CHAPTER VIII. WHAT THE IRISH SCHOOLS AND SAINTS DID IN THE THREE FIRST CHRISTIAN CENTURIES.
We have now arrived at the close of the third century, from the death of Saint Patrick, and find ourselves on the eve of a protracted struggle with the heathen warriors of Scandinavia; it is time, therefore, to look back on the interval we have passed, and see what changes have been wrought in the land, since its kings, instead of waiting to be attacked at home, had made the surrounding sea "foam with the oars" of their outgoing expeditions.
The most obvious change in the condition of the country is traceable in its constitution and laws, into every part of which, as was its wont from the beginning, the spirit of Christianity sought patiently to infuse itself. We have already spoken of the expurgation of the constitution, which prohibited the observance of Pagan rites to the kings, and imposed on them instead, certain social obligations. This was a first change suggested by Saint Patrick, and executed mainly by his disciple, Saint Benignus. We have seen the legislative success which attended the measures of Columbkill, Moling, and Adamnan; in other reforms of minor importance the paramount influence of the clerical order may be easily traced.
But it is in their relation as teachers of human and divine science that the Irish Saints exercised their greatest power, not only over their own countrymen, but over a considerable part of Europe. The intellectual leadership of western Europe - the glorious ambition of the greatest nations - has been in turn obtained by Italy, Prance, Britain and Germany. From the middle of the sixth to the middle of the eighth century, it will hardly be disputed that that leadership devolved on Ireland. All the circumstances of the sixth century helped to confer it upon the newly converted western isle; the number of her schools, and the wisdom, energy, and zeal of her masters, retained for her the proud distinction for two hundred years. And when it passed away from her grasp, she might still console herself with the grateful reflection that the power she had founded and exercised, was divided among British and continental schools, which her own alumni had largely contributed to form and establish. In the northern Province, the schools most frequented were those of Armagh, and of Bangor, on Belfast lough; in Meath, the school of Clonard, and that of Clomnacnoise, (near Athlone); in Leinster, the school of Taghmon (Ta-mun), and Beg-Erin, the former near the banks of the Slaney, the latter in Wexford harbour; in Munster, the school of Lismore on the Blackwater, and of Mungret (now Limerick), on the Shannon; in Connaught, the school of "Mayo of the Saxons," and the schools of the Isles of Arran. These seats of learning were almost all erected on the banks of rivers, in situations easy of access, to the native or foreign student; a circumstance which proved most disastrous to them when the sea kings of the north began to find their way to the shores of the island. They derived their maintenance - not from taxing their pupils - but in the first instance from public endowments. They were essentially free schools; not only free as to the lessons given, but the venerable Bede tells us they supplied free bed and board and books to those who resorted to them from abroad. The Prince and the Clansmen of every principality in which a school was situated, endowed it with a certain share - often an ample one - of the common land of the clan. Exclusive rights of fishery, and exclusive mill-privileges seem also to have been granted. As to timber for building purposes and for fuel, it was to be had for carrying and cutting. The right of quarry went with the soil, wherever building stone was found. In addition to these means of sustenance, a portion of the collegiate clergy appeared to have discharged missionary duty, and received offerings of the produce of the land. We hear of periodicalquests or collections made for the sustenance of these institutions, wherein the learned Lectors and Doctors, no doubt, pleaded their claims to popular favour, with irresistible eloquence. Individuals, anxious to promote the spread of religion and of science, endowed particular institutions out of their personal means; Princes, Bishops, and pious ladies, contributed to enlarge the bounds and increase the income of their favourite foundations, until a generous emulation seems to have seized on all the great families as well as on the different Provinces, as to which could boast the most largely attended schools, and the greatest number of distinguished scholars. The love of the alma mater - that college patriotism which is so sure a sign of the noble-minded scholar - never received more striking illustration than among the graduates of those schools. Columbkill, in his new home among the Hebrides, invokes blessings on blessings, on "the angels" with whom it was once his happiness to walk in Arran, and Columbanus, beyond the Alps, remembers with pride the school of Bangor - the very name of which inspires him with poetic rapture.