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prejudice, and throw doubt on the narrative. He even rises up into
something like eloquent scorn when he discusses the manner in which some
antediluvian annals were said to be preserved. Thus: -

"As for such of them who say that Fiontan was drowned in the Flood, and
afterwards came to life, and lived to publish the antediluvian history
of the island - what can they propose by such chimerical relations, but
to amuse the ignorant with strange and romantic tales, to corrupt and
perplex the original annals, and to raise a jealousy that no manner of
credit is to be given to the true and authentic chronicles of that

I shall quote no more until after the doctor, having exhausted his
sceptical ingenuity about the antediluvian stories, finds himself again
on firm ground, prepared to afford his readers, without any critical
misgivings, "an account of the first inhabitants of Ireland after the
Flood." He now tells us with simple and dignified brevity that "the
kingdom of Ireland lay waste and uninhabited for the space of three
hundred years after the Deluge, till Partholanus, son of Seara, son of
Sru, son of Easru, son of Framant, son of Fathochda, son of Magog, son
of Japhet, son of Noah, arrived there with his people." From such a
patriarchal nomenclature the reader of Keating is suddenly introduced to
a story of domestic scandal, in which a "footman" and a "favourite
greyhound" make their frequent appearance. Then follow many great
epochs - the arrival of the Firbolgs, the dynasty of the Tuatha de
Danans, with revolutions and battles countless, before we come to the
commencement of a settled dynasty of kings, of whom more than ninety
reigned before the Christian era. It is, after all, more sad than
ridiculous to remember that within the present generation many
historians believed not only what Keating thus tells as truth, but also
what he ventured to doubt; and if the English antiquaries, according to
their wont, called for records, - did these not exist abundantly, if they
could be got at, in those authentic genealogies, which were from time to
time adjusted and collated with so much skill and scrupulous accuracy by
the official antiquaries who met in the Hall of Tara? The reader
unacquainted with such an out-of-the-way and rather weedy corner of
literature, may think this vague exaggeration; and I shall finish it by
quoting the latest printed, so far as I know, of the numerous solemn and
methodical statements about the manner in which the records of these
very distant matters were authenticated.

"When the said princes got the kingdom into their hands, they assigned
large territories to their antiquaries and their posterity to preserve
their pedigree, exploits, actions, &c.; and so very strict they were on
this point, that they established a triennial convention at Tara, where
the chief kings of Ireland dwelt, where all the antiquaries of the
nation met every third year to have their chronicles and antiquities
examined before the king of Ireland, the four provincial kings, the
king's antiquary-royal, &c.; the least forgery in the antiquary was
punished with death, and loss of estate to his posterity for ever - so
very exact they were in preserving their venerable monuments, and
leaving them to posterity truly and candidly; so that even at this day
(though our nation lost estate and all almost) there is not an ancient
name of Ireland, of the blood-royal thereof descended, but we can bring,
from father to father, from the present man in being to Adam - and I,
Thaddy O'Roddy, who wrote this, have written all the families of the
Milesian race from this present age to Adam."[80]

[Footnote 80: Miscel. of Irish Arch. Soc., i. 120.]

To all this preposterous, and now scarcely credible extravagance of
fiction, there attaches a melancholy political moral. Poor Ireland,
trodden by a dominant party whose hand was strengthened by her potent
neighbour, sought relief from the gloom of the present, by looking far
back into the fabulous glories of the past - and it seemed the last drop
in her cup of bitterness when this pleasant vista was also to be closed
by the hard utilitarian hand of the unsympathising Saxon.

After "this sort of thing" it was naturally difficult to get sensible
men to listen to proposals for opening valuable new sources of early
history in Ireland. In fact, down to the time when Moore wrote his
History in 1835, no one could venture to look another in the face when
speaking of the early Irish annals, and the consequence was that that
accomplished author wilfully shut his eyes to the rich supply of
historical materials in which he might have worked to brilliant effect.

Yet, upon the general face of history, it must on examination have been
fairly seen that Ireland is the natural place where a great proportion
of whatever is to be known about the primitive Church in the British
Islands was to be found. Indeed, in the history of Christianity, not the
least wonderful chapter contains the episode of the repose in the West,
where a portion of the Church, having settled down, grew up in calm
obscurity, protected by distance from the desolating contest which was
breaking up the empire of the world, and raged more or less wherever the
Roman sway had penetrated. Of the southern Britons it could no longer be
said, as in the days of Augustus, that they were cut off from all the
world. England was an integral part of the empire, where, if the
proconsul or legionary commander had not the hot sun and blue sky of
Italy, there were partial compensations in the bracing air which renewed
his wasted strength, the new and peculiar luxuries in the shape of
shellfish and wildfowl that enriched his table, and the facilities
which his insular authority afforded him for strengthening his political
position, and plotting for a fragment of the disintegrating empire. An
admiral of the Roman fleet had at one time established his power in
Britain, where he set up as Cæsar, and sought to create a new imperial
centre. Thus the southern part of Britain was a province of the true
Roman empire awaiting the coming of the wild hordes who were gathering
for the general overthrow, and was not the place where either the
Christian Church or Italian civilisation could find permanent refuge.
The destined destroyer was indeed close at hand. Though the Romans had
their walls, their roads, their forts, and even a few villas in
Scotland, yet one going northward at that time through the territories
of the Gadeni and the Otadeni, would observe the Romanised character of
the country gradually decreasing, until he found himself among those
rough independent northern tribes, who, under the name of Picts and
Scots, drove the Romanised Britons into the sea, and did for the insular
portion of the empire what the hordes who were called Goths, Franks, and
Alemanni, were doing in the Roman provinces of the Continent.

Behind the scene of this destructive contest, Christianity, having been
planted, flourished in peaceful poverty. It grew here and there over
Ireland, and in a small portion of the remote part of Scotland; and the
distance from the scene of warfare necessary for its safety is shown by
the fate of St Ninian's little church in the Mull of Galloway. It was
too near the field of strife to live. The isolation in which the western
Christians thus arose, was productive of ecclesiastical conditions very
remarkable in themselves, but perfectly natural as the effects of their
peculiar causes. The admirable organisation for carrying out the civil
government of the Roman empire, was a ready-made hierarchy for carrying
out the ecclesiastical supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. It was far from
the object of those who seized on the power of the Cæsars to abolish
that power. On the contrary, they desired to work it on their own
account, and thus the machinery of the empire lived, exercising more or
less vitality and power, down to the first French Revolution.

No part of its civil organisation, however, retained the comprehensive
vitality which the learning and subtlety of the priesthood enabled them
to preserve, or rather restore, to its spiritual branch. Hence, wherever
the conquerors of Rome held sway, there the priests of Rome obtained a
sway also. But the one little fragment of the primitive Church, which
had been so curiously cut off during the great contest, was beyond the
sway of the conquerors of Rome, as it had been beyond the sway of the
Emperors themselves. Hence, while the Church, as united to Rome, grew up
in one great uniform hierarchy, the small, isolated Church in the West
grew up with different usages and characteristics; and when afterwards
those who followed them were charged with schism, they asserted that
they had their canons and usages directly from the apostles, from whom
they had obtained the Gospel and the regulations of the Church pure and
undefiled. Thus arose the renowned contest between the early Scottish
Church and the rest of Christendom about the proper period of observing
Easter, and about the form of the tonsure. Hence, too, arose the debates
about the peculiar discipline of the communities called Culdees, who,
having to frame their own system of church government for themselves,
humble, poor, and isolated as they were, constructed it after a
different fashion from the potent hierarchy of Rome. The history of
these corporations possesses extreme interest, even to those who follow
it without a predetermined design to identify every feature of their
arrangements with a modern English diocese, or with a modern Scottish
presbytery; and not the least interesting portion of this history is its
conclusion, in the final absorption, not without a struggle, of these
isolated communities within the expanding hierarchy of the Popes.

In a few humble architectural remains, these primitive bodies have left
vestiges of their peculiar character to the present day. Neither
deriving the form of their buildings nor their other observances from
Rome, they failed to enter with the rest of the Church on that course of
construction which led towards Gothic architecture. The earliest
Christian churches on the Continent were constructed on the plan of the
Roman basilica, or court of justice, and wherever the Church of Rome
spread, this method of construction went with her. The oldest style of
church-building - that which used to be called Saxon, and is now
sometimes termed Norman, and sometimes Romanesque - degenerated directly
from the architecture of Rome. There are ecclesiastical buildings in
France and Italy, of which it might fairly be debated, from their style,
whether they were built by the latest of the classical, or the earliest
of the Gothic architects. The little Church in the West had not the
benefit of such models. Places of worship, and cells, or oratories, were
built of timber, turf, or osiers. The biographer of Columba describes
his followers as collecting wattles for the construction of their first
edifice. But they had also a few humble dwellings of stone, which,
naturally enough, had no more resemblance to the proud fanes of the
Romish hierarchy, than the primitive edifices of Mexico and New Zealand
had to those of modern Europe. They were first found in Ireland; more
lately, they have been traced in the Western Isles. They are small rude
domes of rough stone; and if it may seem strange that the form adapted
to the grandest of all architectural achievements should be
accomplished by those rude masons who could not make a Roman arch, it
must be remembered, that while the arch cannot be constructed without
artificial support or scaffolding, a dome on a small scale may, and is
indeed the form to which rude artists, with rude stones, and no other
materials, would naturally be driven. It is that in which boys build
their snow-houses. I shall not easily forget how, once, accompanying a
piscatorial friend on the Loch of Curran, near Ballyskelligs, in Kerry,
I stepped on a small island to visit a Norman ruin there, and saw,
besides the ruin and a stone cross, one of these small rough domes,
testifying, by its venerable simplicity, that it had stood there
centuries before the Norman church beside it. But the peculiar
characteristics of the architecture of the West did not stop short with
these simple types. It advanced, carrying in its advance its own
significant character, until it became mingled with the architecture
propagated from Rome, as the Christian community which worshipped within
the buildings became absorbed in the hierarchy. The Oratory of Galerus,
in Kerry, is a piece of solid, well-conditioned masonry, built after a
plan of no mean symmetry and proportion, yet with scarcely a feature in
common with the early Christian churches of the rest of Europe. Like the
ruder specimens, it struggles for as much solidity and spaciousness as
it can obtain in stonework without the help of the arch, and it makes a
good deal out of the old Egyptian plan of gradually narrowing the
courses of stones inwards, until they come so near that large slabs of
stone can be thrown across the opening. Some buildings of the same sort
have been lately revealed in the island of Lewis: one is named Teampul
Rona, and another, which is dedicated to St Flannan, Teampul
Beannachadh.[81] The specialty of both these, as well as of the Irish
buildings, is that they are edifices beyond all question raised for
Christian worship, that they have been built with pains and skill, and
yet that they have no vestige of that earlier type of Christian
architecture which Europe in general obtained from Rome.

[Footnote 81: See Mr Muir's very curious volume on "Characteristics of
Old Church Architecture in the Mainland and Western Islands of

In offering a few stray remarks on the lives of the saints, or, more
properly speaking, the missionaries, whose labours lay in the British
Isles, it would be pedantic to cite the precise document, printed
generally for one or other of the book clubs, which supplies the
authority for each sentence. I must, however, mention one authority
which stands supreme among its brethren - the edition of Adamnan's Life
of St Columba, edited by Dr Reeves, under the joint patronage of the
Irish Archæological and the Bannatyne Clubs. The original work has long
been accepted as throwing a light on the Christianising of the North,
second only to that shed by the invaluable morsels in Bede. With
wonderful industry and learning, the editor has incorporated the small
book of Adamnan in a mass of new matter, every word of which is equally
instructive and interesting to the student.

There is no doubt that the saints of Irish origin supply by far the more
important portion of our hagiology. They are countless. Taking merely a
topographical estimate of them - looking, that is, to the names of places
which have been dedicated to them, or otherwise bear their names - we
find them crowding Ireland, and swarming over the Highlands of Scotland
and the north of England into London itself, where St Bride's Well has
given a gloomy perpetuity to the name of the first and greatest of Irish
female saints. Some people would be content to attribute the
frequentness of saintship among the Irish and the Highlanders to the
opportunities enjoyed by them in consequence of the early Church having
found a refuge in Ireland. Others would attribute the phenomenon to the
extreme susceptibility of the Celtic race to religious enthusiasm, and
would illustrate their views by referring to the present Celtic
population in Ireland under the dominion of the priests, and their
brethren of the West of Scotland equally under the dominion of the
doctrinal antipodes of the priests; while the parallel might be
illustrated by a reference to those Highland Franciscans called "The
Men," whose belcher neckcloths represent the cord, and their Kilmarnock
bonnets the cowl.

At the commencement of Christianity the difference between the religious
Celt and the religious Saxon was naturally far more conspicuous than it
is now. Bede's description of the thoughtful calmness with which
Ethelbert studied the preaching of Augustin, with all the consequences
which the adoption of the new creed must bring upon his kingdom, is
still eminently characteristic of the Saxon nature. In the life of St
Wilbrord a scene is described which is not easily alluded to with due
reverence. The saint had prevailed on a Frisian Prince to acknowledge
Christianity, and be baptised. Standing by the font, with one foot in
the water, a misgiving seized on him, and he inquired touching his
ancestors, whether the greater number of them were in the regions of the
blessed, or in those of the spirits doomed to everlasting perdition. On
being abruptly told by the honest saint that they were all, without
exception, in the latter region, he withdrew his foot - he would not
desert his race - he would go to the place where he would find his dead

The conversion of the Picts by Columba seems to have proceeded
deliberately. We find him, in the narrative of his life, exercising much
influence on Brud their king, and occasionally enjoying a visit to the
royal lodge on the pleasant banks of Lochness. There he is seen
commending his friend and fellow-labourer St Cormac to the good offices
of the Regulus of the Orkney Islands, who is also at the court of Brud,
to whom he owes something akin to allegiance; for Columba looks to Brud
as well as to the Orcadian guest for the proper attention being paid to
Cormac. Still, honoured and respected as he is in the court of the
Pictish monarch, Columba is not that omnipotent person which he finds
himself to be in Dalriada and in Ireland. There still sits an unpleasant
personage at the king's gate. A Magus, as he is called - a priest of the
old heathen religion - is in fact well received at court, where, although
doomed to be superseded by the Christian missionary, he yet seems to
have been retained by the king, as a sort of protest that he had not put
himself entirely under the control of the priests of the new doctrine.

It was indeed among their own people, the Celts of Ireland and of the
Irish colony in the west of Scotland, that the reign of these saints was
absolute. But if we count this ecclesiastical influence a feature of the
Celtic nation, either the Welsh must not be counted as Celts, or they
must be looked on as exceptions from this spiritual dominion. They were
the people among whom, of all the tribes who inhabited Britain between
the days of Julius Cæsar and those of William of Normandy, it might
have been primarily expected that we would find the most vital
Christianity and the greatest missionary force. They professed to have
carried with them into their mountains the traditions and the
nationality of that very important portion of the Christianised Roman
Empire which was called Britannia. When the heart of the Empire became
paralysed, this branch, doubtless after a long harassing contest with
the Picts and the Irish of the north, was broken, and partly subjected,
partly driven away by the Saxons. That they should have failed, through
all their revolutions and calamities, to preserve any remnants of Roman
social habits, is not perhaps wonderful. But that they should have
failed to preserve enough of Christian influence to second and support
the missions sent to the Saxons, so soon after these had superseded the
British power, looks like an exception to the usual rule of Christian
progress. The Welsh antiquaries, through meritorious efforts, strive in
vain to establish the existence of Welsh ecclesiarchs during the time
when the countless saints of Ireland were swarming over Scotland and
penetrating into England. They point to a stone said to commemorate a
victory gained over the Picts and the Saxons by the Britons, not through
their courage or their skill in fight, but by the Halleluiahs raised by
two saints who were present in their host. These saints, however,
Garmon and Lupus, were, as Bede tells us, Frenchmen, missionaries from
the Gallican Church to correct the errors of the Britons. The venerable
Bede scolds these Britons roundly for not having kept up the faith
planted among them, and for not having been prepared to help Augustin
and his followers in the very hard task of converting the Saxons. It is
a pity that we do not know something more of Roman Christianity, and
indeed of Roman civilisation generally in Britain, before the Saxon
days. There appears to have been among the Romanised British Christians
little zeal and a good deal of controversy and dissent, and we hear a
great deal more of the influence of the Pelagian heresy among them than
of the influence of Christianity itself.

The scantiness of our acquaintance with Roman Christianity in Britain is
the more to be regretted, because it would have been very interesting to
compare its manifestations with those of the Church which found refuge
in the West during the dark days of Rome - the days when the temporal
empire was crushed, and the spiritual empire had not arisen. As we might
expect from the ecclesiastical conditions already noticed, the persons
who first exercise ecclesiastical authority in the two islands did not
derive their strength from any foreign hierarchy, and had no connection
with Rome. Any reference, indeed, to the influence of a Roman pontiff,
either actual or prospective, in the life of any of our early saints,
will prepare the critic for finding that the life has been written
centuries after the era of the saint, or has been tampered with. In
Adamnan's Life of Columba, Rome is mentioned once or twice as a very
great city, but there is no allusion throughout that remarkable
biography to any spiritual central authority exercised by the bishop
there over the presbyters in Scotland and Ireland. This is, of course,
nothing more than the statement of what the reader of a book has not
found in it. Any other reader may find allusions to the supremacy of the
popedom over these early Christian communities, if he can. But I think
he is likely to find none; and any one who desires to study the real
history of the rise and progress of the spiritual dominion of Rome
would, with more profit, take up the books and records referring to
events three or four hundred years after the age of Columba.

Self-sustained as they were, these isolated communities had a very
strong vitality. The picture exhibited in the hagiographies is truly the
reign of the saints. Their power was of an immediate, abrupt, and purely
despotic kind, which would have been neutralised or weakened by anything
like a central control. Prompt and blind obedience to the commands of
the saint-superior was the rule of Hy or Iona, and of all the other
religious communities of the West. Perhaps there were even here feuds,
disputes, and mutinies of which no record has been preserved. The
hagiographer can only commemorate those which were suppressed by some
terrible manifestation of Divine power, for the person whose life he
commemorates is only conventionally and nominally to be spoken of as a
mortal; he is in reality superhuman, wielding, whenever he pleases, the
thunderbolts of the Deity, annihilating dissent and disobedience to
himself, as if it were blasphemy in the Deity's own presence, and
crushing by an immediate miracle any effort to oppose his will, were it
even about the proper hour of setting off on a journey, or the dinner to
be ordered for the day.

The rank which those primitive clergy of Ireland and the Highlands
occupy is almost invariably that of the saint, a rank as far separated
from that which can be conferred by any human hierarchy as heaven is
from earth. They were, as we have seen, independent of Rome from the
beginning, and this great host of saints had lived and left their
biographies to the world long before the system of judicial
canonisation. How a boundary is professed to be drawn between the
genuine and the false among these saints of the North, cannot be easily
understood. No one seems to object to any of them as spurious. Many of
them are so very obscure that only faint and fragmentary traces of them
can be found, yet it seems never to be questioned that they occupied the
transcendent spiritual rank usually attributed to them. Of others
nothing is known but the bare name, yet it is never doubted that the
owner was entitled to his attribute of saint.

The brethren at Iona seem sometimes to have lived well, for we hear of
the killing of heifers and oxen. A pragmatical fellow declines to
participate in the meal permitted on the occasion of a relaxation of
discipline - the saint tells him that since he refuses good meat at a

Online LibraryJohn Hill BurtonThe book-hunter : etc. → online text (page 29 of 33)