THE IMPACT OF CHRISTIANITY
BY JAMES CARNEY
WHEN CHRISTIANITY came to Ireland there was no aspect of life there upon which it did not impinge in a vital and decisive way. The new religion and the Craeco-Roman culture that accompanied it affected political development, moral and ethical ideas, art and literature. In this brief talk I shall in the main restrict myself to considering how the new culture as a whole, not just as a religion, shows itself in the early literature.
It is impossible in dealing with this subject to avoid referring to the thorny question of Saint Patrick.
At school we all learned as one of the immutable facts of history that Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, was sent here by Pope Celestine in the year A.D. 432. His mission, we learned, was a spectacular success, and when he died some thirty years later, the whole country had been converted to Christianity. It is now a little over ten years since Professor O'Rahilly gave a rude shock to the scholarly world when he published his theory of the Two Patricks. He claimed to show that Palladius, who came here In A.D. 431, did not die or disappear from the Irish scene as the historians would have us believe. He had a second name, Patricius, and by this name he was known to the Irish. He had a long and successful mission, and some thirty years later, when the work of Christianizing Ireland was far advanced, he was succeeded by Patrick the Briton - the great St. Patrick, author of the document known as the Confession.
The man we learned about at school, our patron saint, is then to some extent a synthetic figure, a fusion of two men, Palladius and Patrick.
Needless to say, this new doctrine was not unanimously accepted by the historians, and the argument still goes on. Without going into detail I would like to say that I am completely convinced by O'Rahilly's two main theses: that Palladius had a successful mission, and that Patrick the Briton, author of the Confession, succeeded him at a much later date in the fifth century and died about A.D. 492.
Whatever view one takes of this question it would appear that by the year A.D. 500, although paganism was not dead, the country was substantially Christian. But the process of conversion was not as speedy as the Patrician legend would have us believe. When in A.D. 431 Palladius was sent here he did not come to a land that had never heard of Christianity. He came, as we know from the evidence of a contemporary Roman chronicler, to be first bishop of the Irish who already believed in Christ. Even before his coming the pagan Irish must have known that this religion, which already had gained some adherents in their midst, had a peculiar potency. They knew that it had conquered all the great world outside, even the neighbouring island of Britain. The more foreseeing, the ruling classes, the druids, and the traders, must have known that the day was at hand when they would have to choose whether to continue in their own individual ways or conform to the universal Roman belief.
The question, indeed, must have been as much in the air as is to-day the problem of how far we in Ireland should follow current social trends In neighbouring areas.
The comparatively late conversion of Ireland was due, of course, to our geographical position. Civilization in historic time has flowed from East to West. We are a Westem Island with another Island interposed between us and the great Eurasian land-mass, and there has always been In consequence a time-lag before we adopt any Innovation. But immediately after our adoption of Christianity our geographical position for once worked in our favour. The Christian missionaries had not merely brought us a religion. Just as English or American missionaries bring, as well as Christianity, the whole Anglo-Saxon way of life to Africa and the South Sea Islands, so came the Gaulish and British missionaries to Ireland, bringing their whole Graeco-Roman heritage. Even while Ireland was in the process of accepting the new culture that very culture began to recede in Europe when Gaul, Italy, Spain and Britain fell before the invasions of the pagan Germanic tribes. Ireland alone, on account of her geographical position, remained immune, and was thus enabled to conserve and even develop the culture she had so recently received. Her immunity enabled her subsequently to play a leading part in restoring European civilization by helping to convert the Germanic peoples to Christianity. Indeed, for a brief period, for the fast and so far the last time in her history, Ireland became the most vital civilizing force in the West. This position could hardly, in the nature of things, last. The Irish decline, which our nationalism might lead us to attribute solely to the Viking invasions, was inevitable. With the conversion of the Germanic peoples the natural equilibrium of Western Europe was re-established, and the great centre no longer existed, paradoxically, on the outer perimeter.
In the early period of the Irish missions the Irishman brought Christianity and civilization to the backward parts of Europe. Now, the backward parts were no longer so backward, and in the late ninth century it becomes very obvious that the Irishman coming to the Continent has at least as much to learn as he has to teach.
The gradual nature of the change from paganism to Christianity enabled those sections of society that had a vested interest in the old order to adapt themselves to the new conditions. This can best be seen in the development of the druids, who continued to exist under the name of fili, or poets, until the late seventeenth century.
The relations between the ecclesiastics and the order of poets, although the latter were now at least nominally Christian, cannot always have been quite happy. A late mediaeval satiric tale, although quite unhistorical, gives us an impressionistic picture of the uneasy relationship. In this tale Marban, a hermit-ascetic, is the representative of the Church; Senchan, chief poet of Ireland, that of the poets or reformed druids. The poets were in assembly, and nobody could gain admission to their deliberations unless he had a family connection with poetry. Marbhan gains admittance-and this, of course, is part of the satire-on the grounds that the grandmother of his servant-boy's wife was great-grand-daughter to a poet.
Having gained admission he succeeds in demonstrating the ignorance of the poets in all branches of learning, even in that in which they might reasonably be expected to be pre-eminent, the traditional historical lore of Ireland.
Early Irish vernacular literature, our sagas and our poetry, came into being in the period when Irish Christian civilization was at its height. It is now, I think, generally accepted that the great prose saga, Tain Bo Cuailnge, was written at some time in the seventh century.
It seems to me that much misconception exists as to the nature of our early sagas. Scholars sometimes speak of them as if they were simply the oral tradition of the primitive Irish written down. They imply that these sagas had a long life in oral tradition before being committed to vellum. It Is doubtless true that some of the elements of these sagas existed in pre-Christian oral tradition. But the sagas were written in monasteries, and the oldest collections are monastic codices. They deal for the most part with the pre-Christian historic scene. But particular sagas show every sign of being composed fictions which can have had no existence in Irish oral tradition prior to their presentation as written texts. It happens, for instance, that the author takes an incident from the life of a saint and makes his secular hero play a role analogous to that of the saint in the model work. In a story, Tain Bo Froich, written about A.D. 700, the heroes Conall Cernach and Froech are made to journey to the Alps in northern Lombardy. There they encounter a venomous serpent, which dragonolike, has been devastating the area. But the incident has a curious anti-climactic ending. The serpent jumps into Conall Cernach's criss or girdle, and neither harms the other.
This incident can have had no place in early oral tradition. The heroes are made journey to Lombardy, because serpents cannot be thought of as existing on Irish soil, which from classical times was known to be repugnant to serpents and, inferentially, dragons. The anti-climactic ending can be explained by comparison with certain incidents found in the Life of St. Samson, a work written between 610 and 615, and known and read in the Irish monasteries. In this source we see St. Samson, like Conall, going with a companion against marauding serpents. The saint overcomes the serpents either with his girdle or with his cloak. The girdle or cloak, possessing something of the Saint's sanctity, was capable of miraculously subduing a serpent or a dragon. But when the Irish author transfers this incident to a secular and pagan setting it naturally loses all point because he cannot attribute miraculous powers to the garment of a pagan hero. The incident is, then, a suppressed miracle. Furthermore we find three other suppressed miracles in this saga, and together they play such an important part that, if we take them away, there is very little of the tale left.
It need not surprise us that Christian monks had such a large part in the composition and presentation of stories of pagan heroes. In their schools they read both patristic and pagan literature, and if it was right to take pleasure in the deeds of Achilles it could be no less so to enjoy those of Cu Chulainn. Doubtless the more severe frowned upon this interest as worldliness, and on the other side of the Irish Channel, in a civilization that was analogous to and partly derived from the Irish, the eighth century cleric Alcuin was driven to ask in protest: 'What has ingeld to do with Christ?' This is exactly as if an Irish cleric had asked the same question concerning Christ and Cu Chulainn. Some of the sagas show decided traces of classical influence, and curiously the influence of Greek rather than Latin epic. The story of Deirdre and the story of how Cu Chulainn slew his son Conlaech can, in my opinion, be best explained as due to imitation of oriental models. Monasticism, originating in Egypt and spreading to Ireland through southern Gaul, opened a channel that was to fertilise Irish literature no less than Irish art. I would regard the oriental element in early Irish literature as on the same plane as the oriental element in the ornamentation of the Book of Kells. The Irishman in writing made full use of all the literary models available to him; his writing reflects his total literary experience no less than the Book of Kells represents his total artistic experience, and not just that part of it which is traditional or Celtic. Although these tales are set in the Irish pagan heroic period, the characters move in a grandeur that tends to be oriental. The king goes to war equipped with tents or pavilions. The gems, in particular the red carbuncle, are so bright that they gleam at night like sun-beams. Women have lips as red as Parthian leather and a man can have teeth as yellow as a camel's. The words used to express these ideas, which give the tales so much of their character, tent, gem, carbuncle, Parthian leather, camel, are all borrowings into the language made in Christian times, and cannot have been used in whatever type of tale may have preceded this literary period.
I may remark that it has long been noted that the descriptions of Cormac's palace in Tara are to some extent modelled on the biblical descriptions of Solomon's temple.
The manner in which Irish tradition came to be dressed in the externals of the new culture can be illustrated by the technique of the seventh-century Irish latinist Muirchu. Muirchu has left us a description of the first meeting of Loegaire, King of Tara, with St. Patrick. A surprising feature of this description is the manner in which the writer holds Loegaire metaphorically at arm's length. Although that famous king must have been as familiar to Muirchu's intended audience as is Daniel O'Connell to us, he is introduced in the following words:
'In the days when these things were done, there was a certain fierce and pagan High King of the barbarians ruling in Tara, the capital of the Irish, Loegaire by name, son of Niall, the origin of the royal stock of nearly all this island.'
The reason that Muirchu sees Loegaire from such a distance is that he is not presenting him and Patrick in the terms in which they were remembered in Irish tradition; but rather, as he later shows by explicit comparison and by his biblical phraseology, he visualizes Loegaire as king of pagan Babylon and Patrick as the prophet Daniel.
The impact of the new culture is even more apparent in poetry than in the prose tales. In native Irish society poetry had since pre-Christian times a social function. The chief found it necessary for his prestige to have the approval of the poets expressed in formal praise poetry. Just as praise poetry helped to consolidate a chief's position, so, contrariwise, the satire of the poets tended to make a chief's position untenable. It is possible, indeed, that the weapon of satire was as potent as excommunication with bell, book, and candle. This is illustrated by a treaty made as late as 1539, between Manus O'Donnell and O'Conor Sligo. Representatives of the Church joined in this document, promising to excommunicate O'Conor if he broke any of its provisions. Similarly representatives of the poets promised on behalf of the poets of Ireland that O'Conor would be satirized in the same eventuality. This document better than any other I know shows the poets as the functional heirs of the druids, and shows them as late as the sixteenth century acting as a corporate body.
At a very early rime, as early as A.D. 600, the metrical form of the official productions of these poets was not merely affected, but basically changed by the Impact of the form of Latin hymns. The form was not borrowed without parallel borrowings in matter and style, but in spite of such influence bardic poetry remained to the end essentially a native phenomenon, having its traditional and specific place and purpose in the Irish social order.
If the pre-Christian fili were given to the composition of subjective poetry we know nothing of it. But we do know that in the Old Irish period a group of academic Christian gentlemen were composing subjective verse of a high order. That these men were academic is shown as much by the content of their verses as by the fact that their poems are preserved on the margins of great ecclesiastical codices. A feature of their verse is their academic delight in learned riddle, paradox, contrast, and elaborate metaphor.
A single quatrain written at the time of the Viking raids well illustrates their use of paradox. But before quoting this I might mention that the paradox has been obscured by a false interpretation of the term muir menn as 'the Irish Sea,' a mistake that in our own day has made its way into school atlases and geographies. Muir Menn means either 'clear,' 'calm' or possibly 'quiet sea.' The paradox will appear in an English rendering:
'Fierce and wild is the wind to-night,
it tosses the tresses of the sea to white;
on such a night as this I take my ease;
fierce Northmen only course the quiet seas.'
The paradox is, of course, that now the poet finds peace in the tempest, and the idea is reinforced in the second couplet by the deliberate antithesis of 'fierce Northmen' coursing across 'quiet seas.'
Very well known and much commented upon is the poem of the scholar on his pet cat. Seeing the cat busy catching mice, the scholar who is engaged in construing a Latin text pauses to make a comparison. The cat is really like himself. Both are busy at tasks that are closely analogous, and he compares the cat's delight at catching a mouse with his own gratification at solving a difficulty. The poem may be thought of as a poem on a pet cat, but looked upon in another way it is the scholar's humorous evaluation of himself, a caution against taking himself and his pursuits too seriously.
A later and less well-known poem-one that was for long misinterpreted-is that to Crinoc. This poem is an elaborately worked out metaphor, written, I believe, by Mael Isa O Brolchain, a priest from Armagh, who died in Lismore, Co. Waterford in A.D. 1086. In his old age he finds a copy of a book of Psalms, the very copy which had been his first lesson book. He addresses it in metaphorical terms as a woman called Crinoc, or 'Dear little old thing,' whom he had first known and loved as a boy of seven. To paraphrase:
'You came and slept with me for that first time, woman of wisest counsel in all our fears, and I a fresh-faced youth, not bent as now, a gentle lad of seven melodious years.'
The book, which if we had it to-day would be one of our most treasured possessions, had passed through the hands of four others who, after the manner of students, did not use it too carefully. At last, by chance, it came back to the old man who had first read it in its virgin purity. He continues to address it in terms of his metaphor:
'Guiltless are you of any sin with man, fair is your name and bright and without stain, although I know that when you went from me, each in his turn, four lay where I had lain.
A pilgrim still you come again to me, wearied with toil and travel, grimed with dust; wise mind, but body not immaculate! Time it was that ravished you, not lust.'
In the last stanza the metaphor of the poem is given a slight twist: the poet suddenly realizes that his body, no less than the book, is worn and old, and he appeals for the renewal of salvation that the countenance of the heavenly King may light up with pleasure on beholding him.
These poets, unlike the conservative fili, let us see them in their full humanity. Asceticism may have been the ideal. But they had a great love for what they poetically call 'the golden-cropped world,' and in consequence many fell for a time by the wayside. Then they wrote poems asking Cod to grant them the grace of tears, the external sign of inner penitence:
'Cod give me a well of tears my sins to hide;
for I remain while no tear falls unsanctified'
But even while pursuing penitence, a poet may dwell on his sinful past with what seems to be a tender nostalgia:
'In heedless youth I broke the rule, made many slips, offered fair women
of gloaming teeth lascivious lips.
Now I am an old man, and after sinful years I seek no feast
but that my cheeks be wet with tears.'
The poems I have mentioned are subjective in the strict sense: the poet expresses in his own person his feelings and reactions. In another type of poem the poet presents his thoughts, not in his own person, but put dramatically in the mouth of some famous character. The well-known poem by the Old Woman of Beare is in reality a poem contrasting the joys of youth with the lean old years of compulsory penitence. Whoever the Old Woman of Beare may have been, the poet chooses to visualize her as an old nun who has come to religion late in life after a riotous youth. The poet wishes to contrast the constant renewal in nature with the terrible finality of old age; and with the Irish dislike of handling themes on an abstract level he allows the whole thought to take form vividly, personally, and dramatically in the mind of the old nun. The poem is dominated by a sea-image. The old woman is ebbing like the tide, but yet unlike it, for the tide will flood again. Similarly God has spread a cloak of green over the world, and when it is worn the pile is miraculously renewed. She is old and worn and wears a white veil on her head, but she envies the crop of the ancient plain of Femen because it is still golden:
'I envy nothing old
save only Femen's plain;
oft ripened, aye and reaped,
it still has golden grain.'
The sea cries out and rises to meet winter, but she unlike the sea, expects nobody, neither man of gentle birth nor serving-boy.
Poems like this are something more than Irish. They are European as well. They were produced at the same time as our best sagas, and like those sagas, they represent the coalescence of our Celtic heritage with that other which is both Christian and Hellenic.
Scanned by O.Zotov for Celtic Directory (http://1976.users.netdrive.com)
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