Chapter XIV.


NOTHING could be more unpretending, or farther removed from display, than the manner in which Patrick entered on his mission. We see him go forth, not, indeed, alone, but with only a small following of obscure and humble disciples. He has communicated his design to a few select members of the British church of StrathClyde: they have approved his purpose, and caught a portion of his spirit, and now offer themselves as the associates of his future labours. On a certain day they proceed together to the sea shore, and pass over to the other side. On that voyage hang events of incalculable consequence. If the tempest shall burst and mishap befall the tiny ship now labouring amid the tides of the Irish Channel, history must alter its course, and the destiny of nations will be changed.

Tirechan, the eighth-century commentator on the "Life of Patrick," deeming so mean an escort altogether unbefitting so great an occasion, has provided Patrick with a sumptuous retinue of "holy bishops, presbyters, deacons, exorcists, ostiari, and lictors." It is hard to see the need he had of such an attendance, or the help these various functionaries could give him in his labours among the savage clans of pagan Ireland. But in truth the coracle that carried Patrick across the Channel bore no such freight. This army of spiritual men is the pure creation of the chronicler's pen.

The little party crossed the sea in safety, and arrived at Innes Patrick, a small island off the coast of Dublin. Their stay here was short, the place being then most probably uninhabited. They next sailed along the coast northward, halting at various points on their voyage to recruit their stock of provisions. In some instances the inhabitants absolutely refused to supply their necessities, and sent then away fasting, and Patrick, his biographers say, punished their niggardliness by pronouncing the curse of barrenness on the rivers and fields of these inhospitable people.[1] These "bolts of malediction," as his biographers term them, we may well believe, are as purely imaginary as the crowd of "holy bishops" that formed his train. Such fictions serve only to show how ill these writers understood the man whose character they had undertaken to portray. Patrick bore neither weapon in his hand nor malediction on his lip: he had come to preach peace, and to scatter blessings, and, after the example of a Greater, he took no account whether they were friends or enemies on whom these blessings lighted. Continuing their course, Patrick and his fellow-voyagers reached the coast of Ulster, and finally disembarked at the mouth of the Slain, a small river now called Slany. The spot lies between the town lands of RingLane and Ballintogher, about two miles from Sabhal or Saul. [2] Here it was that Patrick began his great career. In the little band which we see stepping on shore at Downpatrick to begin work among the Scots in Ireland, we behold the beginning of that great movement among the Celtic nations by which Christianity, during the course of the three following centuries, was spread from the banks of the Po to the frozen shores of Iceland.

Patrick's first sermon was preached in a barn. The use of this humble edifice was granted him by the chief of the district, whom, the legend says, was the same man with his former master, Milchu. When we see Patrick rising up before a crowd of pagan Scots in this barn we are reminded of the wooden shed in which Luther, ten centuries afterwards, opened his public ministry in the market place of Wittenberg. In a fabric having as little pretension to show or grandeur did Patrick open his mission in Ireland. He spoke in the dialect of those whom he addressed. The Celtic was then the common tongue of the North of Europe. The dialect of Ireland might differ from the dialect of Patrick's birthplace, but that presented no difficulty in his case, seeing he had made himself familiar with the dialect of Ulster during the six years that he herded sheep on its mountains. He knew not the tongue only but the hearts also of the men who now stood before him. He had learned to read them when he mingled with them as a slave. To what device had he recourse to gain their attention? How was he able to procure for his words entrance into their dark minds? How is it that the lightning penetrates the gloom of the deepest midnight? Is it not by its own inherent illuminating power? Patrick's words were light, light from the skies; and simply by their own silent and celestial power, like the lightning of the clouds, did they penetrate the pagan darkness and chase the night from the souls of these men.

The churchmen in Rome at that day were vying with each other in the glory of their official garments, and the grandeur of their temples, sure signs that they had begun to distrust the power of their message. It was in his perfect confidence in the unimpaired omnipotent power of the Gospel message, that Patrick's great strength lay. As the days when the Gospel walked in Galilee and preached to men by the sea shore and on the mountain's side, so was now to be in Ulster. The Gospel had returned to the simplicity, and with the simplicity, to the power of its youth. Smitten with premature decrepitude in the proud Italian capital, it was about to go forth with the footsteps of a mighty conqueror on the mountains of Antrim. While the eloquence of Chrysostom was evoking only the noisy plaudits of the gay citizens of Constantinople, the words of Patrick were to draw forth from the Scots of Ulster the tears of genuine penitence. Standing up before his audience in the same garb in which he had crossed the sea, and speaking to them in their mother tongue, Patrick told them the simple but grand story of the cross. The rugged exterior of the speaker was soon forgotten in the wonder and amazement which his message awakened. Like a fire, it searched the souls of his hearers through and through. Like a great hammer, it smote upon their consciences and awoke them from their deep sleep. As it had been formerly with Patrick himself, so was it now with these ignorant and fierce men; their own former selves came out of the darkness of their ignorance, and stood before their eyes. What had their past life been but one long transgression! So did they now see it. Like men coming out of a stupor, and struggling painfully back into consciousness, so these men, in whom a moral and spiritual consciousness was now being developed, returned to life with pain and agony, feeling the load of guilt and wretchedness that lay upon them. To efface the record of these iniquitous deeds was impossible, and it was equally beyond their power to atone for them. And yet satisfaction, they felt, there must be, otherwise the approach of a doom, as terrible as it was righteous, could not be stayed. What were they to do? On every side they saw themselves confronted with stern realities, not to be met by fictions or mystic rites, but by realities equally great. Behind them were acts of flagrant transgression. In front of them was a Law in which they heard the voice of a great Judge speaking, and saying, "The wages of sin is Death" Trouble and anguish took hold upon them.

Anon there began to pass another change upon the men gathered round Patrick, and listening for the first time in their lives to the Gospel from his lips. They began to understand that this was a message from Heaven; and they gathered hope from the fact that the Great Father had sent one to call them from the errors in which they had long wandered, and bring them back to himself. It was clear that He had no pleasure in their death. Light began to break in through their deep darkness. And now there seemed to be unveiled before them, as if by an unseen hand, a Tree on which a Divine Victim was suspended, who was bearing their sins and dying in their room. It was this wondrous sight that changed the words of the preacher from a message of condemnation and death into a message of forgiveness and life. Here was the very satisfaction which their conscience craved in order that it might lay down its burden. Here was blood of priceless value, and not a spot in all the black record of their past lives which it could not wash out. This was the door of life—of life eternal. At its threshold neither money nor merit was demanded as the condition of admission. Why, then, should they not press into the kingdom, and sit down with the patriarchs and prophets, the kings and righteous men of former ages? They did so. Their pagan life cast off, their hearts purified by the truth, they entered and enrolled their names in that goodly and glorious company which counts among its members men of every age and of every race, and the least of whom is greater than the highest of the grandees of the empires of earth.

It was not every one in the assembly now gathered round Patrick whose heart was touched, and was able to press into the kingdom, the door of which he opened to his hearers. Nor was it, perhaps, the major part; but even if only a few responded to his call, that was much in the circumstances. The heart of the missionary was cheered. He heard in the occurrence a voice bidding him go forward and fear not. If he had been haunted by misgivings that one so humble as he felt himself to be had committed a grave imprudence in undertaking so great an enterprise, these misgivings were now set at rest. These first fruits were the pledges of a great harvest in days to come. The whole land would be given him provided he had zeal to labour and faith to wait. The Gospel had given another proof of its power, and one not the least illustrious of the many it had exhibited since it began its career. Ere this day it had visited many lands, and told its message in almost all the tongues of earth, barbarous and civilized; it had traversed the vast territory that stretches from the shores of the Nile to the banks of the Ganges, from the snows of Atlas to the mountains of the Kurds, leaving on its path all throughout that immense field the monuments of its beneficent spirit, and transforming energy in tribes emancipated and civilized, in institutions and laws ameliorated, and in individual lives rescued from degradation and ennobled by purity and hope. But it may be questioned whether the Gospel had ever entered a region where, judged from human standpoint, its success was more improbable than among the Scots in Ireland, intractable and stubborn in disposition, held in bondage by their chieftains, and inspired with awe and terror by their Druidic priests. Yet here it was that the Gospel was destined to win its more conspicuous, and certainly its most enduring triumph.The commission of Patrick had now received its first attesting seal. "He tarried many days there," says the "Book of Armagh." He journeyed over the whole district, preaching and teaching, "and there the faith began to spread."


1. Vita. Trip., i. 41; Todd, Life of St. Patrick, p. 405.[Back]

2. See a valuable paper (privately printed) by Mr. J. W. Hanna, of Downpatrick, entitled, "An Enquiry into the true landing Place of St. Patrick in Ulster." Todd, Life of St. Patrick; p. 406, footnote.[Back]

Return to Contents