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- Irish Race in the Past and the Present - 4/134 -
in which the Roman characters were held by the people and their instructors the bishops and monks. Let those precious old symbols be called Ogham, or by any other name--there must have been something of the kind.
If any one insists that such was not the case, he must of necessity admit that the oral teaching of the Ollamhs was so perfect and so universally current in the same formulas all over the island, that such oral teaching really took the place of writing; and in this case, also, which is scarcely possible, however, Ireland had an authentic history. This last supposition, certainly, can hardly be credited; and yet, if the first be rejected, it must be admitted, since it cannot be imagined that subsequent Irish historians, numerous as they became in time, could have agreed so well together, and remained so consistent with themselves, and so perfectly accurate in their descriptions of places and things in general, without anterior authentic documents of some kind or other, on which they could rely. Any person who has merely glanced at the astonishing production called the "Annals of the Four Masters," must necessarily be of this opinion.
In no nation in the world are there found so many old histories, annals, chronicles, etc., as among the Irish; and that fact alone suffices to prove that in periods most ancient they were truly a civilized nation, since they attached such importance to the records of events then taking place among them.
But the Irish were, moreover, a branch of the great Celtic race, whose renown for wisdom, science, and valor, was spread through all parts, particularly among the Greeks. The few details we purpose giving on the subject will convince the reader that among the nations of antiquity they held a prominent position; and not only were they possessed of a civilization of their own, not despicable even in the eyes of a Roman--of the great Julius himself--but they were ever most susceptible of every kind of progress, and consequently eager to adopt all the social benefits which their intercourse with Rome brought them. At least, they did so as soon as, acknowledging the superior power of the enemy, they had the good sense to feel that it was all-important to imitate him. Hence sprang that Gallo-Roman civilization which obtained during the first five or six centuries of the Christian era--a civilization which the barbarians of the North endeavored to destroy, but to which they themselves finally yielded, by embracing Christianity, and gradually changing their language and customs.
Everywhere--in Gaul, Italy, Britain, and Ireland--did the Celts manifest that susceptibility to progress which is the invariable mark of a state antagonistic to barbarism. In this they totally differed from the Vandals and Huns, whom it took the Church such a dreary period to conquer, and whom no other power save the religion of Christ could have subdued.
These few words are sufficient for our present purpose. We proceed to show that, in their stubborn opposition to many a current of European opinion, they acted rightly.
They acted rightly, first of all, in excluding from their course of studies at Bangor, Clonfert, Armagh, Clonmacnoise, and other places, the subtleties of Greek philosophy, which occasioned heresies in Europe and Asia during the first ages of the Church, and were the cause of so many social and political convulsions. By adhering strictly---a little too strictly, perhaps--to their traditional method of developing thought, they kept error far from their universities, and presented, in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, the remarkable spectacle in Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and even Northern Italy, of numerous schools wherein no wrangling found a place, and whence never issued a single proposition which Rome found reason to censure. They were at that time the educators of Christian Europe, and not even a breath of suspicion was ever raised against any one of their innumerable teachers. If their mind, in general, did not on that account attain the acuteness of the French, Italians, or Germans, it was at all times safer and more guarded. Even their later hostility to the English Pale, after the eleventh century, was most useful, from its warning against the teachings of prelates sent from the English Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and Rome seems to have approved of that opposition, by using all her power in appointing to Irish sees, even within the Pale, prelates chosen from the Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, and Carmelite orders, in preference to secular ecclesiastics educated in the great seats of English learning.
Thus the Irish, by opening their schools gratuitously to all Europe, but chiefly to Anglo-Saxon England, were not only of immense service to the Church, but showed how fully they appreciated the benefits of true civilization, and how ready they were to extend it by their traditional teaching. Nor did they confine themselves to receiving scholars in their midst: they sent abroad, during those ages, armies of zealous missionaries and learned men to Christianize the heathen, or educate the newly-converted Germanic tribes in Merovingian and Carlovingian Gaul, in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian England, in Lombardian Italy, in the very hives of those ferocious tribes which peopled the ever-moving and at that time convulsed Germany.
II. They were right in refusing to submit to the Scandinavian yoke, and accept from those who would impose it their taste for city life, and the spirit of maritime enterprise and extensive commerce. We shall see that this was at the bottom of their two centuries of struggle with the Danes; that they were animated throughout that conflict by their ardent zeal for the Christian religion, which the Northmen came to destroy. There is no need of dwelling on this point, as we are not aware that any one, even their bitterest enemies, has found fault with them here.
III. They were right in opposing feudalism, and steadily refusing to admit it on their soil. Feudal Europe beheld with surprise the inhabitants of a small island on the verge of the Western Continent level to the ground the feudal castles as soon as they were built; reject with scorn the invaders' claim to their soil, after they had signed papers which they could not understand; hold fast to their patriarchal usages in opposition to the new-born European notions of paramount kings, of dukes, earls, counts, and viscounts; fight for four hundred years against what the whole of Europe had everywhere else accepted, and conquer in the end; so that the Irish of to-day can say with just pride, "Our island has never submitted to mediaeval feudalism."
And hence the island has escaped the modern results of the system, which we all witness to-day in the terrible hostility of class arrayed against class, the poor against the rich, the lower orders against the higher. The opposition in Ireland between the oppressed and the oppressor is of a very different character, is we shall see later. But the fact is, that the clan system, with all its striking defects, had at least this immense advantage, that the clansmen did not look upon their chieftains as "lords and masters," but as men of the same blood, true relations, and friends; neither did the heads of the clans look on their men as villeins, serfs, or chattels, but as companions-in-arms, foster-brothers, supporters, and allies. Hence the opposition which exists in our days throughout Europe between class and class, has never existed in Ireland. Let a son of their old chiefs, if one can yet be found, go back to them, even but for a few days, after centuries of estrangement, and they are ready to welcome him yet, as a loyal nation would welcome her long-absent king, as a family would receive a father it esteemed lost. We knowing what manner a son of a French McMahon was lately received among them.
All hostility is reserved for the foreigner, the invader, the oppressor of centuries, because, in the opinion of the natives, these have no real right to dwell on a soil they have impoverished, and which they tried in vain to enslave. This, at least, is their feeling. But the sons of the soil, whether rich or poor, high or low, are all united in a holy brotherhood. This state of things they have preserved by the exclusion of feudalism.
IV. The Irish were right in not accepting from Europe what is known as the "revival of learning;" at least, as carried almost to the excess of modern paganism by its first promoters.
This "revival" did not reach Ireland. Many will, doubtless, attribute this fact to the almost total exclusion then supposed to exist of Ireland from all European intercourse. It would be a great error to imagine such to have been the cause. Indeed, at that very time, Ireland was more in daily contact with Italy, France, and Spain, than had been the case since the eighth century.
If the Irish were right in holding steadfast to the line of their traditional studies, in rejecting the city life and commercial spirit of the Danes, in opposing Anglo-Norman feudalism, and, finally, in not accepting the more than doubtful advantages flowing from the literary revival of the fifteenth century; if, in all this, they did not oppose true progress, but merely wished to advance in the peculiar path opened up to them by the Christianity which they had received more fully, with more earnestness, and with a view to a greater development of the supernatural idea, than any other European nation--then, beyond all other modes, did they display their strength of will and their undying national vitality in their resistance to Protestantism--a resistance which has been called opposition to progress, but the success of which to-day proves beyond question that they were right.
It was, the reader may remark, a resistance to the whole of Northern Europe, wherein their island was included. For, the whole of Northern Europe rebelled against the Church at the beginning of the sixteenth century, to enter upon a new road of progress and civilization, as it has been called, ending finally in the frightful abyss of materialism and atheism which now gapes under the feet of modern nations--an abyss in whose yawning womb nullus ordo, sed sempiternus horror habitat. The end of that progress is now plain enough: political and social convulsions, without any other probable issue than final anarchy, unless nations consent at last to retrace their steps and reorganize Christendom.
But this was not apparent to the eyes of ordinary thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only a few great minds saw the logical consequences of the premises laid down by Protestantism, and predicted something of what we now see.
The Irish was the only northern nation which, to a man, opposed the terrible delusion, and, at the cost of all that is dear, waged against it a relentless war.
"To a man;" for, in spite of all the wiles of Henry VIII., who brought every resource of his political talent into play, in order to win over to his side the great chieftains of the nation--in spite of all the efforts of Elizabeth, who either tried to overcome their resistance by her numerous armies, or, by the allurements of her court, strove her best, like her father, to woo to her allegiance the great leaders of the chief clans, particularly O'Neill
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