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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

In that case it would appear that Patrick, on his land journey to Slane, first took the left or southern bank of the river, under the guidance of Kannanus of Duleek, who was probably a companion of Patrick and a native of that district. It is at least expressly stated that Patrick ordained him Bishop ‘at his first Pasch or Easter in Slane.’ If this account of Tirechan be correct, then we must assume that Ciannan of Duleek had already received his education in Britain or on the Continent, whence he accompanied Patrick on his return to Ireland to preach the Gospel in his native land. There are certain statements in some of the Lives of St. Patrick which lend probability to this view. It is further stated by Tirechan that it was Ciannan who carried the blessed fire and the wax-lights from the very hands of Patrick, to kindle them ‘in the nostrils of King Laeghaire and his gentile lords and Druids,’ who were in conflict with his beloved master, St. Patrick. If all this be accurate, St. Ciannan of Duleek was the first bishop whom Patrick consecrated in Ireland, and he was consecrated on that most momentous day in Irish history—the morning of that very Holy Saturday, on the eve of which St. Patrick came in conflict with Laeghaire and his Druids on the Hill of Slane.

Now, on Holy Saturday evening, and after a journey through a district unsurpassed in Ireland for beauty and fertility, they sat down to rest themselves near the graves of Fiacc’s men on the very summit of the Hill of Slane.

The saints of Ireland were great lovers of the beauties of nature, and now Patrick’s family had a scene before them of grandeur not surpassed throughout the length and breadth of beautiful Erin. The Hill of Slane dominates the whole plain of Meath, or, as it was then called, Magh Breg—the Beautiful Plain—where nature pours out her choicest gifts with lavish hand. Far away to the north, in the blue distance, Patrick saw the great range of the Mourne mountains, which he had left behind him some days before. On the horizon’s verge, towards the southeast, rose the brown summits of the Wicklow range, overhanging that inhospitable Crich Cualann, from which Nathi had driven him some months before. Far away, like a cloud on the southern horizon, rose the crest of Slieve Bloom, dimly outlined against the sky, and suggesting many a weary day before he could hope to preach the Gospel beyond its shadowy summits. There, too, in the foreground, some ten miles to the south, was the Royal Hill whither he was faring—Tara of the Kings—crowned with many a rath, and crowded with the princes and nobles of the Scots who were there at that time from all parts of the kingdom holding high festival. Then all around them, where they sat, were pleasant waters, and fertile fields, and long reaches of woodland, vocal with the manifold voices of the opening spring. Yes, it was all very beautiful; but again and again their eyes and thoughts must have turned to yonder royal hill, for Patrick knew it was the very citadel of the paganism and idolatry of Erin. He was now about to assault it, ‘to drive a wedge into its very crown, so that it might never stand up against the faith of Christ.’ It was a daring purpose, which needed more than human wisdom to conceive, and more than human strength to realise.

But Patrick lost small time in these speculations; like a true apostle, he set to work at once. He would go no further that day, for it was now growing late, and, in accordance with the Church’s rule, the Holy Fire must be blessed for their Easter solemnities. So he pitched his tent on the very summit of the hill, and prepared to bless the Paschal Fire. Those who are acquainted with the ceremonies of the Church must know that by an ordinance, dating back to apostolic times, the ‘new fire,’ from which the Paschal Candle was to be lighted was struck from a flint and solemnly blessed, not, as at present, in the morning, but in the evening of Holy Saturday. From this new fire, the Paschal Candle, typifying the light of the Gospel shining over the world, through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, was lighted, and then all the other lamps of the Church were lit from the same sacred flame, and were kept burning during the night, to usher in at dawn the Light of the World. Now St. Patrick faithfully observed this ceremony, and when evening came he blessed the new fire and lighted his Paschal torch, which from the lofty summit of the Hill of Slane blazed through the darkness over all the plains of Meath—a most appropriate symbol of the Orient Light that was soon to illumine all the hills and valleys of Erin.

Slane is distinctly visible from Tara, so that the light of Patrick’s torch, shining on that conspicuous summit, was seen at once from the Royal Hill; and the sight filled the beholders with mingled anger and consternation. For on that very night King Laeghaire was holding a religious festival at Tara in honour of his own gods, with his Druids and nobles, his Bards and his Brehons, all around him. Now it was a solemn ordinance, proclaimed in ancient laws, that no man far or near should dare to light a fire on that night before the beacon fire on the Royal Hill was kindled. Whoever transgressed this edict was doomed to die, and no eric might be accepted for his ransom. When holy Patrick kindled his own fire on the Hill of Slane he knew nothing of the royal ordinance, but even if he did, he would, says the record, have despised it.

Now the King, seeing the light on the Hill of Slane, in great anger called his officers and asked who had dared to trangress the royal mandate. They replied that they knew not. Thereupon the Druids, addressing the King, said, “Sovereign King, except that fire which you see on yonder hill, and which has been kindled before the fire in this royal palace, be extinguished this very night, it will never be extinguished in Erin; and, moreover, it will outshine all the fires that we light. And he who has kindled it will conquer us all; and his Kingdom will overthrow you and us and your kingdom; and he will seduce your subjects, and rule over them all for ever.”

Then King Laeghaire, like Herod of old, was sorely troubled, partly with fear and partly with anger, and all his nobles likewise. Whereupon he said:—“It shall not be so. We will go this moment and see the end of this thing; and we will seize and slay the man who is guilty of this outrage against our royal authority.”

So Laeghaire, taking eight chariots full of his chosen warriors, and, moreover, his two chief Druids, Lucat-mael and Lochru, set out for Slane by the great northern road from Tara, which crossed the river at the fords of Slane. As they came near to the hill the Druids said to Laeghaire: “Go not thou to the place where the fire is kindled, lest perchance thou shouldst honour him who kindles it; but remain thou outside, and let him be called before thee, so he shall pay the homage as is fitting; and then we shall talk to him before thy face, O King; and so shalt thou judge of him and us.” “It is well said,” replied the King. “I shall do as you have counselled.”

Accordingly, when the King with his nobles and Druids came to the hill of Slane they dismounted from their horses and chariots, and sat down nigh to the place where the fire was lit, but they entered it not.

Patrick was at once summoned before them by command of the King, and ‘he came out of the place which was lit up’—that is the area before his tent, which was, no doubt, enclosed in some way as a temporary church or oratory. “Let no one rise before him when he comes,” said the Druids, “for if any rises he will do him homage and believe in him.” Now Patrick, seeing all those warriors, with their chariots and horses, was not afraid, but came into the midst of them, chanting, with heart and lips, the words of the Psalmist, “Hi in curribus, et hi in equis, nos autem in nomine Domini nostri ambulabimus.”—Let them trust in their chariots and horses, but we shall walk in the name of the Lord.

No one, however, rose to meet Patrick when he came before the King and his courtiers, except one man, ‘inspired by God,’ who would not obey the command of the Magi, and he was Erc, the son of Dego, ‘whose relics are now venerated in Slane;’ and, we may add, whose ancient oratory is there still beside the river, although all the other monuments of remote antiquity have now disappeared. Erc rose to do Patrick homage, and that homage was of itself an act of faith, for it was a recognition that Patrick was a divine ambassador. Whereupon the Saint blessed him, ‘and he believed in the eternal God;’ wherefore, most fittingly, Patrick afterwards made the sweet-spoken Brehon Bishop of Slane, and also, for a time, attached him to his own household, by appointing him judge or official arbitrator in all causes that came before his tribunal, and especially in those requiring a knowledge of the Brehon Laws.

Then, we are told, they began to ‘converse,’ and, no doubt the first question put to Patrick was to ask him who he was, and why he dared to contravene the royal edict by kindling his fire and lighting up his house before the fire of Tara was kindled. Patrick from this took occasion to explain the Good Tidings that he bore to the men of Erin, dwelling particularly, as was his wont, on the great mysteries of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection, which, for those simple folk, was the basis of all his teachings. Whereupon the Druid Lochru, with wicked words, reviled these awful mysteries of the Catholic Faith. Then Patrick, turning to the blaspheming Druid with angry eyes, uttered aloud in words of power, a strong prayer to the Lord:—“O Lord, who canst do all things, and by whose power all things live, and who hast sent me hither, let this impious man who blasphemes Thy name be raised aloft and quickly perish.” And, lo! forthwith the Druid was raised high in the air, and falling to the ground, his brains were dashed out against a stone, so that he perished miserably in the sight of all; and thereupon the pagans were sore afraid. The writer in the Book of Armagh adds:—And his stone—whether that against which he fell, or the stone that marks his grave—is in the south-western edge of Tara down to the present day; ‘and I have seen it with my own eyes,’ adds the writer. Whereupon Laeghaire, full of wrath, sought then and there to slay Patrick, and exclaimed:—“Seize him, the wretch, that would destroy us all.” At this Patrick, seeing the wicked Gentiles preparing to rush upon himself, rose up, exclaiming with a loud voice, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, and let those who hate Him fly from before His face.” It was once more a most appropriate and efficacious prayer. A dark cloud rushed down upon them, and a dreadful panic seized them. They fought fiercely against each other, whilst the earth shook beneath their feet, and a whirlwind dashed their chariots to pieces, and swept themselves and their horses far over the plain, so that, in the end, only a few succeeded in making their escape to Mount Moduirn. The fugitives rushed blindly onward, half dead from fright and the effects of Patrick’s curse, which still pursued them as they fled. In the end, of all their host only four remained at Slane, Laeghaire and his wife, with two attendants; and they, we are told, as well they might, were sore afraid.

Then the queen approaching Patrick said to him: “O just and mighty man, do not kill the King; he will bend his knees and adore thy God.” And the King did, unwillingly, however, bend his knees, and ‘pretended to adore Him whom he wished not to adore.’ And when they had separated, and the King was gone a little distance in advance, he called Patrick to come to him: but it was a pretence, for he wished to slay him by some means or other. Patrick knew the King’s design; yet, blessing his eight companions, with young Benignus also, he came with them to the King. The King saw them and counted them coming; but lo! as he looked they vanished from his eyes, and he saw them no more; but the Gentiles saw eight young stags and a fawn rushing past to the woodlands, whereupon Laeghaire, full of sorrow, fear, and shame, returned to Tara at the dawn of day; that is, on Easter Sunday morning.

This last incident is somewhat differently narrated in the Tripartite. Laeghaire meditated killing Patrick, and said to him, “Come after me, O Cleric, to Tara, that I may believe in thee in presence of the men of Erin.” Yet forthwith, as he went, he set an ambush on every path from Slane to Tara so that Patrick might be killed. But God permitted not this. ‘Through Patrick’s blessing a cloak of darkness covered them as they journeyed to Tara, so that the heathen in ambush saw nothing but eight deer going past them under the mountain—the Hill of Slane—and behind them a fawn with a bundle on its shoulder. That was Patrick with his eight and Benen, the gillie, behind with his tablets on his back.’

It was on this occasion that Patrick chanted the Faed Fiada, or Deer’s Cry, by which he sought the protection of God and his Saints and Angels against the wiles and magic of all his enemies. The Hymn is given elsewhere in the Appendix on Patrick’s writings. There are, however, a few points to be noted here.

Patrick on that day was in deadly peril at every step, and he knew it well. But he knew also that he had a divine mission to preach in Ireland, and he was full of hope and confidence in God. The might of faith and prayer was never more strikingly shown than in his case, and this Hymn reveals at once his hopes and his fears. His whole confidence was in God, and to God he pours out all his heart with a strong cry, and also to all God’s servants, animate and inanimate, to help him and to shield him in the hour of peril. This is the key-note to the understanding of the Hymn. If miracles were ever needed to save from the jaws of death they were needed on that day, and if ever there was just cause for expecting God to work miracles in favour of a creature, Patrick might well expect them on the Hill of Slane and of Tara, for the spiritual destinies of Ireland for all time were the issue at stake.

Thoughts like these filled Patrick’s brave heart:—

As forth to Tara he fared full lowly,

The Staff of Jesus was in his hand,

Twelve priests paced after him chanting slowly,

Printing their steps on the dewy land.

It was the Resurrection morn,

The lark sang loud in the springing corn,

The dove was heard and the hunter’s horn.

The murderers stood close by the way,

Yet they saw nought save the lambs at play.

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