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In Honour of the Irish


1 Corinthians 1:18-25


[1] Studia adulescentiam alunt. “Studies nourish youth.” It was — and is — the motto of my high school, Riverdale Collegiate, in Toronto. In 1958 I was a 14-year old, grade nine student at RCI. I was beginning my study of Latin. I noticed how lovingly my Latin teacher, Katherine Hoey, pronounced the words studia adulescentiam alunt. I wondered how or why anyone would ever fall in love with Latin.

I soon found out. Language, we know, admits us to a world. The world to which my study of Latin admitted me was the world of ancient Rome. One feature of ancient Rome was the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. The Pax Romana spread from Rome as far north as Germany, as far east as India, as far south as Africa, as far west as Britain. The Pax Romana lasted almost a thousand years.

Years later I learned that it was the Pax Romana that had allowed the spread of the gospel. Without the stable social order of the Roman peace, the gospel wouldn’t have moved out of Palestine and the church would have remained a tiny Jewish sect in the Middle East.

Years later still I learned that I very nearly didn’t get to study Latin; and for the same reason I very nearly didn’t get to hear the gospel. The reason? In the 5th century A.D. barbarian hordes had swept out of northern Europe and trashed everything they could find in the civilized world. Virtually all classical learning appeared to be lost, even as the gospel of Jesus Christ appeared to be snuffed out.

[2] Where had the barbarians come from? They had come from northern Europe, east of the Rhine and east of the Danube. They had lived there for centuries in their illiterate, wild-eyed ferocity. Having observed their neighbours living in Roman outposts, however, they had seen that the settled existence of agriculture was safer, easier, and more productive than hunting with its ceaseless nomadic wanderings and relentless dangers. Agriculturalists now, their productivity swelled. As their foodstuffs multiplied, so did their numbers. Soon the barbarians wanted more land.

On 31st December, 406, the Rhine river froze solid. The barbarians crossed the ice-bridge and poured down into civilized lands. The Roman army couldn’t stem the rush.

Wasn’t the Roman army supposed to be able to stop anything? But the Roman empire had grown faster than the Roman army. As the empire grew, the empire required a bigger army than Rome’s tax-revenues could sustain. For years Rome had been trying to maintain the Pax Romana with an army too small for the job. In addition, since many Romans didn’t want to serve in the army, the army had been filled up with semi-barbarian mercenaries who didn’t appreciate Rome’s achievement and had no loyalty to it.

Nine hundred years earlier (390 B.C.) barbarians (Celts) living in what is now France had descended upon Rome and wasted the city. Climbing up out its ruins, Rome had step-by-step built itself into the world’s sole superpower. For 900 years Rome had done everything it could to avoid putting the city itself and its treasures at risk; any war Rome had to fight it endeavoured to fight on borders as far from Rome as possible. Then in 406 A.D. barbarians had crossed the Rhine in Germany and crossed the Danube in Romania. In four years they were in Rome itself, devastating everything they could. At the same time unprincipled Romans were themselves looting the city, aware that social order had broken down and they couldn’t be punished.

In the year that Rome was sacked (410 A.D.), the Roman garrison had already been withdrawn from Britain, as the soldiers were needed elsewhere in the empire. The barbarians who crossed the North Sea landed unopposed on the eastern shores of Britain. Meanwhile Irish barbarians, terrifying in their pitiless ferocity, landed on the western shores of Britain (as they had done for centuries) and carried off as many Britons as they felt like enslaving. The Irish barbarians (Celts) most often felt like carrying off British children, since children were the easiest to transport and the easiest to train as slaves.

[3] What was lost in the barbarian invasions? Countless lives were lost. Lost as well was the literature of antiquity, the content of classical civilization. Latin literature had been developing for 1200 years. Now it appeared to be lost forever. (Much Greek drama, we should note, has been lost forever.) Lost as well was the living civilization that the literature nourished. Had every last book actually been trashed we should have lost eversomuch that universities treasure today: the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the poetry of Homer and Virgil, the history of Herodotus and Tacitus, the oratory of Demosthenes and Cicero.

[4] Seven hundred years before the barbarians crossed the Rhine in 406 they had crossed it for the first time and then had settled wherever they could. By 350 B.C. this particular wave of barbarians had spread throughout Ireland. They were the people we now call the Irish. They were an illiterate, semi-nomadic, war-waging people who measured wealth in terms of the animals they owned as well as the slaves.

When the Irish waged war (this they did frequently) they stripped themselves naked, equipped themselves with sword, shield, sandals and neck jewellery, and then howled piercingly as if they were deranged. Roman soldiers were jarred when confronted with men whose seeming insanity (including the most grotesque facial distortions) left them feeling no pain and sensing no danger.

One day such an Irish raiding party landed in Britain and carried off as a slave a 16-year old whose name was Patrick. Immediately Patrick was turned into a shepherd-slave. Underfed, underclothed, underhoused, he never forgot the cold and hunger and loneliness of his sojourn in a strange land. For the rest of his life his heart ached whenever he was among people who were deprived in any respect.

Patrick had been uprooted from his home in a civilized town of Roman Britain. Now he was living in wildest Ireland. He began to pray. To whom? To the One whose gospel he had learned from Christians in Roman Britain. Patrick endured six years of isolation, six years of faithful devotion to the One who himself had had nowhere to lay his head. Then in 407 he knew himself addressed as surely as Abraham and Moses and Jeremiah had known themselves addressed: “Your hungers are rewarded; you are going home; your ship is ready.” Ship? He was tending sheep, 200 miles from the seacoast! Nevertheless, because, as he was to say later, “The Spirit in me was ardent”, he walked 200 miles across terrain he had never seen before. He reached the southeast coast of Ireland and there he saw — a ship! His one comment on the entire undertaking was, “I came in God’s strength…and had nothing to fear.”

The ship was leaving for the continent. He persuaded the captain to add him to the crew. Eventually he found his way back to Britain, was reunited with his family, and planned to stay home. But then he was addressed again: “We beg you to come and walk among us once more….He who gave his life for you; he it is who speaks within you.” As surely as Patrick knew who was calling him he knew what his vocation was. Immediately he left Britain for France and pursued a theological education in preparation for ordination. No sooner was he a priest than the French bishops made him a bishop too and sent him with their blessing back to Ireland. Whereupon Patrick became the first missionary to barbarians beyond the protection of Roman law. (The apostle Paul had been a missionary to “both Greeks and barbarians”, but Paul had never moved beyond the protection of Roman law.) Patrick’s missionary step into Ireland was as daring as the first astronaut’s step into outer space.

Patrick immediately schooled his first converts and appointed the more able ones among them as bishops throughout Ireland. Ireland had no cities at this time, its people living in scattered settlements where cattle and sheep were raised. Since the Irish kings (so-called) at this time were little more than rustlers, Patrick always placed the bishops adjacent to the kings, hoping to subdue the latter’s cruelty.

When it came to cruelty Patrick was convinced there was nothing more cruel than slavery, especially in the manner it tormented women. For the rest of his life he would campaign against the slave-trade. And within a few years after his death, the Irish had forsworn it.

Patrick consistently announced and embodied the gospel for 40 years. For decades he lived and worked among fierce people, brave people, warrior-people. He persuaded them that the gospel is real; so very real, in fact, that they didn’t have to slay rivals to prove their bravery; they didn’t have to think that peace-making was a sign of weakness; didn’t have to compensate for their fear of death by visiting violence on others — for now their fear of death evaporated as they came to know that Christ’s resurrection had defused death itself. Most tellingly, perhaps, Patrick’s gospel-influence persuaded the Irish to give up the practice of human sacrifices. For centuries the Irish had sacrificed prisoners-of-war to the war-gods and newborn babies to the harvest-gods. Under Patrick’s ministry the Irish came to see that the sacrifice had been made on behalf of the whole world, friend and foe alike. No longer did the Irish use the skull-tops of slain enemies as drinking bowls, and no longer did the Irish proudly display severed heads.

Under Patrick’s ministry the chaos in Ireland gradually gave way to peace, while everywhere else peace was giving way to chaos. In 476, fifteen years after Patrick’s death, the last Roman emperor died. Now the barbarians had the field to themselves everywhere — except Ireland.

Needless to say, while the gospel was Patrick’s most important gift to the wild Irish, learning-in-general was important too. The gospel was recorded in the written gospels; these had to be read; and therefore people had to be able to read. Once they learned to read they read everything available. But what was available, in view of the barbarian destruction of books? It so happened that a few books from antiquity had been hidden or otherwise preserved accidentally. The Irish knew how important these books were. They became painstaking copyists, copying out by hand book after book from antiquity, regardless of whether the book to be copied was Christian or classical.

Patrick’s missionary work had catalyzed Irish scholarship. Through Patrick the Irish renounced illiteracy and became lovers of learning, regarding learning of any kind (like the Jewish people before them) as a sacred obligation.

Before we leave Patrick we should note one thing more: Ireland is the only land into which Christianity has been introduced unaccompanied by bloodshed. (We need only think of Canada where the French and the English introduced the Christian faith amidst the shedding of each other’s blood, not to mention the blood of the aboriginals.) Because the Christian faith was brought to Ireland without bloodshed, there are no Christian martyrs in Ireland; at least there is none for 1100 years after Patrick, none until the reign of Elizabeth I in England. Queen Elizabeth I (of whom John Wesley said, “She was as Christian as Mahomet and as kind as Nero”) broke the tradition as she made martyrs of many Irish folk.

[4] It was the Irish monks specifically who kept alive both Christian learning and classical learning when the barbarians had rendered both virtually extinct everywhere else. Since Ireland had no cities, the monastic centres became centres of learning, with towns growing up around them to serve the students who were now coming from all over Ireland, England and continental Europe.

The students who came to these Irish monastic universities were commoners as well as nobles; they were welcome as long as they were serious about studying even if they weren’t preparing for vocations in the church; and while they read only scripture and the church-fathers at first, soon they were reading all of the ancient Greek and Latin works that others were copying diligently. It was this Irish monastic learning that spread out from Ireland and subsequently generated what we know today as Western culture.

Irish learning was important in yet another respect. The Irish were the first people with classical educations who weren’t ashamed of their vernacular tongue. Because the educated Irish were not ashamed of their vernacular language but continued to speak it, they learned to write it — with the result that the Irish were the first non-ancient people to develop their own literature.

[5] In 521, sixty years after the death of Patrick, another never-to-be-forgotten Irishman was born: Columba. Columba was educated in Ireland, became a monk, visited several monasteries in France, and then returned to Ireland where he established 41 monasteries before he was fifty years old. In 564, 100 years after the death of Patrick, Columba sailed with twelve companions to Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Now Irish learning was being exported by an Irishman, just as Irish learning was being imported into European centres by the continental students who had studied in Ireland and then returned home. Columba, a man with an extraordinarily strong personality (a modern French historian has spoken of him as “un homme de fer” — an ironman), created a literate Christian society among the Scots and Picts (both barbarians, the Picts being barbarians who painted pictures on their naked bodies whenever they went on the warpath).

Soon Irish monks were following the example of Columba. Leaving Ireland behind, they fanned out across Europe, announcing the gospel wherever they went and establishing centres of learning in Auxerre, Liege, Wurzburg, Regensburg, Vienna, Salzburg, plus so many others. It was the Irish who kept alive both the gospel and classical learning, the mainstays of Western civilization, in the face of barbarian efforts at extinguishing gospel and learning. At one time virtually every professor in Europe was either Irish or a national trained by the Irish. Never had the Irish had the influence they had at this point in their history; never would they have it again.

[6] For in the 11th century the Vikings invaded Ireland but were driven out.

In the 12th century the Normans invaded Ireland and weren’t driven out. Still, they recognized the superiority of Irish culture and joined themselves to it.

In the 16th century Elizabeth I planted English and Scottish colonies in Ireland, and subjugated the Irish. Before long there were Irish martyrs.

In the 17th century the English civil war broke out, moved over to Ireland, and left thousands of Irish slain.

In the 18th century the anti-Roman Catholic penal laws crushed the Irish. It was illegal for a Roman Catholic Irishman, for instance, to own a horse worth more than five pounds. Anyone who did was hanged.

In the 19th century famine killed one million Irish folk. Throughout the famine, however, food was harvested on Irish farms and exported in huge quantities to England. The English nobility owned the farms and exported the food. Irish people worked the farms but were denied access to the crops; they were made to starve when their own little potato-patches became beetle-infested.

In the early 20th century Irish people emigrated in huge numbers, fleeing the island for any place that held out a better life.

In the latter half of the 20th century — who cares to comment on the tragedy of the “troubles” that began in 1969 and continue to fester, unresolved?

[7] The fact remains, however, that Ireland became the first European country to possess a written literature. More importantly Ireland preserved classical learning, the foundation of Western culture. Most importantly, Ireland preserved the gospel.

My high school Latin teacher loved to pronounce the words Studia adulescentiam alunt — “Studies nourish youth.” When the class had advanced to the point of learning Latin participles and third-declension nouns and other grammatical exotica she would smile teasingly at us and say Omnes amantemamant — “All the world loves a lover.” She didn’t say, but she could have said out of Christian conviction, devout Roman Catholic that she was, what the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 5:25 and what this sermon is ultimately about: Christus ecclesiam dilexit — “Christ loved the church.”


                                                               Victor Shepherd   

March 2002