We have now arrived at the close of the third century, from the death of Saint Patrick, and find ourselves on the eve of a protracted struggle with the heathen warriors of Scandinavia; it is time, therefore, to look back on the interval we have passed, and see what changes have been wrought in the land, since its kings, instead of waiting to be attacked at home, had made the surrounding sea "foam with the oars" of their outgoing expeditions.
The most obvious change in the condition of the country is traceable in its constitution and laws, into every part of which, as was its wont from the beginning, the spirit of Christianity sought patiently to infuse itself. We have already spoken of the expurgation of the constitution, which prohibited the observance of Pagan rites to the kings, and imposed on them instead, certain social obligations. This was a first change suggested by Saint Patrick, and executed mainly by his disciple, Saint Benignus. We have seen the legislative success which attended the measures of Columbkill, Moling, and Adamnan; in other reforms of minor importance the paramount influence of the clerical order may be easily traced.
But it is in their relation as teachers of human and divine science that the Irish Saints exercised their greatest power, not only over their own countrymen, but over a considerable part of Europe. The intellectual leadership of western Europe--the glorious ambition of the greatest nations--has been in turn obtained by Italy, Prance, Britain and Germany. From the middle of the sixth to the middle of the eighth century, it will hardly be disputed that that leadership devolved on Ireland. All the circumstances of the sixth century helped to confer it upon the newly converted western isle; the number of her schools, and the wisdom, energy, and zeal of her masters, retained for her the proud distinction for two hundred years. And when it passed away from her grasp, she might still console herself with the grateful reflection that the power she had founded and exercised, was divided among British and continental schools, which her own alumni had largely contributed to form and establish. In the northern Province, the schools most frequented were those of Armagh, and of Bangor, on Belfast lough; in Meath, the school of Clonard, and that of Clomnacnoise, (near Athlone); in Leinster, the school of Taghmon (Ta-mun), and Beg-Erin, the former near the banks of the Slaney, the latter in Wexford harbour; in Munster, the school of Lismore on the Blackwater, and of Mungret (now Limerick), on the Shannon; in Connaught, the school of "Mayo of the Saxons," and the schools of the Isles of Arran. These seats of learning were almost all erected on the banks of rivers, in situations easy of access, to the native or foreign student; a circumstance which proved most disastrous to them when the sea kings of the north began to find their way to the shores of the island. They derived their maintenance--not from taxing their pupils --but in the first instance from public endowments. They were essentially free schools; not only free as to the lessons given, but the venerable Bede tells us they supplied free bed and board and books to those who resorted to them from abroad. The Prince and the Clansmen of every principality in which a school was situated, endowed it with a certain share--often an ample one--of the common land of the clan. Exclusive rights of fishery, and exclusive mill-privileges seem also to have been granted. As to timber for building purposes and for fuel, it was to be had for carrying and cutting. The right of quarry went with the soil, wherever building stone was found. In addition to these means of sustenance, a portion of the collegiate clergy appeared to have discharged missionary duty, and received offerings of the produce of the land. We hear of periodical quests or collections made for the sustenance of these institutions, wherein the learned Lectors and Doctors, no doubt, pleaded their claims to popular favour, with irresistible eloquence. Individuals, anxious to promote the spread of religion and of science, endowed particular institutions out of their personal means; Princes, Bishops, and pious ladies, contributed to enlarge the bounds and increase the income of their favourite foundations, until a generous emulation seems to have seized on all the great families as well as on the different Provinces, as to which could boast the most largely attended schools, and the greatest number of distinguished scholars. The love of the alma mater --that college patriotism which is so sure a sign of the noble-minded scholar--never received more striking illustration than among the graduates of those schools. Columbkill, in his new home among the Hebrides, invokes blessings on blessings, on "the angels" with whom it was once his happiness to walk in Arran, and Columbanus, beyond the Alps, remembers with pride the school of Bangor--the very name of which inspires him with poetic rapture.
The buildings, in which so many scholars were housed and taught, must have been extensive. Some of the schools we have mentioned were, when most flourishing, frequented by one, two, three, and even, at some periods, as many as seven thousand scholars. Such a population was alone sufficient to form a large village; and if we add the requisite number of teachers and attendants, we will have an addition of at least one-third to the total. The buildings seem to have been separately of no great size, but were formed into streets, and even into something like wards. Armagh was divided into three parts-- trian-more (or the town proper), trian-Patrick, the Cathedral close, and trian-Sassenagh, the Latin quarter, the home of the foreign students. A tall sculptured Cross, dedicated to some favourite saint, stood at the bounds of these several wards, reminding the anxious student to invoke their spiritual intercession as he passed by. Early hours and vigilant night watches had to be exercised to prevent conflagrations in such village-seminaries, built almost wholly of wood, and roofed with reeds or shingles. A Cathedral, or an Abbey Church, a round tower, or a cell of some of the ascetic masters, would probably be the only stone structure within the limits. To the students, the evening star gave the signal for retirement, and the morning sun for awaking. When, at the sound of the early bell, two or three thousand of them poured into the silent streets and made their way towards the lighted Church, to join in the service of matins, mingling, as they went or returned, the tongues of the Gael, the Cimbri, the Pict, the Saxon, and the Frank, or hailing and answering each other in the universal language of the Roman Church, the angels in Heaven must have loved to contemplate the union of so much perseverance with so much piety.
The lives of the masters, not less than their lessons, were studied and observed by their pupils. At that time, as we gather from every authority, they were models of simplicity. One Bishop is found, erecting with his own hands, the cashel or stone enclosure which surrounded his cell; another is labouring in the field, and gives his blessing to his visitors, standing between the stilts of the plough. Most ecclesiastics work occasionally either in wood, in bronze, in leather, or as scribes. The decorations of the Church, if not the entire structure, was the work of those who served at the altar. The tabernacle, the rood-screen, the ornamental font; the vellum on which the Psalms and Gospels were written; the ornamented case which contained the precious volume, were often of their making. The music which made the vale of Bangor resound as if inhabited by angels, was their composition; the hymns that accompanied it were their own. "It is a poor Church that has no music," is one of the oldest Irish proverbs; and the Antiphonarium of Bangor, as well as that of Armagh, remains to show that such a want was not left unsupplied in the early Church.
All the contemporary schools were not of the same grade nor of equal reputation. We constantly find a scholar, after passing years in one place, transferring himself to another, and sometimes to a third and a fourth. Some masters were, perhaps, more distinguished in human Science; others in Divinity. Columbkill studied in two or three different schools, and visited others, perhaps as disputant or lecturer--a common custom in later years. Nor should we associate the idea of under-age with the students of whom we speak. Many of them, whether as teachers or learners, or combining both characters together, reached middle life before they ventured as instructors upon the world. Forty years is no uncommon age for the graduate of those days, when as yet the discovery was unmade, that all-sufficient wisdom comes with the first trace of down upon the chin of youth.
The range of studies seems to have included the greater part of the collegiate course of our own times. The language of the country, and the language of the Roman Church; the languages of Scripture--Greek and Hebrew; the logic of Aristotle, the writings of the Fathers, especially of Pope Gregory the Great--who appears to have been a favourite author with the Irish Church; the defective Physics of the period; Mathematics, Music, and Poetical composition went to complete the largest course. When we remember that all the books were manuscripts; that even paper had not yet been invented; that the best parchment was equal to so much beaten gold, and a perfect MS. was worth a king's ransom, we may better estimate the difficulties in the way of the scholar of the seventh century. Knowing these facts, we can very well credit that part of the story of St. Columbkill's banishment into Argyle, which turns on what might be called a copyright dispute, in which the monarch took the side of St. Finian of Clonard, (whose original MSS. his pupil seems to have copied without permission,) and the Clan-Conal stood up, of course, for their kinsman. This dispute is even said to have led to the affair of Culdrum, in Sligo, which is sometimes mentioned as "the battle of the book." The same tendency of the national character which overstocked the Bardic Order, becomes again visible in its Christian schools; and if we could form anything like an approximate census of the population, anterior to the northern invasions, we would find that the proportion of ecclesiastics was greater than has existed either before or since in any Christian country. The vast designs of missionary zeal drew off large bodies of those who had entered Holy Orders; still the numbers engaged as teachers in the great schools, as well as of those who passed their lives in solitude and contemplation, must have been out of all modern proportion to the lay inhabitants of the Island.
The most eminent Irish Saints of the fifth century were St. Ibar, St. Benignus and St. Kieran, of Ossory; in the sixth, St. Bendan, of Clonfert; St. Brendan, of Birr; St. Maccartin, of Clogher; St. Finian, of Moville; St. Finbar, St. Cannice, St. Finian, of Clonard; and St. Jarlath, of Tuam; in the seventh century, St. Fursey, St. Laserian, Bishop of Leighlin; St. Kieran, Abbot of Clonmacnoise; St. Comgall, Abbot of Bangor; St. Carthage, Abbot of Lismore; St. Colman, Bishop of Dromore; St. Moling, Bishop of Ferns; St. Colman Ela, Abbot; St. Cummian, "the White;" St. Fintan, Abbot; St. Gall, Apostle of Switzerland; St. Fridolin, "the Traveller;" St. Columbanus, Apostle of Burgundy and Lombardy; St. Killian, Apostle of Franconia; St. Columbkill, Apostle of the Picts; St. Cormac, called "the Navigator;" St. Cuthbert; and St. Aidan, Apostle of Northumbria. In the eighth century the most illustrious names are St. Cataldus, Bishop of Tarentum; St. Adamnan, Abbot of Iona; St. Rumold, Apostle of Brabant; Clement and Albinus, "the Wisdom-seekers;" and St. Feargal or Virgilius, Bishop of Saltzburgh. Of holy women in the same ages, we have some account of St. Samthan, in the eighth century; of St. Bees, St. Dympna and St. Syra, in the seventh century, and of St. Monina, St. Ita of Desies, and St. Bride, or Bridget, of Kildare, in the sixth. The number of conventual institutions for women established in those ages, is less easily ascertained than the number of monastic houses for men; but we may suppose them to have borne some proportion to each other, and to have even counted by hundreds. The veneration in which St. Bridget was held during her life, led many of her countrywomen to embrace the religious state, and no less than fourteen Saints, her namesakes, are recorded. It was the custom of those days to call all holy persons who died in the odour of sanctity, Saints, hence national or provincial tradition venerates very many names, which the reader may look for in vain, in the Roman calendar.
The intellectual labours of the Irish schools, besides the task of teaching such immense numbers of men of all nations on their own soil, and the missionary conquests to which I have barely alluded, were diversified by controversies, partly scientific and partly theological --such as the "Easter Controversy," the "Tonsure Controversy," and that maintained by "Feargal the Geometer," as to the existence of the Antipodes.
The discussion, as to the proper time of observing Easter, which had occupied the doctors of the Council of Nice in the fourth century, was raised in Ireland and in Britain early in the sixth, and complete uniformity was not established till far on in the eighth. It occupied the thoughts of several generations of the chief men of the Irish Church, and some of their arguments still fortunately survive, to attest their learning and tolerance, as well as their zeal. St. Patrick had introduced in the fifth century the computation of time then observed in Gaul, and to this custom many of the Irish doctors rigidly adhered, long after the rest of Christendom had agreed to adopt the Alexandrian computation. Great names were found on both sides of the controversy: Columbanus, Fintan, and Aidan, for adhering exactly to the rule of St. Patrick; Cummian, the White, Laserian and Adamnan, in favour of strict agreement with Rome and the East. Monks of the same Monastery and Bishops of the same Province maintained opposite opinions with equal ardour and mutual charity. It was a question of discipline, not a matter of faith; but it involved a still greater question, whether national churches were to plead the inviolability of their local usages, even on points of discipline, against the sense and decision of the Universal Church.
In the year of our Lord 630, the Synod of Leighlin was held, under the shelter of the ridge of Leinster, and the presidency of St. Laserian. Both parties at length agreed to send deputies to Rome, as "children to their mother," to learn her decision. Three years later, that decision was made known, and the midland and southern dioceses at once adopted it. The northern churches, however, still held out, under the lead of Armagh and the influence of Iona, nor was it till a century later that this scandal of celebrating Easter on two different days in the same church was entirely removed. In justification of the Roman rule, St. Cummian, about the middle of the seventh century, wrote his famous epistle to Segenius, Abbot of Iona, of the ability and learning of which all modern writers from Archbishop Usher to Thomas Moore, speak in terms of the highest praise. It is one of the few remaining documents of that controversy. A less vital question of discipline arose about the tonsure. The Irish shaved the head in a semicircle from temple to temple, while the Latin usage was to shave the crown, leaving an external circle of hair to typify the crown of thorns. At the conference of Whitby (A.D. 664) this was one of the subjects of discussion between the clergy of Iona, and those who followed the Roman method--but it never assumed the importance of the Easter controversy.
In the following century an Irish Missionary, Virgilius, of Saltzburgh, (called by his countrymen "Feargal, the Geometer,") was maintaining in Germany against no less an adversary than St. Boniface, the sphericity of the earth and the existence of antipodes. His opponents endeavoured to represent him, or really believed him to hold, that there were other men, on our earth, for whom the Redeemer had not died; on this ground they appealed to Pope Zachary against him; but so little effect had this gross distortion of his true doctrine at Rome, when explanations were given, that Feargal was soon afterwards raised to the See of Saltzburgh, and subsequently canonized by Pope Gregory IX. In the ninth century we find an Irish geographer and astronomer of something like European reputation in Dicuil and Dungal, whose treatises and epistles have been given to the press. Like their compatriot, Columbanus, these accomplished men had passed their youth and early manhood in their own country, and to its schools are to be transferred the compliments paid to their acquirements by such competent judges as Muratori, Latronne, and Alexander von Humboldt. The origin of the scholastic philosophy--which pervaded Europe for nearly ten centuries--has been traced by the learned Mosheim to the same insular source. Whatever may now be thought of the defects or shortcomings of that system, it certainly was not unfavourable either to wisdom or eloquence, since among its professors may be reckoned the names of St. Thomas and St. Bernard.
We must turn away our eyes from the contemplation of those days in which were achieved for Ireland the title of the land of saints and doctors. Another era opens before us, and we can already discern the long ships of the north, their monstrous beaks turned towards the holy Isle, their sides hung with glittering shields and their benches thronged with fair-haired warriors, chanting as they advance the fierce war songs of their race. Instead of the monk's familiar voice on the river banks we are to hear the shouts of strange warriors from a far-off country; and for matin hymn and vesper song, we are to be beset through a long and stormy period, with sounds of strife and terror, and deadly conflict.