Page images

geography, the observer is no less struck by an admirable combination of conditions adapted to develop and sustain a teeming and superior population. Mountain and plain, lakes and rivers, peat-bogs, coal-beds, and metallic deposits well-nigh inexhaustible, associated with a soil of exuberant fertility, and a climate so softened by the warm, humid air from the great South-Western Atlantic Current, as to breathe into vegetable and animal life a strength and productiveness, unknown elsewhere in corresponding latitudes. Of such soil and climate the world is notified in Erin's poetic designation as the 'Emerald Isle'

'First flower of the earth, and first gem of the sea.' Most of these qualities of the country were graphically sketched by an observant chronicler two hundred and fifty years ago—Sir John Davies, British Attorney General there early in the reign of James I. During the time,' he says, 'of my service in Ireland, I have visited all the provinces of that kingdom, in sundry journeys and circuits. Wherein I have observed the good temperature of the ayre, the fruitfulnesse of the soyle, the pleasant and commodious seats for habitation, the safe and large ports and havens, lying open for trafficke into all west parts of the world, the long inlets of many navigable rivers, and so many great lakes and fresh ponds within the land, as the like are not to be seen in any part of Europe,—the rich fishings, and wilde fowl of all kinds, and lastly the bodies and minds of the people, endued with extraordinary abilities of nature.'*

Such a country situated so conveniently to Spain on the south, Britain and Gaul on the south-east, and Scandinavia on the north-east, could not but attract colonists from the early settlers in those regions, and accordingly we find evidences, not only of Celtic occupation here long antecedent to our era, but of very ancient culture more than a little remarkable. Without at all venturing into the wide field of Irish antiquities, attractive as in some respects it is, we simply recall for our purpose the testimony of Tacitus, that in the times of which he wrote, 'the ports and harbours of this Island were better known than those of Britain, through the merchants that resorted to them, and the extent of their foreign commerce.'

* Plowden. Vol. I. p. 3.

Spared the desolations visited upon their neighbours in Albion by Roman and Saxon conquests, this old Hybernian race, were privileged to retain then, as they have done since, through all invasions and admixtures of other races, their native tongue and their own civilization, so that they really stand forth before the nations as among the most venerable of the tribes of Christendom, holding their country by a title more ancient perhaps, and therefore more unquestionable, than that of any other people in Europe.

Among the results probably of this exemption from foreign injury during the earlier Christian centuries, was the favourable introduction there of the Gospel very soon after its primitive age. To this an incidental statement of Tertullian in his work against the Jews, about the close of the 2nd century, corroborated as it is by other indications, is perhaps justly believed to apply,—that 'regions beyond those in Britain accessible to Roman arms had been already subdued to the Gospel of Christ.' It is certainly a suggestive fact, that by the middle of the 5th century, not only had the heathenism of Ireland been swept away, under the labours of St. Patrick and his coadjutors, and Christianity established as the general religion of the people ; but that religious speculation should have been so indulged as to produce the bold heretical theorist Pelagius.

This early Christianization of the Hybernians seems to have been

very much more than a mere nominal acceptance of dogmatic creeds and ecclesiastical forms. For, in the next centuries, we find Ireland the fruitful source of missionary agencies, apparently directed by a good degree of Christian truth, and animated by something at least of a genuine Christian spirit. Nor only so, but likewise pervaded by a zeal for good learning far beyond that of the sister Island, or indeed of any other contemporaneous European nation. As early as the middle of the sixth century. Columba went forth from his Irish home, with what was certainly a measure of apostolic devotion, to convert the heathen Picts of Northern Caledonia ; and after achieving extraordinary success, settled in the rocky island of Iona, where he established his celebrated monastery which became a centre of pure Christian influence on the surrounding world for the next generations. His contemporary and almost namesake, Columbanus, with a faith perhaps less simple, but with great earnestness of purpose, was at the same time devoting the energies of a well-furnished mind to missionary labours among the Gauls and Germans. The writings of this eminent man that have come down to us,' observes Mr. Moore,* display an extraordinary and various acquaintance, not merely with ecclesiastical, but with classical literature. From a passage in his letter to Boniface, (a British missionary, known as the Apostle of Germany,) it appears that he was familiar with both the Greek and Hebrew languages; and when it is recollected that he did not leave Ireland till he was nearly fifty years of age, and that his life afterwards was one of constant activity and adventure, the conclusion is obvious, that all this knowledge of elegant literature must have been acquired in the schools of his own country. Such a result from a purely Irish education, in the middle of the sixth century, is, it must be owned, not a little remarkable.' The historian, commenting on the work of another learned Irish churchman of the same age, adds,'the various learning displayed, implies such a facility and range of access to books, as proves the libraries of the Irish students of that period, to have been, for the times in which they lived, extraordinarily well-furnished.'

In view of such facts we are not surprised to find the Emerald Isle virtually a university for other countries of Europe, dispensing to them intellectual culture from the sixth century onward, until those hardy pirates from the Baltic, commonly known as Danes, towards the close of the ninth century broke up the quiet of Ireland, as they threw England into turmoil. Venerable bede, England's trusted

* History of Ireland. Vol. I. p. 267.

ecclesiastical historian, writing in the eighth century, testifies, 'that it was customary for the English of all ranks, from the highest to the lowest, to retire for study and devotion to Ireland, where they were all hospitably received, and supplied gratuitously with food, with books, and with instruction.'* Similarly affirms the learned Mosheim, ‘that the Hybernians were in the eighth century lovers of learning, and distinguished themselves in those times of ignorance by the culture of the sciences beyond all the other European nations, travelling through the most distant lands, with a view both to improve and to communicate their knowledge, is a fact with which I have been long acquainted ; as we see them, in the most authentic records of antiquity, discharging with the highest reputation and applause, the function of Doctor in France, Germany, and Italy.'+ In truth, Irish scholars were during those generations the leading instructors of Christendom. One of them, Alcuin, was appointed by Charlemagne to preside over the school which afterwards became the renowned University of Paris; another, Clement, was given charge of a similar institution in Italy; and a third, Dungal, was, by Charlemagne's grandson, called to the guardianship of the whole system of Italian schools and universities. Still more conspicuously, the great philosopher of those centuries, the Aristotle, Archimedes, Bacon, and Newton of the middle ages, the celebrated Joannes Scotus, or Erigena, was an example at once of Irish learning and Irish genius.

In the light of authenticated facts like these, we distinctly perceive a most gratifying degree of order, intellectual and moral development, and general well-being in Ireland, during the elsewhere troubled period between the sixth and tenth centuries. Toward the close of that period, however, this hopeful progress becomes seriously disturbed. The Danes infest the coasts of Erin, as they do those of neighboring regions; and as they seize and subjugate extensive portions of England, so they effect permanent settlements in Ireland. With these warlike intruders, the Hybernians, like the Saxons, carry on long and bloody contests, and with results not dissimilar:-occasional supremacy of the foreigners, but final triumph of the native population, with considerable modification from the process of absorbing a new element so large and so influential. It seems to have been the misfortune of the Irish that they were not favoured at that critical time with a great practical sage as their sovereign, like Alfred, the liberator of England's Saxon inhabitants, and the founder of that benign system of social organization, whose development has, in spite of enormous evils, rendered illustrious Anglo Saxon Institutions. But if they possessed not so wise, virtuous, and consummate a guide through that transition stage, they were not without heroic martial leaders. Their sovereigns, Brien Boroimhe, and Melachlan, between 1003 and 1022, effectually broke the power of the Danes in their island, and rendered the country thenceforward safe from their domination. Of the former of these liberating kings, the fact is noticeable that at the age of eighty-eight he gained over the invaders a great battle, and in the midst of victory fell sword in hand. It is of him the poet writes:

* Eccles. History. Vol. III. p. 28. † Moore's Ireland. Vol. I. p. 302.

'Remember the glories of Brien the brave,

Though the days of the hero are o'er,
Though lost on Mononia, and cold in the grave,

He returns to Kinkora no more.' The other worthy, Brien's warlike successor, who extinguished the broken power of Ireland's oppressors, and whom Irish annalists reckon as their forty-second christian king, the poet has, in like manner, commemorated :

'Let Erin remember the days of old,

Ere faithless sons betrayed her,
When Malachi wore the collar of gold

Which he won from the proud invader.'

One of the evil consequences mainly growing out of this protracted Danish struggle, was the tendency to local strife among the composite population, antagonism between the provinces composing the kingdom, and contests for supremacy on the part of rival chieftains. This, unhappily, not only harassed the people, and enfeebled the State, but furnished a temptation to the ambitious founder of the Plantagenet line on the Anglo-Norman throne, Henry the

« PreviousContinue »