St. Patrick (6)

Patrick Weston Joyce

About the year 438, with the concurrence of King Laeghaire, he undertook the task of revising the Brehon Law.

He was aided by eight others, among them King Laeghaire himself—Patrick working at it whenever he could withdraw himself from his missionary duties—and at the end of three years, this Committee of Nine produced a new code free from all pagan customs and ordinances, which was ever after known as “Cain Patrick” or Patrick’s Law. This Law Book, which is also called the Senchus Mor [Shan’ahus More], has been lately translated and published.

In his journey through Connaught he met the two daughters of King Laeghaire—Ethnea the fair and Fedelma the ruddy—near the palace of Croghan, where they lived at that time in fosterage with their two druid tutors.

They had come out one morning at sunrise to wash their hands in a certain spring well named Clebach, as was their custom, and were greatly astonished to find Patrick and his companions at the well with books in their hands, chanting a hymn.

Having never seen persons in that garb before, the princesses thought at first that they were beings from the shee or fairy hills (page 136 above); but when the first surprise was over they fell into conversation with them and inquired whence they had come.

And Patrick gently replied:—

“It were better for you to confess to our true God than to inquire concerning our race.”

They eagerly asked many questions about God, His dwelling-place—whether in the sea, in rivers, in mountainous places, or in valleys—how knowledge of Him was to be obtained, how He was to be found, seen, and loved; with other inquiries of a like nature.

The saint answered all their questions and explained the leading points of the faith; and the virgins were immediately baptised and consecrated to the service of religion.

On the approach of Lent he retired to the mountain which has ever since borne his name—Croagh Patrick or Patrick’s hill—where he spent some time in fasting and prayer (page 9 above).

About this time, A.D. 449, the seven sons of Amalgaidh [Awley] king of Connaught were holding a meeting in Tirawley to which Patrick repaired.

He expounded his doctrines to the wondering assembly; and the seven princes with twelve thousand persons were baptised.

After spending seven years in Connaught, he visited successively Ulster, Leinster, and Munster, in each of which he preached for several years.

Soon after entering Leinster, he converted, at the palace beside Naas where the Leinster kings then resided, the two princes Illann and Olioll, sons of King Dunlang, who both afterwards succeeded to the throne of their father: and at Cashel, the seat of the kings of Munster, he was met by the king, Aengus the son of Natfree, who conducted him into the palace on the rock with the greatest reverence and was at once baptised.

Wherever St. Patrick went he founded churches, and left them in charge of his disciples.

In his various journeys, he encountered many dangers and met with numerous temporary repulses; but his courage and resolution never wavered, and success attended his efforts in almost every part of his wonderful career.

He founded the see of Armagh about the year 455 and made it the head see of all Ireland.

The greater part of the country was now filled with Christians and with churches; and the mission of the venerable apostle was drawing to a close.

He was seized with his death illness in Saul, the scene of his first triumph; and he breathed his last on the seventeenth of March, in or about the year 465, in the seventy-eighth year of his age.[9]

The news of his death was the signal for universal mourning.

From the remotest districts of the island, clergy and laity turned their steps towards the little village of Saul, to pay the last tribute of love and respect to their great master.

They celebrated the obsequies for twelve days and nights without interruption, joining in the ceremonies as they arrived in succession; and in the language of one of his biographers, the blaze of myriads of torches made the whole time appear like one continuous day.

A contention arose between the chiefs of Oriel, the district in which Armagh was situated, and those of Ulidia or the eastern part of Ulster, concerning the place where he should be interred; but it happily terminated without bloodshed.

He was buried with great solemnity at Dun-da-leth-glas, the old residence of the princes of Ulidia; and the name in the altered form of Downpatrick commemorates to all time the saint’s place of interment.

It must not be supposed that Ireland was completely Christianised by St. Patrick.

There still remained large districts never visited by him or his companions: and in many others the Christianity of the people was merely on the surface.

Much pagan superstition remained, even among the professing Christians, and the druids still and for long after retained great influence; so that there was ample room for the missionary labours of St. Patrick’s successors.


[9] There is much uncertainty both as to St. Patrick’s age and as to the year of his death. I have given the age and the year that seem to me most probable.