As the conversion of Ireland to Christianity did not begin with Saint Patrick, so also he did not live to complete it. To say this is not to belittle his work or to deprive him of the honour that has been accorded to him by every generation of Irishmen since his death. No one man has ever left so strong and permanent impression of his personality on a people, with the single and eminent exception of Moses, the deliverer and lawgiver of Israel. It is curious to note that the comparison between these two men was present to the minds of our forefathers. Both had lived in captivity. Both had led the people from bondage. Some of the legends of St. Patrick were perhaps based on this comparison, especially the account of his competition with the Druids. Some of his lives go so far as to give him the years of Moses, six score years, making him live till the year 492, sixty years after the beginning of his mission. There is good evidence, however, that the earlier date of his death, 461, found in our oldest chronicle, and also in the Welsh chronicle, is the authentic date. Father Hogan, in his “Documenta Vitae S. Patricii,” has drawn up a table of the acts of St. Patrick, and after this date, 461, the table is a blank. I have already alluded to the feature adopted by our early chroniclers from St. Jerome’s version of Eusebius—the marking of certain epochs by giving the sum of years from a preceding epoch. We must remember that in those days the custom so familiar to us of giving an arithmetical name to every year, all in one series, was quite unknown. The first historian to use this method consistently was Bede, and it did not obtain general vogue until long after his time. In Ireland, though Bede’s writings were intimately known, his method of dating by the year of the Christian era does not appear to have been taken up until the eleventh century—nearly three centuries after his time. What then was the ordinary method of dating? It was by regnal years. For example, the beginning of St. Patrick’s mission is thus dated in the ancient chronicle:
“Patrick came to Ireland in the ninth year of Theodosius the younger, in the first year of the episcopate of Sixtus, forty-second bishop of the Roman Church.” The Irish Nennius gives an Irish regnal date for this event—”the fifth year of King Loiguire.”
It may be noted that this manner of dating lasted until our own time in the dating of the statutes of the English parliament.
Our present method of dating by a continuous era, giving each year its number in the series as its ordinary name, has this great convenience that we can calculate the space of years between two dated events by a simple subtraction. But if we find, to take an actual example from our oldest chronicle, that a certain event is dated in the ninth year of the emperor Theodosius II, and another event in the second year of the emperor Phocas, then in order to calculate the distance of years between, we must first know the length of each imperial reign from Theodosius to Phocas. The old chroniclers were constantly at the trouble of making calculations of this kind, calculations to which certain errors were incidental. Small errors accumulating become great errors, and so as a safeguard and corrective, here and there in the chronicle, at the record of some important event, we find these summaries of years. In the year 664, a very destructive plague broke out in Ireland. To the record of the event, the chronicler adds: “From the death of Patrick, 203 years.” So the seventh-century chronicler knew 461 as the year of Patrick’s death.
There are various things that indicate that professed paganism continued to exist in Ireland in the second half of the sixth century, i.e. for a century at least after Saint Patrick’s death. By that time, however, as I have shown in the sixth lecture, a blending of the old native culture and the newly introduced Christian learning had taken place. And just as two elements in the chemical sense unite to form something that seems to have a nature and virtue all its own and not derived from the quality of either component, so this blending of two traditions in Ireland brought forth almost a new nation, with a character and an individuality that gave it distinction in that age and in the after ages.
Mr. Romilly Allen, in his book on “Celtic Art,” has something to the purpose. “The great difficulty,” he writes, “in understanding the evolution of Celtic art lies in the fact that, although the Celts never seem to have invented any new ideas, they professed an extraordinary aptitude for picking up ideas from the different peoples with whom war or commerce brought them into contact. And once the Celt had borrowed an idea from his neighbour, he was able to give it such a strong Celtic tinge that it soon became something so different from what it was originally as to be almost unrecognisable.”
There is a mixture of truth and error in this statement that is characteristic of a great deal of modern scientific comment. For the explanation of a fact, something is offered which, upon close examination, is seen to be no more than the unexplained thing stated again in different terms. Why do masses of matter tend to approach each other? Because of the law of gravity. What do we mean by the law of gravity? We mean that masses of matter tend to approach each other.
It is to be seen from the quotation I have made that Mr. Romilly Allen starts with the idea of evolution. So does Professor Bury. His “Life of St. Patrick” is a sustained effort to prove that the singular chapter in the world’s history opened by Saint Patrick’s work in Ireland finds its explanation in this, that Saint Patrick was an evolved product, a resultant, a force naturally generated by the Roman Empire, of which Professor Bury is a distinguished historian. His “Life of St. Patrick” is designed to bring the singular and outstanding phenomenon of Ireland in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, into the direct series of cause and effect with which the historian’s greater work has dealt. He writes, he tells us, as one of “the children of reason.” But the children of reason cannot explain water as the resultant of its known physical components, oxygen and hydrogen, or salt as the resultant of chlorine and sodium. The properties of water and salt, so long as these substances remain water and salt, are not the properties of their component substances or any combination thereof. In like manner the historian or the archæologist will set himself an impossible task if he undertakes to explain every fact of history or archæology as a sort of mechanical resultant of pre-existing forces.
What Romilly Allen says about the Celts is true of every people that has developed and maintained a distinctive nationality. The Romans themselves borrowed from Greece and from Etruria—but the resultant was neither Greece nor Etruria nor Greece plus Etruria nor any permutation or combination of Greek and Etruscan factors. The Greeks borrowed from Crete and Phœnicia, but no mere adding together of Cretan and Phœnician elements produced the Attic salt.
Herein lies the justification of nationality, of intense, distinctive and highly developed nationality. In it resides the elemental power of transformation. To it belongs the philosopher’s stone. If the Greek people had possessed but a feeble individuality as a people, if they had resembled Cretans and Phœnicians and Persians, if they had not felt instinctively that they had something precious in themselves, something that was worth Thermopylae, then it would never have been written in a later age that:
Greece and her foundations are
Built beneath the tide of war,
Throned on the crystalline sea
Of thought and its eternity.
In every intense and distinctive development of a nation, there dwells the actuality or the potentiality of some great gift to the common good of mankind; and I rejoice, I am sure we all rejoice, to see, in these days of clashing and crashing empires, that the clear idea of nationality, as if by the wonderful recreative power that is in nature, is rising in the esteem of good men all over the world, above and beyond the specious and seductive appeal of what has been called “the wider patriotism.” In this regard, too, our own country in that most remarkable period of its history may furnish something of a model. With all the singularity of its insular character, it maintained the fullest intercourse with other countries, and its written mind exhibits no trace of those international prejudices and hatreds which, for whatever ends stimulated, are the disgrace of our modern civilisation.
We must not pretend that Ireland in that age was in a condition approaching ideal perfection. Far from it—the country was ruled by a patrician class to whom war was a sort of noble pastime. When we read of war in ancient Ireland, however, we must bear one thing in mind: a prolonged contest like that of the Leinster kings for the recovery of Meath was altogether singular, and is not heard of from that time until the Norse invasions, three centuries later. A war, as a rule, meant a single battle, and in the early annals, which were written in Latin, the word bellum, which in Latin means a war, is always used to mean a single battle.
Though Christianity did not make the Irish desist from this kind of warfare, it certainly changed their outlook on warfare in general. Men who had taken part in bloodshed were excluded from the immediate precincts of the churches. In the wars carried on by the heathen Irish in other countries, the principal gain was in captives who were sold, like St. Patrick, into slavery. In his epistle to the soldiers of the British ruler Coroticus, St. Patrick condemns this practice along with the killing of non-combatants. “These soldiers,” he writes, “live in death, the associates of Scots and Picts who have fallen away from the Faith, the slayers of innocent Christians…. It is the custom of the Christians in Roman Gaul,” he adds, “to send chosen men of piety with so much money to the Franks and other heathens, to ransom baptized captives. Thou slayest all, or sellest them to a foreign nation that knows not God. I know not what to say about the dead of the children of God upon whom the sword has fallen beyond measure. The Church deplores and bewails her sons and daughters whom the sword as yet hath not slain but who are carried far away and transported into distant lands, reduced to slavery, especially to slavery under the degraded and unworthy apostate Picts.”
This, therefore, was also St. Patrick’s teaching to the Irish; and in and after his time, not a single raiding expedition goes forth from Ireland. Kuno Meyer has shown that the military organisation of the Fiana still existed to some degree in early Christian Ireland; but it gradually disappears, and in the seventh century the Irish kings cease to dwell, surrounded by their fighting men, in great permanent encampments like Tara and Ailinn. In the eighth century, we hear the testimony of Bede, that the Irish are “a harmless nation, ever most friendly to the English.”
Another change that came about, not suddenly, but gradually during this period, is the extinction of the old lines of racial demarcation in Ireland. The Church did not recognise these boundaries. Many noted ecclesiastics belonged to the old plebeian tribes.
In this connection, we may note one feature of the Irish secular law, not traceable to the influence of Christianity. The word soer, used as a noun, has two special meanings; it means a freeman and it means a craftsman. The contrary term doer means unfree—in the sense of serfdom rather than of slavery; there is a distinct term for “slave,” viz., mugh. The plebeian communities are called doerthuatha. The inference, therefore, is that a skilled craftsman of unfree race became by virtue of his craft a freeman.
Let us now take a cursory view of the course of political events during the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, or rather, from the battle of Ocha, which secured the monarchy for the descendants of Niall in 483, till the coming of the Norsemen in 793.
We have seen that the effect of the battle of Ocha was to exclude the Connacht branches of the monarchical family from the succession. The successful princes were a grandson and a great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages; and these two princes, one of the Southern, the other of the Northern Ui Neill, became the next two kings of Ireland.
To understand this event more clearly, it is necessary to take a view of the Irish law of succession or inheritance. Under this law, a man’s heirs were a family group called the derbfine or true family. At the head of this group was the great-grandfather of its youngest members, whether he happened to be dead or alive. The derbfine consisted of this family head, his sons, grandsons and great-grandsons—four generations. When the fifth generation came forward, the derbfine subdivided itself, forming a new set of similar groups, the head of each being one of the sons of the man who was head of the older group.
When a man died, all the living members of the derbfine to which he belonged became his heirs, and the inheritance, if capable of division, was divided among them in proportions fixed by law. Thus, if the deceased belonged to the third generation of the four which formed the derbfine, his heirs comprised all his grandfather’s living descendants—i.e. his own children, his brothers and their children, and his uncles and their children and grandchildren. In each case, the derbfine or group of heirs was ascertained by counting back to the great-grandfather of the youngest member and comprised all his descendants.
Kingship was not divisible, though it was a heritable property. When a man became king, then all male members of his derbfine became potential heirs to the kingship. Each member became capable of succession. For a man who thus came into the line of succession, there was a legal name—he was called rigdamna, “king-material,” or in homely phrase, “the makings of a king.” When a vacancy occurred, it was filled up by election from among those in this way qualified.
A glance at the genealogical tree (p. 193) will show how this law of succession influenced the action of the principals in the battle of Ocha. Muirchertach, king of Ailech, as the annals show, was the most active and daring of the Irish princes in his time. But neither his father nor his grandfather had held the high-kingship. If he himself failed to secure it, then the whole branch of the Northern Ui Néill ceased to have any lawful claim to the monarchy. He did not belong to the same derbfine as the reigning monarch Ailill Molt, but he was eligible to the monarchy because his great-grandfather, Niall, had held it. It was therefore his interest, and that of his kinsfolk in the north-west, to strike in, cut out the Connacht branch, and secure the potential succession for himself and his posterity. Not relying on his own power to effect this, he came to an understanding with Luguid, king of the Southern Ui Néill, who belonged to his own derbfine. From the sequel, we may judge that the price of Luguid’s adhesion was immediate succession to the monarchy. He became king of Ireland after the battle of Ocha, and Muirchertach became king of Ireland after him.
It is evident that this law of succession, a part of the ordinary law of inheritance, was, from the point of view of the public peace, a bad law. There were always branches of the ruling lines which, like the Northern Ui Néill in this instance, were on the point of falling outside of the group of eligibles; and the chiefs of these branches were always under the temptation to use violent measures, if they felt themselves strong enough, to retain the legal qualification in their own line.
In 534, Muirchertach died and was succeeded peacefully by Tuathal Maelgarb, another great-grandson of Niall. Contemporary with him, there was another of Niall’s great-grandsons, Diarmait, whose father and grandfather had not reigned, and whose line therefore was in danger of exclusion from the monarchy. In 544, Tuathal was assassinated by a foster-brother of Diarmait, and Diarmait secured the monarchy. He is the last of the great-grandsons of Niall of whom we hear, and consequently the family of Niall ceases in his time to preserve its legal unity. From his death in 565 until the year 734, though the power and prestige acquired by the Ui Néill enabled them to keep the high-kingship among themselves, there is no regularity of succession. The Ui Néill held a number of small kingdoms in Meath and western Ulster, and whatever king of them showed himself to be the strongest is recognised as king of Ireland.
The Northern Ui Néill, occupying a compact territory side by side, continued to hold together in political unity until the seventh century, their chief king being at one time of the line of Conall Gulban, at another time of the line of Eogan. In 563 they conquered from the Picts a belt of territory on the western side of the Bann, between Loch Neagh and the sea. This territory came into the possession of a branch of Eogan’s line, represented in later times by the family of O’Catháin (O’Kane). In 615, we see the first appearance of a break in the unity of the Northern Ui Néill. Mael Chobo, of the line of Conall, was then their king and king of Ireland. He was overthrown in battle by Suibne Menn, king of Cenél Eogain, who then became king of Ireland. Thenceforward, Cenél Conaill and Cenél Eogain become rival powers in the North. Their rivalry lasted, with intervals, for a thousand years, until the battle of Kinsale in 1601, where it was a contributary cause of the final overthrow of both their houses. Cenél Eogain, from the position of its territory, held the advantage, and gradually extended its power eastward and southward over Ulster. Cenél Conaill on the other hand, holding the natural fastness of the Donegal Highlands, was never forced to take a permanently subordinate position.
Most modern writers on Irish history have accepted as historical the romantic story of the cursing of Tara and its desertion during the reign of Diarmait. There is not a word about it in the ancient annals, though our earliest known chronicler wrote within half a century of the supposed event. A son of Diarmait, Aed Sláne, became king of Ireland, and died in 604, within the chronicler’s time of writing which ends in 610. Aed Sláne shared the high-kingship with Colmán, king of the Northern Ui Néill, and the chronicle says expressly that “they ruled Tara in equal power.” As late as the year 780, Tara was neither an accursed nor a deserted place, for in that year an ecclesiastical synod was held “in the town of Tara” (in oppido Temro). The extant stories of the cursing of Tara are all writings of the Middle Irish period, written centuries later than the supposed event. They tell us that the trouble began with the outlawry of Aedh Guaire, king of Ui Maine, who refused to submit to a quite unprecedented exercise of authority on the part of the monarch Diarmait. I have not been able to find this Aedh Guaire’s name either in the annals or in the genealogy of Ui Maine, or anywhere except in this story. Aedh Guaire sought sanctuary. Diarmait violated the sanctuary. Twelve saints, called “the twelve apostles of Ireland,” thereupon laid siege to Tara with fastings and curses, and Tara ceased to be the home of the monarchy. The annals show that some of these saints were dead at the time and others of them were still in their childhood. These so-called historical tales are seldom troubled about anachronisms. The celebrated “Colloquy with the Ancients” brings St. Patrick and Oisin into conversation with the same Diarmait. Apart from anachronisms, the story of the cursing has other features which should suffice to warn any reader from taking it for serious history.
The desertion of Tara does not stand alone, and can be explained without resort to imaginative tales of a later age. Cruachain, the ancient seat of the Connacht kings, and Ailinn, the ancient seat of the Leinster kings, were also abandoned during this period. It was military kings who ruled from these strongholds, surrounded by strong permanent military forces. My first visit to Tara convinced me that what we see there is the remains of a great military encampment. So it appeared or was known to the tenth-century poet Cinaed Ua h-Artacáin, whose poem on Tara begins with the words Temair Breg, baile na fian, “Tara of Bregia, home of the warrior-bands.” When the booty and captives of Britain and Gaul ceased to tempt and recompense a professional soldiery, and when the old fighting castes became gradually merged in the general population, military organisation died out in Ireland, not to reappear until the introduction of the Galloglasses in the thirteenth century. That is one reason why Tara was deserted.
There is another and perhaps more cogent reason. Diarmait left his son, Colmán the Little, king over Midhe proper, i.e. Westmeath and most of King’s County and County Longford; and another son, Aedh Sláne, before mentioned, king over Bregia, i.e. County Meath and parts of Louth and Dublin counties. This is a further instance of that process, described in a former lecture, of creating mean lords. From these two kings sprang two distinct dynasties. Colmán’s line, Clann Cholmáin, dominated the western territory; Aed Sláne’s line, Síol Aeda Sláne, the eastern territory. The process of appropriation was continued in detail by their descendants. “Clann Cholmáin,” says an ancient genealogist, “were distributed throughout Midhe so as to possess the lordship of every tuath and perpetual sovereignty over them.” In like manner, an old genealogical poem relates the distribution of Aedh Sláne’s descendants in lordship over various territories of Bregia.
The annals show that, between these two families so closely related, a fierce and bloody feud broke out, with continual reprisals, lasting for many years. Tara was in the possession of Aed Sláne’s line. After the year 734, the kings of this line were excluded from the high-kingship, but nevertheless continued to hold undisputed authority over all Bregia, including Tara, until the close of the tenth century, when their dynasty was suppressed by the high-king Mael Sechnaill, who was also the chief of Clann Cholmáin. These facts quite sufficiently explain why, after 734, no king of Ireland could occupy Tara without an army.
The political affairs of southern Ireland during this period are remarkably tranquil and undiversified. In Munster, there was probably more abiding peace than in any equal extent of country in western Europe. The kings of Cashel appear to have steadily consolidated their authority and to have been content to do so without seeking to extend it beyond the bounds fixed in the fifth century. In the Book of Rights, the tributes payable to the king of Cashel far exceed those to which any of the other six principal kings in Ireland laid claim. There is an allegory related in the genealogies which indicates that at one time the supremacy of Cashel was challenged by the Eoghanacht kings of West Munster. This may have particular reference to one of these, Aedh Bennán, who died in 619, and who seems to have grouped under his own authority the western states in opposition to the king of Cashel. It is doubtful whether this ambition outlived him. His daughter, Mór Mhumhan (“Mór of Munster,” as she is called), figures in ancient story. She became the wife of Fínghen, king of Cashel, and the ancestress of the most numerous family in Ireland, the O’Sullivans.
The most powerful of the kings of Cashel during this period was Cathal, who died in 742. The annals indicate that he held virtually equal authority with the contemporary high-kings. One of the prerogatives of the high-king was to preside over the Assembly of Taillte (“Teltown,” near Navan). In 733, Cathal seems to have attempted to preside over this assembly, in the absence of the high-king Flaithbertach, who was engaged at the time in a losing struggle to preserve his own authority in the north-west. Cathal’s attempt to preside over the high-king’s assembly was forcibly prevented by Domhnall, king of Midhe. In 734, Cathal appears to have secured the adherence or submission of the king of Ossory in an effort to extend his power over Leinster; and a fierce battle ensued, in which the king of Ossory was killed and the king of Cashel escaped alive. In 737, a convention was held between Cathal and the high-king, Aedh Allán, at Terryglass in Ormond, and apparently an agreement was made between them securing the claim of the church of Armagh to revenue from all Ireland. In 738, Cathal again invaded Leinster and exacted hostages and a heavy contribution from the king of Naas. In view of all this, the name of Cathal was afterwards included by some southern writers in the list of monarchs of Ireland.
In Leinster, a factor against peace was the ancient claim of the high-kings to tribute from the Leinster kings. The origin of this tribute, called the Bóramha or “kine-counting,” is explained by two different stories. Possibly it originated in the conquest of northern Leinster. The tribute was seldom conceded but to main force. To exact it at least once in a reign was a point of honour, a test of the monarch’s authority; and an invasion of Leinster for that purpose is an almost regular item in the annals under the first or second year of each high-king.
The irregular succession to the monarchy ends in the year 734. In that year the high-king Flaithbertach, who was king of Tír Conaill, was compelled to abdicate by Aedh Allán, king of Cenél Eogain, who then became high-king. Flaithbertach retired into religious life at Armagh where he died thirty-one years later. From the year 734 until 1022, except for two interruptions, the succession to the high kingship was reserved to two dynasties, one at the head of the Northern Ui Néill, the other at the head of the Southern Ui Néill, to the kings of Ailech and Midhe; and these succeeded each other in the monarchy in regular alternation. There is no record of any express constitutional pact to secure the succession in this manner, but the alternation was a well recognised fact; and on this fact the medieval reconstructors of Irish history for the prehistoric period modelled part of their work—so that we read of an alternate sovereignty over Munster in remote antiquity, and of another alternate sovereignty, in which the Eoghanacht and the Dalcassians were the partners, at a later period; and the history of the monarchy is projected back to the first arrival of the Gaels in Ireland, by a device already alluded to, that is, by selecting names in turn out of the pedigrees of the principal dynasties.
It is not my purpose in these lectures to give a complete scheme of Irish history, allotting to each set of facts its due proportion of the discourse. My aim is rather to supplement what appears defective and correct what appears misleading in the treatment of early Irish history as the public has been accustomed to it. In regard of the great activity of religion and learning during the period between St. Patrick and the Norsemen, I shall not attempt to give even in summary what has been so eloquently described in detail by others, for example, by Archbishop Healy in his valuable work on “Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars,” and, in the continental and missionary aspect, by Margaret Stokes. We have noted that the Irish civilisation of this period stands out so brightly from what are called the Dark Ages that it has commanded the special attention of an eminent historian of the Roman Empire, and evoked the resources of German scholarship. When I see the eulogist of Anglo-Norman feudalism in Ireland sitting in judgment upon the political institutions of a people which he has never studied and does not at all understand, I call to mind the estimate formed by “the ancient philosophers of Ireland” about Victorius of Aquitaine—that he was deserving of compassion rather than of ridicule. A barbarous people in “the tribal stage”—every item culled out that might suggest comparison with the head-hunters of New Guinea and the Hottentot—and beside this and in the midst of it schools everywhere, not schools but universities—books everywhere, “the countless multitude of the books of Éire,”—yes, we can still use the scrapings of our Irish vellum as a cure for the foreign snake-bite—and on the other hand, the pomp and circumstance of Feudalism, with its archiepiscopal viceroys, its incastellations and its subinfeudations, its charters and its statutes, its registers and its inquisitions, but during four centuries not one school of note, not even one, and one abortive university, no literature except the melancholy records of anti-national statecraft, and whatever learning there was for the most part suborned to the purposes of a dominating officialdom, just as in our own day we have seen the highest achievements of science and invention suborned to the service of the war departments.
As regards the actual scope of Irish learning, at that period, our data are not sufficient to determine it. I do not know whether anyone has yet attempted to draw up a complete conspectus of the Latin literature that has been preserved in MSS. copied by Irish scribes, and of Latin authors quoted in ancient Irish books. In my opinion, the formation of a sane estimate of the Latin learning of that age, in the case of Ireland as of other countries, has been hindered by what I will call the intellectual snobbery of the Renaissance—an attitude of mind in which scholars think to dignify themselves by despising everything in Latin that was not written in the time of the first twelve Caesars. It should not be ignored that for centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, though Latin existed among the common people only in the form of broken and breaking dialects, the Latin of the grammarians continued to be the language of thought and of education throughout the western half of Europe, and remained for the educated a truly living language. If it did not retain its classical elegance, it still had an unbroken vital tradition. Above all, the later Latin writings contain the contemporary record of the most progressive section of the human race in those times. I have often thought that I should like to see our universities break away from that sentiment of intellectual snobbery and open up opportunities for their students to become familiar with the late Latin literature. There can be no doubt that it was this late Latin literature that was chiefly read in the ancient Christian schools of Ireland, and properly so, for its content was of more vital interest to their teachers and scholars than the matter of producing elegant yet artificial imitations of the Latin classics. In that later Latin and through its medium, Western Christendom was joined in an international common-wealth of mind. The Irish schools were familiar with works written in Spain like those of Orosius and St. Isidore, or in Gaul like those of St. Jerome and Victorius. Perhaps the intimacy and frequency of this intellectual intercourse is best illustrated in a letter written by the celebrated Alcuin no doubt from the palace school of Charlemagne, to Colgu, a professor in Clonmacnois, just before the ravages of the Norsemen began. “The writer complains that for some time past he was not deemed worthy to receive any of those letters ‘so precious in my sight from your fatherhood,’ but he daily feels the benefit of his absent father’s prayers.” Here we have clear testimony that, for personal correspondence, there existed a way of sending letters from Ireland to the Rhineland and receiving replies, approaching as near to a regular postal service as we could expect to find in that age. The sequence of the letter shows that the medium of this correspondence was merchant shipping engaged in trade between the two countries. Alcuin adds “that he sends by the same messenger an alms of fifty sicles of silver from the bounty of King Charles (i.e. Charlemagne) and fifty more from his own resources for the brotherhood. He also sends a quantity of olive oil … and asks that it may be distributed amongst the Bishops in God’s honour for sacramental purposes.”
And what about Greek? Much has been written about the singular knowledge of Greek possessed by Irish scholars and their pupils of other nationalities in the time of Charlemagne and thereabouts. Zimmer in particular has laid great stress on this proposition. Some years ago, I went one day to look for help from Professor Corcoran in something I was trying to work out. I found him in his room, busy with his students. I retreated, but he called me back. “We are discussing,” he said, “the question of the knowledge of Greek in the ancient Irish schools. You have come in a good time to let us know your view about it.” “Well,” I said, “I cannot claim to have examined the matter at all. I know that some remarkable things have been said about it. I can only claim to have formed a general impression from what I have observed.” “Will you let us know what impression you have formed?” “Certainly,” I said. “My impression is that such evidences of a knowledge of Greek as have been found are well enough explained as the outcome of the teaching of Greek in Canterbury by Archbishop Theodore.” Since that time, Mr. Mario Esposito has discussed the matter at length in “Studies,” and his conclusion is that the knowledge of Greek in those Irish schools was very meagre indeed and mainly or wholly based on mere vocabularies. Kuno Meyer, I think, disagreed with this conclusion. I can remember that Mr. Esposito’s treatment of the question jarred on me to some extent—I thought his argument was too sharp in some places and too flat in others. Nevertheless, I think he was in the right on the main point. Knowledge of a language means either conversational knowledge or textual knowledge or both together. I certainly could not name a single Greek author who was textually known in the Irish schools—on the evidence; and I know no evidence of the conversational use of Greek in those schools. It may have been in them for a time. Bede, a contemporary, says that Theodore’s pupils learned to speak Greek with fluency. Theodore was in Canterbury from 664 till 690, and it is very likely that Irishmen would go there to learn from him. But notwithstanding Bede’s testimony, it does not appear that Theodore’s teaching had the effect of establishing the study of Greek on any permanent basis in England, not to say in Ireland.
Without making any claim that does not rest on unquestionable evidence, there is enough to show that during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, Ireland, enjoying freedom from external danger and holding peaceful intercourse with the other nations, made no inglorious use of her opportunity. The native learning and the Latin learning throve side by side. The ardent spirit of the people sent missionary streams into Britain and Gaul, western Germany and Italy, even to farthest Iceland. And among all this world-intercourse there grew up the most intense national consciousness. It pleases me to see a certain school of writers say certain things, so that the truth may be established by its opposite. “The Irishman’s country,” I read, “was the tuath or territory belonging to his tribe…. The clansman, while ready to lay down his life for his chief, felt no enthusiasm for a national cause. The sentiment for ‘country’ in any sense more extended than that of his own tribal territory, was alike to him and to his chief unknown.” The implication is that, in the twelfth century, to which these words refer, the statement made in them is, in the first place, true of the Irishman, and in the second place, especially and peculiarly true of the Irishman. If it be peculiarly or especially true of the Irishman, then the writer, Mr. Orpen, has in mind other nationalities about which the same could not be stated. What and where were they? Suppose we read instead, “The feudal vassal’s country was the fief or territory belonging to his lord…. The vassal, while ready to lay down his life for his lord, felt no enthusiasm for a national cause. The sentiment for a ‘country’ in any sense more extended than that of his own feudal territory, was alike to him and to his lord unknown.” Would this be untrue of England, France, Germany, or Italy in the twelfth century? If quite applicable to all these countries, why is it so particularly and specially said about the Irishman? For what purpose? To what end? Is it to bring out historical truth? What is the motive? What is the objective?
The fact is that, while the statement is true in a limited sense about Ireland, it is not especially and peculiarly true, as its writer would have himself believe, about Ireland, and it is less true about Ireland than about any country in western Europe at that period—the twelfth century. You will not find anywhere in Europe during that age any approach towards the definite and concrete sense of nationality—of country and people in one—which is the common expression of the Irish mind in that age. Beginning with the sixth century chronicle, every Irish history is a history of Ireland—there is not one history of a tribal territory or of any grouping of tribal territories. Every Irish law-book is a book of the laws of Ireland—there are no territorial laws and no provincial laws. The whole literature is pervaded by the notion of one country common to all Irishmen. So far as Mr. Orpen’s statement is concerned with the expression of historical truth, it has this much of truth—that neither in Ireland nor in any other country was the modern sentiment of political nationality fully formed in the popular mind. Mr. Orpen goes on to contrast Irish localism with the centralised monarchies of Europe. Let us hope he does not imagine that any one of those centralised monarchies was the expression of the sentiment of country in the popular mind or in the mind of the ruler. It is true that the sentiment of country sometimes obtained its delimitation from centralised power—but the sentiments which found expression in centralised power were those of fear on the one side and domination on the other; and students who study medieval history with a map will quickly apprehend that these two sentiments, fear and domination, shaped the boundaries of country in defiance of the sentiments connected with country, race, language, nationality. In Ireland, on the other hand, we find the clear development of the national consciousness, associated with the country, to a degree that is found nowhere else. Just as we must reject the ridiculous notion that the Irish were a perverse people, with a double dose of original sin, and therefore a people about whom the more incredible are the things said the more worthy they are of belief; so, too, we must avoid the contrary extreme and refrain from insisting that everything in ancient Ireland was perfect, deriving this perfection from the angelic virtue of the national character. In Ireland it was impossible to escape the sentiment of country. So an ancient poet figured to himself that the first poem in the Irish language began thus: “I invoke the land of Ireland.” Another poet puts this sentiment in the mouth of Columba—
Here is a grey eye
that looks back to Ireland
an eye that never more shall see
Ireland’s men nor her women.
Now, Columba’s “tribal territory” was Tír Conaill. Again, Columba is supposed to say—
Gaedheal! Gaedheal! beloved name—
My one joy of memory is to utter it.
But Columba’s clan was the Ui Néill—not the Gaedhil. Shall we be told that national sentiment was an esoteric doctrine of the poets; that in lines like these, they were not appealing to the sense of country which they knew to be in the minds of their audience, but were seeking subtly to indoctrinate with a nationalism peculiar to themselves a public which could only think of tribal chiefs and tribal territories? Well and good. In what other country of that age was there even a small class of the people who held and expressed this definite sentiment of country? A Leinster poet sings the glories of the Curragh of Kildare and the royal fortress of Ailinn—seat of the Leinster kings; but in the middle of this theme, he says, “Greater than telling at every time hath been God’s design for Ireland”; can this expression be paralleled in the literature of any other country in that age? Or let us look at the words with which Gilla Coemáin begins a metrical list of the Irish monarchs:
High Éire, island of the kings,
illustrious scene of mighty deeds—
These are only casual examples that rise to the mind. The plain truth is this—and the writer who denies it does so because he has set out to write a political pamphlet in the guise of history—that, notwithstanding an extensive intercourse with neighbouring and distant peoples, and notwithstanding an extremely decentralised native polity, the Irish people stand singular and eminent in those times, from the fifth century forward, as the possessors of an intense national consciousness.