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

and earnestness.

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.