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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

In our opinion Edentinny is the undoubted Plain of Adoration, where ‘Crom Cruaich and his sub-gods twelve’ were adored by the pagan Irish from time immemorial. It is well, therefore, to bear in mind that the name Magh Slecht has been used in two senses—first, to designate a great wide-spreading plain in the baronies of Tullyhaw and Carrigallen, and, secondly, to imply the actual scene of the idol worship, which was, in our opinion, at Edentinny, between Fenagh and Ballinamore.

The aspect of the place is such as would at once strike a visitor as marking a most appropriate place for druidic worship. It is a limestone ridge about 400 yards long and 80 or 90 yards wide. On the eastern side the ridge is bounded by a steep escarpment rising from the low ground. From the base of this rocky wall there issues full-born, like the fountains of the Jordan, a strong, clear, and rapid spring, powerful enough to turn a mill, coming out, as it were, from the very heart of the hill. This is, no doubt, a subterranean stream coming down from the lakes of Fenagh and Rein, some two miles to the south. But there is no visible connection between them, and it would strike a simple people as if the river-god dwelt within his rocky halls beneath the ridge, and poured out for man, and beast, and field, this perennial fountain so beautiful in the abounding wealth of its crystal waters. If the Irish held the king of waters to be a god it is no wonder they adored him on the green brow of the ridge that gives birth to this grand fountain. On its northern and western side the ridge is bounded by a deep gully running all round it except on the south, where the ridge falls slowly to the level of the surrounding plain. This gully is in winter oftentimes filled with water, and was, in our opinion, the ‘fossa’ of Slecht to which reference is made by Tirechan, for, when filled with water, especially in the low ground to the east, where it joins the bed of the stream, the term would be most appropriate.

This ridge itself is fitly called Longstones, which appears to be an attempt at giving an English equivalent for the Irish name Cairginns. It was a seat of the Druids both before and after the arrival of St. Patrick, for they always set up near the royal dun, and Dunbaile had been for ages a ‘holy regal place,’ as the Book of Fenagh styles it. We note proofs of their presence on the ridge and all around it; and, beyond doubt, they chose an admirable site, for it was visible from afar; their sanctuary was isolated by nature itself; and the wondrous water-god was ever pouring out the life-giving stream from the very heart of their sacred shrine. On the flat summit of the ridge there are still remaining traces of two circular stone enclosures such as the Druids used, and close at hand are the wonderful stones, or slabs, which have given their names to the place. One is now prostrate—an immense slab about eighteen feet long by four broad; the other is still standing, but inclining to the west, and is partially buried in the soil. Another, close by, is also standing, but inclines to the east. Between them is a third slab, nearly sunk in the soil, and of smaller dimensions. The whole place is suggestive of druidical worship, and we have no doubt it was the true scene of the striking incidents narrated in the Life of St. Patrick.

From time immemorial it was a sacred place in the estimation of the pagan Irish. The great King Tighearnmas, who flourished long before the Christian era, and is credited with being the first smelter of gold in Ireland, held a great assembly of the men of Erin on this very spot for the worship of Crom Cruaich, whom the Four Masters describe as the Chief idol of Erin at the time. But he and three-fourths of his people with him perished at that festival, which was held on November eve, and the Christian chroniclers say that their death was in punishment of the impious rites which they used on that occasion. But it still continued to be the Field of National Adoration down to the time of St. Patrick, and there can be no doubt that it was to destroy the grim idol of the Firbolgs that St. Patrick took his journey to Magh Slecht.

From Granard, as we have seen, he crossed the country to the north west, and came into the plain of Magh Rein most likely by Ballinamuck and Cloone. When he arrived there, perhaps in the early Autumn of 435 or 436, he saw the people in the distance prostrate before the idol. This sight excited his angry zeal, and before he had yet reached the spot he protested against the idolatry in a loud, commanding voice, whence the spot where he stood was called Guth-ard, that is the ‘loud-shout.’ Those who know the ground can easily realize the scene. As we have said, the place was an isolated ridge, surrounded on the south-east at least by the waters of the great fountain bursting from its rocky face. Then Patrick, drawing nigh, ‘saw the idol from the water (afterwards) named Guth-ard, because he uplifted his voice, and when he drew nigh to the idol he raised up his hand to strike it with the Staff of Jesus’; but before he touched it the idol fell prone ‘on its right side,’ for to the south was its face, namely, to Tara, and the mark of the Staff still remains on its left side, and yet the Staff did not move out of Patrick’s hand! Such is the version in the Tripartite of the overthrow of the idol and it seems to imply, as Colgan renders it, that Patrick’s cry from the water, with his threatening gesture, overthrew the idol, and left the imprint of the Staff of Jesus on the stone, although he really did not strike the idol with his Staff at all; and the same account is given by Jocelyn.

The Tripartite adds that, ‘the earth at the same time swallowed up twelve other images as far as their heads, and they still stand thus in token of the miracle.’ This no doubt refers to the circle of druidical stones standing round the principal idols, and traces of some of them may still be seen on the ridge; but whether the others vanished or were carried off by quarrymen must remain an open question. That a stone circle did exist there is, we think, quite evident; and we spent some hours of a summer’s day examining the place and its neighbourhood. ‘Patrick, too, cursed the demon that dwelt within the idol, and drove him to hell,’ and all the people with Laeghaire, the King, who, it appears, was there adoring at the time, saw the demon, and they feared they would perish except Patrick drove him back to hell. In this conflict Patrick acted with ‘prowess against the idol,’ and hence it came to pass that the brooch or fibula, which fastened his cloak or cope, fell off and was lost in the heather, so he caused the grass or heather to be pulled up until he found his brooch; ‘but no heather grows there more than in the rest of the field.’ It is difficult to see how heather ever grew in it, for the limestone rock crops up everywhere, and heather does not love the limestone. The word rather means ‘herbage’ than ‘heather,’ and of the former there is a good crop.

It may be assumed as fairly certain that the idols in question were the huge slabs now prostrate on the ridge, for such standing stones were always held sacred by the Druids, and their sacred enclosures were always surrounded by such blocks of stone. From the earliest times these slabs, typical of the water-god who sent forth the rushing stream from the bowels of the hill, were covered with plates of bronze, and sometimes no doubt also with plates of gold and silver, whilst the lesser idols in the circle were merely covered with bronze. They were ancient—very ancient—idols in this sacred place, and so Patrick resolved utterly to destroy them. He succeeded at least for a time; but we know from the Book of Fenagh that the druidical worship still lingered on near its old home, for in the time of St. Caillin, one hundred years later, the Druids of Fenagh and Magh Slecht opposed him and his clerics, and kept their old unclean rites and ceremonial, reviling the saint at the same time in very filthy language. But Caillin was a ‘blazing fire’ to destroy the enemies of God and his Church; so he transformed the Druids ‘into forms of stone’ in presence of all the multitude. And there they are still on the crest of the Longstones ridge to testify the fact to future ages. It is clear that the scribe did not wish that Caillin should in his own country be outdone by Patrick.






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