Friday 9 June 2023

Saint Colum Cille: 'A thorough Celt, a thorough Irishman'

Last year to mark the feast of our national patron Saint Patrick, I reprinted a stirring oration by the celebrated Galway Dominican preacher, Father Thomas Burke (1830-83), given in New York as part of a tour of the United States.  Father Burke was speaking in the heady days of the national revival, when a growing demand for Irish Home Rule was approaching its zenith. On this occasion he is again in New York, but this time speaking on our tertiary patron, Saint Colum Cille (Columbkille, Colmcille, Columba). Father Burke presents Saint Colum Cille as a national as well as a religious hero, just as he did with Saint Patrick. We can also see in his lecture the influence of Victorian racial theories, where the naturally spiritual Celt is contrasted with the naturally hard-headed Anglo-Saxon. Indeed, according to Father Burke, the pagan Saxons didn't even have the decency to worship the Sun as the pagan Irish had, but instead embraced 'the meanest and lowest forms of idolatry'. He takes up the familiar theme of Saint Colum Cille and the pain of exile, which I am sure would have struck a chord with his Irish-American audience, who doubtless also enjoyed the overall presentation of the saint as a man with an 'Irish' temper who storms into the court of the Picts and tells their rulers he would make them take the Gospel, if he had to drive it down their throats!


 (Lecture delivered in St. Columba’s Church, New York City.)

"MY FRIENDS:  There are two things necessary in order to make a saint: nature and grace must both work out the character of the man. Those whom the Almighty God destines for the high sanctity which the Catholic Church recognizes by canonization, either receive from God in the beginning a calm, sweet, gentle nature, or else, if they receive from God a hard, rigorous, obstinate nature, they receive on the other hand copious divine graces, whereby they overcome this nature thoroughly, and make themselves after God’s own nature. But whatever man’s natural disposition be, whether it be the amiable, sweet, gentle disposition, easily, unselfishly yielding to others, or whether full of character, full of self-assertion, full of rigor, full of obstinacy; whatever it be, if that man is destined to be a holy man, a man after God’s own heart and nature, there is another thing that must come to him from Heaven, to aid the natural disposition which he has received, and that is the mighty copious graces bestowed by the Almighty God on the saints of the Catholic Church. The saints, of whom we read, were men like ourselves. In reading their lives nothing is more interesting than to trace the man, side by side with the saint. They had the same passions; the same difficulties to overcome; the same enemies; the world lay around them, the devil was beneath them, and the flesh was their very selves. But, arming for this contest, whereby they were to triumph, not only over the world around them, and over the powers of hell beneath them, but over their own selves, they received from God the highest, the noblest, and the most powerful graces, and by corresponding with those graces, they elaborated and brought forth their own sanctity. Now, what follows from all this? My dear friends, it follows that there is a natural and a supernatural side, even in the lives of the saints; it follows that we find the man overcoming himself, sometimes yielding so far as to bring out his natural character, but in the end overcoming himself by divine grace ; it follows that the lives of the saints are not only most instructive to us as Catholics, but that they are also most instructive to the historian, or to the antiquarian, as subjects of national character. Now, my friends, the world is divided into various nations and races of people; and all these various races differ from one another in the most extraordinary manner. All that you have to do is to travel to see this. I have traveled a great deal — all over the continent of Europe I may say, with the exception of Russia and Turkey, and nothing in all these countries struck me more than the difference of the various races. For instance, I traveled in France, and there I found a lively, impulsive, generous, and passionate people; most polite, most willing to go out of their road to serve you in any manner. Entering into a stage-coach, or railway-car, coming in hat in hand, with a “May I be permitted to speak to you, sir?” style, making themselves agreeable to you at all times. Passing through France into Germany, there I found a people silent and reserved, with perhaps more of the grandeur of manliness than in France, but no approach to anything like conversation, no apparent external politeness, though a great deal, no doubt, of true politeness. In a word, as different from the neighbouring country as night from day. So, in like manner, go to Ireland and travel through it. Let a man who is not an Irishman go there, and he finds a quick, bright, intelligent, generous, and impulsive people. If he makes a joke, no sooner is it out of his lips than the Irishman laughs, and with his ready laugh shows that he appreciates the joke; if he does not make a joke, the simplest Irish peasant he meets on the road will make one for him. If he wants a drink of water, and asks for it, the probability is, that the farmer’s wife will say to him, “Don’t be taking water; it is bad for you. Take a drink of milk.” Impulsive; speaking without thinking; saying the word first, and afterwards thinking whether it was right or wrong to say it; perhaps giving you a blow in the face, and afterwards thinking perhaps you did not deserve it. More or less slip-shod and imprudent, allowing things to take their course. Pass over to England, and you find a country as different as if you passed from this world into another sphere. Everything kept in its own place; you may pass through the land and there is neither welcome nor insult for you. If you ask for a drink of water, there is very little fear that you will be offered a drink of buttermilk. 

So, throughout all the world and the nations of the earth, each one has its own character. Don’t imagine that I am abusing the Englishman by contrasting him unfavourably with the Irishman. My friends, I am one of your race; but I tell you that the Englishman has qualities that are admirable. As a rule, he is a brave man, a self-reliant man, a truthful man ; his word is his bond. Argue with him on any point— only leaving Ireland and the Catholic religion out of the question — and you will find him a fair man ; but the moment you talk to him about Catholicity, or about Ireland, he becomes irrational and unjust. Now, why am I making these remarks ? For this purpose. The saints of the various nations partake of the national character. They are, perhaps, the very best specimens of the national character of each nation of people. Whatever the nation is, that you are sure to find in the natural side of the saint’s character with this difference: there you find the grace of the Almighty God in the highest, noblest, and strongest form, acting upon the natural character of the man, or, if you will, upon the national character of the people, as embodied in that man. I am come here this evening to speak to you of one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church! A man whose name is recorded in the annals of the Church amongst her brightest and most glorious saints ! A man whose name is known throughout the whole world wherever a Catholic priest says his office, and wherever a Catholic people hear the 'voice of their pastor. There are many saints in the Catholic Church of whom we hear but little. Many saints, heroic Christian men, exalted in their sanctity. Yet how much do you know about them? You are Catholics, and you have scarcely ever heard the name of some of the great and illustrious saints: of St. Louis Bertrand, a Dominican saint of my order, one of the greatest evangelists God ever sent forth; of St Hyacinthe. But there are names of saints who were so great that the whole world was familiar with them. St Augustine — we have all heard of him; St. Patrick — who has the most ardent devotion of the Irish race. His name is known to the whole world, and will be known to the end of time. Amongst these mighty saints; amongst the saints who have written their names upon the history of the world; amongst those saints adopted by nations as their patrons, whose names are familiar to every hearth in the land where civilization and religion have extended themselves, is the name of the Irish saint, Columbkille, known outside of Ireland by the name Columba, but known amongst his own people as “Columbkille.  It is of him I have come to speak. Therefore, I speak of the national character, and the natural side of the saint, as embodied in him. 

You all know, my dear friends, that it is now fifteen hundred years since St. Patrick preached in Ireland. At that time the religion of Jesus Christ was only known in Italy, in Spain, in portions of France, and throughout the East in the primeval nations. The rest of Europe was in darkness. As yet the voice of the apostolic preacher had not been heard. The forests of Germany still witnessed the rites and ceremonies of the ancient paganism in that great land. The northern portions of Europe, Sweden, Norway, and Russia, amid their snows, still heard the voice of the ancient Scalds, celebrating in their sagas pagan divinities of the olden time. England was in the deepest darkness of her Saxon idolatry. A few of the ancient Britons, in the mountains of Wales, had received the Catholic faith, and their bishops and priests were ungenerous enough, and weak enough, to refuse to preach the Gospel to the Saxons, because they had invaded their land. It was in this almost universal mist and darkness, that, in the year 442, a man landed on the shores of Ireland, and lifted up his voice and proclaimed the name of Jesus Christ, and His Virgin Mother; and the Irish race today professes the same Catholic faith in all the clearness, in all the exact definiteness of its knowledge; and professes it still more in the sanctity of the national priesthood, and the system of monasticism as it was given to them from the lips of St. Patrick. My dear friends, no matter what men may say, I am here as a Catholic, as an Irish priest, and I defy any man in the world to produce such a miraculous example of conversion, and of instant maturity into fullness of love and holiness of life as that of the Irish race. 

Now, St. Patrick had passed to his grave. More than half a century had passed by, when, in the year 521, one of the princes of Ulster had a son born to him. He was of the Royal House of O’Neill and O’Donnell, and descended from “King Nial of the Nine Hostages,” the man who is supposed to have brought St. Patrick as a captive into Ireland for the first time. This house of O’Donnell and O’Neill is so ancient that its origin is lost in the mists of fable, in the prehistoric times that goes before any written record except the Holy Scriptures. They were kings in the northern parts of Ireland from the sixth century downwards. St. Patrick landed in Ireland and found O'Donnell and O’Neill on the throne of Ireland. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, only three hundred years ago, there lived an Irish prince by the name of O’Neill, and when Elizabeth wanted to make him an English Earl, he answered her: “Earl me no Earls; my foot is on my native heath, and my name The O’Neill; ”and scornfully flung back her coronets and dignities. No king in Europe had so grand, so royal a title as that crown of the O’Neills of Ulster. From these came St. Columbkille. The name he received was not in baptism, but at his conversion. The word  "Columba” is the Latin word for Dove. So gentle, so tender was he, so patient, that they called him the “gentle dove” in the Irish language. They went further, and because he was a monk, who loved to read in his cell who loved to live among his brothers in their cells, they called him Columbkille, which means the dove in the church or cell . Tradition and history tells us that no sooner was the child born, than his prince father called in the priest to baptize him. No delay, not even for an hour. As soon as the infant opened his eyes and saw the light of heaven, the divine adoption and the light of supernatural faith was let in upon his soul, by the holy waters of baptism. No sooner was the child taken from his mother’s breast, than he was handed over to the care of the priest who baptized him, his father and mother saying to him : “We begot this child as a child of nature, as a child of Adam; as far as he is ours he came into this world with the curse of God upon him; but, thou, O priest of God, thou dost lift off that curse and dissipate it by baptism. He is more your child than ours; take him and rear him up for that God, whose blessing, whose adoption thou hast brought down upon him in baptism.” So he remained with the priest that baptized him. As the child grew, two things grew side by side, one with the other. The first one belonged to the Irish character, and is as Irish as it could be. The second, the divine grace of God, the most wonderful. We can scarcely reconcile the two, as we look upon that beautiful young figure that rises up before us on the pages of history, as we contemplate his life. He grew from a child to a boy, from a boy to a young man. He was the most beautiful youth in all Ireland. Tall above all other men; perfectly formed, with the lofty forehead of the king’s son; the light-blue eye, full of genius, but full of temper; the strong, athletic form, delighting in coursing in the fields in the many exercises of the strong young man; a beautiful temperament, full of imagination; he was a lover of poetry and of music; and his young hands loved to tune the chords of the ancient Irish harp, and then to draw from them with thrilling grasp the very spirit and soul of Celtic music. Full of talent and intellect, with Irish brains in his head, there was no branch of knowledge or of science that was unknown to him; with him, to look at a thing was to know it; he did not require to study it. But he was also full of pride, full of passion. No man dared to contradict him; his temper was roused in a moment, and when that temper was roused, the young Irishman did not stop to think of what he said, or what he did. With the word came the blow, and then the apology, when it was too late. The very soul of the saint, when he looked at anything, decided whether it was right or wrong. Full of Celtic obstinacy; full of pride, side by side with a heart as soft and tender as that of a young woman. If he saw a poor man, or cripple, on the wayside, in feverish misery, his heart seemed to break in pity, and if no one was near to help, he would take them up on his shoulders and carry them to his house, and there feed and clothe them. And if, when carrying the poor man, or beggar, any one on the way passed by, and, when called upon to help him, refused, the temper came up at once. There was the full Celtic blood. 

 Noble, gentle, quick, irascible, full of character and determination, even to obstinacy. This was the natural character, yet, strange to say, side by side with this, and while thus hindered with a thousand imperfections, there was the most wonderful supernatural reign of divine graces. A thorough Celt, a thorough Irishman, his angel guardian appeared to him when he was between twelve and fourteen years of age, and said to him: “Columba, I come from heaven !” The moment Columba saw him, In the form of a radiant youth, he said at once: “Are all the angels in heaven as fair as you?” The angel answered: “They are all as fair, and many more fair. I come charged by the Christ, whom you love so dearly, to ask you what gifts you desire from God." Instantly the Irish youth, the young Irish boy, said : “ I ask from God chastity and wisdom.” The moment he said the word, three angels, in the form of three beautiful maidens, appeared before him. One, the fairest of all, then threw her arms around his neck. The Irish boy drew back afraid: “Thou hast refused my embrace, Columba; thou knowest not me; I am the Angel of Divine Virtue, I come with my sisters to remain with you forever.” These were the three sisters. Divine Virtue, Divine Wisdom, and Divine Spirit of Prophecy, who came to the child as a boy; a boy, full of faults, full of the imperfections of the Celtic character; the same imperfections that you and I have; not sitting down and being prudent and quiet, but always loving a contest; always loving to do a generous thing, and to do it on the spur of the moment; always ready to turn around to take up a slight or an insult before it is offered. Yet, side by side, we have the evidence in the life of the saint of the other portion of the Celtic character. The other great virtue, which with all its faults, the Irish character invites, is the VIRTUE of PURITY. 

Thus it was most natural that Columba became a monk, and was an obedient priest. He gave his light forever to that grand Irish monasticism, which was the flower and bloom of the glory of Ireland, in that wonderful sixth century. The Irish monks at that time were the most learned, as well as the most holy men in the Catholic Church. Everywhere their virtue was known; in every nation professing the Catholic faith. Students came in profusion to Ireland, yea I even the very pagan nations sent their children to Ireland, to the grand university of the world, there to learn every highest science and art, and, above all, the art and glorious science of loving Jesus Christ and His Church. They came, they entered the mighty schools of Armagh, of the Island of Arran, on the western coast, and of Lismore, on the banks of the Blackwater. In a word, they came and entered the mighty schools that covered the whole face of Ireland, and the old historians tell us that it was considered rather a poor effort at a school where there were not at least three thousand students. The old Irish saints and monks, in their history, tell us of them, that they cultivated every highest art, and, above all, the art of music. In the ancient Life of St. Bridget, we read that on one occasion she went into the king’s palace, perhaps at Tara, and there she saw a harp hanging up on the wall. Turning to the white-haired and gray-bearded minstrel she said to him, “ Harp me a song on thy harp,” and the old man took down his harp lovingly, and seating himself, while the young Christian virgin sat before him, in melody he poured forth the glories of God and the glories of Ireland. So, when Columba entered the monastery, he found there every highest art and science cultivated; but he found there two great passions that were always burning in the heart of the ancient Irish monk, and these were an overpowering love for Ireland, and a love for Ireland’s poetry and music. The young prince, ardent, full of courage; who seemed to be marked out far more for a soldier, a sailor, or a captain of armies than for a monk, no sooner puts on the monastic cowl, than he devotes his soul to three things, viz. : the love of God’s divine religion, the love for Ireland, and the cultivation of music and poetry. 

No hand was more skillful to sweep the chords of the lyre, and the old chronicles tell us that when those ancient monks assembled, they loved to play their harps ; even when they came to church to sing the divine songs, the Psalms of David, in the office they recited every day. And so, from their hands went forth the accompanying thrill of Erin’s music, while with sweetest voices they melodiously sang the praises of Almighty God; and so rich and grand was the voice of the young novice, that we read, when he was an old man, over sixty years of age, while preaching the Gospel on the Picts and Scots, he stopped and began to sing the praises of God, to the sound of his Irish harp. The pagan priests, who were around — who did not wish to let him preach — who, above all things, did not want him to sing, because his voice had a kind of supernatural power, that drew the hearts of the pagan people to God — raised their voices and shouted in order to drown the voice of St. Columba. The Irish saint looked around upon them, with the old Celtic fire of youth in his aged eyes; he pitched the highest note, and brought out from his harp the stronger chords, chanting out the Psalms of David, and the praises of God; so that, although the priests roared and bawled until they were hoarse, the voice of the saint sounded above them all. He went over all this country, and into the houses of the people, singing the glory of the highest heaven. 

Everything went calmly and quietly with Columba until, when he was forty years of age, an incident happened that gave tone to his whole life, although it broke his heart. When the saint was forty years of age, he heard that St. Finnian possessed a valuable copy of a part of the Scriptures — the Book of Psalms. St. Columba wanted a copy of this book for himself ; and went to St. Finnian and begged the privilege of the book to take a copy of it. He was refused; the book was too precious to be trusted to him. Then he asked at least to be allowed to go into the church where the book was deposited ; and there he spent night after night, privately writing out a clean copy of it. By the time St. Columba had finished his copy, somebody who had watched him at the work, went and told St. Finnian that the young man had made a copy of his Psalter. The moment St. Finnian heard of it he laid claim to this copy as belonging to him. St. Columba refused to give it up, and appealed to King Dermott, the Ard-righ at Tara. The King called his counsellors together; they considered the matter, and passed a decree that St. Columba should give up the copy, because, as the original belonged to St. Finnian, the copy was only borrowed from it; and the Irish decree began with the words: “To every cow her calf ; to every book its copy.” Now mark the action of Columba — a saint, a man devoted to prayer and fasting all the days of his life ; a man gifted with miraculous powers; and yet, under all that, as thoroughbred an Irishman as ever lived. The moment he heard that the king had resolved on giving back the precious book, he reproached him, saying : “I am a cousin of yours, and there you went against me!” He put the clanship — the “Sheanachus” — upon him. The king said he could not help it. What did St. Columba do ? He took his book under his arm, and went away to Ulster, to raise the clans of O’Neill and Tyrconnell of Tyrone. 

He was himself the son of their king; they were powerful clans in the country, and the moment they heard their kinsman's voice, they rose as one man; who ever yet asked a lot of Irishmen to get up a row and was disappointed? They arose; they followed their glorious, heroic monk down into Westmeath. There they met the king and his army, and, I regret to say, a battle was the consequence, in which hundreds of men were slain, and the fair plains of the country were flooded with blood. It was only then that St. Columba perceived the terrible mistake he had made. Like an Irishman, he first had the fight out, and then he began to reflect on it afterwards. 

Now, at this time, St. Columba’s name was known all over Ireland, for the wonderful spirit of prophecy that was upon him. He was known all over Ireland as a very angel of God for his purity. He was already the founder of several famous monastic institutions. In Ireland there were twelve large monasteries counting their monks by hundreds and thousands, who looked up to Columba as their chief. His prophecies were wonderfully fulfilled, almost as soon as uttered. His sanctity was an acknowledged fact; and yet, in the face of all this, the natural Celtic character, the rash, quick temper of the proud Irishman broke out in him so far that he caused the death of hundreds of his countrymen. And the next day after the battle he was on his knees by the side of his priest, acknowledging his culpability. The bishops assembled, took thought over the matter, and the issue of it was, that poor, dear St. Columba, with all his sanctity, was excommunicated. As for the book there was no question; he never got it back. Strange to say, my friends, that very book, written by St. Columba’s own hand, remains and is shown to this day in Ireland. He went to confess, with great sorrow, to an aged monk named Molaise. The saint was broken-hearted for what he had done; for the blood that had been shed; and, if you will, for the scandal of his bad temper. So he had to endure and to accept any penance that would be put upon him. The confessor asked him this question: “ What is the strongest love you have in your heart ? ”And the poor penitent answered : “ The love that I have for Ireland ; that is the strongest affection in my heart." Then the most cruel penance was put upon him — that he was to depart from Ireland, never to see her, or to put his foot upon her soil again. Sentence passed, the man fell to the earth as if the hand of God had smitten him — as the Lord Jesus Christ fell under his cross, which was more than he could bear. Rising up with despairing eyes, he looked in the face of the terrible confessor to whom he had confessed his sins ; then making one effort, he accepted the great sacrifice, and said : “Father, what you have said shall be fulfilled.” Then he wrote a letter to his friend, Tyrconnell, in Ulster ; he said : “My fate is sealed. My doom is sealed. A man tells me that I must exile myself from Ireland ; and that man I recognize as an angel of God, and I must go.” With breaking heart and weeping eyes, he bade a last farewell to the green "Island of Saints,” and went to an Island among the Hebrides, on the northern coast of Scotland. There, in the mist and storms of that inhospitable region ; there, upon a bare rock out from the mainland, he built a monastery; and there did he found the far-famed school of Iona. 

Then began the second grand portion of the life of this man whom God had determined and predestined to make so great a saint. He came to Iona a man, a prince, a Saint of Ireland, full of passion, full of the nationality of his race, full of the love of God, unstained, unsullied in his virgin mind and soul as an angel before the throne of God. And there he was destined to remain for thirty-six long years, in constant fasting, in unceasing prayer, until the divine grace, descending upon him, made a perfect saint of him who was before so noble a specimen of the Celtic race. Now, do you know how hard it is for one in exile? Here is an account given by one of the greatest writers of modern times. He tells us of his love that he retained for Ireland, the affectionate tenderness of the exile ; a love which displayed itself in the songs which have been preserved to us. It is beautiful. He goes on to say, that amongst other things, St. Columbkille left behind him such words as these: 

“Death in faultless Ireland, is better than life without end in Albyn. 

 “What joy to fly upon the white-crested sea, and to watch the waves break upon the Irish shore! 

“What joy to row the little bark and land among the whitening foam upon the Irish shore! “ Ah ! how my boat would fly if its prow were turned to my Irish oak-grove !  

"But the noble sea now carries me only to Albyn, the land of ravens. 

"My foot is in my little boat, but my sad heart ever bleeds. 

"There is a gray eye which ever turns to Erin ; but never in this sad life shall it see Erin, nor her sons, nor her daughters. 

 "From the high prow I look over the sea; great tears are in my gray eyes when I turn to Erin — to Erin, where the song of the birds is so sweet; where the clerks sing like the birds; where the young are so gentle, and the old so wise; where the great men are so noble to look at, and the women so fair.” 

 In another place he says to one who was returning from his Scottish island to Ireland : 

 "Young traveller, carry my sorrows with thee ; carry them to Comghall of eternal life. 

"Noble youth, take my prayer with thee, and my blessing ; one part for Ireland — seven times may she be blessed ! — and the other for Albyn. 

 "Carry my blessing across the sea ; carry it to the west. My heart is broken in my bosom. 

" If death comes to me suddenly, it will be because of the great love I bear to the Gael

What can be more tender than the message that he gives to one of his monks. One morning he called from his little cell in Iona to one of his Irish monks there in exile. He said to him, "Brother, go out and stand upon the hill near the east shore; after you are there awhile a bird will come and fall at your feet with her broken wing. Take up that bird, dear brother," he said, and feed and care for her gently, restore her to strength again, for that bird will fly over to Ireland. Ah! my broken heart, that bird will fly back to Ireland again, but I can never go back.” 

This was the heart of the man, the grand passion of his life, which became the source of his martyrdom. Exile from Erin was to him the bitter penance that the priest of God put upon him after the great indiscretion and sin of his life. Yet it was an Irish sin. He did not want to glory in anything wrong; and this I do say, if it was a great Irish sin, there was nothing mean, nothing nasty in that sin; it was the sin of a brave, passionate man. He felt he was injured, and he called upon his people, and bloodshed followed upon it. It was the act of an impulsive man; nothing vile to be ashamed of; nothing of which the recollection could bring anything but a manly sorrow to his heart. It was the Irish sin. 

Now began a great period of his life. He was forty-two years of age when he left Ireland and landed on the little Island off the western coast of Scotland. Here his Irish monks built a wooden church, and here that man lived in one of the humblest forms of cells. St. Columba for forty years slept upon the bare ground an hour or two out of the twenty-four. Thus he lay, with a hard rock whereon to lay his head. This island on which the Irish monks landed was destined to be the most holy, the most gloriously historic spot in Western Europe. He brought monks from Ireland with him, and there upon the distant shores of Scotland, did he find a people divided into two great nations, viz. : the Irish who had emigrated hundreds of years before, in the very time of St. Patrick, who were Christians, having brought their Catholic religion with them, and who possessed the southern and western portions of Scotland. But the northern and eastern portions of the land were in the hands of another nation, the most terrible, the most brave, and, with all, the most savage that ever the Roman legions encountered. They were called the ancient Picts. So brave were they that when Julius Caesar "had conquered the whole of England, he never was able to conquer the Picts and warlike savages that inhabited Scotland. As they were brave to resist invasion, so were they also brave with an infernal bravery in resisting the Gospel. Holy saints came to them only to be torn to pieces and slaughtered. The hour of their redemption came from the hour when St. Columbkille landed on the island of Iona. He brought a large colony of Irish monks, and his first mission was to his own Irish people settled in Scotland. They were governed by a ruler subject to the King of Ireland. Columbkille went in amongst them, not to preach the Gospel, for that they had already received, but to preach that which in the heart and on the lips of the Irish priest is next to the Gospel. He went in amongst his exiled Irish brethren to preach the Gospel of Irish nationality, and of love for their native land. He spoke to them in the language of the bard and of the poet, of the ancient glories of Ireland. He told them that although they were established in a foreign land, their best and holiest remembrance, their grandest and noblest influence, was the recollection of the land from which they and their fathers came. He chose one of their princes to be king. He banded them together into a kingdom, and he crowned that Irish prince the first King of Scotland. And that Irish colony of Caledonian Scots, as they were called, were destined to conquer the terrible savage Picts, and the first man that reigned was the holy Irish Prince Aiden. 

Well, my friends, it is most interesting to us to find that the very day that St. Columba crowned the Scotch king, he made this speech to him: “Mark my words" he said, “O King, the day may come when you and your children after you, may be tempted by the devil to make war upon Ireland. Upon Ireland,’" he said, “the land of my love, the land of my race and of my blood." And here are the words that he put upon that king; in the midst of the ceremony of the coronation he said to the king whom he crowned: “Charge your sons, and let them charge their grandchildren that they attempt no enterprise against my countrymen and my kindred in Ireland, the land of God; or the hand of God will weigh heavily upon them, the hand of men will be raised against them, and the victory of their enemies will be sure in the day they have the misfortune and the curse of turning against Ireland.” There was the glorious law of the Irish priesthood, and of Irish history: there was the true father of the heroic St. Laurence O’Toole, that stood in the gap on that terrible day, when no man in Ireland seemed to have heart or courage enough to strike a blow in the invading enemy’s face. 

Aiden was king. He was not long crowned, when the Saxons, who invaded England, that is to say, the country that was south of the Grampian Hills, invaded Scotland also. The king had to go forth to do battle against them ; and here again we find our ancient Irish saint coming out. “Faithful love for his race and country, which had moved him with compassion for the young Irish kingdom, did not permit him to remain indifferent to the wars and revolutions which at that time disturbed the Irish Scots. There was no more marked feature in his character, than his constant, his compassionate sympathy, as well after as before his removal to Iona, in all the struggles in which his companions and relatives in Ireland were so often engaged. Nothing was nearer to his heart than the claim of kindred. For that reason alone he occupied himself without ceasing in the affairs of individual relatives.” ‘This man,” he would say, “is of my race. I must help him. It is my duty to work for him, because he is of the same stock as myself.” “This other man is a relative of my mother's.” Then he would add, speaking to his Scottish monks : “My friends, they are my kindred, descended from the O’Neills.” “See them fighting,” he would exclaim when hearing of a victory. Perhaps, he said it in Heaven before the Throne of God in the day when Red Hugh O'Neill destroyed the English army at the Yellow Ford. He was praying one day with his favored companion monk, named Dermot, and whilst they were together, the saint said: “Rise, O, Dermot! ring the bell and call the monks to pray.” The monk rang the bell, and all the other monks of the monastery came around the father. Here are his words : 

“Now, let us pray with intelligence and fervour for our people and for King Aiden, who, at this very moment is beginning his battle with the barbarians.” They prayed, and after a time Columba said: “I behold the barbarians fly. Aiden is victorious.” Who were the barbarians ? The Saxons of England, the pagan Saxons, the haters of religion and of his Irish people, the haters of Aiden, the Irish king, and his religion. Another nation lay before him, and the heart of the saint was touched for them. You have seen what he did for his own countrymen in Scotland. He saw in the northern fastnesses of the land those uncivilized, savage, pagan Picts. The men to whom no missionary was ever able to preach ; the men whom no preacher dared to address. And here again see how the character of the Irish saint came out. He arose and took with him a few of his Irish monks, and they travelled into the very heart of their country. He went in order to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Picts. 

Their king had established himself in a mighty fortress, his pagan priests with him. They were noticed, and when from the towers they saw the brave missionary, the magnificent form of the Irishman, coming, the king admired his manliness and his princely and undaunted courage. He saw the light of the sun beaming upon the grand face of the saint, and he loved him, but he gave orders that the gates of the fortress should not be opened. “Tell him, no man shall enter here as a guest who is not welcome, and that if he attempts to preach he shall die.” The message was given, but Columba, without hesitation, without stopping to take counsel, without one moment's prudence, the instant he heard that the king had said he should not come, his Irish blood was up, and it seemed to him there was no reason why he should not go in. He went straight to the very door of the castle and dealt it a mighty blow with his staff. “Open,” he said, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Again he struck it, and the mighty gates fell open, and St. Columbkille of Iona walked in like a conqueror. There was the king on his throne, angry, thirsting for his blood; finding the pagan priests around him claiming that he had violated their laws and that he should be put to death, he lifted up that terrible voice of his, in the Irish language, which was easily understood, with a slight interpretation, by the Gaels or the Picts. He said: “I would here speak today. I tell the king to his face, and the chieftains, I am Columba of Iona, and would make them take the Gospel, if I had to drive it down their throats.” Years of sorrow, years of repentance, years of prayer and of fasting had passed over his head, and he was now an elderly man, beyond the prime of life, but the moment opposition is shown to a righteous cause, that moment the old Irish blood of his youth, and all the terrible ardor of his Celtic nature is raised within him. My friends, he converted the Pictish nation nearly as perfectly as Patrick converted the Irish. He left his character upon them, so that they became a staunch, a loyal, and true Catholic race in the Highlands of Scotland, and they continued so to be, almost to the present hour. Highlanders of Scotland. Yes! there are villages in the Highlands of Scotland which have suffered for defense of their faith, like Ireland; suffered by bad landlords; the same scourge came upon them of English Protestantism and bad laws; but the traditions of Ireland’s Columba was with them, and his words remained with them like a blessing, and there are villages in Scotland that never yet lost their Catholic faith, through weal or through woe. 

Now another nation lay before him. Great was the heart of the man and true. He saw the pagan Saxons of England in their hundreds and thousands. What did they worship? They worshiped the meanest and lowest forms of idolatry, they had not the grace to worship the Sun, like the Irish. They worshiped Thor, the God of the Scandinavians, a huge fellow with goggle eyes, no feet, and a big club in his hands. They were Saxons! St. Columba neither loved nor liked them. They were Saxons! Perhaps he, being a prophet, foresaw that, they would be the “Scourge of God” to the land of his love. They were Saxons! They had assaulted and invaded the land of his own people in Scotland, and the king whom he had crowned. But they were men, and they had souls. And he loved them in the mighty love that burned in his heart for the Lord and Saviour who died for him. So, accordingly, we find that after his conversion of the Picts, the mighty preacher went south, and with the aid of his monastic brethren, the Irish St. Columbkille converted all the Saxons of Northumbria and the middle portions of England. Badly have they repaid us, for we gave them faith, and they endeavoured to rob us of our faith. We gave them through our great St. Columbkille the liberty of the angels of God, and they have endeavoured to deprive us of that liberty which is the inheritance and birthright of the children of men. We gave them light, and they have endeavoured to repay us with darkness. To the Irish saint and his brethren chiefly belongs the honour of converting the Saxons to Christianity. For though St. Augustine came to England to preach the gospel, his labours were only in the south. St. Columbkille and his children had already converted the Saxons of the north. They were the true apostles of England. 

 And now old age was upon him. He was approaching his seventy-sixth year, and we read two things of him, namely — that to the last day of his life he never mitigated or changed his austerities. The old man of seventy-six still lay upon the damp earth, with a rock for his pillow. The old man of seventy-six still fasted every day of his life. The old man of seventy-six seemed to have a heart as young, as compassionate, as tender, as if he was a boy of fourteen. And one little incident shows us how much the Irish fire was tamed down in him by the sanctity of the saint. When he was an old man, the great feature of his character was, that he still continued the holy work as diligently as when he was young — writing a copy of the sacred Scriptures. The great passion of his life was writing books — there was no printing in those days — writing books, even  when he was bent to the earth with old age and austerities. Yet he fired up into the ardor of the young harpist as he took the Irish harp, and with his aged fingers swept the chords, his voice pouring forth the praises of Ireland and of his God. We read that when he was an old man, strangers frequently came to him for his blessing; and one day a man came into the little room where St. Columba was writing, and in his eagerness to get the saint's blessing, rushed forth with such vehemence that he overturned the ink-bottle and destroyed the whole manuscript. Oh! if he had done that thirty or forty years before. But all the old saint did now, was to put his arms about him, embrace him, and say: “Have patience, my son; be gentl ; don’t be in such a hurry.” 

 He was seventy-six years of age, and he prayed that he might die at Easter. God sent an angel to tell him that his prayer was granted. Now, mark the Irish heart again. The moment that he heard his prayer was granted, he prayed to God to let him live another month ; for he said to the monks: “My children, I prayed that I might die and pass my Easter Sunday in heaven. God said He would grant my prayer; but then I remembered that you have just fasted a long Lent, upon bread and water, and that you are all looking forward to Easter Sunday as a day of joy; and if I died on that day, it would be a sad and sorrowful day; so I asked my God to put it off a month longer.” The month passed. It was Saturday night, and Columba, in the morning, told his children, the monks: “This night I will die and take my rest.” The monks were accustomed to go into the church precisely at twelve o’clock. The bells rang, and Columba was always in the church to prayer when he was not studying; he went before the others into the dark church — there were no lights — and knelt at the foot of the altar. Dermott, his faithful attendant, followed the old man, and, groping about in the church for him, at first not being able to see him, exclaimed : “Father! dear father! where art thou?” A feeble moan soon was heard, and guided to where he lay. The other monks came in bringing torches in their hands, and found Columba stretched out — dying! grasping the foot of the altar — dying! under the very eyes of that Lord and God whom he loved so well— dying! with a heart long since broken with love for that Lord Jesus, and for    the dear land that he had left behind him. They raised him up, and with his dying lips he said: “Come around me that I may give you my last blessing.” He lifted his aged hand, and before the sign of the Cross was made, the hand fell by his side ; the light of human love departed from his eye; and one of the most glorious souls of apostles and martyrs that ever passed into Thy kingdom, O Lord! beheld Thee in Thy joy!

This was our old saint. How grand, how great is his national character! How great the character of the saint in his cell! Above all, how interesting to study the depths of that soul, and the changes which had taken place in it since his youth. At the beginning of his life, he was vindictive, passionate, bold, a man of strife, born a soldier rather than a monk. Often in his lifetime he was involved in fighting; and when the Irish were fighting their battles they would cry out, “Columba, pray for us.” And his soul went out from his cell into the thick of the fight with them. He was, at the same time, full of contradictions and contrasts. He was tender and irritable, rude and courageous, ironical and compassionate, caressing, imperious, grateful, revengeful, led by pity as well as by wrong, ever moved by generous passions; and among all passions, fired to the last by the love of poetry and the love of Ireland; little inclined to melancholy when he had once surmounted the great sorrow of his life, which was his exile. Thus, full of contradictions, yet harmonized by divine grace, he lived and died a saint who is the glory of the Church of God. And who, I hope, and trust, and believe, will, by his prayer, yet obtain for his native country of Ireland all which she legitimately desires of happiness, of freedom, and of joy.

Very Rev. Thomas N. Burke, Lectures and Sermons Vol. 2, (New York,  1904), 81-99.

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Friday 24 March 2023

Saint Patrick's Confessions

Bringing the series of posts in honour of Saint Patrick to a close on the octave of his feast day with another Australian newspaper offering, an 1884 article quoting his Confession, although the writer refers to Confessions in the plural. I have always found it a truly wonderful thing that we are able to hear the voice of our patron saint, 'a unique voice from the dawn of Irish history' as one modern scholar puts it, through his own writings. As Philip Freeman notes in his 2005 book Saint Patrick of Ireland - a Biography:

Patrick's letters were restricted to those who read Latin until the nineteenth century, when the first English translations appeared. In the last hundred years more than a dozen editions of the letters have been published. In spite of this proliferation, the writings of Patrick are poorly known to this day. Everyone has heard of Saint Patrick, of course, but the man most people know is little more than an icon who drove the snakes out of Ireland. This lack of knowledge about the real Patrick is truly regrettable, because he has such an amazing story to tell: a tale of slavery and brutality, pain and self-doubt, sorrow and constant struggle, but ultimately of perseverance, hope and faith. His letters, in the end, remain as a remarkable gift from an extraordinary man.

 Let's hope that in the twenty-first century we too can begin to rediscover and truly appreciate this remarkable gift:


Some years before his death, St. Patrick, the Irish apostle, wrote his confessions. The following extracts from this invaluable document will show the state of the writer's mind, and the spirit in which he left the world :— 

"You know," says he to the Irish people, "and God knows, what kind of behaviour I have had with you from my youth, in the belief of the truth, and in the sincerity of my heart. Moreover, in every province where I have been, I have made known my faith unto the people, and will make it known. God knows that I have defrauded none of them, nor have I stirred up any one against them through all our persecutions, lest on my account the name of the Lord might be blasphemed. When I had baptized so many thousands of the people, I might, perhaps, have expected from some of them a small compensation. Tell me if I have received aught, and I will pay it back. Or when I have ordained ministers, if I have asked from any of them even the price of a pair of shoes, tell me, and I will return to you more than I have received. And now I recommend my soul to God, who faithful, for Whom, in reproach, I have performed this mission. I pray God that He may give unto me perseverance, that I may bear for Him a faithful testimony until my transition to my God. This sun which we now see, by the help of God will rise for us every day; but he will never reign, neither will his splendor be lasting. But we believe in the worship of the true Sun, Jesus Christ our Lord, Who will never pass away; Who made all things by His own will, and shall remain for ever. He reigns with God the Father Omnipotent, and with the Holy Spirit, before the worlds were, now, and will reign through all ages of ages. Amen."

SAINT PATRICK'S CONFESSIONS, South Australian Weekly Chronicle, April 19, 1884.

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Thursday 23 March 2023

Saint Patrick's Staff of Jesus

In 2018 I posted a series of posts on one of the most famous of all of the relics associated with Saint Patrick - the
Bachall Ísu (Íosa), or Staff of Jesus. Below is a reminder of the story of how the Irish patron came to acquire Christ's staff, published in the American journal The Pilgrim of Our Lady of Martyrs in 1889:

WHEN the young St. Patrick escaped to Gaul after his second term of captivity in Ireland, he heard in spirit the Irish people crying to him from the woods of Tirawley, in Mayo: " "We beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk amongst us and set us free."

Come, holy one, long preordained!
For thee the swans of Lir are singing;
Come from the morning, orient-stained,
Thy Mass-bell thro' our valleys ringing.

Man of the hooded hosts, arise!
Physician, lo! our souls lie dying —
Hear o'er the seas our piteous cries,
On thee and on thy God relying.  [1]

Moved by their spiritual wants, the devout youth at once began his studies to prepare himself for holy orders.

In the course of these studies, St. Patrick travelled much in France and Italy and the islands of the Mediterranean. He stopped longest, perhaps, at the noble monastery of Lerins, shortly after the death of its founder, the great St. Honoratus,  and here he received his celebrated "Staff of Jesus."

He had had a vision in which an angel told him to repair to this island, and visit a holy recluse named Justus who was living there — doubtless the same as the Bishop Justus who assisted at the Synod of Arles in 450. St. Patrick eagerly sought him out, and noticed, by the way, that in a certain part of the island lived a number of devout men, some of whom were in the bloom of health while others were quite old and decrepit. Justus, he learned, had formerly been the leader of these men, but for some years latterly had retired apart for greater security in his heavenly meditations.

"Hail, servant of God!" exclaimed St. Patrick, on finally meeting the hermit at the door of his cell; "the peace of Christ be with thee!"

For a moment Justus looked astonished, and then, raising his hands in joy to heaven, cried: " Thanks be to God! Thou art Patrick, a messenger of Jesus Christ. Long, long have I awaited thy coming."

The two Saints spent some hours in spiritual conversation, hardly noticing the flight of time, so wrapt were they in God, when the deep shadows of evening began to fall about them. Hereupon Justus arose and begged St. Patrick to enter his cell and join him in his repast of cool spring-water and bread seasoned with a few small herbs.

"But stay, good brother," said St. Patrick ; "who has told thee my name ?"

"As we take our meal, I will tell thee," answered Justus, and as soon as they were seated he told him this story:

"My brethren whom you have seen," he said, "and I were from our youth, which was many, many years ago, devoted to works of charity. Our doors were always open, and no stranger sought our help in the name of Christ and went his way unaided. So it fell out, one night, that a footsore pilgrim asked us for food and shelter. He bore a long staff in his hand, and seemed to have come a long journey. We received him with warmest hospitality, putting him no curious questions and giving him the best that our means afforded.

"He seemed grateful, and on the morrow arose with a smiling face to depart; but, as we gathered round him to bid him adieu, a sudden transformation came over him. His garments turned white as snow, and his face radiant, though softer than the sun. A heavenly fragrance was diffused about him. We gazed at him only once, awe-stricken, and fell upon our knees in adoration. It was Christ Jesus whom we had sheltered.

" 'Fear not,' He said in the gentlest accents, you have received your God in person this time, to reward you for the thousand times you received the poor and the sick and the tired in His name. And thou, Justus,' He said, bending over me, receive My staff and keep it till, after long years from now, there come to thee a pious pilgrim named Patrick. Give it to him, for he shall have a mighty mission to perform for Me.' So saying, our Lord ascended into the clouds before us. Ever since that day, we have retained our youthfulness and vigour, while our children who then were only infants have grown decrepit with age. As soon as I saw thee, my brother, I knew that thou wast Patrick, and, lo! I fetch thee thy staff."

St. Patrick humbly knelt to receive the heavenly gift, which he regarded as a divine symbol of his call to preach the faith in Ireland. After lingering some days with Justus, he set out to throw himself at the feet of the Sovereign Pontiff, St. Celestine I.

Many were the miracles wrought by the sacred staff, and even the great St. Bernard tells us, in his life of St. Malachy, that in his own day it was held in highest esteem by the Irish as a venerable relic of their Apostle. A charter of Henry III., now preserved in the British Museum, confers "a Knight's Fee, at Inistioge, on John Comyn, Archbishop of Dublin, for guardianship of the Staff of Jesus."

But by and by thieves broke into the fold of Christ. The precious relics of Irish faith fared ill at their hands, and Browne, the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, impiously ordered the sacred Staff of Jesus to be publicly burned with many other relics in High Street.

[1] From Thomas Darcy M'Gee's St. Patrick's Dream. 

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Wednesday 22 March 2023

Saint Patrick's Ink

As an old-school researcher I write out all my notes for the blog in longhand using a fountain pen and rather enjoy experimenting with different types and colours of ink. I was therefore pleased to find the following 1895 article with the intriguing title of 'Saint Patrick's Ink'. It pays tribute to the skill of those monastic scribes and scholars who produced the Irish illuminated manuscripts. The article is taken from the newspaper collection of the National Library of Australia, whose online TROVE resource is indeed well-named:


It is impossible to read the most ancient histories of the Irish saints without noticing how large a part books play in their lives.

In the library some cut the sheets of parchment, or even sewed together in the neatest way the odd shreds, for the monk must not waste the gifts of God, especially when they are rare and dear. They polished it on one side until it was smooth and laid it near the scribe. Others prepared the peculiar thick inks of the Irish writers, very much like varnish, in different colours. The red was the most beautiful, and after one thousand years it yet shines as the day it was first used. It was got from a kind of cockles collected on the seashore. Then there were black and green and golden inks, used in various thicknesses by the illuminators and the artists in miniature.

All these inks will resist chemicals that corrode iron. The ink was placed in thin, conic glasses attached either to the side of the desk or to the chair, sometimes to the girdle of the writer, often fixed to the end of a pointed stick placed upright in the ground, it is owing to this peculiar skill in making ink that so many of the old Irish manuscripts nave come down to us. They were like the cloth of corduroy — unless cut or burned up they were bound to last for ages — and are an eloquent symbol of that tenacious love of learning and that unquenchable faith which the hand of Patrick wrote in characters ineradicable on the very soul, in the very blood and innermost marrow of the Irish race.

"SAINT PATRICK'S INK." Ovens and Murray Advertiser (Beechworth, Vic. : 1855 - 1955) 16 February 1895: 1 (The Ovens and Murray Advertiser Supplement). <>.


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Tuesday 21 March 2023

Hymn to Saint Patrick

Another stirring patriotic hymn to Saint Patrick, this time from 1884. The author was the then vice-president of Thurles College, an institution first established as a school in 1837 but which later became a seminary. It is still in existence today as Mary Immaculate College and the campus retains many of its splendid nineteenth-century buildings. It is obvious from Father Arthur Ryan's hymn that he is writing in the heady days of the Irish national revival. Saint Patrick is referred to as a 'patriot saint' who champions faith and fatherland and has stood by the Irish people as they battled for their freedom. It may be that in his sense that 'morn is breaking', the author is anticipating the First Home Rule Bill of 1886 and he ends with a prayer that free from the chains of sin, he may be laid in 'a freeman's grave', an aspiration with a political as well as a spiritual dimension:


THE following beautiful hymn, from the pen of the Rev. A. Ryan, vice-president , The College, Thurles, is taken from his lately published novena to St. Patrick :—

Hail, glorious saint of Ireland! We,
Thy children, raise our song to thee;
Defend our land, and make her free
From sin and Satan's tyranny.

Defend thy sons from every foe;
Strike thou, O patriot saint! the blow 
For faith and fatherland; and woe
To all who seek their overthrow!

As reptiles fled thy staff before, 
May viperous discords flee our shore, 
And strife and folly join no more 
To wreck our hope and rob our store. 

In the darkest night, by tempests torn, 
The bark of Erin rode forlorn: 
Then wert thou by, to cheer and warn; 
Now, lo! the radiance of the morn. 
Yes, morn is breaking, father dear — 
The Eastern skies are bright and clear; 
Thou wert our star through midnight drear, 
In noontide's peril still be near. 
Be near to guide the patriot's hand, 
Be near to make our people stand 
A fearless, true, united band. 
For freedom, faith, and fatherland. 
Oh! guard our Irish loyalty  
To all that's justly, nobly free, 
To powers that rule by God's decree, 
To Church, to country, and to thee. 
Saint Patrick, may thy banner wave 
Triumphant o'er the enfranchised slave; 
From chains of sin thy suppliant save, 

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Monday 20 March 2023

Of Irish Interest: Hymn to St Patrick

Although in recent days I have been looking at the grave site of Saint Patrick in Down, the cause of our national apostle has always been championed by Armagh, Ireland's seat of ecclesiastical authority. The city's historic Saint Patrick's cathedral was appropriated by the new state church at the time of the Reformation, so it was not until after Catholic Emancipation was achieved in 1829 that the building of a Catholic cathedral could commence. The foundation stone was laid on Saint Patrick's Day in 1840 and work continued until 1873 when the cathedral was dedicated and opened. Michael, Cardinal Logue (1887-1924), continued work on the interior of the building, which was rededicated and reopened in 1904, and below is the text of a hymn which was sung on that occasion. It was published in the American Catholic newspaper The Sacred Heart Review in its 'Of Irish interest' column aimed at the large expatriate community of Boston. The sentiments of the hymn mirror those of similar compositions of the time, and interestingly this one was also translated into Irish:
Of Irish Interest.
A notable feature of the exercises incident to the rededication and reopening of the Armagh Cathedral, the other day, was the "Hymn to St. Patrick" originally written by the Rev. G. O'Neill, S. J., and translated into Irish by Tadhg O'Donoghue. The Irish words were sung in unison by the choir, the tune being an ancient Irish air of extreme beauty which had been adapted to them, and which fitted the hymn as happily as if they had been composed for each other. The Hymn in English is as follows; —
Dear Apostle, blessed Patrick, faithful lover of our land; 
Thou so tender in compassion, in thy fortitude so grand, 
See thy children gathered round thee, let thy heart be opened wide 
To the voice of their appealing; be our father and our guide. 
At thy word the pagan island blossomed red and blossomed white,
As a garden of God's pleasure, in the dawning of the light; 
And the evil spirits fleeing from each holy rite and prayer 
Left to Jesus and to Mary evermore that land so fair. 
Blessed Patron, make us faithful, as thy martyr sons of old; 
Loving still the Church, our Mother, with an ardent love and bold. 
Make us wise to battle Satan in his cunning and his might; 
Give us strength to conquer sorrow, give the scorn of base delight. 
O  console our drooping courage, as we battle day by day 
'Gainst the world and its beguiling and our hearts that still betray; 
Let thy prayer, on earth so mighty, be our aid till peril cease, 
Till we hail thee in the gladness of the everlasting peace!

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 32, Number 7, 13 August 1904, p.13.

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Sunday 19 March 2023

Saint Patrick's Grave

Following yesterday's 1882 newspaper article lamenting the sorry state of the reputed grave of Saint Patrick at Downpatrick, County Down, today we have a description of the restored site as unveiled in 1900. The project was spearheaded by Belfast Presbyterian solicitor and leading Celtic Revivalist, Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926). We can see the influence of the Celtic Revival in Bigger's choice of inscription and of the cross. Why he chose a cross from Lough Ree, on the Shannon, is unclear to me, as is his decision to carve the name of Patric alone and omit his fellow Irish patrons Saint Brigid and Saint Colum Cille. For the tradition was that all three of the Irish patrons shared a common grave. Doubtless those visitors who came to the spot read in their guidebooks the rhyme 'Three saints in Down one grave do fill, Patrick, Brigid and Colum Cille' but now it was Patrick alone who would be remembered at the site. The renovations of 1900 were certainly an improvement on what had gone before but below is a picture of the grave as it looks today, with a tarmac walkway and a cobblestone border.


To all Irishmen, both at Home and abroad, it will be of interest (says the Irish Weekly) to hear that the reputed grave of St. Patrick in the Cathedral yard at Downpatrick has been put in order, and marked with a lasting memorial placed there after much thought and at considerable expense. It is unique of its class, and will be another distinctively attractive feature to the many remarkable historical remains in the immediate vicinity of Downpatrick. Visitors to the spot will not be shocked to find the site of the grave marked only by a few broken stones and a rugged hole scraped in the earth with nothing distinctive to record the name of him who did so much to spread Christianity throughout the land, and whose remains are believed to be here interred The memorial stone is a rough weather-broken boulder of granite weighing about seven tons, taken from the mountain side of Slieve-na-Largie, near Castlewellan, where it rested at a height of 600 feet above the sea. Upon the upper surface of this boulder has been incised an Irish cross, faithfully reproduced from one cut on an equally rough, unhewn stone found on Inisclearaun, one of the islands of Lough Ree, on the Shannon, and not far from Clonmaonoise. Here St. Dairmid founded big famous ecclesiastical settlement about the middle of the sixth century. The name 'Patric' has also been cut in Irish characters copied from the earliest known Celtic manuscripts. This simple, but massive, treatment is considered to be a near approach to the form of a grave slab, which would have been used about the fifth century— the date of the Saint's death. The movement for the erection of the monument was initiated by the editor of The Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Belfast. The supervision of the work was entrusted to Mr. W. F. Fennel, M.R.I.A., architect, and excellently carried out by the Messrs. Hastings, of Downpatrick, who also so carefully restored the ancient town cross of Downpatrick, under the same auspices, a few years ago.

ST. PATRICK'S GRAVE.,New Zealand Tablet, Volume 07, Issue 23, 7 June 1900

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Saturday 18 March 2023

The Grave of Saint Patrick


Last night on Radio Maria Ireland's show 'All the Saints of Ireland' I looked at the question of where Saint Patrick was laid to rest. Downpatrick, County Down emerged as the only place with an actual reputed burial site to which a visitor could be pointed. As I explained on the show, by the nineteenth century there was a lot of muttering about the shabby state of the grave, a sentiment reflected in the 1882 article below, syndicated in a New Zealand newspaper from The Cork Examiner. By this time the railways had reached Downpatrick making travel easier and encouraging the beginnings of tourism. Victorian visitors went armed with their guidebooks, anxious to see what historical curiosities their destinations offered, so it must have been something of a disappointment to read of Downpatrick's rich Patrician associations only to be be confronted with the reality of this unprepossessing grave site where not just Saint Patrick but his two co-patrons, Saints Brigid and Colum Cille, were said to rest. To make matters worse, the historic market cross which marked the grave was destroyed in a mindless act of vandalism. So, the picture of the grave site by the early 1880s is bleak indeed, but tomorrow we will have another newspaper article which describes how things changed dramatically twenty years later:

THE GRAVE OF ST. PATRICK. (From the Cork Examiner.)

AWAY in the far north, in the quaint little graveyard of the Cathedral Church of Down, lies the grave of St. Patrick. In the Saint's lifetime called Dun-de-leth Glaiste, the town in which the honoured remains were interred became known as Downpatrick. This ancient borough has been singularly privileged in Irish ecclesiastical history in having not less than three saints interred in its old and venerable cathedral churchyard, the ancient chronicle tolling us that —
"One grave in Down three saints do fill—Patrick, Bridget and Columbkille."
For centuries, and even up to the present day, the shrine of our patron saint and of his great fellow-labourers in the cause of Irish evangelization, has been annually visited by hundreds of pious pilgrims, the tradition of the neighbourhood affirming that miraculous cures of physical ailments have been obtained by helpless sufferers. In the "Life of St. Patrick" written by the Nun of Kenmare, we find it stated that when the Patron Saint died at Saul (a little village lying a couple of miles eastward of Downpatrick, on the shore of Strangford Lough), in the year 465, a dispute arose between his followers as to which of the two places his remains should be removed to. It was known that the Saint's wishes pointed in the direction of Armagh; but, anxious to prevent dissension among his disciples over his remains, and unwilling to express a decided preference for either place, he gave instructions for bis funeral to the effect, that when his body was removed for interment it should be placed on a bier drawn by two young bullocks which should be permitted to go without hindrance or guidance in whatever direction they chose, and that wherever the bullocks should stop, there his remains should be buried. The bullocks stopped at Dun-de-leth Glaiste, where his place of sepulture was accordingly made. Close beside, stands the Cathedral Church of Down, one of the most venerable ecclesiastical structures in Ireland, and nearly opposite the southern side of the Cathedral tower, on the highest part of the old burial-ground (which in itself forms a hill), is the grave of St. Patrick. To a stranger, the first look begets disappointment. Instead of a jealously-guarded crypt or tomb, worthy even in a small degree of the great Apostle, the eye rests on a flat green sod, 7 feet long by 7 feet wide, with a hole at the east end, 20 inches square by 8 inches deep, which, from the veneration of the Saint and by a continuation of visitors, is rapidly developing into much larger proportions. Up to the year 1846 a magnificent Irish stone cross, dating from centuries before, stood at the head of the Saint's grave, and was a source of pride to the inhabitants of Downpatrick, as well as of interest to visitors; but in that year a band of vandals, at the dead hour of night, dragged the sacred emblem from the grave of the Saint, and, conveying it a short distance, deposited it with ignominy in the common town drain. The indignation of the inhabitants was profound, and on the action of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, who at once offered a reward for its discovery, the violated Celtic stone cross was restored to its place at the head of St. Patrick's grave. Again it was stolen, doubtless in the hope of obtaining further reward; but on that occasion it was unfortunately smashed into many fragments, and being after a time recovered, they were placed beyond reach of future sacrilege, by the Dean and Chapter, in the east end of the cathedral. And so the grave remains unmarked by brass, or stone, or monumental urn. . . . Indeed, the grave itself would have been ere now in much worse condition than it is, were it not for the thoughtfulness which has, for many years past, prompted Mr. Robert H. Bell, a native of Downpatrick, to bestow some gratuitous attention upon it.

THE GRAVE OF ST. PATRICK. (From the Cork Examiner.),New Zealand Tablet, Volume X, Issue 476, 26 May 1882

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Friday 17 March 2023

The Death and Character of Saint Patrick

A beautiful tribute, drawn from hagiography, on the death and character of Saint Patrick. A saint's death marks the end of his earthly life, but the beginning of his heavenly life as an intercessor. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the chronology of Saint Patrick's career, something which I have posted on previously here, the calendars have always agreed that March 17 is his feast day. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig Oraibh Go Léir!

The Saint's Death and Character.

Full of years, like the prophet of old in this as in much more; with the prayers and blessings of a people whom he had so often prayed for and blessed; in a land, which he had found in darkness, and which he left to be the brightest jewel of the Church, the old man lay down to die. Borne on the cold March wind the watchers heard sounds of angelic voices, the first notes of that chorus of praise which should last in Erin as long as the waves should break on the shore of Strangford Lough. It was on the 17th of March, 493—day to stand beyond all saints' days in Erin's calendar; yes, and in thousands of churches and in millions of hearts, and in lands as yet unknown. Victor, faithful angel once upon Mount Slemish, faithful to the end, summoned Bishop Tassach: Patrick must have the Viaticum for his last journey, and the Godspeed of the people.
That journey was easily made, for the saint's road from labour to rest is very short.
St. Evin shall tell us what manner of man this was whose body lies in Saul, and whose soul lives with God: "A just man indeed was this, with purity of nature like the patriarchs; a true pilgrim like Abraham, gentle and forgiving like Moses, a praiseworthy psalmist like David, an emulator of wisdom like Solomon, a chosen vessel for proclaiming truth like the Apostle Paul, a man full of grace and the knowledge of the Holy Ghost like the beloved John, a fair flower, garden to children of grace, a fruitful vine branch, a flashing fire, with force and warmth of heat to the sons of life, for instituting and illustrating charity, a lion in strength and power, a dove in gentleness and humility, a serpent in wisdom and cunning to do good, gentle, humble, merciful to the sons of life, dark, ungentle towards the sons of death, a servant of labour and service of Christ, a king in dignity and power for binding and loosening, for liberating and convicting, for killing and giving life. . . Though great his honour here, greater honour will be his in the day when judgment will be given on the fruits of his work."
Here, standing out clearly recognisable amid so much that time has dimmed, is the personality to which the eyes and hearts of the Irish race have ever fondly turned. About dates and places and the authenticity of this miracle and that, there might be question, but there can be no question about the person whom we see and, love. He is strong and tender. Strong, terribly strong, against evil-doers, and above all, as a father is against those who would his children wrong. He is tender, too; tender to the dwellers in that land which he first trod as an Apostle—the land of Britain; but above all, tender to his own who call him father, who cherish his traditions and cling lovingly to the land which he made to be an Island of Saints, and which, through much sorrow, he has kept faithful until now. The almost fierce devotion of his children to him seems to share that twofold character of strength and tenderness which made St. Evin call him a lion and a dove—"gentle, humble, merciful to the sons of life, dark, ungentle towards the sons of death." May that love remain, strong and tender, until the day on which according to the promise of the Mount, Patrick shall be told to count his flock upon the right hand of the Judge.
Thus therefore saith the Lord,
"So long as sea girdeth this isle,
so long, thy name shall hang
In splendour o'er it like the stars of God.

—From the Very Rev. Canon Ryan's "Life of St. Patrick."

 Southern Cross, Friday 18 March 1904, page 7.

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Wednesday 8 February 2023

In the Footsteps of St. Brigid

We bring the series of posts in honour of Saint Brigid to a close with an interesting travelogue from an Australian Franciscan priest, who recorded his impressions of a visit to Kildare in a 1908 newspaper article. Father Fitzgerald is writing in the heyday of the Irish national revival and we will see a number of the features and tensions of this era expressed in the article. First, we see the romanticism in his lovely portrait of Saint Brigid as the mother of holy virgins. I noted that in his description of her home he attributes the presence of men in the double monastery at Kildare to a need, not to have priests on hand, but to have fighting men able to repel attackers. In his account of the wayside homes of the west, we see the idealization of the Irish peasant, who Father Fitzgerald sees as 'the real Irish people'. We also see how the Irish language is viewed as preserving the cultus of the Irish saints and as a protection against outside, foreign influences. There is a particular fear, one which I have seen expressed in other sources of this era, that people are giving secular 'lately-invented' names to their children. At my main site I have gathered a number of these sources together on a page dedicated to Irish saints' names for children here. When he finally arrives at Kildare, Father Fitzgerald leaves us in no doubt that his was a pre-ecumenical era. He is clearly upset by the fact that this historic site is no longer in Catholic hands, but is at pains to assure his home readership that the Australian Protestant is not like the usurping Irish invader and despoiler. He ends with a romantic, if unrealistic, vision of the day when the Catholic bishops will reconsecrate the cathedral at Kildare and once again lead the praise of Saint Brigid in the language of their forefathers:

In the Footsteps of St. Brigid

By Father Fitzgerald, O.F.M.

The traveller looking eastward from the carriage window on a Dublin-bound train from the South of Ireland cannot fail to see a magnificent round-tower which will attract his attention by its beauty and its  height. It is 136ft. high. Near by is a sacred edifice. Should the traveller be acquainted even slightly with Irish history, his eyes will linger lovingly on the spot when he calls to mind that those piles of ancient buildings mark the place where abode St. Brigid, the greatest saint of Ireland after St. Patrick, who has been accorded the glorious title, of 'the Mary of the Gael.'

The Mother of Holy Virgins.

As one looks back through the wreck and ruin, prosperity and triumph, of 1500 years to the very dawn of Christianity in Ireland we see St. Brigid coming forth from the forests of benighted paganism as the handmaid of the great St. Patrick, rich in the endowment of natural talents, richer still in the possession  of spiritual treasures with which she has been blessed by the Giver of all good gifts. She is to be the mother of those millions of holy virgins, who in all ages since, have risen up like fair lilies from Irish soil, and who now in their home above follow the Lamb withersoever He goeth.' Irish people and their posterity call that day blessed when Patrick's feet touched the shores of Erin, when he came as the messenger of God to shatter the chains of the captive daughter of Sion and lead the warlike clans of Eire into the admirable light of truth. No less blessed was the day when Brigid, nurtured like Patrick in bondage, taught like him in the school of persecution and austerity, knelt before the saintly Bishop and took the white veil of virginity, and thenceforward her sanctity and learning and administrative gifts, became a staff to the weak and an eye to the blind, and in a most wonderful way spread the blessings of Christian truth over the land. Tradition and history combine in the statement that the day of her reception— back in the fifth century — she placed her hand upon the wooden altar, and forthwith the verdant beauty of springtime appeared thereupon.

Her Home.

In her zeal for the propagation of the Gospel she journeyed through many parts of Ireland, and the names by which these places are known to-day bear witness of her memory. But Kildare— cill-dara, the church 'of the oak,' became her home where she founded her monastery, and, close by, a monastery for men, as in those troublous times when barbarian incursions were not infrequent it was necessary for the protection of the nuns that men skilled in the use of arms should be at hand to drive off the foe. She inhabited there a little room beside a gigantic oak, or, as some say, she lived in an apartment cut out of a tree. Thither from all parts pilgrims and visitors came for counsel and consolation, and in the pioneer conditions of the infant Church in Ireland, her noble womanly qualities and graces found ample scope in calming the internecine strife of princes and chieftains, and by her sweet persuasive advice in subduing the vindictive bands still now to the doctrine of Our Saviour's forgiving spirit. What a heritage of virtue, of exemplary penance, of penitential austerities, has she left after her, and what countless monasteries sprung up in which her spirit still lived as an inspiring influence for centuries after her death, and still lives, even to the present day.

In a Wayside House.

If one goes among the people, especially of an Irish-speaking district one will find in almost every house a Maura and a Breege. Those real Irish people, tenacious of their cherished traditions, are, thanks to God, still strangers to those notions of fashion instituted by a so-called superior civilisation. The beautiful principles which are the guardian spirits of every true Catholic home are treasured by them still, as if it were but yesterday that the Irish Saints walked among them, as if the echoes of prayer and praise resounded still in the aisles and sanctuaries of their abbeys and churches. I am often reminded of this when calling into a wayside house or humble cabin here in the West. As you stand on the earthen floor and look up to the ceiling where the rafters and beams cross each other you will often see several little wooden crosses. Many more are there, but they have become indistinguishable through smoke and age. Each succeeding feast-day of St. Brigid a little cross is placed there in honour of the saint. The latest one is the whitest, and the family can thus trace back many years of their lifetime's history.

As Father Dineen pointed out in a masterly panegyric on the Irish Saints at the Maynooth Union, a few days ago, the Gaelic League is doing a great good for religion,  for by propagating the Irish tongue literature, and customs, it is bringing back to us the cultus of the Irish Saints, who, he says, are forgotten by so many. "The greatest Ireland," says Father Dineen, "is beyond the skies." And surely it will be a grand work to popularise their names, and to banish from the people that contemptible custom of giving lately-invented names to the children, rather than choose a name from that vast array of saintly men and women, whose virtues, as history testifies, have made Ireland one of the 'brightest gems in the diadem of the Church. On the same occasion Dr. Healy remarked that 'he often found at Confirmation-time that children took the name of the nun that taught them — sometimes Sister Angelina, &c. He expresses the hope that for the future they will make the sacrifice of suggesting an Irish Saint's name.

What I Saw in Kildare.

I went down to Kildare the other day. But, lo, strangers are in the holy place. The sacred precincts, including the round tower and spot where the oak stood and the fire of St. Brigid burned undimmed for 12 centuries, and the cathedral and tower, are all in the hands of Protestants. I recompensed the sexton with a shilling for showing me over the august shrines of 'our' Catholic forefathers, where everything speaks of them, where the tombs and their inscriptions, give the lie to the invaders, whose broken tablets cry out in protest against the usurpers, and within the cathedral itself, now used for Protestant worship, there is still a mouldy smell of dust and bones, which all the spices of Araby, cannot sweeten, and which seems to stop the breath of the worshippers, for that dust and those bones belonged to our Catholic ancestors, who lived and died in the One True Church. And then, forsooth, the likes of Tyrell, of Trinity College, who are paid out of pilfered Catholic funds, write poems and ask: 'Why do Catholics build new churches?' Well, they will cease to build them when they see a prospect of getting back their own.

The Usurpers of Our Altars and Our Homes.

The chief cause of antagonism between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland is this: That the latter know they are in wrongful possession, and it is one of the bad traits of human nature to hate those one has injured. The many honest-minded Protestants of Australia are quite a different class from the invaders and usurpers of our altars and our homes in Ireland, and the riflers of our holy shrines.

The Sacred Fire of St. Brigid.

History says that the sacred fire of St. Brigid burned for about 12 centuries — to the days of Elizabeth, and the spot is pointed out to-day beside the round tower. Please God, like the prophets of fire of old, though long concealed, it will again burn forth and gleam in the same old consecrated spot, whereon knelt those myriads who are gone before us, when the Mass bell will ring again within the ancient Cathedral of St. Brigid; where the urn-shaped vases that stand on the bare altar to-day, like crematory receptacles on a pagan mausoleum, shall be replaced by these lights which are emblematic of Him Who is the Light of the World, and when after centuries of forlorn isolation from the religion of St. Patrick, the ''Gloria in Excelsis" shall be heard there once more, and the tabernacle lamp relighted. Does not a vision rise, before our eyes of a gathering of Irish Bishops, from all parts of Ireland, and from the greater Ireland beyond the seas, assembled together at some future day for the solemn function of re-consecrating the ancient Cathedral of Kildare, when an immense concourse of fervent Catholics will join in the solemn function, and thank God that the longed-wished-for hour has come at last, when in the old spot, so dear to her, they can salute St. Brigid in the language of their forefathers, as the fairest of Erin's virgins, the chief patroness of their country — the Mary of the Gael.

'In the Footsteps of of St. Brigid of Kildare', The Catholic Press, September 3, 1908, p. 11. Retrieved December 19, 2017, from

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