Mary Frances Cusack [“the Nun of Kenmare”], An Illustrated History of Ireland, 400AD to 1800 (1868),
on Saint Patrick

[Note: Available at Gutenberg Project - online; accessed 30.08.2017. References are here connected with the corresponding notes by means of a link to the heading of the Notes section only.]


St. Patrick—How Ireland was first Christianized—Pagan Rome used providentially to promote the Faith—The Mission of St. Palladius—Innocent I. claims authority to found Churches and condemn Heresy—Disputes concerning St. Patrick’s Birthplace—Ireland receives the Faith generously—Victoricus—St. Patrick’s Vision—His Roman Mission clearly proved—Subterfuges of those who deny it—Ancient Lives of the Saint—St. Patrick’s Canons—His Devotion and Submission to the Holy See.

[A.D. 378-432.]

It has been conjectured that the great Apostle of Ireland, St. Patrick, was carried captive to the land of his adoption, in one of the plundering expeditions of the monarch Nial—an eminent instance of the overruling power of Providence, and of the mighty effects produced by causes the most insignificant and unconscious. As we are not writing an ecclesiastical history of Ireland, and as we have a work of that nature in contemplation, we shall only make brief mention of the events connected with the life and mission of the saint at present; but the Christianizing of any country must always form an important epoch, politically and socially, and, as such, demands the careful consideration of the historian. How and when the seed of faith was sown in ancient Erinn before the time of the great Apostle, cannot now be ascertained. We know the silent rapidity with which that faith spread, from its first promulgation by the shores of the Galilean lake, until it became the recognized religion of earth’s mightiest empire. We know, also, that, by a noticeable providence, Rome was chosen from the beginning as the source from whence the light should emanate. We know how pagan Rome, which had subdued and crushed material empires, and scattered nations and national customs as chaff before the wind, failed utterly to subdue or crush this religion, though promulgated by the feeblest of its plebeians. We know how the material prosperity of that mighty people was overruled for the furtherance of eternal designs; and as the invincible legions continually added to the geographical extent of the empire they also added to the number of those to whom the gospel of peace should be proclaimed.

The first Christian mission to Ireland, for which we have definite and reliable data, was that of St. Palladius. St. Prosper, who held a high position in the Roman Church, published a chronicle in the year 433, in which we find the following register: “Palladius was consecrated by Pope Celestine, and sent as the first Bishop to the Irish believing in Christ.” [110] This mission was unsuccessful. Palladius was repulsed by the inhabitants of Wicklow, [111] where he landed. He then sailed northward, and was at last driven by stress of weather towards the Orkneys, finding harbour, eventually, on the shores of Kincardineshire. Several ancient tracts give the details of his mission, its failure, and his subsequent career. The first of those authorities is the Life of St. Patrick in the Book of Armagh; and in this it is stated that he died in the “land of the Britons.” The second Life of St. Patrick, in Colgan’s collection, has changed Britons into “Picts.” In the “Annotations of Tierchan,” also preserved in the Book of Armagh, [112] it is said that Palladius was also called Patricius, [113] and that he suffered martyrdom among the Scots, “as ancient saints relate.”

Prosper also informs us, that Palladius was a deacon [114] of the Roman Church, and that he received a commission from the Holy See to send Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, to root out heresy, [115] and convert the Britons to the Catholic faith. Thus we find the Church, even in the earliest ages, occupied in her twofold mission of converting the heathen, and preserving the faithful from error. St. Innocent I., writing to Decentius, in the year 402, refers thus to this important fact: “Is it not known to all that the things which have been delivered to the Roman Church by Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and preserved ever since, should be observed by all; and that nothing is to be introduced devoid of authority, or borrowed elsewhere? Especially, as it is manifest that no one has founded churches for all Italy, the Gauls, Spain, Africa, and the interjacent islands, except such as were appointed priests by the venerable Peter and his successors.”

Palladius was accompanied by four companions: Sylvester and Solinus, who remained after him in Ireland; and Augustinus and Benedictus, who followed him [116] to Britain, but returned to their own country after his death. The Vita Secunda mentions that he brought relics of the blessed Peter and Paul, and other saints, to Ireland, as well as copies of the Old and New Testament, all of which were given to him by Pope Celestine.

The birthplace of the great Apostle of Ireland has long been, and still continues, a subject of controversy. St. Fiacc states that he was born at Nemthur, [117] and the Scholiast on St. Fiacc’s Hymn identifies this with Alcuith, now Dumbarton, on the Firth of Clyde. The most reliable authority unquestionably is St. Patrick’s own statements, in his Confessio. He there says (1) that his father had a farm or villa at Bonavem Taberniæ, from whence he was taken captive. It does not follow necessarily from this, that St. Patrick was born there; but it would appear probable that this was a paternal estate. (2)The saint speaks of Britanniæ as his country. The difficulty lies in the identification of these places. In the Vita Secunda, Nemthur and Campus Taberniæ are identified. Probus writes, that he had ascertained as a matter of certainty, that the Vicus Bannave Taburniæ regionis was situated in Neustria. The Life supposed to be by St. Eleran, states that the parents of the saint were of Strats-Cludi (Strath-Clyde), but that he was born in Nemthur—”Quod oppidum in Campo Taburniæ est;” thus indicating an early belief that France was the land of his nativity. St. Patrick’s mention of Britanniæ, however, appears to be conclusive. There was a tribe called Brittani in northern France, mentioned by Pliny, and the Welsh Triads distinctly declare that the Britons of Great Britain came from thence.

There can be no doubt, however, that St. Patrick was intimately connected with Gaul. His mother, Conchessa, was either a sister or niece of the great St. Martin of Tours; and it was undoubtedly from Gaul that the saint was carried captive to Ireland.

Patrick was not the baptismal name of the saint; it was given him by St. Celestine [118] as indicative of rank, or it may be with some prophetic intimation of his future greatness. He was baptized by the no less significant appellation of Succat—”brave in battle.” But his warfare was not with a material foe. Erinn received the faith at his hands, with noble and unexampled generosity; and one martyr, and only one, was sacrificed in preference of ancient pagan rites; while we know that thousands have shed their blood, and it maybe hundreds even in our own times have sacrificed their lives, to preserve the treasure so gladly accepted, so faithfully preserved. [119]

Moore, in his History of Ireland, exclaims, with the force of truth, and the eloquence of poetry: “While in all other countries the introduction of Christianity has been the slow work of time, has been resisted by either government or people, and seldom effected without lavish effusion of blood, in Ireland, on the contrary, by the influence of one zealous missionary, and with but little previous preparation of the soil by other hands, Christianity burst forth at the first ray of apostolic light, and, with the sudden ripeness of a northern summer, at once covered the whole land. Kings and princes, when not themselves amongst the ranks of the converted, saw their sons and daughters joining in the train without a murmur. Chiefs, at variance in all else, agreed in meeting beneath the Christian banner; and the proud druid and bard laid their superstitions meekly at the foot of the cross; nor, by a singular blessing of Providence—unexampled, indeed, in the whole history of the Church—was there a single drop of blood shed on account of religion through the entire course of this mild Christian revolution, by which, in the space of a few years, all Ireland was brought tranquilly under the dominion of the Gospel.”

It is probable that St. Patrick was born in 387, and that in 403 he was made captive and carried into Ireland. Those who believe Alcuith or Dumbarton to have been his birthplace, are obliged to account for his capture in Gaul—which has never been questioned—by supposing that he and his family had gone thither to visit the friends of his mother, Conchessa. He was sold as a slave, in that part of Dalriada comprised in the county of Antrim, to four men, one of whom, Milcho, bought up their right from the other three, and employed him in feeding sheep or swine. Exposed to the severity of the weather day and night, a lonely slave in a strange land, and probably as ignorant of the language as of the customs of his master, his captivity, would, indeed, have been a bitter one, had he not brought with him, from a holy home, the elements of most fervent piety. A hundred times in the day, and a hundred times in the night, he lifted up the voice of prayer and supplication to the Lord of the bondman and the free, and faithfully served the harsh, and at times cruel, master to whom Providence had assigned him. Perhaps he may have offered his sufferings for those who were serving a master even more harsh and cruel.

After six years he was miraculously delivered. A voice, that was not of earth, addressed him in the stillness of the night, and commanded him to hasten to a certain port, where he would find a ship ready to take him to his own country. “And I came,” says the saint, “in the power of the Lord, who directed my course towards a good end; and I was under no apprehension until I arrived where the ship was. It was then clearing out, and I called for a passage. But the master of the vessel got angry, and said to me, ’Do not attempt to come with us.’ On hearing this I retired, for the purpose of going to the cabin where I had been received as a guest. And, on my way thither, I began to pray; but before I had finished my prayer, I heard one of the men crying out with a loud voice after me, ’Come, quickly; for they are calling you,’ and immediately I returned. And they said to me, ’Come, we receive thee on trust. Be our friend, just as it may be agreeable to you.’ We then set sail, and after three days reached land.” The two Breviaries of Rheims and Fiacc’s Hymn agree in stating that the men with whom Patrick embarked were merchants from Gaul, and that they landed in a place called Treguir, in Brittany, some distance from his native place. Their charity, however, was amply repaid. Travelling through a desert country, they had surely perished with hunger, had not the prayers of the saint obtained them a miraculous supply of food.

It is said that St. Patrick suffered a second captivity, which, however, only lasted sixty days; but of this little is known. Neither is the precise time certain, with respect to these captivities, at which the events occurred which we are about to relate. After a short residence at the famous monastery of St. Martin, near Tours, founded by his saintly relative, he placed himself (probably in his thirtieth year) under the direction of St. Germain of Auxerre.

It was about this period that he was favoured with the remarkable vision or dream relating to his Irish apostolate. He thus describes it in his Confessio:—

I saw, in a nocturnal vision, a man named Victoricus [120] coming as if from Ireland, with a large parcel of letters, one of which he handed to me. On reading the beginning of it, I found it contained these words: ’The voice of the Irish;’ and while reading it I thought I heard, at the same moment, the voice of a multitude of persons near the Wood of Foclut, which is near the western sea; and they cried out, as if with one voice, ’We entreat thee, holy youth, to come and henceforth walk amongst us.’ And I was greatly affected in my heart, and could read no longer; and then I awoke.

St. Patrick retired to Italy after this vision, and there spent many years. During this period he visited Lerins, [121] and other islands in the Mediterranean. Lerins was distinguished for its religious and learned establishments; and probably St. Germain, [122] under whose direction the saint still continued, had recommended him to study there. It was at this time that he received the celebrated staff, called the Bachall Isu, or Staff of Jesus.

St. Bernard mentions this Bachall Isu, in his life of St. Malachy, as one of those insignia of the see of Armagh, which were popularly believed to confer upon the possessor a title to be regarded and obeyed as the successor of St. Patrick. Indeed, the great antiquity of this long-treasured relic has never been questioned; nor is there any reason to suppose that it was not in some way a miraculous gift.

Frequent notices of this pastoral staff are found in ancient Irish history. St. Fiacc speaks of it as having been richly adorned by an ecclesiastic contemporary with the saint.

A curious MS. is still preserved in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, containing an examination of “Sir Gerald Machshayne, knight, sworn 19th March, 1529, upon the Holie Mase-booke and the great relicke of Erlonde, called Baculum Christi, the presence of the Kynge’s Deputie, Chancellour, Tresoror, and Justice.”

Perhaps it may be well to conclude the account of this interesting relic by a notice of its wanton destruction, as translated from the Annals of Loch Cè by Professor O’Curry:—

The most miraculous image of Mary, which was at Bailé Atha Truim (Trim), and which the Irish people had all honoured for a long time before that, which used to heal the blind, the deaf, the lame, and every disease in like manner, was burned by the Saxons. And the Staff of Jesus, which was in Dublin, and which wrought many wonders and miracles in Erinn since the time of Patrick down to that time, and which was in the hand of Christ Himself, was burned by the Saxons in like manner. And not only that, but there was not a holy cross, nor an image of Mary, nor other celebrated image in Erinn over which their power reached, that they did not burn. Nor was there one of the seven Orders which came under their power that they did not ruin. And the Pope and the Church in the East and at home were excommunicating the Saxons on that account, and they did not pay any attention or heed unto that, &c. And I am not certain whether it was not in the year preceding the above [A.D. 1537] that these relics were burned.

St. Patrick visited Rome about the year 431, accompanied by a priest named Segetius, who was sent with him by St. Germanus to vouch for the sanctity of his character, and his fitness for the Irish mission. Celestine received him favourably, and dismissed him with his benediction and approbation. St. Patrick then returned once more to his master, who was residing at Auxerre. From thence he went into the north of Gaul, and there receiving intelligence of the death of St. Palladius, and the failure of his mission, he was immediately consecrated bishop by the venerable Amato, a prelate of great sanctity, then residing in the neighbourhood of Ebovia. Auxilius, Isserninus, and other disciples of the saint, received holy orders at the same time. They were subsequently promoted to the episcopacy in the land of their adoption.

In the year 432 St. Patrick landed in Ireland. It was the first year of the pontificate of St. Sixtus III., the successor of Celestine; the fourth year of the reign of Laeghairé, son of Nial of the Nine Hostages, King of Ireland. It is generally supposed that the saint landed first at a place called Inbher De, believed to be the mouth of the Bray river, in Wicklow. Here he was repulsed by the in habitants,—a circumstance which can be easily accounted for from its proximity to the territory of King Nathi, who had so lately driven away his predecessor, Palladius.

St. Patrick returned to his ship, and sailing towards the north landed at the little island of Holm Patrick, near Skerries, off the north coast of Dublin. After a brief stay he proceeded still farther northward, and finally entering Strangford Lough, landed with his companions in the district of Magh-Inis, in the present barony of Lecale. Having penetrated some distance into the interior, they were encountered by Dicho, the lord of the soil, who, hearing of their embarkation, and supposing them to be pirates, had assembled a formidable body of retainers to expel them from his shores. But it is said that the moment he perceived, Patrick, his apprehensions vanished. After some brief converse, Dicho invited the saint and his companions to his house, and soon after received himself the grace of holy baptism. Dicho was St. Patrick’s first convert, and the first who erected a Christian church under his direction. The memory of this event is still preserved in the name Saull, the modern contraction of Sabhall Padruic, or Patrick’s Barn. The saint was especially attached to the scene of his first missionary success, and frequently retired to the monastery which was established there later.

After a brief residence with the new converts, Patrick set out for the habitation of his old master, Milcho, who lived near Slieve Mis, in the present county of Antrim, then part of the territory called Dalriada. It is said that when Milcho heard of the approach of his former slave, he became so indignant, that, in a violent fit of passion, he set fire to his house, and perished himself in the flames. The saint returned to Saull, and from thence journeyed by water to the mouth of the Boyne, where he landed at a small port called Colp. Tara was his destination; but on his way thither he stayed a night at the house of a man of property named Seschnan. This man and his whole family were baptized, and one of his sons received the name of Benignus from St. Patrick, on account of the gentleness of his manner. The holy youth attached himself from this moment to his master, and was his successor in the primatial see of Armagh.

Those who are anxious, for obvious reasons, to deny the fact of St. Patrick’s mission from Rome, do so on two grounds: first, the absence of a distinct statement of this mission in one or two of the earliest lives of the saints; and his not having mentioned it himself in his genuine writings. Second, by underrating the value of those documents which do mention this Roman mission. With regard to the first objection, it is obvious that a hymn which was written merely as a panegyric (the Hymn of St. Fiacc) was not the place for such details. But St. Fiacc does mention that Germanus was the saint’s instructor, and that “he read his canons,” i.e., studied theology under him.

St. Patrick’s Canons, [123] which even Usher admits to be genuine, contain the following passage. We give Usher’s own translation, as beyond all controversy for correctness:—”Whenever any cause that is very difficult, and unknown unto all the judges of the Scottish nation, shall arise, it is rightly to be referred to the See of the Archbishop of the Irish (that is, of Patrick), and to the examination of the prelate thereof. But if there, by him and his wise men, a cause of this nature cannot easily be made up, we have decreed it shall be sent to the See Apostolic, that is to say, to the chair of the Apostle Peter, which hath the authority of the city of Rome.” Usher’s translation of St. Patrick’s Canon is sufficiently plain, and evidently he found it inconveniently explicit, for he gives a “gloss” thereon, in which he apologizes for St. Patrick’s Roman predilections, by suggesting that the saint was influenced by a “special regard for the Church of Rome.” No doubt this was true; it is the feeling of all good Catholics; but it requires something more than a “special regard” to inculcate such absolute submission; and we can scarcely think even Usher himself could have gravely supposed, that a canon written to bind the whole Irish Church, should have inculcated a practice of such importance, merely because St. Patrick had a regard for the Holy See. This Canon was acted upon in the Synod of Magh-Lene, in 630, and St. Cummian attests the fact thus:—“In accordance with the canonical, decree, that if questions of grave moment arise, they shall be referred to the head of cities, we sent such as we knew were wise and humble men to Rome.” But there is yet another authority for St. Patrick’s Roman mission. There is an important tract by Macutenius, in the Book of Armagh. The authenticity of the tract has not, and indeed could not, be questioned; but a leaf is missing: happily, however, the titles of the chapters are preserved, so there can be no doubt as to what they contained. In these headings we find the following:—

5. De ætate ejus quando iens videre Sedem Apostolicam voluit discere sapientiam.
6. De inventione Sancti Germani in Galiis et ideo non exivit ultra.

Dr. Todd, by joining these two separate titles, with more ingenuity than fairness, has made it appear that “St. Patrick desired to visit the Apostolic See, and there to learn wisdom, but that meeting with St. Germanus in Gaul he went no further.” [124] Even could the headings of two separate chapters be thus joined together, the real meaning of et ideo non exivit ultra would be, that St. Patrick never again left Germanus,—a meaning too obviously inadmissible to require further comment. But it is well known that the life of St. Patrick which bears the name of Probus, is founded almost verbally on the text of Macutenius, and this work supplies the missing chapters. They clearly relate not only the Roman mission of the saint, but also the saint’s love of Rome, and his desire to obtain from thence “due authority” that he might “preach with confidence.”

[111] Wicklow.—Probably on the spot where the town of Wicklow now stands. It was then called the region of Hy-Garchon. It is also designated Fortreatha Laighen by the Scholiast on Fiacc’s Hymn. The district, probably, received this name from the family of Eoichaidh Finn Fothart, a brother of Conn of the Hundred Battles.

[112] Armagh—Fol. 16, a.a.

[113] Patricius.—This name was but an indication of rank. In the later years of the Roman Empire, Gibbon says, “the meanest subjects of the Roman Empire [5th century] assumed the illustrious name of Patricius.”—Decline and Fall, vol. viii. p. 300. Hence the confusion that arose amongst Celtic hagiographers, and the interchanging of the acts of several saints who bore the same name.

[114] Deacon.—This was an important office in the early Roman Church.

[115] Heresy.—The Pelagian.

[116] Followed him.—The Four Masters imply, however, that they remained in Ireland. They also name the three wooden churches which he erected. Celafine, which has not been identified; Teach-na-Romhan, House of the Romans, probably Tigroni; and Domhnach-Arta, probably the present Dunard.—Annals, p. 129.

[117] Nemthur.—The n is merely a prefix; it should read Em-tur.

[118] Celestine.—See the Scholiast on Fiacc’s Hymn.

[119] Preserved.—It is much to be regretted that almost every circumstance in the life of St. Patrick has been made a field for polemics. Dr. Todd, of whom one might have hoped better things, has almost destroyed the interest of his otherwise valuable work by this fault. He cannot allow that St. Patrick’s mother was a relative of St. Martin of Tours, obviously because St. Martin’s Catholicity is incontrovertible. He wastes pages in a vain attempt to disprove St. Patrick’s Roman mission, for similar reasons; and he cannot even admit that the Irish received the faith as a nation, all despite the clearest evidence; yet so strong is the power of prejudice, that he accepts far less proof for other questions.

[120] Victoricus.—There were two saints, either of whom might have been the mysterious visitant who invited St. Patrick to Ireland. St. Victoricus was the great missionary of the Morini, at the end of the fourth century. There was also a St. Victoricus who suffered martyrdom at Amiens, A.D. 286. Those do not believe that the saints were and are favoured with supernatural communications, and whose honesty compels them to admit the genuineness of such documents as the Confession of St. Patrick, are put to sad straits to explain away what he writes.

[121] Lerins.—See Monks of the West, v. i. p. 463. It was then styled insula beata.

[122] St. Germain.—St. Fiacc, who, it will be remembered, was contemporary with St. Patrick, write thus in his Hymn:

"The angel, Victor, sent Patrick over the Alps;
Admirable was his journey—
Until he took his abode with Germanus,
Far away in the south of Letha.
In the isles of the Tyrrhene sea he remained;
In them he meditated;
He read the canon with Germanus—
This, histories make known."

[123] Canons—This Canon is found in the Book of Armagh, and in that part of that Book which was copied from St. Patrick’s own manuscript. Even could it be proved that St. Patrick never wrote these Canons, the fact that they are in the Book of Armagh, which was compiled, according to O’Curry, before the year 727, and even at the latest before the year 807, is sufficient to prove the practice of the early Irish Church on this important subject.

[124] Further.—Life of St. Patrick, p. 315.

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