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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The Tripartite says that Patrick ‘went into Southern Teffia, the place where stands Ardagh—High Field, (Ardachad).’ The course of the narrative certainly gives us to understand that he crossed the river at Forgney, and went thence due north to Ardagh. It was his natural course, for Maine, the king of South Teffia, dwelt at Ardagh, and it was the Saint’s settled practice to go straight to the dun of the chief. O’Donovan seems to place southern Teffia south of the Inny, but this was not the view of the author of the Tripartite. He represents St. Patrick as going to southern Teffia, by crossing the river from the south, and he certainly places Ardagh in South Teffia, and Granard in North Teffia. This was clearly the case at that time. Teffia was a sub-kingdom of the Royal province, but distinct from Meath. It was bounded on the south by the Inny and was divided on the line of the present railway from Mullingar to Longford, into two parts. The southern Teffia, over which Maine ruled, comprised the southern half of the Co. Longford; the northern half, comprising the modern baronies of Longford and Granard, was the principality of Cairbre, ‘God’s Enemy,’ as Patrick called him.

Crossing the river then at the ancient ford near Forgney, where the modern bridge stands, the Saint went due north to Maine’s dun at Ardagh. No Irish chief ever built his dun except on a commanding height; and Ardagh, as its name implies, occupied a very commanding position, and gave a wide prospect over the vast plains of southern Longford. ‘There he founded a church, and prophesied of the earthly things, and of the pregnant females; and of the men’s dwellings, what they would bring forth and how the offspring would be.’ We know St. Patrick had the gift of prophecy; he proved it often, and he certainly needed it at that time, for we may infer from the brief but significant narrative given by the author of the Tripartite, that the men of South Teffia taxed his powers to the utmost.

‘There he left Bishop Mel and Bishop Melchu, his brother.’ Many of our greatest writers, relying chiefly on a passage in the Life of St. Bridget taken in connection with an entry of her age in the Annals of Ulster, have decided that Mel could not have been a bishop before A.D. 454. We disagree with that opinion, because we think that Bridget must have been some seventeen years older at her death in 523 than the Annals of Ulster assert. The Annals say she died in ‘the 70th year of her age,’ but the Irish Life in the Book of Lismore says she died in her 88th year; and this is confirmed by the Chronicon Scotorum, which gives practically the same date, that is the 87th year of her age. If so, Saints Mel and Melchu could have on their first missionary journeys in West Meath with St. Patrick during the course of the year A.D. 435 met her mother, and ‘blessed herself in her mother’s womb,’ and foretold her future greatness. Hence so far from proving that Mel and Melchu were not bishops from A.D. 435, it rather confirms the statement that they were then bishops, or became bishops very soon afterwards.

Our opinion, therefore, is that St. Mel and St. Melchu came with Patrick from Britain, or very soon after his arrival in Ireland, and were consecrated bishops by him in 434 or perhaps 435; and as the brothers did not wish to be divided, he left them both in the church of Ardagh, which was the first church founded since Patrick had left Tara and the territory of Meath in the stricter sense of the word.

We have visited Ardgah. It was a noble site for a church, and a portion of St. Patrick’s Church, with massive walls characteristic of the earliest Christian architecture of Ireland, is standing there still. Unfortunately, the characteristic features, that is the windows and doors, have disappeared, but a glance at the remnants of its cyclopean masonry is quite enough to prove to those skilled in the earlier types of Irish architecture that it was indeed a beautiful primitive church, most likely dating back to the time of St. Patrick himself.

‘There on the hill of Ardagh, in his new church, Patrick left Mel and Melchu’ rulers of the church, which has since become the mother church of the diocese of Ardagh. Here occurs the narrative of an interesting incident which could not have been invented. Maine, son of Niall, was ruler of South Teffia; he dwelt at Ardagh; and he believed in Patrick, who baptised him, and no doubt it was he gave to Patrick the site of his church on that noble hill, although the fact is not expressly stated.

Now, Maine was, like most pagans, of loose morals, and kept concubines; so he brought to Patrick a pregnant woman, who was, it seems, his own niece, and he besought Patrick ‘to bless the child lying in her womb and to bless herself.’ Patrick at first thought she was the legitimate wife of Maine, but stretching forth his hand to bless her, he drew it quickly back again, saying the strange words—“I know not, God knoweth.” He felt there was something wrong, which stayed his hand, and he often used the expression in similar cases.

Still he was anxious to oblige the prince, and, so he blessed the pregnant woman and her offspring. ‘But,’ adds the writer, ‘he knew in the spirit of prophecy that it was the accursed Cairbre’s grandson that was lying in her womb, namely, he who afterwards became Tuathal Mael Gairbh, King of Erin. Patrick had ‘cursed’ Cairbre and all his seed at Telltown, as we have seen, and foretold that no son of his should ever reign, while now here, unfortunately, was one of them whom he had unwittingly blessed. “Luckless it is, O Slender Maine,” said the Saint, “there shall never be a king from thee” (through this woman). Then Maine knelt and made repentance; and Patrick, like his Master, was always moved by repentance, whereupon he added—“There shall be no king in Erin who will not maintain thee (and thy seed), and it is thy bond which shall remain longest in Ireland. Moreover,” said the Saint, relenting and undoing the effect of the former curse, “he whom I have blessed (the child in his mother’s womb) shall be a king”—namely, Tuathal, grandson of the accursed Cairbre. It is strange that Dr. Todd, in the face of this narrative, should represent Patrick’s curse on Cairbre at Telltown as an instance of an unfulfilled prophecy of Patrick. He ought to have remembered more of the prophecy of Jonas about the destruction of Ninive. Maine’s penance modified the ‘curse,’ so far as the offspring of his concubine was concerned, just as the penance of the men of Ninive modified the fulfilment of the prophecy of Jonas.

Then the author of the Tripartite, with great candour, tells the story of a ‘scandal which grew up at Ardagh,’ the mere narrative of which is in itself a strong proof of the authenticity and honesty of those ancient Lives of St. Patrick.

‘Through error of the rabble,’ it was given out that Mel had sinned with his ‘own kinswoman,’ who dwelt along with the saint as his housekeeper at Ardagh. This kinswoman was St. Lupait, or Lupita, sister of St. Patrick, who is said to have been carried captive with him to Ireland. If so, she must have been at this time nearly sixty years of age. But the pagans could hardly understand Christian chastity; and the mere fact that a man and a woman were living in the same house gave them ground for rash judgment. This rumour reached the ears of St. Patrick at a much later period than the founding of Ardagh, when Lupita must have been at least seventy years of age. This fact, of itself, ought to have killed rash judgments—but it is hard to kill a calumny. The tradition, however, as to the story and its surroundings is still so vivid in the locality that in substance it cannot be gainsaid.

Now, when Patrick heard the rumour, he came at once by the north-eastern road to Ardagh from Armagh, as the people say. Patrick is represented in all the Lives as a man of hot temper, which was easily roused, especially when scandal was given to the weak. Mel knew this, and knew the cause of his coming; so he had recourse to God to prove his own innocence, and God did not desert him. When he saw Patrick ‘coming down from the North,’ he went ‘to angle for salmon in the furrows’ at the foot of the hill, which, at the time, were filled with water, doubtless after a heavy rain. But, in any case, the field is low-lying, and the furrows would be easily filled by a good shower. It seems, too, that he really caught fish in the presence of Patrick, for so God vouchsafed to prove the innocence of his servant. Whereupon the ‘dry fishing’ of Mel passed into a proverb. The field where he fished is still shown, and was called in Colgan’s time an chora thirim—the dry fishing, just under Canon O’Farrell’s house—a Canon worthy of St. Patrick’s time—and the people have no more doubt of St. Mel’s catching salmon there in the furrows than they have of their own existence.

Then Patrick, going up the hill on the road, where the present beautiful Catholic church stands, met his sister, Lupait, ‘carrying live coals of fire in her chasuble,’ and her mantle was in no way touched by the flame. Whence the road is to this day called Tochar maol tine—the road of the harmless flame.

Then Patrick knew that his sister and nephew were sinless, for God himself had proved it. Still scandal, even in its widest sense, must be avoided. Wherefore, ‘though he knew there was no sin between them,’ he said—“Let men and women be apart, so that we may not be found to give any opportunity to the weak, and God’s name be thereby blasphemed—which far be from us.” He added—‘Let Bri Leith be between them’; and, therefore, he sent Lupait to the west of Bri Leith, the beautiful hill that rises near Ardagh to the south-west, and there she founded a famous monastery for women at Druim Chea. But St. Mel he left at Ardagh, with his brother Melchu, to continue his holy work.

Bri Leith is now called Slieve Golry. We have stood on its summit, and it is worth a long journey to stand there of a clear day. The height of the hill is about 650 feet, and the view all over the lower country, north, south, east and west, is one of surpassing grandeur.

Ardagh itself, as its name implies, is high ground; but Bri Leith is much higher, and gives a magnificent view of the lowlands on every side, especially towards the Shannon, which seems to wind like a silvery serpent through its reedy borders, in the green and grey of the distance. Indeed, we think we have never seen a more enchanting view than met our eyes on a bright Autumn day from the summit of that lone hill, although the breeze blew so strongly that we could scarcely keep our feet on the crest of the heath-covered cairn that crowns its summit. We saw the site of Druim Chea about two miles from the western roots of the hill, where Lupita ruled her small convent after Patrick had pronounced his decree; on the opposite side of the hill, to the east, was the swelling ridge of Ardagh, crowned with its old ruins and its new church. So the works of men, the holiest and the best, pass away, but the lines of beauty and grandeur, drawn by Nature’s hand, are unchanged and unchangeable.






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