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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

And now the momentous conflict begun at Slane was to-day to be fought out at Tara. Hitherto it was a drawn battle; the final issue was to be determined on this Easter Sunday just then dawning. Laeghaire had returned from Slane to Tara full of shame and sorrow; Patrick, too, with his nine companions, including Benen, having escaped the wayside ambushes by God’s good Providence, were now approaching Tara, and they were coming there on the invitation of the King himself.

Then strange rumours filled all the Royal City—strange rumours of what had taken place during the night—how the King had come back shame-faced and disheartened; how the great Druid, Lochru, had his brains dashed out against the rock by the Cleric of the Shaven-Crown; how a wild storm and whirlwind had scattered the heroes and braves of Tara when they attempted to seize the Christian priest; and how the King himself and the Queen had in the end been forced to beg for mercy at the hands of the mighty Tailcend. It was whispered, too, that the great Christian Magus was coming to Tara that very day, but when or how no one knew—only all were filled with anxiety and fear, as well as with a strong curiosity to know what might happen next. That curiosity was soon to be gratified to the full, as we shall now explain, adhering strictly to the original narrative of Muirchu in the Book of Armagh.

On that day, then, that is on Easter Day, Laeghaire had made a great feast for his sub-kings, his chiefs, and his Druids, for, according to ancient custom, it was a day of high festival at Tara. So they all sat down to the feast prepared for them in the palace of Tara, and whilst some were talking, and others thinking of what had taken place the night before, Patrick himself, with five men only, stood in the midst of the company, although the doors were all closed, and no one had seen them enter. His purpose was to proclaim the Good Tidings that they bore before the High King of Erin in the very midst of his assembled nobles. No doubt the scene of this meeting was the Teach-miodhcuarta—the great banquet hall of Tara, whose site can still be distinctly traced, having seven great doors on either side, giving access to the princes and warriors, who enjoyed the right of admission to the splendid hall. At a royal feast like the present, it contained all that was best and bravest in Erin, and hence it was that Patrick, strong in the strength of God, was anxious to appear before the King in the great banquet hall, which was also their council chamber.

They were all surprised when they saw Patrick, with his attendants, in the very midst of the hall; but, in obedience to the King’s command, no one rose to do him homage except only Dubthach Maccu Lugair, the chief of the poets of Erin, and also a youth, then a poet student, namely Fiacc, who afterwards became a wondrous bishop, whose relics now repose in Sletty. Patrick blessed them, for it was not only an act of faith, but a brave, nay, a daring act of faith; and Dubthach, we are told, was the first who believed on that day, and his faith justified him. Now, at the worst of times an Irishman is not inhospitable; so Patrick was invited to sit down at the banquet, and, although he knew some of them meant mischief, he accepted the invitation. He sat near the King and his chief Druid, Lucat-Mael, who, wrathful in mind at the death of his colleague the night before, resolved, if possible, to try and poison Patrick. So, taking a suitable opportunity, unseen by Patrick, but not unseen by the others, he poured poison into the cup that he might see what Patrick would do. Patrick knew his guile; and so, in the presence of all who had seen the poison dropped into the cup, he blessed the vessel, and forthwith the contents were curdled, or, as Muirchu has it, were congealed, all except the poison. Then Patrick, turning the cup a little on its side, the poison dropped out, and when he again blessed the cup the liquor became fluid as before.

Failing to effect his purpose within the great chamber, the Druid, whose name and fame were at stake, now challenged Patrick to a trial in the open. “Let us do wonders,” he said, “in this great plain before all the multitude.” Patrick accepted the challenge, but asked: “What do you propose to do?” “Let us bring snow upon the ground,” said the Magus. “I like not,” said Patrick, “to do anything contrary to the will of God.” “Well,” said the Magus, “I will bring the snow in sight of you all;” and by his magical incantations he covered the earth with snow to the depth of their girdles in the presence of all. Then said Patrick, “Lo! we see the snow—remove it now.” Whereupon the Magus replied, “I cannot remove it until to-morrow.” “Then,” said Patrick, “you are powerful for evil, but not for good; not so with me.” So stretching forth his hands, and blessing all the plain, the snow at once disappeared, without rain, or cloud, or wind. It came as a magical delusion, and like a delusion it vanished, whereupon the crowds who witnessed it marvelled much.

Next the Magus, invoking his gods or demons, brought very dense darkness over the face of the whole land, as his associates did later on over Magh Ai; and all the beholders were filled with amazement. Then said Patrick: “Drive away the darkness;” but he could not until the following day. Whereupon Patrick betook himself to prayer and blessed the plain, when, lo! all the darkness vanished, and the sun once more shone out in his meridian splendour. Upon this, all the folk cried out with a loud voice, and gave glory to Patrick’s God.

Now, all these things left the victory still somewhat doubtful; so Laeghaire said: “Cast your books into the water”—doubtless that very stream which still flows from the northern flank of Tara—“and he whose books come forth uninjured by the stream, we shall adore.” Patrick said: “So be it.” But the Magus said: “No, he hath water for a god,” alluding to the Baptism administered and preached by Patrick. “Then,” said the King, “let the trial be by fire,” and Patrick said: “I am ready.” But the Magus again said, “No. He hath fire for his god on alternate years—one year water, the next fire.” “Then,” said Patrick, “let the trial take place this way: You and one of my youths along with you shall go into separate parts of a house, closed and locked on the outside. My garment shall cover you, and yours shall be given to him, and then let both the buildings be set on fire at the same moment.” This proposal was accepted by all present. A house of dry material was built, and also a house of green material. The Druid went into the latter with Patrick’s cloak covering him, and Benignus went into the former with the Druid’s cloak over him.

Then the doors were closed, and the houses were fired. Patrick at the same time began to pray, and lo! in a brief space the flames consumed the green wood and the Magus within it; but the dry wood around Benignus remained untouched by the flames, and he himself, too, remained unscathed, although the Druid’s cloak around him was burnt to ashes, whereas Patrick’s cloak around the Druid was untouched.

It is strange that Laeghaire was once more enraged at the death of his false Druid, and sought again to slay Patrick, but God prevented him. No wonder that at Patrick’s prayer God’s anger descended on the impious King, and many of his people perished, and Patrick said to the King, whose help he wished to win: “except you now believe, you will quickly die, for God’s anger will descend on your own head also.” The King was then afraid, and all his people with him. He feared Patrick and Patrick’s God, not without good reason; and, on the other hand, it would appear he feared the Druids, and clung, for honour sake, to the ancient national religion. Besides, an Irish king was not a despot. He dare not act in such a crisis without the consent of his nobles; so he gathered them together in the hall of assembly and said to them, “It is better for me to believe than to perish.” They thought so, too; and thereupon, in accordance with the will of his chiefs, ‘Laeghaire believed on that day, and turned to the Lord God, and many of his people believed with him.’ What was more important still, by this act of submission to Patrick, insincere as it was, he set an example to his chiefs of submission, and at the same time gave Patrick not only permission to preach the Gospel, but also a guarantee for his personal safety—a matter of the greatest moment to the Saint. Still Patrick said to him, “because you have resisted my preaching, and given scandal to others, although your own reign will be long, none of your seed will be king after you”—a prophecy that was subsequently modified so far as the child then in the queen’s womb was concerned—and he only was allowed to reign. So ended the mighty strife between Patrick and the Druids on Tara Hill.

The passage of the Tripartite explaining how it came to pass that one child of Laeghaire’s was excepted from the curse is interesting. “Patrick said ‘since thou hast believed in God, and done my will, length of days will be given thee in thy kingdom; in punishment, however, of thy disobedience some time ago, there will not be King or Crown Prince of thee’ ”—save Lugaid, adds the writer, the son of Laeghaire, because his mother besought Patrick not to curse the child lying in her womb. Then Patrick said—“till he opposes me (in preaching the Gospel) I will not curse him.” Thereafter Lugaid took the realm and went to Achad Forchai. There he said, “is not yon the church of the cleric who declared that there would be neither King nor Crown Prince from Laeghaire?” Thereupon a fiery bolt was hurled from the skies against him, which killed him; and therefore the place is called Achad Forchai—the Field of the Lightning. With this significant statement ends the First Part of the Tripartite.

It cannot be denied that the foregoing account of the struggle of Patrick with the Druids of Tara is a very marvellous record; yet it is found in all the Lives of the Saint from the earliest to the latest, and without substantial variation. For most people it is too marvellous. Some writers who reject miracles altogether seem to think that they are proof of the later date of the documents in which they are found. But will any scholar say that this record, marvellous as it is, is more marvellous than similar records in the Life of Anthony, by St. Athanasius, or in the Life of Felix, by Paulinus of Nola, or in the Life of St. Martin, by his friend and contemporary, Sulpicius Severus? They were amongst the holiest men and the greatest scholars of the fourth century, and the Lives were all written before St. Patrick set his foot on Irish soil.

Again, who will venture to say that there was more need of miracles in the case of any of these saints than in the case of St. Patrick? All of them had a great work to do; but none of them had a greater work than Patrick in the conversion of Ireland; and if miracles be admitted in the one case there is no reason a priori why they should not be admitted in the other. In fact Patrick accomplished a greater work for God, so far as we can judge, than any of the three; and if we are prepared to accept miracles in the case of the former there is no reason why we should not accept them in the case of the latter also, especially in the account of this great struggle, which must have been known to the whole nation, and to which all the biographers of the Saint bear a unanimous testimony. The battle of the faith in Ireland was fought and won on the Hill of Tara on that Easter Sunday morning. If Patrick failed, he failed once for all. When he won he established the supremacy of his new spiritual kingdom over all the land of Erin. The victory was not yet complete, but the citadel was won.

There are many persons who will not admit the miraculous at all in the lives of the saints. Then we ask them—Do they admit the miracles of the Old Testament or of the New? If they do not we cannot argue with them here. But if they do why should they admit the miracles of Moses before Pharaoh in Egypt, or the miracles of the Apostles recorded in the New Testament, and yet reject the miracles of a later date performed by the saints? It is true that those are recorded in the inspired Word of God, but our Saviour expressly told His Apostles that they could do what He did, and that they would even do greater things than He did, if only they had faith, and, we may assume, a great occasion to make it operative. Surely Patrick had faith, and a high purpose, and a great occasion; and those who accept the New Testament as inspired, and believe in our Lord’s Word, must admit that when preaching at the peril of his life to the heathen for the salvation of a whole nation, he had a great occasion; so that if ever the Gospel promise was to be fulfilled, we might naturally expect its fulfilment at that momentous crisis of a nation’s history.

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