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- Irish Race in the Past and the Present - 134/134 -

himself, "What might its origin have been?" and suggests that the name of Ierne--the same as Erin--having been given to Ireland by the ancients, and the Greek iepa--holy-- bearing a great resemblance to it, Avienus might have thus fallen into a very natural mistake of confounding the one with the other. But, in the first place, Himilco's report was certainly not written in Greek, but in Phoenician, and Avienus seems merely to have translated that report. Moreover, the word iepa begins with a very strong aspirate, equivalent to a consonant, while there are few vowels softer in any language than the first in Erin or Ierne. Heeren does not attempt such an explanation, but concedes that the Carthaginians, as well as the Phoenicians before them, called Ireland the Holy Isle.)

In the time of Himilco, therefore, five hundred years before Christ, Ireland was called the Holy Isle, a title she had received long before: Sic insulam discere prisci. In what that holiness may have consisted precisely, it is impossible now to say; all we know is, that foreign navigators, who were acquainted with the world as far as it was then known, whose ships had visited the harbors of all nations, could find no more apt expression to describe the island than to say that, morally, it was "a holy spot," and physically "a fair green meadow," or, as her children to this day call her, "the green gem of the sea."

But we have better means of judging in what the holiness of the people consisted after the establishment of Christianity in their midst; and the description of it given in the fourth chapter of this book, taken from the most trustworthy documents, shows how well deserved was the title the island bore.

From that day forth the religious type was clearly impressed on the nation, and has ever remained deeply engraven in its character. The race was never distinguished for its fondness for trade, for its manufactures, for depth of policy, for worldly enlightenment; its annals speak of no lust of conquest among its people; the brilliant achievements of foreign invasion, the high political and social aspirations which generally give lustre to the national life of many a people, belong not to them. But religious feeling, firm adherence to faith, invincible attachment to the form of Christianity they had received from St. Patrick, formed at all times their striking characteristics.

From the day when their faith was first attacked by the Tudors did it chiefly blaze forth into a special splendor, which these pages have striven faintly to represent. Before taking up the pen to write, after the serious study of documents, only one great feature struck us--that of a deep religious conviction; and, after having seen what some writers have had to say recently, the same feature strikes us still. We will not deny that this fact moved us to write, and the task was the more grateful, probably, because of our own personal religious character; but we are confident that any layman, whatever might be his talent and disposition for describing worldly scenes, who took up Irish history, could find nothing else in it of real importance to render the annals of the race attractive to the common run of readers.

And is not religion more capable of giving a people true greatness and real heroism than any worldly excellence? Men of sound judgment will always find at least as much interest attached to the history of the first Maccabees as to that of Epaminondas; and the self-sacrifice of the Vendean Cathelineau, with his "beads" and his "sacred heart," will always appear to an impartial judge of human character more truly admirable than that of any general or marshal of the first Napoleon. Religious heroism, having for object something far above even the purest patriotic fervor, can inspire deeds more truly worthy of human admiration than this, the highest natural feeling of the human heart; and, for a Christian, the most inspiring pages of history are those which tell of the superhuman exertions of devoted knights to wrest the sepulchre of our Lord from the polluted hands of the Moslem.

But religion did not confine her influence over Irishmen to the bravery which she breathed into them on the battle-field. Religion truly constituted their inner life in all the vicissitudes of their national existence; it was the only support left them in the darkest period of their annals, during the whole of the last century; and, when the dawn came at last with the flush of hope, religion was the only halo which surrounded them. Their emigration even, their exodus chiefly, was in fact the sublime outpouring of a crucified nation, carrying the cross as their last religious emblem, and planting it in the wilds of far-distant continents as their only escutcheon, and the sure sign which should apprise travellers of the existence of Irishmen in the deserts of North America and Australia.

Truly, those men are very ignorant of the Irish character who would abstract the religious feature from it, and paint the nation as they would any other European people, whose great aim in these modern days seems to be to forget the first fervor of their Christian origin. With the Irish this cannot be. The vivid warmth of their cradle has not yet cooled down; and, if it would be indeed ridiculous to represent the English of the nineteenth century as the pious subjects of Alfred or Edward, it would be equally foolish to depict the Irish of to-day as the worldlings and godless of France, Italy, or Spain. The Irish patriot could not be like them, without deserting his standard and the colors for which his race has fought. The nation to which he has the honor of belonging is still Christian to the core; and, if some few have really repudiated the love of the religion they took in at their mother's knee, the only means left them of remaining Irishmen, at least in appearance, is not to parade their total lack of this, the chief characteristic of their race.

Irish Race in the Past and the Present - 134/134

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