woods in a sheeling. In winter he doubtless had better shelter from the biting winds, but few people cared how the wretched slaves were lodged, and they were generally left to provide for themselves as best they could, without being excluded, however, from the chieftain’s dun. Yet it was this hard life of a slave that made Patrick a saint. Whilst they were at home, and he and his fellow-captives had forgotten God—so he says himself—and “their sins have brought on him and his companions the anger of God; and He chastised them in His justice and mercy, making them slaves in a foreign land.” But now Patrick’s eyes were opened—and he betook himself to frequent prayer; the love and fear of God grew more and more within him; his faith was strengthened; his fervour waxed warmer, so that during the day he often prayed a hundred times, and in the night likewise; and whilst living in the woods and mountains he awoke to pray before the dawn in frost and snow and rain, neither felt he any sloth or weariness, as he felt in his old age, his spirit was then so fervent within him.

It was a wonderful change brought about by tribulations, for, as he tells us himself, cold and hunger made him truly humble in the sight of God, and that humility was the basis of all his subsequent holiness and merit. These sufferings were all for his good; it was by them that the Lord trained him to think of others, and be zealous for their salvation, whereas, previously he had no concern even for his own. And so he lived for six years, growing daily in favour and in the grace of God. He had an opportunity, too, of learning the Irish language during these years of his captivity, by which he was afterwards enabled, through the Providence of God, to preach to the people in their own tongue, the inability to do which on the part of Palladius was, probably, one reason why his Mission was a failure.

Other authorities give us glimpses into what may be called the domestic life of the Saint during this period; they are very interesting, and in themselves not improbable. The account given in the Tripartite tells us that Milcho had three children, one son and two daughters, and these simple children were greatly attracted by the kindly and gracious bearing of the young slave. They loved to be with him, and frequently sought opportunities of speaking to him, which was, doubtless, deemed rather irregular in the king’s children, thus to associate with their father’s slave. They were kind to him, too, and frequently carried food to the half-starved boy, which, no doubt, he was very glad to get as a supplement to his own scanty rations. Very naturally he came to love the kind-hearted children, and made them the only return in his power by giving them rather surreptitiously, we are told, some knowledge of the mysteries of the Christian religion. But now it came to pass that Milcho had a wondrous dream or vision, in which he saw Patrick come into his house breathing flames from his mouth and nostrils, which also shone in his eyes, and even his ears, so that his countenance became, as it were, one flame of fire which threatened to burn up the whole house. He thought that he himself succeeded in keeping off the flames, but he saw all his children wreathed in the devouring fire, and reduced, as it were, to ashes in the conflagration.

Thereupon Milcho sent for Patrick and told him what he had seen, asking him, at the same time, if he could explain its meaning.

Thereupon Patrick replied:—“The flame which you have seen, O King, issuing from me is my faith in the Holy Trinity, with which I am wholly fired and enlightened, and which hereafter I hope to diffuse by my preaching. But in your case my preaching will be fruitless, for you will repel the grace of God with obstinate mind, and die in your infidelity; but your son and your two daughters will embrace the faith, which will be preached to them, and the Holy Spirit will, by the fire of love divine, burn out of their hearts all their sins and vices. Moreover, they will serve God in justice all the days of their lives; and, after dying a holy death, their relics will be held in veneration throughout all Ireland, and cure many diseases and infirmities.”

Milcho, even with the vision before his mind, must have thought this strange language coming from a slave. His reply is not recorded; but the story of the vision and its interpretation is very ancient, for it is given both by Muirchu and Tirechan in the Book of Armagh. The names of the children, too, are given—one became Bishop Guasacht of Grandard, and the two sisters called Emeriae, i.e., Emers, became nuns at Clonbroney, in Longford. They are referred to, as we shall see hereafter, not only in the Book of Armagh, but also in nearly all the early Lives of the Saint.

But Patrick was privileged during the years of his captivity to converse with even higher beings than the children of the King; and here himself is our chief informant, for if the story were contained merely in the Lives written by others it would have been scouted by our modern critics as the invention of monkish chroniclers. Nay, we find that some of those critics who recognise Patrick as a saint are yet sorely puzzled how to explain the angelic visions recorded by himself in his Confession.

His own account is that one night he heard a Voice saying to him in sleep—“You fast well, and will soon return to your native country”; and shortly afterwards he heard another divine Voice saying to him—“Lo, your ship is ready.” Yet, as he adds, it was not ready there, but some 200 miles away, ‘in a place where I had never been and where I knew no one.’ Such is his own account of this warning vision. Muirchu tells us in the Book of Armagh that the Angel spoke to him frequently, and that if the swine happened to stray away from him, so that he could not find them, the Angel told him where to get them. Notably he spoke to Patrick no less than thirty times from the rock Scirit, which is near, he says, to Slemish, “and on that rock of Skirit,” he adds, “the footprints of the Angel may still be seen where he was standing when he went to heaven in the sight of Patrick; and there, too, the prayers of the faithful are known to produce most happy fruit.” The same statement is given by Tirechan, who adds that it was on the rock of Scirte the angel stood when he said to Patrick—“Behold the ship is ready; arise and set out”; and thereupon Patrick saw the angel ascending, and as he rose his feet were stretched far apart from hill to hill—which we take to mean from Mount Scirte, on which the Angel stood, to Slemish, on which St. Patrick lay. The distance between the two hills in a direct line is about two miles. In most of the Lives the name of the Angel is given as Victor, and elsewhere Victoricus, and he is described not only as Patrick’s guide and counsellor, but as the guardian Angel of the Irish race.

In the Tripartite, the rock on which the Angel stood when Patrick saw him is called Schirec Archaille; and in later times, as Colgan tells us, it was called Schire Padruic—the word “schire” meaning a rock, the root of which, sker, enters into the composition of a great many Irish words. The place still retains the ancient name, with a modern termination, and is called Skerry. As it became a place of pilgrimage and holiness, a church was built upon the rocky cliff, and behind the modern church may still be seen the flag bearing the print of the Angel’s feet which he left when speaking to Patrick for the last time. The basaltic hill itself is very conspicuous from the road leading eastward from Ballymena, crowned as it still is by an ancient but, we believe, now disused church; and the summit of the rock would be easily visible from every point of the country round about, as well as from the slopes of Slemish, which rises up beyond the river two miles to the south, Skerry itself being a quarter of a mile north of the river Braid. Hallowed as it was by the footprints of an angel, and with all its traditions clinging to it still, the rock of Skerry is one of the most interesting spots on Irish soil, even for the antiquarian who has science, if not faith, to kindle enthusiasm in his soul. The learned Reeves thus describes this venerable spot:—“What may be called the present church, though now in ruins, is 64 feet by 19; it is not characterised by any marks of very great antiquity, but close beside it on the north are some traces of a smaller building, which was probably erected at an earlier date”—we should say, indeed, by St. Patrick himself, when he returned to preach the Gospel there—and such has always been the tradition of the place. A few yards distant from the north-east angle of the church is a patch of rock, on the edge of which is a depression having a faint resemblance to the print of a shoe, which the Ordnance Survey, agreeably to the local tradition, notices as St. Patrick’s footmark. In Colgan’s time it was, he tells us, a famous place of pilgrimage. The Scholiast on Fiacc says that the Angel came to visit St. Patrick in the shape of a bird; but the footprint would seem to indicate, like the Book of Armagh, that he rather came and spoke in human form.

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