How The Irish People Lived As Christians
It is not our business here to tell how the Irish were converted to
Christianity; for this has been already related in our Histories of
Ireland. Whether St. Patrick was born in Gaul or in Scotland, we know at
any rate that he brought with him to Ireland, to aid him in his great
work, a number of young Gauls and Britons whom he had ordained as priests.
But soon after his arrival he began to ordain natives also, whom he had
converted; so that the hard work of travelling through the country, and
preaching to the people, was for some time in the beginning done by
foreigners and Irishmen. But as time went on the missionaries were chiefly
native-born. St. Patrick loved the Irish people; and he was continually
praying that God would bestow favours on them. And his prayers were
answered; for, after the Apostolic times, there never were more devoted or
more successful missionaries than those who preached the Gospel in
Ireland, and there never were people who received the Faith more readily
than the Irish, or who practised it after their conversion with more piety
An old Irish writer who lived about twelve hundred years ago tells us that
the saints of Ireland who lived, and worked, and died before his time were
of "Three Orders." "The First Order of Catholic saints"--says this
writer--"were MOST HOLY: shining like the sun." They were 350 in number,
all bishops, beginning with St. Patrick. For more than thirty years they
were led by their great master, with all his fiery and tireless energy;
and the preachers of this order continued for a little more than a
century. They devoted themselves entirely to the home mission--the
conversion of the Irish people--which gave them quite enough to do.
"The Second Order was of Catholic Priests"--continues the old
writer--"numbering 300, of whom a few were bishops. These were VERY HOLY,
and they shone like the moon." They lasted for a little more than half a
The priests of this Second Order were chiefly monastic clergy--that is to
say, monks--and during their continuance monasteries were founded
everywhere through Ireland. Though there were monks and monasteries here
from the time of St. Patrick, they began to spread much more rapidly
after the foundation of the great monastery of Clonard in Meath, by St.
Finnen or Finnian--one of the Second Order of saints--about the year 527.
It was the monks belonging to this Order, and their successors, who
preached the Gospel in foreign lands with such amazing success, as will be
told in Chapter VII.
The monks and students in these establishments led a busy and happy life;
for it was a rule that there should be no idleness. Everyone was to be
engaged at all available times in some useful work. Some tilled the land
around and belonging to the monastery--ploughing, digging, sowing,
reaping--and attended to the cattle; some worked as carpenters, tailors,
smiths, shoemakers, cooks, and so forth, for the use of the community.
Some were set apart to receive and attend to travellers and guests, who
were continually coming and going: to wash their feet, and prepare supper
and bed for them. Many were employed as scribes, to copy and ornament
manuscript books; while others made beautiful crosiers, brooches,
chalices, crosses, and other works of metallic art; and the most scholarly
members were selected to teach in the schools. Besides this, all had their
devotions to attend to, which were frequent and often long.
The Third Order of Irish saints consisted of about 100 priests, of whom a
few were bishops: "these were HOLY, and shone like the stars"; and they
lasted a little more than three-quarters of a century. They were all
hermits, living either singly or in monasteries in remote lonely places.
Even when they lived together in numbers they were still hermits, spending
their time in prayer and contemplation, each in his own little cell; and
they never met together, or had any communication with each other, except
at stated times, when all assembled in the little church for common
worship, or in the refectory for meals.
We know that there were nuns and convents in Ireland from St. Patrick's
time, but they increased and multiplied, and flourished more than ever
during and after the time of the greatest nun of all--St. Brigit of
In the time of St. Patrick, and for long afterwards, the churches were
small, because the congregations were small; and they were mostly of wood,
though some were of stone. We have, in fact, the ruins of little
stone-and-mortar churches still remaining in many parts of the country,
built at various times during the four or five centuries after St.
Patrick. In the eleventh and following centuries, however, large and
grand churches were built, the ruins of which still remain all over the
Near many of the monasteries the monks began to erect tall Round Towers in
the beginning of the ninth century, as a protection against the Danes.
They were built with several stories, each story lighted by one little
window, and reached by a ladder inside. The door was small, and was
usually ten or twelve feet from the ground. The moment word was brought
that a party of Danish marauders were approaching, the monks took refuge
in the tower with all their valuables and a good supply of large stones,
and barred the door and windows strongly on the inside, so that it was
impossible to get at them during the short time the robbers were able to
stay. In fact the Danes were generally afraid of their lives to approach
too close to these towers; for if one of them ventured near enough, a big
stone, dropped by one of the monks from a height of sixty or seventy feet,
was likely enough to come down right on his skull and make short work of
him. We have still remaining many of these old towers.
There was a spring well beside every monastery, either that, or a stream
of pure water. The founder never selected a site till he had first
ascertained that a well or a stream was near. These fountains served the
double purpose of baptising converts and of supplying the communities with
water. In most cases they were named after the founders, and retain their
names to this day. It has been already stated how the early missionaries
often took over the wells the pagans had worshipped as gods, and devoted
them to Christian uses.
We have now Holy Wells in every part of Ireland, and it is with good
reason we call them so, for they preserve the memory, and in most cases
the very names, of those noble old missionaries who used the crystal water
to baptise their converts. We ought to make it a point, so far as lies in
our power, to take care of these holy wells, and to keep them neat and
clean, and in all respects in a becoming condition; and also to preserve
their old names as our fathers handed them down to us. If there could be
such a thing as grief in heaven, an old Irish missionary would certainly
feel grieved to look down on the little well he loved, and used, and
blessed, now lying unnoticed and neglected.
St. Patrick used consecrated bells in celebrating the Divine Mysteries,
and in nearly all other religious ceremonies, and the custom has
descended through fifteen centuries to this day. The bells used by the
early saints were small handbells, made of iron dipped in melted bronze;
but three or four hundred years after St. Patrick's time people began to
make them of a better material--bronze melted and cast in moulds. We are
told that St. Patrick left a little iron bell in every church he founded;
and, to supply the great number he required for this purpose, he kept in
his household three smiths whose sole business from morning till night was
to make iron bells. The very bell he himself used in his
ministrations--commonly called "The Bell of the Will"--may now be seen in
the National Museum in Dublin--the most venerable of all our early
Christian relics. Beside it in the same glass-case stands a beautiful and
costly shrine, made by an accomplished Irish artist about the year 1100,
to cover and protect it, by order and at the expense of Donall O'Loghlin,
king of Ireland.
It was usual for the founders of churches to plant trees round the
buildings. These "Sacred Groves," as they were called, were subsequently
held in great veneration, and it was regarded as a desecration to cut down
one of the trees, or even to lop off a branch.