Fractured Emerald: Ireland
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by Emily Hahn
Description: Fractured Emerald: Ireland by Emily Hahn The author of The Soong Sisters and China to Me turns her observant and discerning eye to the oft-troubled land of Ireland. In a magisterial combination of historical research and keen personal observation on the scene, Emily Hahn gives us a view of the whole of Ireland and its history, from the legends of the great kings and the heroes of myth to the Saint who converted Ireland to Christianity many centuries ago and up to the present day. She details the trials and tribulations of a conquered people as they rebel against their exploiters and fight and die for independence, eventually achieving their goal but only at the price of a bitter partition that haunts the country to this day. Hahn's breadth of vision and acute sense of the telling detail paints the big picture while also pinpointing the small-but-important moments. Perhaps the sub-title manages to encapsulate it all: Ireland, Its Legends, Its History, Its People from St. Patrick to Bernadette Devlin.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1971
eBookwise Release Date: February 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [590 KB]
Reading time: 375-525 min.
Ireland's story, if not unique, is exceptional. Through centuries of being conquered, occupied, cruelly used, fought over, and exploited, she has retained her individuality and has never lost sight of her goal, freedom from the invader. She has gone her own way, which coincides with no other. How is one to account for this long feat of endurance? Not by citing the peculiarities of race: the original settlers of Ireland were the same men who populated Britain and northern Europe. The answer probably lies in her geographical position--close to Britain yet detached, in the cold north where the population has always had to struggle for survival. The Irish are tough, or they would not be there.
Geologists think it was something like eight to ten thousand years ago when rising waters isolated Eire from the great land mass of the European continent, at an earlier date than the separation of Britain, too, from the mainland. Britain's western coastline curves over and around Ireland, protectingly or threateningly depending on one's political point of view. The water dividing these two islands is 120 miles across at its widest, but in the North Channel there is one place where the passage is only 25 miles wide. Studying the map, any jigsaw-puzzle addict's fingers will itch to move the two pieces of land together because they seem to fit so well, but if history teaches us anything it is that such a reunion would be--as the doctors have it--contraindicated.
Travel by water was slow and perilous at the time of Christ: on the far side of Britain from the Continent Ireland was cut off from the rest of the known world. New ideas and developments in Europe were a long time arriving if they got to Ireland at all, and they were usually weakened by that time, or otherwise altered for the worse. The Roman invasion, however, was completely absorbed by Britain en route, the Romans never passing beyond Pembrokeshire, let alone the Irish Sea. When Caesar landed on British soil the other island was still considered and dismissed as a dangerous outland of forest and mountain and bog, full of wild beasts and wilder men.
The background of these wild men is vague to us. There may have been humans in Ireland even before the waters rose and separated the countries, but the first people who left signs of occupation were Neolithic tribes who evidently came from southern and eastern Europe by way of Britain or perhaps Brittany. They were Picts, of the same race that lived in Britain, who could domesticate animals and pasture them. They built houses of woven lath and clay, cut down trees and grew crops on the clearings, made pottery, and spun wool. Their most lasting achievements were stonework buildings--great tombs and monuments and certain structures that may have been temples. Many of these stone edifices have survived. In the Boyne Valley, at New-grange, is a splendidly preserved burial mound with patterns chiseled on the inside walls, regular circles and whorls like those found in Britain. Most Picts cremated their dead and buried the ashes in mass graves. This was done at Newgrange, but individual burials too have been found in smaller graves. Also, the living buried possessions with certain of the dead people--pots, tools, and beads.
Later, probably after 2000 B.C., a different people came into Ireland, bringing techniques unknown to the earlier settlers. They were the Early Bronze Age men, who dug copper and tin and smelted the metal to make the alloy called bronze. Bronze Age pins, buckles and other jewelry have survived in large numbers, with bronze spearheads and knives and swords, and have been dug up by modern man. Then these prehistoric miners found gold, mainly in the Wicklow Mountains. They developed a new technique to work the malleable stuff and produced exceedingly beautiful objects--golden collars, torques, bracelets, rings, and brooches. Raw Irish gold left the country in ingots which were traded in continental Europe and Asia Minor, and the traders brought home objects from those far-off lands. Some of these, too, have been exhumed.
After a.d. 600 yet another wave of migrants came into Ireland, bringing an end to the Bronze Age. These Celts, or Gaels, were offshoots of the iron-using people who had overrun Britain and the Continent. Bronze Age metalworkers had brought weaponry up to a high standard and equipped their warriors with efficient short-bladed swords and leather bronze-studded shields, but even they couldn't stand up to the new iron weapons, and the Celts vanquished the Picts. They became the new overlords of Ireland.
In such telescoped form, eighty or a hundred centuries of Irish prehistory can be made to sound tidy. Bronze Age pushes out Stone Age, to be dislodged in turn by Iron Age, as in a gigantic game of musical chairs, but events do not really arrange themselves in such obligingly neat form. The changes took place irregularly, at different times in different places, with long lags. And the defeated races did not disappear from the scene just to make our work easier. They lingered as subservient members of the new order, or, more often, left the areas they favored to take refuge among hills and the thick forests that still covered most of the country. The overlords moved in and lived on the flat plains of central Ireland, where crops grew best and animals could graze easily. To the north and south the island is mountainous, its ranges leveling off toward the center in little hills called drumlins, still fiercely steep but eventually tailing away. The central flat region is a wide band running at a slant on the map, northeast to southwest, coast to coast. In the west these lowlands are boggy, but the eastern half is naturally well drained, a good place for farms and herds. It is the district most thickly studded with remains of prehistoric fortifications.
In Caesar's day the Irish were passing through their Heroic Age. Kings battled kings rather as men today go to work--it was their daily task. The social structure was complex. Small groups were governed by kings, but the kings had their own hierarchies, with high kings over subkings. There were nobles, priests (Druids) of the same social status, freemen of lower status, and unfree men. The Irish had no written language, the Druids keeping the entire store of racial knowledge in their heads. Among the free members of society was an arrangement of fealty that bore little if any relationship to the feudalism of Europe. It was based on livestock. A freeman would borrow breeding cattle from his lord and pay rent on the beasts for a certain period of time, until they had bred enough new animals for him to stock his farm. These payments constituted fealty, and the borrower was expected to serve his lord when called upon to do so, on the battlefield or in other emergencies. When the parent stock was no longer needed he could return the beasts to their owner, such repayment automatically releasing him from fealty to that overlord: usually, however, people preferred to continue as followers of the same man until death ended the connection.
The Irish meaning of the word "king" is also unlike that of neighboring countries, since there were many limits to a king's powers. Usually he could not adjudicate; justice was the preserve of the Druids. He could not appoint his successor, nor was it taken for granted that his son would automatically inherit, for the Druids had declared that such matters were settled by the darb-fine, a special law of succession. The royal family group must elect the new tanist, or king, from a precisely defined circle comprising not only the late king's sons but his brothers, his father's brothers, his grandfather's brothers, and even --assuming they were still alive--his great-grandfather's brothers, with the children of all these relatives. This would seem to give the electors a wide choice, but the prize was usually passed back and forth between the two main branches of the family. To avoid quarrels and bloodshed, the election of the tanist was usually held well before the existing incumbent died, though even with such precautions there were quarrels. As the method applied also to non-royal families and their inheritances, we can see why genealogies were so important to the Irish, and why the Druid genealogist needed a trustworthy, retentive memory.
When Christianity pushed out Druidism, the legal powers of the priests passed to a new class, the brehons, who inherited something of the Druids' supernatural aura as well. The Druids had been masters of magic, and when newly converted kings had to give up the comfort and promise of spells they must have felt sadly insecure. We have little information on that lost magic, the Church having effectively erased most of it from the records, but "Druid mist," which could be called up to befuddle the enemy in battle, is still remembered in legend.
Until the ninth century and the era of the Norsemen there were no towns or cities in all Ireland. In that pastoral country, people's lives were arranged about their cattle. They grew crops with which to feed the animals, and in the summer they drove the beasts to where the grain was growing, though they reserved some of it in dry form for winter needs. During those summer months in the fields they camped out in buaile, or booleys; the rest of the year they lived in little rural or family groups, complete with domestics and farmhands, in self-sufficient homesteads often called raths. These were ring-forts of a sort, much of a pattern though they varied in size and strength. An earthen rampart, usually circular and always topped by a wooden stockade, surrounded the land on which stood the owner's house-nothing grand, made of mud and lath or timber--and outhouses for his slaves, farm gear, and perhaps a few animals, dogs and horses. Cattle were kept outside the stockade. Everyone lived in this fashion, though prosperous men advertised their wealth with luxurious furnishings and kings had two ramparts rather than one. A poor freeman's house was far inferior, but the actual land was no problem, since in all Ireland there were at most half a million people. This townless existence seems isolated, but the ancient Irish were not really secluded, for they attended periodic meetings, get-togethers for business and pleasure where everyone could meet friends, settle disputes, arrange loans of cattle, dance, race horses, and take part in contests of skill or strength, with the high king, or ardri, presiding over all. These meetings, even after Christianity arrived, always took place on an ancient burial ground, for which reason some people think they derived from pagan funeral games. Our country fairs and church bazaars may have a similar source.
The oldest Irish epic that can be traced deals with the story of a warrior queen, Maeve of Connacht, said to have lived about the time Christ was born, who made war on Cuchulain, of the great kingdom of Ulster, to get possession of the magic bull of Cooley. Two centuries later the epics tell of two high kings who held power over all the other Irish rulers: Conn of the Hundred Fights controlled most of the fertile center of the island and Eoghan More ruled the south. After many inconclusive battles the two agreed to divide the country, each on his side of a line running from today's Dublin to Galway. Eoghan More's descendants were the Eoghanachts. Their kingdom included Munster and Clare, with the hill of Cashel for center and capital. Conn's descendants, the Dal Cuinn, vigorously expanded their central territory all the way to the west coast, taking in land from Leinster and Ulster. Of his breed the greatest was Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose people the Ui Neills ventured even farther, across the North Channel by way of the Hebrides to Britain. In those wild outlands they made themselves at home, some tending their beasts, others voyaging back and forth for trade or piracy from Antrim to Argyll or Kirkcudbright. Alba was their name for the new country, but as Irish Celts were known as Scots (Scottici), this adopted land, in the course of time, was called Scotland.
In 306 the southern half of Britain was a thriving Roman colony ruled by Constantius, Augustus of the Western Empire. That year he was in England with his son Constantine, and when he died Constantine succeeded to the tide, but was dissatisfied with it. He was an ambitious man. In 312 he invaded Italy to make war on the Emperor for the greatest rank of all.
The Christians were then a suppressed minority. Constantine was favorably disposed toward the new faith nevertheless: a racing man would say that he felt a hunch about it. His imagination was stirred by the thought of Jesus, so much so that before he rode into the decisive battle for the Empire against his enemy Maxentius, he ordered his soldiers to paint on their shields the Greek-character monogram of Christ, chi rho or X P. Riding with his men toward the Milvian bridge outside Rome, he saw a cross of light high in the sky over the sun. The omen proved true. That afternoon at the bridge, Maxentius was killed in battle and Constantine the Greek became ruler of the Roman Empire.
It is impossible to exaggerate the effect of his conversion on subsequent world history. Now the Church was honored, not persecuted, and free of the litigation that had so hampered it. Constantine's subjects followed his example until within a century Roman Britain was probably more Christian than pagan. But Roman power there was fading. There was no dramatic or sudden abandonment of the colony, only a measured withdrawal: the legions slid away like a slowly ebbing tide, with soldiers embarking in greater and greater numbers on the homeward-bound ships. They left a few British trained to fight the Roman way, but as the disciplined troops who had policed the country disappeared, Celtic raiders, long intimidated, grew more audacious. Some made forays from Scotland across the ruined Wall of Hadrian, more arrived in ships from Ireland. Ireland's patron saint Patrick was born at this time, while his native Britain was still Roman in tradition and law, when educated people spoke in Latin and the new Christian faith had taken root and flourished. But the great days of the Empire were over, and Rome ceased to be bulwark and protector of Britain.
When I was a child in St. Louis, our Irish cook used to tell me that Patrick was the first Christian ever to go to Ireland, and that he converted all the Irish. She sincerely believed this, but it is likely she was mistaken. I say likely because one can't absolutely refute her statements (or any others about the subject) with chapter and verse: little is known of Patrick's life. The legends accrued around his name are many and bewilderingly contradictory. But a lot of research has been done since our cook's day, and I am particularly grateful for a recent publication, Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career, by the Reverend Professor R. P. C. Hanson. For instance, the author convinces with his argument that the saint was born not before 388 and not after 408. It may seem a small point, but no point concerning Patrick is small-it is too rare for that. Some people even doubt that he existed at all: one man recently referred to him as the Paul Bunyan of Ireland, but this is carrying caution too far. Patrick existed. It is not his fault that he has been accredited with many fatuous-sounding miracles, for he himself seems never to have claimed credit for even one. Of his actual writings only two examples have been preserved, and both have been sifted over and over for meanings other than the obvious. His Latin style was awkward in the extreme, though at that time the writings of other scholars were polished and beautifully balanced. The British Pelagius, whose well-known heresy shocked and angered the Church, was one of Patrick's contemporaries. He was an accomplished scholar; Patrick was not. Nevertheless it was Patrick who went on that important mission to Ireland. The explanation for this puzzling combination of facts lies in a painful but very important adventure of his early youth. He tells us that he was the son of a comfortably fixed man, a decurion or alderman who seems also to have been a deacon--he may have taken the latter office to save himself from taxes. The family lived in a country villa, just where is unclear. At fifteen the boy was probably learning his lessons like other boys of his class, acquiring Latin as one of the refinements no gentleman could afford to be without, but for everyday purposes he spoke the dialect of the country. He says he paid little attention then to religious matters. At fifteen or sixteen he was kidnapped by sea raiders and carried off, with many fellow captives, to Ireland, and there sold into slavery.
For six years Patrick was a swineherd somewhere in Ireland. As to where, many have guessed, but Patrick has given few if any clues. Hanson thinks it might have been in county Mayo on the west coast, for Patrick mentions "the wood of Foclut," and there is a place of similar name near Killala in Mayo. In his loneliness the young exile found comfort in prayer. "Before I was humiliated I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came and in His mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft, and placed me on top of the wall...." One night in his sleep a voice told him it was time to escape. Patrick succeeded in getting away and finally, after many dangers, made his way back to England and his family. There the episode might have ended, even though Patrick's education had been ruthlessly interrupted. But he could not forget Ireland. He thought about his days of servitude until--"And there it was that I saw in the vision of the night a man coming as if from Ireland whose name was Victoricus with countless letters and he gave me one of them and I read the beginning of a letter that contained 'The cry of the Irish,' and when I began to think that at that very moment I heard the cry of those who were by the wood of Foclut which is near the Western sea, and this is what they cried out as if with one mouth, 'We beseech you, holy boy, to come and again walk among us,' and I was greatly pricked at the heart and I was not able to read further and so I woke up" (p. 207).
Patrick made up his mind to enter the Church, doubtless with the intention of returning to Ireland to share his faith with his friends. There are theories that he did his training in Gaul, but Professor Hanson argues that if he had, his Latin would have improved, and all too obviously it didn't. Furthermore, he writes that he wishes he had been able to visit various holy places on the Continent. Presumably, then, he wasn't able. After ordination he returned to Ireland. One naturally assumes he was sent by the Pope. Not so, says Professor Hanson: instead, he must have gone under orders from the Church of Britain, for Pope Celestine had very recently sent another bishop to Ireland, a man named Palladius, and His Holiness would hardly have duplicated officers thus, even though Palladius' name does disappear almost immediately. Besides, Patrick was almost certainly a monk (an interesting fact in itself, since in his time monasticism was a new idea) and Pope Celestine did not like monks as bishops. "It is inconceivable that he should have sent one as a bishop to Ireland. Even if Patrick was not a monk, he did encourage monks..." (p. 195).
I think we can discount our cook's statement that Patrick was a pioneer among heathen who had never heard of Christ. The traders from Gaul and Britain who visited Ireland were nearly all Christian, and the Irish knew them long before Patrick came. Ludwig Bieler (Ireland, Harbinger of the Middle Ages, p. 15) quotes a curious poem circulated by the Druids even before Patrick was born:
Adze-head will come,
Across the bald-headed sea,
Hollow-headed his mantle,
Bent-head his staff,
His table facing east,
His people, chanting, answer;
Unless we believe that Druids really had the magic power of second sight we must conclude that someone among them had seen a foreign bishop with miter, chasuble, and crozier, celebrating mass, or that someone who had witnessed a mass in Gaul brought the word to the Druids, who, sensing that Christianity threatened them, resisted with mockery.
Patrick was bishop in Ireland from about 425 until his death in 460. Most of that time he probably worked from Armagh, his main successes being among the poor and humble, though at least once he refers to aristocratic converts: he rejoiced to see, he said, that "the sons of the Irish and the daughters of their kings are monks and brides of Christ."
"No rhetoric enhances the effect of his circumambulatory and painfully awkward utterances," the professor sums up. "But no rhetoric stands in the way of his conveying his real sentiments to the reader....There is no barrier between him and his reader. He is one of the most honest men who ever wrote Latin, perhaps the most honest of all who ever wrote Christian Latin" (pp. 206-7).
The Irish adopted monastic life with such enthusiasm that soon the conventional ecclesiastical system of bishops and sees simply did not work any more. Within a century and a half after Patrick, the monasteries had taken from the prelates a large part of their congregations, who as monks and nuns retired from the world. There would have been too many bishops in any case. According to Roman usage each kingdom was entitled to a prelate, a rule that worked well enough in Gaul where kingdoms were of considerable size, but Ireland was divided into smaller areas, 150 tuatha--kingdoms--and that meant 150 bishops, most of whom had little to do. Many had no sees. The surplus were attached to monasteries for want of something better, and as over each monastery an abbot ruled, the attached bishop was answerable to this comparatively humble official. The Venerable Bede, two centuries later, still found this unusual arrangement worth mentioning, observing of Iona that it was "always wont to have an abbot that is a priest to be the ruler, to whose law both the whole district and also the bishops themselves ought, after an unaccustomed order, to be subject."
Armagh itself after a.d. 500 became a monastic community with both abbot and bishop. The pattern was so familiar to the world that later popes who wanted to communicate with the Church of Ireland, instead of writing to bishops as traditionally they would have done, applied as a matter of course directly to the great abbots. Also, a new fashion developed among Irish kings who adopted Christianity. It is true that during Patrick's time he had little success with these aristocrats, but many later did take the step of conversion and went to the other extreme, moving outright into monasteries with their entire households and endowing the foundations with their worldly goods. Thus the king did not really undergo all that much of a change: he simply exchanged his temporal throne for an abbot's seat or arranged that some trusty relative become abbot as his deputy. The selected monastery became a family monopoly, the same group remaining in control for generations. It did not occur to anyone to disapprove of these arrangements, which were quite openly arrived at.
The first Irish monasteries were places of retreat pure and simple, where people of a religious bent could leave the world behind to concentrate on spiritual matters. But early in the sixth century this concept changed, and the alteration had incalculable effects. It started when Finnian, a scholar who had studied in Wales, founded at Clonard in Meath a house where classes were held and a novice could learn to read and write Latin, using a stylus on a wax tablet. In this manner the Irish for the first time had an alphabet. Before, the only written records in Ireland were in the ogam script, a clumsy code of long and short lines cut across the edges of stone or wooden slabs, employed mainly for funerary inscriptions and so limited as to be almost useless otherwise. As we have seen, Ireland's culture in all branches that entailed language--history, genealogy, all tradition--had been locked up in the minds and memories of a few savants. Now, monks and even laymen could use the flexible Latin alphabet, and they soon realized that letters could be employed equally well for writing Irish. The key was in their hands, and literature was born. More and more monastic schools appeared, until the country was dotted with great communities of monks and students, each with its own workmen and provisioners and artists and libraries as well as the monks and abbots. Workmen of the type that had been itinerant--tinkers, tanners, and the rest--settled down and lived there because employment was steady, and the schools have been described as the nearest things to cities that the Irish possessed.
One who shared in this rich inheritance was St. Columba, or Columcille (Colum of the Cell). Born in Donegal in 521 of a northern Ui Neill family, he was an ardent scholar and poet whose life was dramatically altered by what has been called the first copyright lawsuit in history, when he lost his temper over a book. As the story goes, Columcille was visiting a scholar named Finnian of Moville when he borrowed one of his bibliophile host's most prized possessions, a psalter, and copied it out secretly, late at night, in Finnian's own church. Finnian found out and was furious. He demanded that Columcille hand over the copy, but Columcille refused, arguing that he had stolen nothing, that Finnian's book was not damaged, and that in any case sacred texts were in the public domain, or words to that effect. The quarrel raged until it was taken to the high king, Dermot-mac Cerr-beil, to settle. Dermot gave the decision to Finnian, supporting his judgment with a somewhat dubious analogy: "To every cow her calf, to every book its copy."
Columcille cursed Dermot. The quarrel was not settled, but spread further and further until Columcille's grand Ui Neill connections came into it, brandishing their weapons. There was a battle between the high king and the Ui Neill, and Dermot lost. But on the heels of Columcille's triumph came the reckoning: according to legend an angel appeared to him and rebuked him for the harm he had done, telling him that to do penance he must go into exile. In fact Columcille did go into exile, to the Hebridean island of Iona, and there he founded his most renowned monastery-school. He had already created various houses in Ireland, including Durrow and Derry, but the monastery in the Hebrides was the most considerable. Beautifully named Iona is a rocky, sandy scrap of land only a few miles across, which lies off the coast of Argyllshire within view of Mull and Skye. In pagan days it was a resort of Druids, who left traces of their rites in runic inscriptions; otherwise only a few fishermen inhabited it. Columba and his companions arrived in 563 and set to work on a house that was to endure for nearly three centuries and send out missionaries to far-distant points where they founded daughter houses. The terms of the saint's exile seem to have been fairly lenient, for he visited Ireland now and then, but it was on Iona that he died in 597.
In general plan the monastery was like those of Ireland, but unusually large. The customary earthen rampart and wooden stockade surrounded, among other buildings, separate cells--huts like wickiups, made of interlaced twigs and clay, to house small groups of monks, with the abbot's cell standing a little apart. There was a church, small like most Irish churches of the period. There were a cemetery, a refectory with kitchen, a workshop and forge, a guesthouse, and a scriptorium or library that was no doubt very well stocked: St. Columcille would have seen to that. Outside the ramparts were the farmlands and their buildings. The manual labor was done by "working brethren," who farmed, cooked, cleaned, tanned, worked in metal, and milled flour, under the direction of an abbot's deputy. The monks enjoyed fishing, and of course fish was the chief supply of food on Iona: in Adomnan's Life of Columba the writer, who lived on Iona in the founder's day, speaks enthusiastically of catching fish. Naturally the brothers, as islanders, were great sailors as well, and they kept a considerable fleet of various kinds of boats.
But this was only one side of the monastery's existence. Men especially skillful in calligraphy, who bore the honored title of "scribe," spent most of their time copying sacred texts, while those talented in painting were trusted with the decoration of the texts. The earlier work of the Book of Kells, now at Trinity College, Dublin, was done on Iona. Adomnan describes the daily existence of the monastery: "governed by the principles of perfect mutual love, common property without exception, and strict obedience....Chastity, humility, and the mortification of body and will, being essential parts of monastic life, were practiced rigorously. The obligation of silence was not enforced as strictly as elsewhere, but the monks were not allowed to indulge in idle talk" (Bieler, p. 40). Everyone fasted every day, but rules were sometimes relaxed, as in the presence of visitors. Like other Irish monks the Ionans sometimes went in for further mortification of the body and will: they used corporal punishment, hitting the offender's hands with leather straps.
I have said that Columcille was a poet, which means that he was not only a versifier, but had actually been to school under a fili, or official poet. These filid were of much higher rank than the bards: they were learned men who claimed that their works were inspired. In pre-Christian days they had been closely associated with the Druids: some scholars think they were Druids themselves. Now that they had the Celtic script they were able to write their works, a practice on which certain churchmen looked with disfavor, for they suspected the filid of being insincerely Christian, secretly retaining the pagan faith and even, possibly, indulging in Druidical rites. It was also said in criticism of the filid that they had an inflated idea of their own worth, and a poet who sang after dinner in some noble's house expected too large a present afterward. Columcille did not agree with these complaints. At a convention in Ireland, at Drum Caett, he forestalled an anti-fili movement to banish all poets. As an alternative he suggested that every king in the land employ his own fili, who would live in the royal household as a kind of laureate. The suggestion found favor, and the poets were saved. Thereafter they possessed new dignity and pride of place, and formed a caste as respectable as that of the brehons.
For years they dedicated poems to Columba, and Adomnan records that whenever a fill visited Iona he sang after dinner.
Columba had saved the elite of Irish literature, and was indirectly responsible at the same time for the bards, inferior poets like minstrels or troubadours, who strolled the country and paused now and then at the houses of patrons. Such a man used to sing flatteringly of his patron's wealth, ancestry, and personal glory, and if--as often happened--the patron happened to be carrying on a feud at the time, it was considered tactful for the minstrel to work him up in song. Often the patron, fired with wine and inspired by this singing, went straight out to settle his quarrel then and there. Some lords used bards expressly to inspirit their fighting men, much as present-day football coaches ginger up their teams with pep talks. In years to come the Normans detested this practice among the Irish, as did the English. Time after time the invaders passed laws against Irish harpists and bards, without effect.
The Romans planted Christianity in Britain, but when they departed they left many Britons still pagan. As Ireland was the more Christianized of the two islands, the Irish Church began sending missions to Britain. Rome, observing this shifting of power from her chosen center, took steps to cancel Irish influence in England. Pope Gregory I, well-known to school children for his statement about the fair-haired English slave boys--"Not Angles, but angels!"--in 597 sent a Benedictine, Augustine, as head of a mission to Britain's south coast, and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Some of his men moved up to Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, where, as the Romans had heard, the Irish Church maintained a firm hold over the ruling family. Why this Irish predominance in such a far-off region? Because the king, Edwin, had sent his nearest of kin, two young nephews, to be educated at the monastery of Iona, where they naturally grew up Irish-speaking Christians. Edwin was killed in 633 fighting the pagan Mercian, king of Penda; and Oswald and Oswy, the nephews, were recalled, the elder Oswald assuming the crown. With them came a group of Ionan monks to found a monastery on Lindisfarne, Holy Island. Nine years later Oswald too was killed by Penda, and Oswy became king. He vowed to endow a second monastery if God permitted him to kill the family enemy. He did kill Penda, and in 658 the new settlement was founded at Streaneshalch--Whitby--in Yorkshire.
In the meantime the Roman mission from Canterbury had been busy downgrading the Irishmen from Iona. Certain ecclesiastical customs observed by the Irish seemed laughably out of date to the Romans and Gauls, for Ireland had been out of touch with Rome for nearly two centuries. The Roman emissaries made the most of this, and found a ready audience among the younger Northumbrian priests who wanted the British Church to align herself with Rome rather than Ireland. It was decided that certain pressing matters connected with the subject be settled in open discussion at a council, or synod, at the new Whitby monastery in 659, with King Oswy in the chair.
There were two main quarrels. One concerned the correct tonsure for men of the Church: the Irish favored the so-called Celtic style, shaving off all the hair in front but leaving untouched that which grew in back, whereas the well-dressed Roman churchman wore his hair in the fashion we have seen in pictures, shaved all round save for a fringe that represented the crown of thorns. The difference may seem trivial, but hairstyles were to be a sore point between the Irish and the English for centuries, and the Whitby discussion was only the opening shot of a long, weary war. Technically the Roman tonsurites won the argument, but the Celtic hairdo was not abandoned. No Irish prelate worthy of the name would have surrendered.
Now the assembly turned to a far more complicated matter, the Easter question. The Church had decreed that Easter should always be on a Sunday, celebrated at the same time all over the world, but it soon became evident that when it is one time in Rome it is quite another at some distance to the east or west. Astronomers had tried manipulating dates here and there on the map so that Easter Sunday could be reconciled with these facts, but every year the world went astray from simultaneity. Various time cycles too were tried out and for a time seemed to work. One cycle of 84 years was approved for a while, and Ireland among other countries adopted it. Iona and Armagh were still using it at the time of the Whitby council, though Rome had long since found it unsatisfactory and recommended a 522-year cycle in its place. It was explained to the Irish that almost the whole Christian world now went along with Rome, and that they alone, with the Eastern Church, were out of step (with the British Church as well, of course, for they followed Iona). Even King Oswy's household was feeling the strain. As a loyal Iona alumnus he used the Irish Easter, but his wife, spiritually guided by a chaplain from Kent, did what her chaplain told her to do about Easter and observed the Roman date. As a result, the spring season at the palace could be very awkward, and never more so than in 651, when Queen Eanfleda determinedly fasted for Palm Sunday on the same day King Oswy was celebrating Easter.
Many a dignitary lost his temper during the Easter discussion at Whitby. Colman, abbot of Lindisfarne, as spokesman for his Church attempted to explain why Ionans kept things as they were. In reply Wilfrid, the passionate, ambitious young abbot of Ripon, leader of the stylish pro-Gaul faction, bitterly demanded, "Though your fathers were holy, do you think that their small number in a corner of the remotest island is to be preferred to the Church of Christ? Would you put your Columba before the Prince of Apostles...?" which was to say St. Peter, patron of the Church in Rome.
Colman stood up bravely to this attack, but Oswy was shaken. If he had to choose between Peter and Columba, he felt, there could be no hesitation. He lined up on Peter's side and the Roman date for Easter, and thus settled the fate of the British Church for the following nine centuries, until Henry VIII broke with Rome.
Next year saw Wilfrid rewarded; he became Archbishop of York. But the Church of Armagh and Iona, unmoved by the loss of Britain, did not budge. Her abbots, monks, and laity continued in the old way, celebrating Easter according to the eighty-four-year cycle, and on that remotest island remained firm for the next half century. It was 716 and Wilfrid, after a stormy life, had been seven years in his grave before first Iona, then Armagh capitulated. Nobody, not even Rome, was ever going to find it easy to order the Irish around.