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- Irish Race in the Past and the Present - 30/134 -


How many facts of a similar nature might be mentioned! Enough to say that, after so many ages, in which, thanks to barbarous persecutions, all ecclesiastical and monastic traditions were lost to Ireland, through the sheer impossibility of following them up, the Irish still show a marked predilection for the holy austerity of penance, though the rest of the Christian world seems to have almost totally forgotten it.

But if the Irish convents lacked system, there was at the same time in them an exuberance of feeling, an enthusiastic impulse, which is to be found nowhere else to the same extent, and which we call their second peculiar feature after they received Christianity. This is beautifully expressed in a hymn of the office of St. Finian: "Behold the day of gladness; the clerks applaud and are in joy; the sun of justice, which had been hidden in the clouds, shines forth again."

As soon as this primitive enthusiasm seemed to slacken in the least, reformers appeared to enkindle it again. Such was Bridget, such was Gildas, such were the disciples of St. David of Menevia in Wales, such was any one whom the Spirit of God inspired with love for Ireland. Thus the scenes enacted in the time of Patrick were again and again repeated.

And when a monastery was built, it was not properly a monastery, but a city rather; for the whole country round joined in the goodly work. As some one has said, "it looked as if Ireland was going to cease to be a nation, and become a church."

With regard to the question of ground and the appropriation of landed property, what matters it who is the owner? If it be clan territory, there is the clan with nothing but welcome, applause, and assistance. If it be private, the owner is not consulted even; how could he think of opposing the work of God? Thus, we never read in Irish history - in the earlier stages at least - of those long charters granted in other lands by kings, dukes, and counts, and preserved with such care in the archives of the monastery. It seems that the Danes, after they became Christians, were the first to introduce the custom; after them, the Anglo- Normans, in the true spirit of their race, made a flourishing business of it. The Irish themselves never thought of such at first. There was no fear of any one ever claiming the ground on which God's house stood. The buildings were there: the ground needed to support them: what Irishman could think of driving away the holy inmates and pulling the walls about their ears?

The whole surrounding population is busy erecting them. Long rows of wattles and tessel-work are set in right order; over them a rough roof of boards; within small cells begin to appear, as the slight partitions are erected between them. Symmetry or no symmetery, the position of the ground decides the question; for there is no need of the skill of a surveyor to establish the grade. Does not the rain run its own way, once it begins?

How far and how wide will those long rows reach? They seem the streets of a city; and in truth they are. The place is to receive two, three thousand monks, over and above the students committed to their care. And, in addition to the cells to dwell in, there are the halls wherein to teach; the museums and repositories of manuscripts, of sacred objects; the rooms to write in, translate, compose; the sheds to hold provisions, to prepare and cook them, ready for the meal.

For the most important edifice--the temple of God--alone stones are cut, shaped, and fitted each to each with care and precision. A holy simplicity surrounds the art; yet are there not wanting carven crosses and other divine emblems sculptured out. Within, the heavenly mysteries of religion will be performed. Should you ask, "Why so small?" the answer is ready. That large space empty around holds room enough for the worshippers, whose numbers could be accommodated in no edifice. The minds of Irish architects had not yet expanded to the conception of a St. Peter's. Inside is room enough for the ministers of religion; without, at the tinkling of the bell, in the round tower adjoining, the faithful will join in the services.

Nor was it only in the erection of those edifices that a cheerful impulse, which overlooked or overcame all difficulties, was displayed. The monastic life was not all the time a life of penance and gloomy austerity, but of active work also and overflowing feeling, of true poetry and enthusiastic exultation. We read in the fragments we still possess how, on the arid rock of Iona, Columba remembered his former residence at Derry, with its woods of oaks and the pure waters of its loughs. In all the lives of Irish saints we read of the deep attachment they always preserved for their country, relatives, and friends; what they did and were ready to do for them. And though all this was at bottom but a natural feeling, the extent to which it was carried will make us better acquainted with the Irish character, and explain more clearly that extraordinary expansion of soul which, in the domains of the supernatural, surpassed every thing witnessed elsewhere.

"In a monastery two brothers had lived from childhood. The elder died, and while he was dying the other was laboring in the forest. When he came back, he saw the brethren opening a grave in the cemetery, and thus he learned that his brother was dead. He hastened to the spot where the Abbot Fintan, with some of his monks, were chanting psalms around the corpse, and asked him the favor of dying with his brother, and entering with him into the heavenly kingdom. 'Thy brother is already in heaven,' replied Fintan, 'and you cannot enter together unless he rise again.' Then he knelt in prayer, the angels who had received the holy soul restored it, and the dead man, rising in his bier, called his brother: 'Come,' said he, 'but come quickly; the angels await us.' At the same time he made room beside him, and both, lying down, slept together in death, and ascended together to the kingdom of God."

This anecdote may tend better than any thing else to show us how Nature and grace were united in the Irish soul, to warm it, purify it, exalt it above ordinary feelings and earthly passions, and keep it constantly in a state of energy and vitality unknown to other peoples. For, in what page of the ecclesiastical history of other nations do we read of things such as these?

With regard to their country, also, grace came to the aid of Nature; the supernatural was, therefore, seldom absent from the natural in their minds, and something of this double union has, remained in them in every sense, and has, no doubt, contributed to render their nationality imperishable in spite of persecution. How ardent and pure in the heart of Columba was the love of Ireland, from which he was a voluntary exile! Patrick, also, though not native born, yielded to none in that sacred feeling; one of the three things he sought of God on dying was, that Erin should not "remain forever under a foreign yoke:" Kieran offered the same prayer, and their reason for thus praying was that she was the "island of saints," destined to help out the salvation of many.

Religion has been invariably connected with that acute sentiment ever present in the minds of Irishmen for their country; and it is, doubtless, that holy and supernatural feeling which has preserved a country which enemies strove so strenuously to wrest from them.

But it was not love of country alone, of relatives and friends, which enkindled in their hearts a spirit of enthusiasm; their whole monastic life was one of high-spirited devotedness, and energy, and action, more than human.

We see them laboring in and around their monastic hive. How they pray and chant the divine office; how they study and expound the holy doctrine to their pupils; how they are ever travelling, walking in procession by hundreds and by thousands through the island, the interior spirit not allowing them to stand still. There are so many pilgrimages to perform, so many shrines to venerate, so many works of brotherly love to undertake. Other monks in other countries, indeed, did the same, but seldom with such universal ardor. The whole island, as we said, is one church. On all sides you may meet bishops, and priests, and monks, bearing revered relics, or proceeding to found a new convent, plant another sacred edifice, or establish a house for the needy. The people on the way fall in and follow their footsteps, sharers of the burning enthusiasm. Many-how many!- were thus attracted to this mode of life, wherein there was scarce aught earthly, but all breathing holiness and heavenly grace!

Thus the island was from the beginning a holy island. But zeal for God in their own country alone not being enough for their ardor, those men of God were early moved by the impulse of going abroad to spread the faith. Volumes might be written of their apostleship among barbarous tribes; we have room only for a few words.

They first went to the islands north of them, to the Hebrides, the Faroe Isles, and even Iceland, which they colonized before the Norwegian pirates landed there. Then they evangelized Scotland and the north of England; and, starting from Lindisfarne, they completed the work of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, which was begun by St. Augustin and his monks in the south.

Finally, the whole continent of Western Europe offered itself to their zeal, and at once they were ready to enter fully and unreservedly into the current of new ideas and energies which at that time began to renew the face of that portion of the world overspread by barbarians from Germany. Under the Merovingian kings in France, and later on, under the Carlovingian dynasty, they became celebrated in the east of France, on the banks of the Rhine, even in the north through Germany, in the heart of Switzerland, and the north of Italy. This is not the place to attempt even a sketch of their missionary labors, now known to all the students of the history of those times. But we may here mention that at that time the Irish monarchs and rulers became acquainted with continental dynasties and affairs through the necessary intercourse held by the Irish bishops and monks with Rome, the centre of Catholicity. Thus we see that Malachi II corresponded with Charles the Bald, with a view of making a pilgrimage to Rome.

We learn from the yellow-book of Lecain that Conall, son of Coelmuine, brought from Rome the law of Sunday, such as was afterward practised in Ireland.

Over and above the Irish missionaries who kept up a constant correspondence from the Continent of Europe with their native


Irish Race in the Past and the Present - 30/134

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