The conversion of a Pagan people to Christianity must always be a primary fact in their history. It is not merely for the error it abolishes or the positive truth it establishes that a national change of faith is historically important, but for the complete revolution it works in every public and private relation. The change socially could not be greater if we were to see some irresistible apostle of Paganism ariving from abroad in Christian Ireland, who would abolish the churches, convents, and Christian schools; decry and bring into utter disuse the decalogue, the Scriptures and the Sacraments; efface all trace of the existing belief in One God and Three Persons, whether in private or public worship, in contracts, or in courts of law; and instead of these, re-establish all over the country, in high places and in every place, the gloomy groves of the Druids, making gods of the sun and moon, the natural elements, and man's own passions, restoring human sacrifices as a sacred duty, and practically excluding from the community of their fellows, all who presumed to question the divine origin of such a religion. The preaching of Patrick effected a revolution to the full as complete as such a counter-revolution in favour of Paganism could possibly be, and to this thorough revolution we must devote at least one chapter before going farther.
The best accounts agree that Patrick was a native of Gaul, then subject to Rome; that he was carried captive into Erin on one of King Nial's returning expeditions; that he became a slave, as all captives of the sword did, in those iron times; that he fell to the lot of one Milcho, a chief of Dalriada, whose flocks he tended for seven years, as a shepherd, on the mountain called Slemish, in the present county of Antrim. The date of Nial's death, and the consequent return of his last expedition, is set down in all our annals at the year 405; as Patrick was sixteen years of age when he reached Ireland, he must have been born about the year 390; and as he died in the year 493, he would thus have reached the extraordinary, but not impossible age of 103 years. Whatever the exact number of his years, it is certain that his mission in Ireland commenced in the year 432, and was prolonged till his death, sixty-one years afterwards. Such an unprecedented length of life, not less than the unprecedented power, both popular and political, which he early attained, enabled him to establish the Irish Church, during his own time, on a basis so broad and deep, that neither lapse of ages, nor heathen rage, nor earthly temptations, nor all the arts of Hell, have been able to upheave its firm foundations. But we must not imagine that the powers of darkness abandoned the field without a struggle, or that the victory of the cross was achieved without a singular combination of courage, prudence, and determination--God aiding above all.
If the year of his captivity was 405 or 406, and that of his escape or manumission seven years later (412 or 413), twenty years would intervene between his departure out of the land of his bondage, and his return to it clothed with the character and authority of a Christian Bishop. This interval, longer or shorter, he spent in qualifying himself for Holy Orders or discharging priestly duties at Tours, at Lerins, and finally at Rome. But always by night and day he was haunted by the thought of the Pagan nation in which he had spent his long years of servitude, whose language he had acquired, and the character of whose people he so thoroughly understood. These natural retrospections were heightened and deepened by supernatural revelations of the will of Providence towards the Irish, and himself as their apostle. At one time, an angel presented him, in his sleep, a scroll bearing the superscription, "the voice of the Irish;" at another, he seemed to hear in a dream all the unborn children of the nation crying to him for help and holy baptism. When, therefore, Pope Celestine commissioned him for this enterprise, "to the ends of the earth," he found him not only ready but anxious to undertake it.
When the new Preacher arrived in the Irish Sea, in 432, he and his companions were driven off the coast of Wicklow by a mob, who assailed them with showers of stones. Running down the coast to Antrim, with which he was personally familiar, he made some stay at Saul, in Down, where he made few converts, and celebrated Mass in a barn; proceeding northward he found himself rejected with scorn by his old master, Milcho, of Slemish. No doubt it appeared an unpardonable audacity in the eyes of the proud Pagan, that his former slave should attempt to teach him how to reform his life and order his affairs. Returning again southward, led on, as we must believe, by the Spirit of God, he determined to strike a blow against Paganism at its most vital point. Having learned that the monarch, Leary (Laeghaire), was to celebrate his birthday with suitable rejoicings at Tara, on a day which happened to fall on the eve of Easter, he resolved to proceed to Tara on that occasion, and to confront the Druids in the midst of all the princes and magnates of the Island. With this view he returned on his former course, and landed from his frail barque at the mouth of the Boyne. Taking leave of the boatmen, he desired them to wait for him a certain number of days, when, if they did not hear from him, they might conclude him dead, and provide for their own safety. So saying he set out, accompanied by the few disciples he had made, or brought from abroad, to traverse on foot the great plain which stretches from the mouth of the Boyne to Tara. If those sailors were Christians, as is most likely, we can conceive with what anxiety they must have awaited tidings of an attempt so hazardous and so eventful.
The Christian proceeded on his way, and the first night of his journey lodged with a hospitable chief, whose family he converted and baptized, especially marking out a fine child named Beanen, called by him Benignus, from his sweet disposition; who was destined to be one of his most efficient coadjutors, and finally his successor in the Primatial see of Armagh. It was about the second or third day when, travelling probably by the northern road, poetically called "the Slope of the Chariots," the Christian adventurers came in sight of the roofs of Tara. Halting on a neighbouring eminence they surveyed the citadel of Ancient Error, like soldiers about to assault an enemy's stronghold. The aspect of the royal hill must have been highly imposing. The building towards the north was the Banquet Hall, then thronged with the celebrants of the King's birth-day, measuring from north to south 360 feet in length by 40 feet wide. South of this hall was the King's Rath, or residence, enclosing an area of 280 yards in diameter, and including several detached buildings, such as the house of Cormac, and the house of the hostages. Southward still stood the new rath of the reigning king, and yet farther south, the rath of Queen Mab, probably uninhabited even then. The intervals between the buildings were at some points planted, for we know that magnificent trees shaded the well of Finn, and the well of Newnaw, from which all the raths were supplied with water. Imposing at any time, Tara must have looked its best at the moment Patrick first beheld it, being in the pleasant season of spring, and decorated in honour of the anniversary of the reigning sovereign.
One of the religious ceremonies employed by the Druids to heighten the solemnity of the occasion, was to order all the fires of Tara and Meath to be quenched, in order to rekindle them instantaneously from a sacred fire dedicated to the honour of their god. But Patrick, either designedly or innocently, anticipated this striking ceremony, and lit his own fire, where he had encamped, in view of the royal residence. A flight of fiery arrows, shot into the Banqueting Hall, would not have excited more horror and tumult among the company there assembled, than did the sight of that unlicensed blaze in the distance. Orders were issued to drag the offender against the laws and the gods of the Island before them, and the punishment in store for him was already decreed in every heart. The Preacher, followed by his trembling disciples, ascended "the Slope of the Chariots," surrounded by menacing minions of the Pagan law, and regarded with indignation by astonished spectators. As he came he recited Latin Prayers to the Blessed Trinity, beseeching their protection and direction in this trying hour. Contrary to courteous custom no one at first rose to offer him a seat. At last a chieftain, touched with mysterious admiration for the stranger, did him that kindness. Then it was demanded of him, why he had dared to violate the laws of the country, and to defy its ancient gods. On this text the Christian Missionary spoke. The place of audience was in the open air, on that eminence, the home of so many kings, which commands one of the most agreeable prospects in any landscape. The eye of the inspired orator, pleading the cause of all the souls that hereafter, till the end of time, might inhabit the land, could discern within the spring-day horizon, the course of the Blackwater and the Boyne before they blend into one; the hills of Cavan to the far north; with the royal hill of Tailtean in the foreground; the wooded heights of Slane and Skreen, and the four ancient roads, which led away towards the four subject Provinces, like the reins of empire laid loosely on their necks. Since the first Apostle of the Gentiles had confronted the subtle Paganism of Athens, on the hill of Mars, none of those who walked in his steps ever stood out in more glorious relief than Patrick, surrounded by Pagan Princes, and a Pagan Priesthood, on the hill of Tara.
The defence of the fire he had kindled, unlicensed, soon extended into wider issues. Who were the gods against whom he had offended? Were they true gods or false? They had their priests: could they maintain the divinity of such gods, by argument, or by miracle? For his God, he, though unworthy, was ready to answer, yea, right ready to die. His God had become man, and had died for man. His name alone was sufficient to heal all diseases; to raise the very dead to life. Such, we learn from the old biographers, was the line of Patrick's argument. This sermon ushered in a controversy. The king's guests, who had come to feast and rejoice, remained to listen and to meditate. With the impetuosity of the national character --with all its passion for debate--they rushed into this new conflict, some on one side, some on the other. The daughters of the king and many others--the Arch-Druid himself--became convinced and were baptized. The missionaries obtained powerful protectors, and the king assigned to Patrick the pleasant fort of Trim, as a present residence. From that convenient distance, he could readily return at any moment, to converse with the king's guests and the members of his household.
The Druidical superstition never recovered the blow it received that day at Tara. The conversion of the Arch-Druid and the Princesses, was, of itself, their knell of doom. Yet they held their ground during the remainder of this reign--twenty-five years longer (A.D. 458). The king himself never became a Christian, though he tolerated the missionaries, and deferred more and more every year to the Christian party. He sanctioned an expurgated code of the laws, prepared under the direction of Patrick, from which every positive element of Paganism was rigidly excluded. He saw, unopposed, the chief idol of his race, overthrown on "the Plain of Prostration," at Sletty. Yet withal he never consented to be baptized; and only two years before his decease, we find him swearing to a treaty, in the old Pagan form--"by the Sun, and the Wind, and all the Elements." The party of the Druids at first sought to stay the progress of Christianity by violence, and even attempted, more than once, to assassinate Patrick. Finding these means ineffectual they tried ridicule and satire. In this they were for some time seconded by the Bards, men warmly attached to their goddess of song and their lives of self-indulgence. All in vain. The day of the idols was fast verging into everlasting night in Erin. Patrick and his disciples were advancing from conquest to conquest. Armagh and Cashel came in the wake of Tara, and Cruachan was soon to follow. Driven from the high places, the obdurate Priests of Bel took refuge in the depths of the forest and in the islands of the sea, wherein the Christian anchorites of the next age were to replace them. The social revolution proceeded, but all that was tolerable in the old state of things, Patrick carefully engrafted with the new. He allowed much for the habits and traditions of the people, and so made the transition as easy, from darkness into the light, as Nature makes the transition from night to morning. He seven times visited in person every mission in the kingdom, performing the six first "circuits" on foot, but the seventh, on account of his extreme age, he was borne in a chariot. The pious munificence of the successors of Leary, had surrounded him with a household of princely proportions. Twenty-four persons, mostly ecclesiastics, were chosen for this purpose: a bell-ringer, a psalmist, a cook, a brewer, a chamberlain, three smiths, three artificers, and three embroiderers are reckoned of the number. These last must be considered as employed in furnishing the interior of the new churches. A scribe, a shepherd to guard his flocks, and a charioteer are also mentioned, and their proper names given. How different this following from the little boat's crew, he had left waiting tidings from Tara, in such painful apprehension, at the mouth of the Boyne, in 432. Apostolic zeal, and unrelaxed discipline had wrought these wonders, during a lifetime prolonged far beyond the ordinary age of man.
The fifth century was drawing to a close, and the days of Patrick were numbered. Pharamond and the Franks had sway on the Netherlands; Hengist and the Saxons on South Britain; Clovis had led his countrymen across the Rhine into Gaul; the Vandals had established themselves in Spain and North Africa; the Ostrogoths were supreme in Italy. The empire of barbarism had succeeded to the empire of Polytheism; dense darkness covered the semi-Christian countries of the old Roman empire, but happily daylight still lingered in the West. Patrick, in good season, had done his work. And as sometimes, God seems to bring round His ends, contrary to the natural order of things, so the spiritual sun of Europe was now destined to rise in the West, and return on its light-bearing errand towards the East, dispelling La its path, Saxon, Frankish, and German darkness, until at length it reflected back on Rome herself, the light derived from Rome.
On the 17th of March, in the year of our Lord 493, Patrick breathed his last in the monastery of Saul, erected on the site of that barn where he had first said Mass. He was buried with national honours in the Church of Armagh, to which he had given the Primacy over all the churches of Ireland; and such was the concourse of mourners, and the number of Masses offered for his eternal repose, that from the day of his death till the close of the year, the sun is poetically said never to have set--so brilliant and so continual was the glare of tapers and torches.