Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Silver Cup - A Story for Saint Brigid's Eve

Below is a story featuring Saint Brigid which was published in The Irish Rosary, a magazine founded by the Dominicans at the end of the nineteenth century. As with many periodicals of this type, it sought to bring Catholic teaching to a mass audience but in a format which included elements from secular magazines, including fiction. Unlike the 'penny dreadful' literature designed for popular consumption, religious fiction had a strong moralistic tone. The story below, however, is somewhat different from the usual tales. It is set in the time of Saint Brigid and concerns the conversion of Finola, a young pagan girl and the consequences for her chieftain father, Ronan, and her harp-playing suitor Diarmaid. The druid Mornac features as the villain of the piece, for this 1921 writer is not under any pressure to appear 'pagan-friendly'. His fictional Saint Brigid reflects all of her traditional attributes - she is 'the fairest of the women' , 'gentle and calm-browed' , speaking with a 'sweet voice' who dismisses attempts to praise her with humility and who, needless to say, has no trouble seeing through the schemes of the druids. Another feature I enjoyed was the curiously stilted dialogue which supposedly adds historical authenticity, as in this example featuring our very own Ben Hur:
"It is Diarmaid Og who drives the black horses of Jarlait Mór."

" He brings his great harp in the chariot.''

" Noble is he of look, and masterful with the proud steeds."
I am interested to note though that the author has described his tale as a story of Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick, for the national apostle does not feature directly at all. Does it reflect some anxiety about allowing our female patron to stand on her own? I don't know. Anyway, I found this story great fun and hope you will too.


FIONOLA, the daughter of Ronan the silversmith, was ill nigh unto death with a strange fever, and her father was sorrowful. He had sent for Aengus, the physician, who came in haste over the plains of Druim Criaidh, and made secret potions of herbs for her healing. But his tendance and simples availed not against this sickness, the like of which he had not known until now.

Thereupon Ronan, staring in bitter melancholy at the perplexed physician, called a messenger and bade him go with all speed for the magnus. But the unhappy physician glided across to the silversmith and spoke to him in low tones, with a look of cunning on his sombre, lean face.

"Stay a little," he said, "I have thought of the cause of this strange fever that wastes the beautiful Fionola. It is a punishment, Ronan. It is a punishment. Mark how she speaks foolishly in her sickness of this young woman, Brigid, who has come to lead our children from the gods of our fathers. Look: yonder are her houses set in pride upon Magh Liffe. Beside the oak tree, as if deriding the strength of our druids, stands the temple she has raised to the God of Padraig a slave who herded swine upon Sliabh Mis! But this Brigid is young and beautiful and gentle-"

" She is young, and she is beautiful, and she is gentle. I have seen her," said Ronan. " She is not like other women. Her beauty shines about her like a soft light. She is gracious as a queen. It is a great pity that she has been false to Crom Cruach and the gods we love."

" She and all her like, who followed Padraig, the priest of the Gall, will turn again to Crom Cruach, Ronan. Such fevers as this, ..." said Aengus, pausing with meaning in his look.

Ronan scarcely heeded him. He beckoned to the messenger, who stood waiting, and told him to go to the arch-druid himself, and to bring him speedily.

" He shall have choice of the richest treasures in my workshops," he added, as the messenger flashed forth.

With a sign to the attendant, the silent Aengus went once more to the chamber in which the sick girl lay. For some moments he stood with her worn hand in his, and strove to soothe her. But she continued to toss her head uneasily upon the silken cushions of her couch. Her delirious crying and crooning abated not. She snatched her hand from his cool clasp, and struck at him; then waved her frail arms about her, clutched wildly at the purple and green tapestries, and shrank away from him, twisting and moaning, hiding her face in the confusion of her loose tresses, that fell about her stricken loveliness like a shower of gold.

With a troubled countenance, the old man left the room. He met Ronan the smith in the outer apartment, and glanced uneasily at the grim features of him.

'' In truth it is a punishment," he said. ''Brigid, or the false Nadfraoich, or perhaps Clonlaedh who is Brigid's chief counsellor, one of these has cast a spell upon the fair Fionola. She has been drawn to one of them in her childish wishing and unwise curiosity, not understanding her folly. Even now but listen! Listen, Ronan: she is singing in her wild fever of Brigid of Cill Dara!"

The silversmith frowned quiet scorn on the physician, with whose impotency he had scant patience.

" She is dying in her wild fever," he said slowly, " and you cannot heal her for me."

"Unless we offer sacrifice, beseeching our gods: -"

“I have offered sacrifice, and besought all our gods," snapped the smith, without reverence. "I have spoken to the druids that are left us, but even they in their wisdom have failed me. And now I have sent to the grove of the arch-druid ah !" he said, listening an instant, "Fionola is singing the song that I made !''

" The song that you made? " said the physician, wondering.

He watched the smith grasp the silver-spun tassels and draw the heavy saffron curtains a little apart. Then he was listening to the weird voice of the sick girl. The room, with its pagan tapestry and rich-hued curtains, its ornaments of silver and bronze, its shaggy rugs, and oddly-fashioned couches, faded from him. He could not see Ronan, who was very still and mute. Groping blindly, as if a mist enshrouded him, he struck against a harp. There was a musical crash, and he stood motionless, amazed, hearing the girl's wild song, which was eloquent of desolation; of shadows; of despair.

The darkness passed from him, and upon his vision there broke now a very glory of light. Countless shining figures seemed to move before him. There was a flashing of white wings. There was the gleaming of bright faces. He heard music of triumph; voices of gladness, giving praise; and he shook to the delicate might of them.

He became aware all at once of a change in the voice that sang. It was tranquil and happy, very tender and clear in its tones, dying away at last in a tremulous cadence that was awed and yearningful. There was silence for a time, during which he realised that the singing of Fionola had been the cause of those imaginings which had so strangely bemused him. He heard the silversmith's voice, quivering a little :

"It was the song that I made of her chaste beauty'' he was saying. " While I wrought in my workshop one day, carving flowers of gold to set in the silver girdle of the druid, Erva, she went by in her chariot with others of the virgins from yonder cloister. And seeing Brigid, more stately than the swan upon Loch Darvra, more gentle than any other maiden I have seen-: "

" She is not more lovely than Fionola of the golden hair," said Aengus with a suave gallantry.

" My daughter is beautiful. But this Brigid, for all her disbelief in the truths of old, is more fair to see, as though some power of mystery had touched her. And seeing her when she passed by, I was moved to song. Unbidden, to my lips came happy music, and while I graved the gold, I sang like a poet in her praise. And -"

" And now," cried the physician, " now, for your chastisement, Fionola is stricken. The child suffers for the father's deed; and, until you repent your treachery to our gods, the witching fever will possess her."

"Perhaps it is my chastisement," said Ronan, subdued a little. ''Yet, as I tell you, Aengus, the song came unbidden. It seemed but my innocent tribute to one who shone wondrously fair. I forswore not a word, not a hope, of my ancient creed, which is yet, I say, as proud and lasting as your own, my good man. Nor did Fionola turn from the worship of our true gods. Only, like myself, she has looked upon Brigid passing by with her virgins, one stainless blossom, tender and bright amongst the clustering of other blossoms nigh as fair as she. And now Fionola has added to my little song, that came I know not why, and has wrought a gentle, sad magic in my heart, winning me to kinder thoughts of Brigid's faith-".

" O Ronan, Ronan, you grow pitiful because of your visions when Fionola sang ! I also had visions of darkness and of brightness; but know you not that our youngest bard can work such enchantment with his voice and harp? Why, but yesterday," said the old physician, craftily, "I heard Diarmaid, the son of Jarlait Mór; and, as I listened to his music, I saw again the Battle of the Ford. I heard the cries of challenge and of death. I saw the strife of warriors. I saw the blood steam red along the grass. Music brings dreams, Ronan. It soothes our griefs. It fires the brain to passion. So the harp of Diarmaid, and this strange chaunting of Fionola, brought the visions that were as changing dreams."

“I heard her sing, and saw the world in darkness. I saw a King, forgotten by his people, returning to them, cleaving the shadows that had hidden them. I saw reviled," said Ronan, speaking like one whose memory strains for the utmost truth, "I saw reviled One of boundless kingly glory, Who died, for the sake of His people, upon a great cross raised amidst the darkness. And then and then, behold! I saw a white brightness shine upon the world, and One whose Face was more beautiful than the light of the sky seemed to speak and bless His people. So the wonder of it passed from me, in the strange thanksgiving of Fionola's song."

Ronan gazed long and earnestly at the physician, who returned the pondering look with a stupid amaze. Then into the dim eyes of Aengus there came a quickness of deceit. And he said, shrewdly-seeming:

" O my friend, I also had such visions while the poor Fionola sang. I saw darkness, and I saw light in which strange figures moved. And the darkness is this house of Brigid overshadowing Druim Criaidh. And the light is the joy that will fill your heart when your child will be healed because of your ceasing to praise the goodness of Brigid. And the moving figures are the followers of Padraig and of her, fleeing before the wrath of our gods."

" And the cross on which died the King?" said the silversmith, looking rapt, gazing afar off.

"I did not see a cross. I did not see a kingly One," said the physician.: ''Read these signs yourself, Ronan, as you deem wise and true. The greatest of our druids will tell their secret meaning when he comes to you."

'' Wanderers have told me of the faith that Padraig preached," said Ronan, reflecting. " And Brigid believes as Padraig believed. They spoke of a cross ... of One who died ... of One who rose up, casting the cromlech aside . . ." They spoke: and so memory brings their light words to shape a lighter vision, Ronan. If you had not heard them speak '' I saw it not like this before. I saw not such wonder and such sacrifice."

"Because a maiden, uplifted in her fevere, sang enchantment ! I shall bring Diarmaid Og with his harp," said Aengus, bondsman in allegiance to the druids; his calling, too, being close akin to theirs. "I shall bring Diarmaid of the cunning fingers to work his music-spells on your troubled brain perchance to work, besides, a wholesome change in the girl's fever."

" You call it fever," said Ronan. " If it be so, why does it not come with you to cool its burning? Where is the magic in your herbs and secrets, that cannot cure a fever as of old?"

" It is a wicked and strange sickness, like to a fever, and yet unlike. I know it not. But look, Ronan: here comes Mornac, driving like the wind in his chariot !"

"It is Diarmaid Og who drives the black horses of Jarlait Mór."

" He brings his great harp in the chariot.''

" Noble is he of look, and masterful with the proud steeds. He hastens for Fionola's sake," said Ronan, going to the bawn, urging the attendants in their welcoming of the arch-druid and the young bard.

Aengus bowed low as the great Mornac swept past, in grave speech with the sad Ronan. The place became silent. In the bright workshops, where the tinkle of silver and instruments had hinted busy pagan craftsmen, there was now a hush. In the household awe grew more and more: the sonorous voice of the druid rose and fell in mystic chaunt, vibrating weirdly as he wrought his spells. Only in the spacious banquet-hall was there a sound, while serving-women moved swiftly hither and thither, setting forth fruit in silver dishes, wines and meads in fine-carven goblets and meythers, venison and game, and delicate little cakes in abundance.

Then, breaking that respectful silence, there rang an anguished scream. The druid was compelling the stricken girl to partake of the magical posset which he had mixed with his own hand. She refused to drink it. He touched her with the slender, gold-tipped wand that he bore. He laid his palm upon her brow, and droned druidical incantation, making odd wizard-signs with his slow wand. Crom Cruach, and all the lesser gods, he invoked in solemnity of beseeching; Dagda, and Aengus of Brugh, and all the magi of the Tuath. But the sorcery and supplication proved vain: Fionola refused the magician's cup; grew, indeed, more violent in her distemper because of Mornac's presence.

"It is the coming of this daughter of Dubhthac and Brocessa, She and her virgins have cast new spells into the winds that sweep Magh Liffe. But we shall vanquish their enmity, and the gods aiding us, as they aided our fathers . . ."

Mornac's vibrant deep voice broke murmurously. His handsome and venerable face worked as if to the confusion of very fierce emotions. For some moments, driving his long fingers through the snowiness of his locks, from the big brow to the hood of his cloak, he looked wild and repellant. Presently, uttering a low cry to his gods, he snatched at the leathern wallet that hung from his cincture on a gold chain, and unclasped it. From his robe he drew forth a parchment which, when he had opened the wallet of dried herbs, he studied with frowning eagerness, peering now and then keenly at the herbs in the little compartments into which the pouch was divided. At last, turning away from Ronan, who was anxiously contemplating Fionola and him, he moaned within himself, and appeared to be more grievously confounded than he had been.

At that moment a silent messenger touched the silversmith on the arm, and whispered him: '' Diarmaid the son of Jarlait Mór begs urgent speech with you."

Ronan went out at once, and met the handsome young chieftain in the ante-chamber.

"Great Mornac delays long," said Diarmaid. " What wondrous deed has he done for our beloved Fionola?"

''He cannot lessen her sickness," said Ronan, gazing in melancholy on the solicitous face of his daughter's noble lover.

"Listen then, O Ronan, my true friend," said the young chieftain.'' I fear that I may deserve rebuke, and I would confess a secret to thee quickly. When I came to woo the beautiful Fionola, she returned not my love. And because she did not love me as I had hoped, I sought the aid of Mornac, who pledged to me the strength of all his love-potions in my cause, which I had deemed just and worthy. And Mornac, going to Slana, who makes the little golden honey-cakes that Fionola loves, bade her mix with the wheat and honey a fine powder ground from herbs of great magic. So did Mornac tell me for my good cheer. But now, Ronan, this fever this lasting sickness it troubles me, and I feel, even as I speak to you, a secret surge of shame."

They had moved slowly across the threshold while Diarmaid spoke. Hearing of this hidden tampering with his daughter's food, the silversmith was sorely smitten with misery, and stood silent for a space, wringing his hands, striving to control the rage that he felt rising within him. Standing there in the sunshine, the two men heard sweet voices near them; and wheeling a little, they perceived a group of gentle, calm-browed women moving to them; bearing to them, it seemed, a very radiance of youth, and mildness and beauty. And having saluted them, the fairest of the women, whom Ronan recognised as Brigid of the Church of the Oak, spoke to the silversmith, and said:

"Erca, the daughter of the shepherd, who came to us yesterday, has told us that your daughter is ailing with a dangerous fever."

" She is ill nigh unto death," said Ronan quickly, ''and in her sickness she has sung of you, and made songs in your praise."

"Truly, it is a strange fever which afflicts her, that she would be making songs in praise of me," said Brigid cheerfully. "But be of good heart, O my friend, for the Bishop, Conlaedh, has offered the Holy Sacrifice for her, and we have prayed long and humbly. Now we come to see her.''

" A thousand welcomes before yourself, O generous maiden, and before the noble maidens who are with you," said the silversmith, with childlike fervour.

And bidding them follow him into the house, he went tremulously within. Diarmaid remained in the bawn, where he lingered for some minutes beside the chariot from which the horses had been unyoked considering without pride the great harp that had been brought because Mornac wished it. And of a sudden, as he waited alone, there came to him a joyous voice.

" O Diarmaid," cried Fionola from the threshold, " O Diarmaid Og, I am cured of my poisoning !"

" Great Mornac and our gods be praised!" said Diarmaid, hastening to her. " O Fionola, a mhuirnin, there is great gladness ''

" Mornac poisoned me, and could not stay the fever that sprang from his evil. It is she," said Fionola in happy triumph. ''It is she, the noble Brigid, who healed me through the great power of her One High God the Saviour God the Three-in-One that Padraig preached !"

''Then praise, O Fionola, to the God of Padraig and Brigid ! Praise to that God for ever!" said the young chieftain with reverence.

"Bring your harp into the house, and let us make a great poem of praise," said Fionola, and she turned to send an attendant for the beautiful instrument in the chariot.

Within doors the druid and the physician were disputing with Brigid, whose power and its source they questioned, seekly subtly after that which they lacked, pretending to be dissatisfied with her answers, but finding their arts futile before the wisdom and simplicity which were of Truth alone.

The silversmith had hurried to his workshops. He returned with a massive silver cup, very graceful of line despite its solidity, chased delicately to a design of intricate, but artistic interlacing of wolfhounds and snakes, and studded with eight circular facets of highly-burnished gold, whose plainness but enhanced the beauty of the engraven polished silver. Ronan had wrought this cup with his own hand, as a gift for Fionola on her marriage festival. He offered it now to Brigid as a token of his gratitude and veneration. But although sensible alike of the silversmith's kindness and of his exquisite workmanship, she preferred that he give it to Fionola as an espousal gift.

" For Fionola has whispered to me a holy whisper," Brigid said with a sweet seriousness, "and in a little while she will make her vows to the Son of God. In marriage of the spirit He will be her Heavenly Spouse, and her great blessing will be shared with you, O Ronan of the shining gift."

The silversmith glanced for an instant toward Diarmaid, who had heard this speech where he stood beside his harp.

''I have come to make a poem of praise," the young bard said simply, and his clear eyes moved from Ronan to Fionola in a calm gaze that betokened understanding of all that had happened.

"Sing in praise of a King that died upon a cross for His people, and rose again to bless them," said Ronan.

He beckoned to Fionola, and having kissed her on the forehead, presented his gift to her.

" Drink from this, O my daughter, of such holiness as hers," he said in low tones of affection.

Then Diarmaid Og struck the strings of his harp, and sang his song in praise of God, the King. And it was majestic, it was beautiful, and it was holy, as befitted the King. For Diarmaid, the son of Jarlait Mór, was a great bard, and of noble blood.

And while the young musician played, Aengus arose and strode rudely out, praying evil prayers, begging of his gods swift vengeance on Brigid, and Fionola, and Ronan, and Diarmaid. His face was dark and vindictive as he halted without, to await the coming of Mornac the druid.

But the old druid did not come. He had heard of Padraig; and now he had seen Brigid, in whose virtue he saw GOD.

His wand snapped into two pieces. In the glory of the young chieftain's music the sound of its breaking was unheard. Only Brigid, indeed, saw that it had been broken.

Irish Rosary, Volume 25 (1921), 194-202.

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