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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

Around Laeghaire, in the spring of 433, was gathered all the estates of his kingdom—the princes of Erin ruling their own territories with practical independence; and along with them were the privileged estates of ancient Erin—the Druids, Bards, and Brehons—whom we shall meet at Laeghaire’s court on Tara’s Hill, and who were the most formidable and influential factors in the Irish nation at the time, if we can justly designate it by that name.

Laeghaire’s supremacy over Leath-Cuinn, the northern half of Ireland, was recognised by all the kinglets of the minor territories, and we find them at his court of Tara doing him honour and yielding him obedience. But the chiefs of Leath-Mogha, or the southern half of Erin, never yielded cordial submission to the Hy Neill princes. The fact that Laeghaire was in Tara gave him at least a right to be called the High King of Erin, but so far as the south was concerned it was little more than an empty title. The men of Leinster, especially, never yielded anything but a forced obedience to the King of Tara; between him and them there was a bitter and life-long feud. When Laeghaire first met Patrick in the spring of 433 he was still a young man, proud of his high descent and fair domains; anxious, too, in his own person to maintain the ancient glories of Tara and the high renown of the High Kings of Erin. Around him were gathered together, when Patrick met them, nearly all the princes of his own royal line who ruled in Meath and in north-west Ulster, and also the royal chiefs of Connaught, who were his cousins by the half-blood, for they were all descended in the third or fourth generation from the great Eochy Moyvane, the common ancestor of the kings of Meath, of Connaught, and of Ulster. His death took place less than a hundred years before, in A.D. 365.

But the Druids were the great defence of Laeghaire’s throne and the old religion. We know nothing of the Irish Druids from our legal treatises, for all reference to them was carefully expunged from the national chronicles; so that we find little or nothing about them in our Annals. Whatever information we possess regarding them in Ireland is derived from two sources—the bardic tales and the Lives of the Irish Saints, especially from the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick.

Cæsar tells us many things of the Druids of Gaul and Britain; and we may fairly assume that the Druids of Erin did not differ in essentials from those of the Celtic nations in Britain and Gaul.

They were certainly priests, as Cæsar tells us; but they were also men of science, seers, magicians, and councillors of State. As priests they had the direction of public worship, as magicians they had power over the elements, and as prophets they foretold the future for the guidance of their royal patrons. A company of Druids always dwelt near the royal rath, not only of the High-King, but of all the provincial kings. Their gods dwelt in wells, and in trees, and also within the bosom of the beautiful green hills of Erin, in the islets of its lakes, or in fairy caves beneath their limpid waters. Sometimes they offered human sacrifice, especially of children, to secure abundant harvests; they worshipped the sun, and perhaps the moon also; and had certain idols, mostly of stone, which they worshipped with unclean rites. They had marvellous power over the elements, and they adored especially the sun and wind and water, the great rulers of the inferior powers of nature. Still it appears highly probable they believed in one Supreme Being, and they certainly recognised some kind of a future state connected with their doctrine of the transmigration of souls.

All this will be made manifest from our subsequent narrative.

But they certainly had one thing that gave them great power over the minds of men in a rude age—they had knowledge, and they made the most of it. Few people will deny that they had also great magical or wonder-working power, and it was that made them so feared and venerated by the kings as well as by the people. Christianity was in essential opposition to such a religious system, and hence the struggle between Patrick and the Druids was a struggle to the death.

Of the Bards and Brehons it is only necessary to say here that they also were privileged orders in Erin. The Bards were the historians or chroniclers of the kingdom; but they were also much more, for it was their duty to be present on the field of battle, to record the brave deeds of the warriors on either side; and afterwards to chant the deeds of the victors at the banquet and on the battle-march. They went about the country in itinerant schools under the guidance of the Chief Bard; they levied dues from the people; they claimed the privilege of free entertainment and lodging for themselves and their scholars, and also large gifts for their poems. Their avarice was extreme, and when it was not gratified they satirised their hosts without mercy. But they had no special hostility to Christianity; and one of the first converts of Patrick at Tara was the chief poet of Erin.

Then there were also the Brehons—the judges attached to the High-King’s court, as well as to the courts of all the inferior kinglets. Their legal knowledge was kept zealously to themselves, and conveyed from father to son in a learned language of their own, known only to themselves. But they followed the laws of natural justice in their decisions, and when the code was purified by Patrick at a later date, it maintained its ground amongst the Celtic tribes of Ireland down to the beginning of the seventeenth century, and its spirit is still alive in Erin.

It is well to have at least a general notion of this state of society in Erin, in order to understand the great conflict between Patrick and King Laeghaire with his Druids and courtiers on the royal Hill of Tara. This is, indeed, the central fact in the history of his missionary life. It is a marvellous narrative, but it is given without substantial variation in all the ancient Lives of the Saints. You may reject it, if you will, but then you must still explain the victory gained by Patrick; and, to my mind at least, the victory cannot be explained without accepting the marvellous narrative, at least in its substance, or leaving the mighty revolution unexplained.






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