Novel by Derick Mockler
Towards the end of the seventh century, an Irish churchman named Muirchú moccu Mochtéine wrote one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of the Lives of St Patrick that have survived. History tells us only a little about Muirchú. He wrote at the request or command of Aodh, Bishop of Sleaty, a monastery which was situated near present-day Carlow. In 697 A.D., Muirchú was a signatory of an important law agreed at the Synod of Birr—the "Cáin Adamnáin" which provided protection for non-combatants in time of war.
"Seeking Patrick" imagines the circumstances in which Muirchú's biography of Patrick could have been written, as well as how it could have been planned and carried out; it is historical fiction rather than history. In other words, the story does not say "this is how it happened"; it says "this is one of several possible ways in which it could have happened." Every effort has been made to avoid violating any known historical fact.
Where Irish-language words or phrases are included, modern Irish is used. For the sake of those not familiar with the language, the text is so designed as to make at least the broad meaning clear. Place-names are given in their modern English-language forms, where such forms exist; names of some territories, such as Brega, Cuala or Ulaidh (which is not coterminous with modern Ulster) have no such equivalents. In this context it should be pointed out that the Meath of the text includes the modern county of Westmeath.
Most of the characters are invented. As has been mentioned, Muirchú and Aodh are historical figures; Conchadh, Cogitosus, Ultan, Tírechán and Séighín also existed. But their personalities and most of their activities may, of course, have been quite different from what is portrayed here. A few facts are known, beyond those mentioned above; Cogitosus did write a Life of St Brigit which has survived as has Tírechán's Life of St Patrick, and Aodh did affiliate the Sleaty monastery to Armagh in the late seventh century.
- Muirchú moccu Mochtéine: Priest and Master Scriptor at Sleaty monastery.
- Aodh: Bishop and Abbot of Sleaty.
- Donnchadh: Young legally trained scribe at Sleaty, assistant to Muirchú.
- Conchadh: Prior of Sleaty.
- Flann: Trainee scribe at Sleaty.
- Fiachra: Brother Gardener at Sleaty.
- Connla: Brother Sacristan at Sleaty.
- Cormac: Monk at Sleaty, medical specialist.
- Fionn: Brother Kitchener at Sleaty.
- Feidhlim: Driver/bodyguard at Sleaty.
- Fionntán: Feidhlim's nephew.
- Oscar: Son of the Sleaty blacksmith.
- Oisín: Oscar's twin brother.
- Fearghal: King of Uí Bhairrche.
- Orla: Daughter of Fearghal, student at Sleaty.
- Damhnait: Orla's sister, student at Sleaty.
- Custennin: British prince, friend of Muirchú.
- Cynnin: Custennin's son, student at Sleaty.
- Séighín: Abbot of Armagh monastery.
- Cogitosus: Scholar at Kildare monastery.
- Colmán mac Colmáin: Kildare "enforcer".
- Barra "Biatach": Master Scriptor at Kildare.
- Rónán: Father Librarian at Kildare.
- Cillian: Scribe at Kildare.
- Eochaidh: Abbot of Ardbreccan monastery, Meath.
- Ultan: Bishop of Connor, retired at Ardbreccan.
- Tírechán (Modern Irish "Tíreachán"): Protegé of Ultan; later bishop.
- Domhnall: King of a túath in Meath.
- Ruairí: Farmer in the Cuala hills.
- Feardorcha: Boat-owner in Cuala.
- Conn: Feardorcha's son.
- Seanán: Cuala scholar/hermit.
- Suibhne: Cuala scholar.
- Muircheartach: Cuala scholar/poet.
- Scannlán "Stadaire": Stammering scholar/ollamh in Brega.
- Conall: Ollamh, son of Scannlán.
- "Béilbhinn": Nickname of a story-teller in Brega.
- Lorcán: Story-teller, nephew of Béilbhinn.
- Finnshneachta Fleadhach: King of Tara 675–695 A.D.
- Deaglán of the Déise: Novice at Ardbreccan
Muirchú moccu Mochtéine, priest at the Sleaty monastery and Master of its scriptorium, sat at his scribal desk and frowned at the task before him.
Outside the timber-built, thickly thatched scriptorium the daily life of the monastery went on within its protective dyke and on the wide estate beyond. Under a grey early autumn sky the community's arable fields, orchards and pastures sloped down to the River Barrow, where the monks had installed fish-traps as well as one of the new water-mills for grinding their grain. Inside the enclosure, cooking smells drifted from the kitchens attached to the refectory. Liturgical chanting could be heard from the stone chapel. Further off, on the estate, a smith was hammering metal. Inside the scriptorium an appropriate silence reigned. But Muirchú put his head in his hands and groaned. The other six scribes looked up at him—the new apprentices nervously, the old hands sympathetically. They would have liked to help—Muirchú was a kind and diligent master. But they knew he had been saddled with a task that could have defeated any of them—and that now, about to start on it, he was doubting his own ability. To break the tension, one of them dared to call out to him, "Tosach maith leath na h-oibre, Master!"
"I'm the one who told you that a good beginning was half the work, son," snapped Muirchú, "so I don't need you to repeat it back to me!"
Muirchú was a sturdily built fisherman's son from the Cuala coast, his dark hair and beard streaked with grey. His intelligent, humorous face was marred somewhat by a scar down his right cheek from an injury inflicted many years before in a skirmish with bandits. Though not yet forty, Muirchú was feeling his age. So far he had been able to face up effectively to whatever life had thrown at him. First had come his intensive schooling at the Kildare monastery. The discipline there had often been harsh—much more so than in the smaller school here at Sleaty. But he had come through able to read and write Irish, Latin and ogham, to understand the Scriptures and even to illuminate lettering. He had started his career as a lay scribe and had married in his home settlement by the eastern sea. But misfortune had struck: he had lost both wife and parents in the famine and plague that followed one of the frequent wars between the Leinster túatha. Consoled and strengthened by his faith in God and his confidence in his own abilities, he made his way alone through the wolf-infested mountains and across the Liffey back to Kildare. There he entered the novitiate for the priesthood. The eminent churchman Cogitosus befriended and helped him through the years to his ordination. Kildare had grown in wealth and prosperity since Muirchú had first gone there as a young boy. But its wealth had come from the patronage and influence of the Uí Dhúnlainge, who had conquered the surrounding territories in brutal fashion. They had installed their own nominees as abbots and priors of the monastery; soon the Kildare community, the heirs of St Brigit, became more focused on material gain than on spiritual excellence. Disillusioned, Muirchú left Kildare and spent two years as a travelling scribe. He visited centres of devotion and learning in Leinster and Munster and even crossed the seas to monasteries in Britain and Gaul. After two narrow escapes from drowning, he arrived back in Ireland and ended up at the monastery of Sleaty, some thirty miles south of Kildare.
Though not one of Ireland's largest monasteries, Sleaty had a well-run school, a scriptorium/library, a guest-house and a small infirmary.
Better still, it had a just and virtuous abbot. Unlike many abbots Muirchú had met, Aodh was sensitive to both the spiritual and material needs of the monastic community and its dependent groups of farmers, craftsmen and estate workers. He was also a bishop, spiritual head of the local túath, which was Uí Bhairrche territory. A deeply devout man, though inclined to be impulsive, he regularly followed the same disciplines as his priests and monks insofar as his wider duties allowed. Settling down at Sleaty, Muirchú soon discovered a talent for manuscript illumination. He looked forward to spending his life creating beautifully illustrated copies of the psalms and Gospels that would inspire Christians for centuries to come. So where, he asked himself now, had the chain of events started that left him faced with such a challenging task? God must have planned the sequence—where had he begun it?
It must have started, he thought, on a bright spring day over a year before. He had been sitting at this very desk, coloured inks and pens to hand, happily writing and illuminating what he hoped would be a master-piece—his brightly coloured copy of St John's Gospel. Engrossed in the detailed work, and privileged to be inscribing Christ's own words for future generations to read, he paid no attention to the sounds of men shouting and cattle lowing outside the monastic enclosure. But a little later there was a commotion close by. He recognised Abbot Aodh's voice raised in anger. Muirchú hated interruptions, but he liked and respected Aodh; he must at least see what he might do to help. Standing up stiffly, he walked out into the sunshine. There was tall, lanky Aodh striding backwards and forwards between the vegetable garden and the chapter-house. Hurrying along flat-footed beside him, struggling to keep up, was a stout low-sized figure, Conchadh the prior. As Muirchú joined them, the abbot seemed to be talking about livestock.
"Three of our best dairy cows!" he was saying, "twelve dry cattle and twenty sheep, and at least a fifth of our butter and honey supplies! That bunch of ruffians may call themselves Kildare tribute-collectors, but what they really are is robbers in monks' clothing—all ten of them carrying swords in this sacred place—just pushed Brother Gatekeeper aside and took what they wanted!"
Aodh came to a stop at the chapter-house wall.
"Father Abbot," said Prior Conchadh timidly, "who was their leader—that savage-looking warrior with scarred arms and spiky red hair?"
"He sounds like a man I've seen before, Father Abbot," Muirchú intervened. "It's probably Colmán mac Colmáin; he leads the Uí Dhúnlainge troops in battle—though not in monks' robes!"
"I don't care who he is," said the abbot. "I intend to see that this never happens again. We'll discuss the whole matter in chapter in two days' time."
"Couldn't we ask the king of the Uí Bhairrche to protect us?" asked the prior.
"We could ask, but it wouldn't do us any good—they're terrified of the Uí Dhúnlainge."
The Brother Gardener, Fiachra, a big, rather simple man, now joined them, carrying a spade. He had left his work—he had been harvesting leeks in the vegetable plot—to find out what was happening.
"If you'd only called on me, Father Abbot, I'd have done a gníomh gaisce —I'd have hit them with my spade!"
"Have sense, man!" snapped Aodh. "It would have been a brave deed alright—but also your last deed on this earth!"
Muirchú took Fiachra by the arm and led him aside.
"Brother Fiachra," he said, "remember the saying about the monk's cat? The cat couldn't catch words—but his master couldn't catch mice!"
"So I'm the cat now, am I?" grumbled Fiachra.
"Of course not, dear friend. But we don't want to lose the best celery-grower in the túath!"
Mollified, Fiachra returned to the vegetable garden. Abbot Aodh was still outraged at what had happened.
"Even if we'd had time to call in all the estate workers and arm them with clubs, they'd just have been slaughtered by that lot! That Kildare monastery has turned into a den of thieves—no spiritual fibre—what could you expect from followers of a jumped-up butter-maker!"
Muirchú suppressed a grin.
"Father Abbot," he said, "I feel it my duty to remind you that Brigit of Kildare was an outstandingly holy woman who helped all who needed help—some even say she was a bishop like yourself!"
"Oh alright, alright," muttered Aodh, "but she can't have much influence in heaven if she can't stop what her successors are doing. And this so-called tribute-collection—this raid—has happened in spite of the generous donations in silver that we've been sending to Kildare every year on Brigit's feast-day!"
"It's clear that something will have to be done," said Conchadh, "and let's all reflect on what it should be."
Muirchú returned to his desk in the scriptorium. The other scribes looked up, hoping for news. He gave them none. "You'll find out what's happening soon enough," he said, resuming work on his John's Gospel. Silence returned, only to be broken by Flann, a young scribe who had arrived less than a year before.
"Your pardon, Master Scriptor!" he called. "Could you please show me how to draw an eagle?"
"I'll tell you how to do it," said Muirchú patiently, "but practise it on the waxed tablets; don't waste vellum. Just draw a fat bird with big feet, a big beak and a cross expression."
"I can't do that, Master Scriptor, because it would be an occasion of sin for others."
"Rubbish!" Muirchú told him. "How could it be?"
"Yes, because irreverent persons might take it for a cartoon of Father Prior."
Muirchú just managed to keep a straight face as laughter broke out all around. He had to give quite a long lecture against irreverence before calm was restored.
The community assembled in the chapter-house on the appointed day. The abbot, calmer now, sketched out the recent events for his brethren. Then he invited their suggestions. A hubbub broke out at once, with several monks interrupting each other.
"One at a time, now!" said Aodh. "Brother Connla?"
This was a courtesy. Connla was the oldest, though not the cleverest, of them all. As Brother Sacristan, he was in charge of altar vessels, vestments and chapel furnishings; these, together with the scriptorium and library, had escaped the 'tribute-collectors'' attentions. But that didn't seem to bring Connla much comfort.
"Father Abbot!" he wailed. "We must all fast and keep vigil for a week, praying God to bring down fire, plague and destruction on our enemies as he did for the Israelites long ago!"
"I understand your anger, Brother Connla," the abbot told him, "and indeed we all share it. But as for your suggestion, I have a question for you: did you ever eat bacon?"
"Of course I did, Father Abbot, on feast-days; what's that got to do with anything?"
"Just this, Brother: God told the Israelites through Holy Scripture not to eat pig meat."
"But that was said to the Israelites, not to us!"
"Exactly, Brother Connla! We and the Israelites live under two different divine dispensations. Calling down fire and plague isn't what God seeks of us. Besides, not everyone at Kildare is guilty of wicked deeds. Wasn't God prepared to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of only ten just men?"
"But Father Abbot!" called another brother.
"Couldn't we just bring down fire on Colmán mac Colmáin and his thugs?"
"No, because it might be God's plan to call them to repentance—no one is beyond his mercy."
This triggered off a chorus of suggestions, none very practical. Armed resistance? Excommunication? Total surrender? Father Treasurer thought they should charge high fees to all clients of the school and use the proceeds to hire mercenaries. Bad move, thought Muirchú. The school was the abbot's pride and joy; it had twenty-five students, including a few Britons and a Saxon, and—Aodh being unusually broad-minded—two bright daughters of the local Uí Bhairrche king. As bishop, Aodh had given special permission for an elderly nun to live with the girls in a house outside the enclosure, to supervise their conduct and to escort them to and from classes. Muirchú thought every monastery should have such a school; he himself enjoyed teaching the pupils the smooth, elegant Latin speech and script that he had acquired in Britain and Gaul. His thoughts came back to the present problem as Aodh rapped the table for silence.
"Look," he said, "we have to feed our people. We're not warriors, and excommunications could just make things worse. Our clients already give us gifts quite generously, and to charge fees would be totally against the spirit of our community; I'm certainly not going to do that."
"Well, Father Abbot," said Prior Conchadh, "you seem to have ruled everything out. What do you suggest?"
It was the moment Aodh had been waiting for.
"There is a way through," he said, "and I ask the chapter's support in this. We could bring this monastery under the authority of Armagh in return for their protection."
There was a shocked silence, followed by a babble of questions. "Isn't Armagh too far away?" "Would they make us change our liturgy?" "What about our tonsures?" "Maybe they'd treat us worse than the Uí Dhúnlainge!"
"Silence!" the abbot called. "We'd seek acceptable, guaranteed arrangements to protect our property and our liturgy. Otherwise, no deal, and we think again. But Abbot Séighín of Armagh is an old friend—he treats everyone fairly—and they're trying to extend their jurisdiction.
"Yes, Father Scriptor?" Muirchú had sought permission to speak.
"I think it might work," he said. "They could be reminded that we hold the remains of Fiacc, the first bishop of Leinster, whose master was a disciple of Patrick, the Armagh saint. I'd support your proposal, Father Abbot, if you can bring it off."
Muirchú's statement made an impact. Everyone there knew of his past association with Kildare and with the scholar Cogitosus. If he could accept a new allegiance, how could anyone else refuse? There were a few more questions, but soon the chapter was agreed. Abbot Aodh could proceed with his plan. That same day he sent a messenger to Armagh announcing a forthcoming visit to Séighín "to discuss matters of mutual interest". He himself set off northwards a week later, taking a few bodyguards. At Muirchú's suggestion he also brought with him, to act as secretary and witness, a young scribe named Donnchadh, who had some legal training.
During Aodh's absence the community offered up Mass and special prayers each day for the success of his mission. When a month went by without news Prior Conchadh began to look worried, and anxiety grew. There was talk of sending a further—perhaps a rescue?— mission.
But before that step could be taken Aodh and his companions arrived back. And they were not alone. Along with them a dozen warrior monks from Armagh entered the enclosure. The excited congregation gathered round calling, "Fáilte! Welcome back, Father Abbot!", "Deo gratias!" and "Thank God and the saints for your safe return!" Aodh called for silence and spread his arms.
"Friends and brothers, I'm truly glad to be back among you. I'll be reporting to the chapter later, but I can tell you now that all our hopes have been fulfilled: we're under St Patrick's patronage now, and that of his successors at Armagh! The tribute payments are agreed at light levels, our liturgy will be respected, and these sturdy new fellow-travellers of mine will stay with us for our defence—they'll train some of you in the arts of defensive warfare. You won't even have to change your hair-styles!"
A storm of cheering broke out. Abbot Aodh, looking tired but exhilarated, retired to rest. The new defenders were welcomed, fed and shown to the guesthouse where they would lodge until houses could be built for them outside the enclosure.
At the chapter-house next day, Aodh spelled out the details. They were surprisingly favourable to Sleaty.
"It wasn't easy," the abbot said. "There are a few people there who don't like the arrangement—they argued that we were too far away and too hard to defend, and that the tribute was too low. But Abbot Séighín is a good friend to us, and he pushed it through in the end."
Later, Donnchadh spoke to Muirchú privately.
"Father Scriptor, it almost failed!" he said, "But our abbot was most eloquent, especially in his praise of Patrick—it was he as much as Séighín who made our visit a success."
Gradually life at the monastery resumed its normal routine. But there were some differences. The warrior monks from Armagh had settled in and the community had got used to hearing their unfamiliar northern accents. Twenty-five of the estate workers had most of their normal tasks taken over by monks to free them for defence training. The next St Brigit's day Aodh sent the usual annual gift to Kildare, where it was received grudgingly—but not returned. It seemed that the Uí Dhúnlainge had decided they could not contest Sleaty's new status. Prayers to Brigit were kept in the liturgy, but the hymn to Patrick, Audite omnes, was added on. It was belted out at maximum volume by the enthusiastic choir.
On the seventeenth of March the feast of Patrick was, Aodh decided, to be celebrated in style. First would come hymns by a minor choir of ten little boys from the school, to precede sung High Mass. Brother Choirmaster had selected the boys and had established harmony among them—no easy task because those from Leinster thought the Meath boys put on arrogant royal airs, while the Meath scholars regarded their comrades from Leinster and Cuala as uncouth blow-ins and fish-scavengers respectively. The minor choir, in spotless white surplices, had been led out into the enclosure by the choirmaster, who lined them up ready for inspection by the abbot, then stepped aside briefly to exchange some news with Brother Fiachra. Father Muirchú happened to be crossing the enclosure. He was surprised to see a sudden squabble breaking out in the minor choir, fists flying, three boys rolling on the ground. He stopped and gazed at the spectacle.
"Brother Choirmaster!" he called. "Ecce chorus angelorum!" The appalled choirmaster raced back to his charges.
"What in God's name is going on here?" came a roar from behind Muirchú. Abbot Aodh had arrived. The choir members stood quietly once more, but some were snivelling, some had bloody noses or black eyes and some had mud-streaked surplices.
"Brother Choirmaster!" shouted Aodh. "Take these children away and get them cleaned up—they're not singing today—I'll think up a penance for you later!" After this unfortunate start the celebration had to improve—and it did. The adult choir performed magnificently, the High Mass was smoothly celebrated and deeply reverent while the large congregation, including distinguished visitors, all agreed that St Patrick would have been proud of the occasion. For the feast to be held later, wine had been brought across the mountains from the port at Inbhear nDea ("And sadly shaken up it is!" said Brother Cook, hunting frantically for his little-used wine strainer, "but still drinkable, I hope"), to accompany an enormous roasted whole pig, warm wheaten bread, and leek and celery soup. Musicians, poets and even a juggler had been brought in to entertain the company. When the festive meal was ready, dignitaries from Armagh were escorted to the top table in the refectory. They had been invited to witness this great celebration of their patron saint and were seated in places of honour with Abbot Aodh, Prior Conchadh and Fearghal of the Uí Bhairrche, king of the local túath and father of a prince and two princesses at the monastery school. The whole congregation attended, including the warrior monks and their trainees. Only the gatekeepers and the sentries at the estate borders were on duty, warned to be doubly vigilant; outlaws or enemies might choose this vulnerable moment to attack. In his welcome address, Aodh praised the bonds of friendship and mutual interest now firmly established between Armagh and Sleaty; Patrick's burning desire to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth and his diligence in responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in his words and actions were now finding their fulfilment in the present company and in other Christian communities throughout Ireland. The Armagh visitors replied suitably (though, Muirchú thought, with rather less enthusiasm; he also noticed that neither the Armagh abbot nor his prior had come). Now the replacement sentries and gatekeepers were sent out and the first shift brought in; while these ate and drank, the company was entertained with poems and stories of Cú Chulainn and the Táin Bó . Afterwards, the harpists played sleepy suantraí music until the replete guests retired for the night.
As spring moved into summer the programme of defence training was completed; the twenty-five Sleaty men had perfected their skills. Training was replaced by weekly weapons practice. The monastery now had what was really an army, Muirchú thought regretfully; a small army of only thirty-seven men, but many kings of túatha had fewer in their personal bodyguards. What would Patrick—or Brigit—have thought of this? Would they have quoted Christ's words to Peter, "they who take the sword shall perish by the sword"? Aodh reassured him.
"As long as I am abbot here," he declared, "they will only defend, never attack, never steal, never harm women or children—but defend they must, as you know." And this the Master Scriptor could not deny.
Putting aside his doubts, Muirchú devoted himself again to his work on the Gospel of John, the Gospel of love by the disciple "whom the Lord loved". He found peace in the beauty of the words and the beauty of his rendering of them. He took pleasure, too, in helping the steady progress of the scribes under his care. Outstanding among them was Donnchadh, who had now returned from completing his legal training with the breitheamh of the Uí Bhairrche and resumed his career as scribe and illuminator.
Before mid-summer Aodh returned from his annual visit to Armagh. Early the next morning Muirchú was summoned to the abbot's residence. Entering the modest, three-roomed house he was struck as always by its calm simplicity compared with the semi-palaces where he had visited other abbots and bishops on his travels. But Aodh did not look calm and was not his usual cheerful self.
"Muirchú, old friend," he said, "there is a problem I must share with you."
He went on to explain that he had met with some hostility in Armagh.
"More are against us now than before—there's now a whole faction that wants to dissolve our monastery."
"But Father Abbot!" Muirchú was shocked. "What possible reason could they have?"
"No real reason of course. But some believe that we still secretly favour Kildare, that our devotion to Patrick is false, that our tribute is insufficient and—forgive this Muirchú—that we are harbouring Kildare partisans here, which seems to mean you!"
Muirchú turned pale. "Please believe me, Father Abbot," he said. "I honour Patrick greatly and every day I seek his intercession with the Lord for us all—but that doesn't mean I should ignore Brigit!"
"I believe you," the abbot told him solemnly, "but for all our sakes you must give concrete proof of your devotion to Patrick—and you must do it as soon as possible."
"But what are you asking me to do? Vigils? Pilgrimages?"
"Those would no doubt be well, old friend, but instead it must be something public, enduring and unmistakeably Patrician. I want you to write the life of St Patrick, to produce a work that would surpass what your old master Cogitosus did for Brigit—that's what will prove your loyalty and ours!"
Muirchú took a few deep calming breaths.
"Aodh," he said, "you know well that I'm not qualified to carry through that task successfully. I've never written a saint's Life, and the only one I've read was the Life of Brigit by my late Master Father Cogitosus. I know little about the conventions of that type of writing. All I really know about Patrick is what he wrote in his Confessio—and that has a lot about his mission and his spirituality, but very little about the events of his life…"
Muirchú ran out of steam and stopped.
"What I've just explained to you, Muirchú, is what might be called the political reason why you should do this job. But there are other reasons too. First, you are a well-travelled, well-educated man; you write better and more fluent Latin than anyone in this monastery, including myself. Secondly, there should be a proper Life of Patrick—it's a gap that needs to be filled. And, thirdly, it would greatly help our resources and our work here if veneration of our holy founder's relics were to become more widespread; that could be brought about by way of a proper literary acknowledgement of his connection with Patrick.
"I've known you now, Muirchú, for—how long? About ten years, I suppose. I can say with all humility that I'm good at judging people. I know that your abilities are a lot greater than you think. Another thing: it's not necessary or desirable for me to invoke your vow of obedience here; this job must be done willingly if it's to be done well. You have never once grudged any effort that was needed for our community—and this time our survival as a monastery might well depend on you! I excuse you from all liturgical requirements from now until this time tomorrow so that you have time to think it through and decide what resources you will need."
Muirchú left, half dazed by the burden that had fallen on him. He had already said Mass that day. Now he put Brother Donnchadh in charge of the scriptorium and returned to the almost empty chapel. Kneeling before the altar, he stretched out his arms in the form of a cross.
"Lord Jesus," he prayed, "if I must accept this task, unworthy and unqualified as I am, help me to carry it through successfully; holy Patrick, ask the Lord to help me to see the right path and follow it, to continue your mission of spreading the Gospel message, to give you honour, and thus to move people's minds towards God, who will give them eternal life!"
He continued to pray as long as he could hold his pose, then dropped his arms and bent his head. After a moment, two sayings came into his mind with a sort of luminous clarity:
"It is not you who will be writing, but the Lord who will guide your hand", and
"Indeed my yoke is easy and my burden light".
Leaving the chapel with a sense of calm restored, he knew he must accept the task. It would be hard, but he would somehow be able to do it. He went straight to the library. Luckily, Brother Librarian was able to find him a rare copy of the Confessio, as well as Cogitosus' Life of Brigit.
"This was with the Confessio," said the monk, bringing him the texts he had asked for.
"What is it?"
"It's Patrick's only other piece of writing that we know of—his 'Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus'."
Muirchú read each text carefully twice—the two he knew and the one that he didn't. Then he sat there for an hour thinking what the next steps should be. In the afternoon, he went back to the abbot and told him he now felt able to take on the job and to carry it through as best he could. And he explained how he would need to begin. Long ago Father Cogitosus of Kildare, dead for the past few years, had begun to gather information on the saints of Ireland, including Patrick. He had made notes on waxed tablets—Muirchú had seen him do so. Scrutiny of these might help to fill the gaps left by the Confessio, or at least suggest further sources. There was a problem: the tablets—if they still existed—would be in the Kildare monastery library where the Sleaty community was no longer popular, to put it mildly. But Muirchú knew the Master Scriptor there. And it was customary for a messenger—usually a novice—to bring to Kildare each year a supply of coloured inks—a Sleaty speciality—in exchange for vellum. This time Muirchú would be the messenger.
"But they'll think it strange," said the abbot, "that the Master Scriptor has become the ink-carrier! You could still be in serious trouble."
"Perhaps," Muirchú replied; "but I'd say I was also fulfilling a desire to pray at the grave of my old master and tutor, Cogitosus. In fact, that's something I'd really like to do; I was fond of that old man, crotchety though he was. What more natural than wanting to read his writings in the library while I'm there? I needn't mention Patrick. I'd want to bring a witness, someone I could discuss the material with on the quiet—Brother Donnchadh would be the best."
"Very good," said the abbot. "I'll release Donnchadh to accompany you. You'll have to appoint someone as acting Master Scriptor in your absence—though I hope you won't be away too long. Do you want to use a chariot? King Fearghal has two, I believe—he might be prepared to lend us one. You'll need a bodyguard and a driver anyway."
"No chariots, thanks!" Muirchú told him. "I'll want to avoid drawing attention, so it should be just three of us in an ox-cart with a couple of battered book-satchels. The driver can be the bodyguard too."
"If that's how you want it, that's how it will be. We won't yet tell the community here about your Life of Patrick; as far as they'll know, you'll just be visiting that grave and carrying inks."
Two days later, Muirchú and Donnchadh were ready to start their journey. It was early morning on a cool, bright day. The ox-cart stood ready in the enclosure, the driver-bodyguard, Feidhlim by name, holding the reins. He was wearing a sword, and two further weapons lay in the bed of the cart beside the bag of inks, covered with empty sacks. The abbot had come out to see the travellers on their way. They had made their farewells and were about to climb aboard when Muirchú noticed a flurry of movement on the south side of the enclosure near the scholars' lodgings.
A girl-child about nine years old was running towards them, dark ringlets flying. Hobbling behind her came an elderly nun, trying vainly to call her back. Muirchú recognised Orla, one of King Fearghal Ó Bairrche's daughters who were students at the school.
"No, Sister!" he called to the nun. "The child may speak to us—didn't the Lord himself invite children to him?"
The nun stopped.
"Father Muirchú, Father Muirchú!" the child was calling as she reached him.
"I'm listening, Princess Orla," he said. "What do you want to say to me?"
"Father Muirchú, you're going to Kildare—will you see Bláthach?"
"She was my best friend—except maybe my sister. She's a cow!"
"Your sister is?"
"No, no, Father Muirchú. Bláthach is a cow, but those nasty raiders stole her."
"Well Orla, I probably won't have time to look for Bláthach—it isn't that kind of visit—but you can be sure she's been treated well. Dairy cows are always treated well so that they give lots of good milk."
"Thank you, Father Muirchú."
The child bowed her head for a moment, then looked up at him again.
"One other thing—is it still alright to pray to Brigit even after those raiders?"
"Yes, child, it is. She'd have liked the raiders even less than we did. You could ask her to intercede with God that he'd give them a chance to change their ways. Now I'll give you my blessing before I go—no need to kneel."
He traced the sign of the cross on her forehead.
"Benedicat te omnipotens Deus, Pater et Filius et Spiritus sanctus! Goodbye, Princess Orla, and may you grow in grace and wisdom as Jesus did."
The child smiled at him and ran back to her guardian.
"That was well done," said the abbot, "but next time give Patrick a mention too!" And he blessed the three of them as they set off.
The first part of the journey was through the settled and largely fertile land along the River Barrow. To the west were the uplands of Ossory where deer, boar and wolves roamed the forests of oak and beech. Far to the north-east were the mountains beyond which lay Muirchú's old home in Cuala by the eastern sea. He felt a sudden pang of longing to sail that sea again as he had as a young boy in his father's fishing-boat. But this could only be a dream; he turned his thoughts instead to the task before him.
Donnchadh had already been told about the forthcoming Life of Patrick. They trusted Feidhlim but thought it best not to burden him with the secret aspect of their visit. So, instead, Muirchú now told the young monk about Father Barra, the Master Scriptor at Kildare, whom he had known when they were novices together.
"He writes a fine hand—that's why he was appointed, I suppose. You may find his manner a bit strange, though; he's very noisy for a scriptor, but very friendly too—we used always call each other by our nicknames."
Donnchadh wondered, but didn't ask, what Muirchú's nickname could have been. They went on to talk about the inks they had brought and how much vellum they ought to get in exchange. As the ox-cart made its slow progress northward, they met travellers heading for southern Ossory, the Déise or the Uí Chinnsealaigh country in the south-east. Many of them would break their journey at the Sleaty guest-house; pilgrims and wandering craftsmen often visited the monastery for longer periods.
The road itself was passably good for the most part, maintained well—or not so well—by the túatha through whose territory it ran. There was just room for the ox-cart to pass an ox- or horse-drawn vehicle going in the opposite direction. One vehicle was conveying a well-known poet who greeted the monks courteously as he passed; richly dressed, he had two spare horses trotting behind. By contrast, the next conveyance they met contained two middle-aged men who turned aside and spat, making the sign against the evil eye.
"Pagans!" said Donnchadh. "You could see the druid's tonsure on the driver—doesn't it make you angry?"
"It certainly does," Muirchú told him; "but it also makes me sad to think that no one has brought them Christ's good news with enough conviction, or that some Christians have behaved so badly towards them as to arouse their hatred."
By the time they lodged for the night in a farmer's house they had completed over two thirds of their journey. Feidhlim, a man who spoke little, stretched and yawned.
"Well Father Muirchú," he said, "we should be in Kildare by mid-day tomorrow."
"Very good, Feidhlim," said Muirchú, "and, Donnchadh, you and I will eat a good breakfast tomorrow, then fast from food for a day and a night. I'll explain it to you tomorrow—Feidhlim, that needn't apply to you."
The driver nodded, lay down on the straw bundle assigned to him and was snoring minutes later.
True to his word, Feidhlim drove the ox-cart into Kildare in the middle of the following day. He had been there before. Donnchadh had not; in fact, apart from a period of study at Glendalough in the Cuala mountains, he had seldom been outside his native Uí Bhairrche territory.
"Father Muirchú, this is like a city!"exclaimed the young scribe. "These are 'streets' we're in, streets like the Romans had—and the crowds! And the noise!" They had gone through three of these streets of workshops, lodging-houses, ale-shops and residences without yet reaching the monastery itself.
"Yes, Father Cogitosus really stressed how important Kildare is, in his Life of Brigit," said Muirchú, raising his voice to be heard above the surrounding noise. "In fact, he used up a great deal of his vellum praising Kildare—the trouble was he tried to spread its jurisdiction 'from sea to sea'; that was going too far. Then he wrote in a whole string of miracles, but very little else about Brigit's life. Never mentioned Patrick, of course! I think some Uí Dhúnlainge appointee must have been looking over his shoulder, because normally he was a fair-minded man with balanced judgement."
The ox-cart had been making its slow way through the crowds, Feidhlim cracking his whip and shouting at pedestrians to clear the way. Now it came to a halt in an open space in front of a wide, timber-built house with stables at the side.
"This is where you'll stay, Feidhlim?"
"Yes, Father Muirchú, I stayed here before—they're good Christian people; they have feed and shelter for the beasts, and a night watchman, but I'll sleep by the cart myself just to be sure."
Muirchú gave him some rings for his food and lodging.
"We'll go ahead to the monastery," he told Donnchadh, taking the satchels and the ink-sack out of the cart. By now the innkeeper had come out to greet Feidhlim, bringing with him a serving-boy to feed and stable the oxen.
"Feidhlim," said Muirchú, "we'll come back here when we need you, probably tomorrow, but it could be late tonight—we might lodge the night here with you if we're not in a great hurry to leave, which is possible too. Anyway, stay nearby where we can contact you."
"I've good friends from my last visit just here in this street," replied Feidhlim with a broad smile, "so I won't be far away, Father."
Muirchú and Donnchadh set off on foot towards the monastery gate, visible a short distance away.
"What would you say Feidhlim was grinning about?" asked Donnchadh. "Food, drink or women?"
"Some of each perhaps—let's not enquire too closely, as long as he's ready when we need him."
At the entrance, the gatekeeper asked their business.
"Inks for the scriptorium, my son, Dominus tecum!" Muirchú told him cheerfully, partially opening the sack to show the flasks. They were waved through and made their way between buildings to the scriptorium. As they approached the open door they could see the Master Scriptor of Kildare in ink-spattered robes working at his desk. His stout figure bulged out over the edges of the high stool; he shifted, muttered and grunted loudly as he wrote.
"That's Father Barra," whispered Muirchú as they entered. Barra looked up and saw them.
"Well look what the wind blew in!" he shouted "Ave, Dominus tecum, Scarface Forbach!"
"Et cum spiritu tuo, Fatty Biatach!" Muirchú responded. "You haven't lost much weight!" Crowing with pleasure, Barra slid heavily from his stool and hugged Muirchú. When Muirchú was able to speak again, he introduced Donnchadh as "my assistant and trainee". Donnchadh was hugged too. He emerged from the embrace red-faced and gasping; was anyone in Ireland, he wondered, more afflicted with bad breath than Father Barra?
Muirchú came straight to the point.
"Barra, we've brought a big supply of coloured inks and we'd like to exchange them for vellum."
"Muirchú, your assistant and mine can work that out," Barra boomed, beckoning forward one of the dozen scribes in the room; the others began to look hopeful that they might soon have some peace and quiet.
"Come on over to my place," Barra went on, "and we'll talk about old times. Just a simple hut but, as Master Scriptor here, at least I have one to myself! It was hard to sleep in the dormitory; some of the others were so noisy—snoring, you know." Muirchú decided not to share his memory of the novices' sleeping quarters here at Kildare, when Barra's snores had seemed to shake the dormitory building.
The hut they now entered was not much larger than Muirchú's own house at Sleaty. It was sparsely but adequately furnished with table, stools, bench, storage chest, bed and a small barrel in the corner. A crucifix on the wall was the only decoration; no prie-dieu, Muirchú noted, but then would one support Barra's weight? After seating his guest, Barra took two wooden cups from a shelf, filled them from the barrel and slapped them down on the table, spilling a little of each.
"Best beer in Leinster," he roared, "brewed right here! Drink up, Forbach!"
Seating himself, he reminisced at length about the events of their shared novitiate. There was the day they both walked all the way to the Liffey and fell in while fishing. Then there was the time they stayed out too late and had to climb the enclosure dyke in the dark. Muirchú managed to take only a sip of his beer for every two or three large gulps by his host. Soon the question he had been waiting for was asked.
"So why did they appoint you ink-carrier?"
"I asked for the job. You see, I never had a chance to pray at Father Cogitosus' grave—that old man was a real help to me."
"A tough old bird he was!" chortled Barra. "But why shouldn't you pray at his grave if you want? Not many do, I can tell you! I'll show you the way."
"Thanks, I remember where the graveyard is; but there is one other thing I'd really like—to look at his writings so as to remember him better. I'm sure they're in the library here."
"His Life of Brigit is, and a lot of other bits and pieces, I think. That grumpy old fellow was always scribbling something. You can ask Father Librarian—tell him I sent you."
Barra's speech was getting slurred.
"Need a rest now," he said, laying his head on the table. Soon an impressive volume of snoring began. Muirchú tiptoed out and walked back to the scriptorium. As he entered he saw two slim, brown-robed, tonsured figures standing at a side table with their backs to him, having a low-voiced conversation—Donnchadh and Barra's assistant.
"So, Cillian, we have three grades of ink," Donnchadh was explaining solemnly, "sár-dhubhach, dea-dhubhach and gnáth-dhubhach, excellent, good and ordinary. Naturally, knowing your high standards here, we've only brought you the top grade. This particular black"—he lifted a flask—"we call 'Raven's Wing'; the red is our special 'Blood on Snow', and the brown is 'Autumn Leaves'." The Kildare scribe was looking impressed. Muirchú coughed.
"Donnchadh," he called, "it's time to visit Father Cogitosus' grave."
"Coming in a moment, Father Muirchú!"
Donnchadh scooped a very large bundle of vellum into his sack while explaining that the Kildare scriptorium had got by far the best of the bargain. Taking leave of his colleague, he joined Muirchú, and they headed for the graveyard. Muirchú broke the silence.
"Donnchadh, since when have we been grading and naming our inks?"
"For about the past fifteen minutes, Father Muirchú. It was to help the people here to understand what fine products they are getting."
Muirchú looked at him.
"I've something to tell you, my son. You should have been a merchant."
"No, Father, I should have been a poet!"
Muirchú threw back his head and laughed aloud, to the scandalised surprise of some passing novices.
"Well, if you compose any verses you can read them to me—but don't write them on our valuable vellum!"
It was easy to find Cogitosus' grave; it was one of only a few recent ones. It was marked by a stone cross inscribed simply Cogitosus, Presbyter et Doctor Praestissimus.
They knelt on the grass and spent a short time in prayer. Muirchú hoped the Lord would forgive the old man his occasional bouts of bad temper and remember instead the basic kindness of his spirit. He said this to Donnchadh as they walked slowly back towards the scriptorium.
"And now," he added, "about the reason we're fasting from food until tomorrow morning—that's so that we don't get invited to dinner in the refectory! The abbot here is an Uí Dhúnlainge appointee, of course, and he might ask a lot of awkward questions. We'll keep away from the monastery guest-house too; we'll be sleeping at Feidhlim's lodgings."
The library occupied half of the scriptorium building. It had its own entrance, as well as a connecting door. Passing through the scriptorium Muirchú noticed that Cillian still occupied the Master's desk, he and the other scribes working away happily in the unaccustomed silence.
The library was impressive with its desks, chairs, benches, cupboards, storage chests and shelving. There seemed to be books everywhere.
"There must be dozens and dozens of them!" exclaimed Donnchadh (Sleaty had only about twenty complete books).
"Over a hundred, not counting unbound material," said the Father Librarian proudly, greeting his guests and introducing himself as Father Rónán. He was an elderly, white-haired man, as quiet and alert as Barra was the opposite. Muirchú explained the reason for their visit.
"Father Cogitosus!" mused Rónán. "I had great respect for him as a scholar, though he did go rather far, I thought, in supporting some—ahem—recent expansionist trends here. So you've read his Life of Brigit? Well, that was his only complete Life; but he left a lot of notes on waxed tablets about Brigit and other saints—we have them in storage here."
Opening a large chest he lifted out a box and emptied it on a table. There were up to thirty tablets.
"I'll leave you to look at those at your leisure while I get back to my work. Tell me when you've seen enough."
Muirchú and Donnchadh sat side by side on a bench to examine the tablets. Most of them, they noticed, were headed either BRIG, BRE or P.
"The ones with P are what we need," whispered Muirchú. "The letters stand for Brigit, Breanndán and Patrick, obviously—separate out the 'P' headings."
Only five of the tablets were marked P. The notes on them were short and cryptic, many consisting of questions. Five of them named someone called Ultan.
"These are like Cogitosus' reminders to himself," muttered Muirchú. "It looks as though he had already got some answers from this Ultan and was going to ask him for more."
The notes naming Ultan read:
"Buadach Victoricus—Ultan", "Four names of Patrick—Ultan", "Those ordained with Patrick—Ultan", "Tradition of Miracles—Ultan may list and describe" and, most mysteriously, "Question of snakes—Ultan."
"Snakes?" said Donnchadh, loudly enough to draw a reproving glance from Father Rónán before he remembered to lower his voice.
"What snakes? There aren't any snakes!"
"Might be some sort of code or symbol," Muirchú told him. "If we ever locate this Ultan we could ask him."
The rest of the notes were no more informative, but at least they suggested what one might start looking for, and sometimes where:
"Landed where? Cuala?", "Patrick's owner? Ulaidh?", "Question of deer? Meath?", "Reasons why Palladius failed—Leinster/Cuala?", "Where is Bannavem Taburniae?", "Back to the slave-owner?", "Visit to Foclut?", "The Tara episode", "Death of P."
They sat back and thought about these inscriptions. Then, bowing to Father Rónán, they went outside and walked up and down in the sunshine.
"We'll have to try to remember those notes," said Donnchadh. "We can't take them away or copy them under the eye of the Uí Dhúnlainge. But how are we going to memorise all those scrappy bits and pieces?"
"There's a way to do it, my son," Muirchú told him. "I learned it in Gaul. You just imagine a library with say ten big cupboards round the walls, prominently numbered one to ten with five shelves in each. Then in your mind, you walk into the library and put your first note on the top shelf of the first cupboard. You visualise it lying there and remember its position. Then you do the same with each of the other notes, a shelf to each, and when you finish one cupboard you go on to the next."
"I can try it, I suppose," Donnchadh sounded doubtful. "It would help if we could imagine the cupboards in different colours."
"Very good idea, Donnchadh. So let's make the first three like those inks of yours—first cupboard black, second red, third brown. And remember—you have to concentrate very hard on what you're doing."
They returned to their library table and started the process.
"'Buadach Victoricus—Ultan': top shelf, black number-one cupboard on your left," whispered Muirchú. They concentrated on that for a moment, then moved on. Now the light was failing, but they had the help of two lamps kindly supplied by Father Rónán; if the Librarian noticed the amount of whispering, he said nothing about it. When they finished, it was almost time to close the library for the evening. No other readers had come in.
"We seem to have the place to ourselves," Muirchú remarked to Father Rónán as he rose and eased his back and shoulders.
"Too few of the congregation here are interested in reading or learning," the Librarian told him. "It does me good to see visitors who are. Did you find the notes interesting?"
"Yes indeed, Father Rónán and we're most grateful to you. One thing puzzles me though. There are many references to someone called Ultan. Would you know who that might be?"
"I think so, yes. Cogitosus was friendly with a learned old historian of that name, Ultan of Ardbreccan—that's in north Meath or Brega. I believe he visited him there at least once. That was back when we still had such contacts with monasteries under the northern jurisdiction—must be nearly thirty years ago now, probably before your time here. I've heard this Ultan had been a bishop somewhere up north before retiring to Ardbreccan. He must be long dead by now, but I'm sure he's well remembered there—Cogitosus used to speak very highly of him."
Muirchú thanked Father Rónán again and declined an invitation to dinner in the refectory on the grounds that he and Donnchadh were fasting from food.
As they walked back towards the inn they went over the location of the notes in the memory library, and with some effort managed to remember each one.
"Now," said Muirchú as they neared the inn, "the last two notes look like intended chapter headings. As for the others—well, this Ultan's writings, if there are any, might help at least with the points where Cogitosus mentions him. The notes that name regions might lead us to question people from those places or even go there ourselves. But snakes? Deer? I don't know—we'll just have to think more about those or find some new source."
He came to a stop outside the inn.
"Donnchadh, we daren't make any further enquiries here or we'll be exposed as Patrician investigators. I think Rónán suspects, but he won't betray us as long as we don't behave recklessly. Tomorrow morning we say a courteous goodbye to Barra and Rónán before we set off for Sleaty—but we won't be going to Sleaty, we'll be going to Ardbreccan!"
Inside the inn they found Feidhlim enjoying a meal of soup, bread, beef and leeks. This was being served up by the inn-keeper's daughter, who seemed to be leaning unnecessarily close to Feidhlim.
"Just in time for dinner, Father and Brother!" called their driver jovially.
Donnchadh was looking envious.
"Couldn't we just…" he whispered to Muirchú.
"No, we couldn't," Muirchú told him firmly. "We'll offer up our hunger and ask St Patrick to help us in our quest."
Aloud, he told the inn-keeper they would stay the night. "Until morning," he added, taking pity on Donnchadh, "we'll just have some buttermilk and water."
Later they were shown to the room they were to share: rough straw-stuffed beds with some sheepskins as coverings, but "at least it's clean, and not much worse than what we have at home," said Donnchadh. After praying together for a safe and successful journey they slept deeply, and woke to a damp chilly morning.
Muirchú and Donnchadh allowed themselves a substantial breakfast of porridge, bread and cheese with creamy milk before making their farewell visit to the monastery. Having endured Father Barra's valedictory hugs and roars and nodded politely to Father Rónán's invitation to come again, they walked back towards the gate. Before they reached it a burly, red-faced monk came striding towards them.
"I'm Prior of this monastery," he growled. "Are you the visitors from Sleaty?"
Muirchú and Donnchadh bowed.
"Yes indeed, Father Prior," said Muirchú smoothly, "honoured to meet you."
He gave their names and explained their ink-carrying mission.
"You people betrayed us and joined that bunch of bullies in Armagh, didn't you?"
"You'll understand, Father Prior, that the recent—ahem—change of jurisdiction was a decision by our monastery chapter."
He lowered his voice and moved closer to the irate prior.
"For my part, I was a pupil and friend of the late Father Cogitosus—brother Donnchadh and I still pray to Brigit."
"Well, maybe you do and maybe you don't, but you can clear off now and tell your abbot we don't want any more of his people nosing around here or it'll be the worse for them!"
And the prior went stumping off, as Muirchú bowed silently to his departing back. They lost no time getting back to the inn and telling Feidhlim they had to leave Kildare—"and the sooner the better," added Donnchadh. "We seem to be getting unpopular in the monastery."
"That's no big surprise," grunted the driver. "I'll get the ox-cart out."
The inn-keeper's daughter was tidying near them; she seemed sad that Feidhlim was leaving but cheered up when he gave her a decorative bracelet and whispered something in her ear. Muirchú paid the inn-keeper and they loaded their meagre luggage and the sack of vellum into the cart.
"Hope we come back to Kildare again," said Feidhlim as he cracked his whip and they moved off. "Very friendly people at the inn here, whatever about the monastery."
Once they were clear of the streets, Muirchú broke the news that they were not going straight back to Sleaty.
"All the same to me," said Feidhlim who had no family waiting for him. "So where are we going?"
"I want the people here to think we're returning the way we came," Muirchú explained, "but we're really going to north Meath, to a monastery settlement called Ardbreccan—do you know it?"
"Well, Father, I know how to get to Meath—straight north from here, a long way—but when we're there we'll have to ask directions to Ardbreccan. And if the Kildare lot aren't to see us going north, I'll have to detour around the town and join the road again further along."
As soon as Kildare was out of sight Feidhlim steered the ox-cart off the road to the west. He swung north behind a low ridge that hid them from passers-by and they spent nearly an hour jolting over rough pasture, splashing through streams, and following farm tracks before rejoining their northerly route.
"Just as well this isn't a chariot," Feidhlim muttered, "or it'd be wrecked by now."
Late in the day they crossed the Slighe Mhór, the main road that ran from Áth Cliath, the hurdle ford on the Liffey, to Clonmacnoise. Now they were nearing the border region that divided Leinster from the King of Tara's province of Meath. They had passed through an area of scattered bogs, some crossed by tóchar causeways, others forcing the road to skirt around them. Many dwellings seemed to be deserted, and the remaining inhabitants were unwelcoming and suspicious of strangers. Once, the cart was halted by a trio of strange-looking figures who rushed out into the road waving short swords and calling on Feidhlim to stop. Their faces were painted in what seemed to be intended as wolf-masks but looked more like random daubs, their hair was limed into spikes, and they were dressed in motley ragged clothes. Feidhlim spoke over his shoulder.
"Get those swords out and look as menacing as you can," he said. "I'll soon get rid of these outlaw díbheirgigh."
Muirchú and Donnchadh did so. They were not skilled swordsmen, but they had handled such weapons before. While they waved their long swords threateningly, Feidhlim leant forward and spoke to the outlaws in a conversational tone while lifting one of his throwing spears from the rack beside him.
"Right, lads, which of you would like to be the first to get a spear through his belly?"
The outlaws, who seemed to be quite young teenagers, whispered to each other, then rushed forward yelling. Feidhlim stood and cast his spear with such force that it went right through the foot of the leading attacker. The other two fell over him while their battle-cries turned to screams of pain and fright. Feidhlim already had a second spear at the ready.
"Now boys," he said, "throw your swords well over to the side of the road and you'll suffer no more injury."
They complied at once, and one of them spoke up.
"We weren't really going to kill you," he said shakily. "We only wanted to take whatever food you had—we haven't eaten for two days. We thought hunting for our food would be a great adventure, but all the animals seem to be avoiding us."
"You could have asked politely, my son," Muirchú told him. "You wouldn't have been refused, you know. As it is—well, catch." And he threw him a large loaf of bread, followed by a lump of cheese. In the meantime Donnchadh had jumped to the ground, where he drew the spear from the injured boy's foot, ignoring his screams, washed the wound with water from his flask, sprinkled on some healing herbs and used a strip of sacking as a bandage.
"You should get him home as soon as you can," he told the other two. "Until then you'll have to carry him or make him a crutch."
The would-be raiders made their slow way off the road, wolfing down the bread and cheese as they went. Muirchú sighed.
"Well done, Feidhlim," he told the driver. "Let's go on."
It had begun to rain, a thick drizzle. The three travellers drew their cloaks over their heads. "We'd better not stop for the night until we're in Meath," said Muirchú. "We'll be safer there". The ox-cart caught up with a small family—father, mother and two young children—trudging northwards. Shivering in the rain, they readily accepted a lift and were pathetically grateful for bread, water and a few sacks and spare cloaks to protect them from the weather. They said they were a Meath family who had settled in Leinster but had been robbed and driven from their home by a band of local Leinster partisans who called them enemy aliens. Now they were on their way to seek refuge with relatives who lived just across the border in Meath.
"That was our last loaf of bread you gave them," muttered Feidhlim. Muirchú heard him.
"Don't be troubled, Feidhlim," he called. "The Lord will provide for us."
"Well, Father, I hope he does it before we all starve to death! And the oxen are weakening—they must be rested soon."
A few minutes later the refugee man spoke up.
"We're in Meath now," he said. "We've just passed the border stone. Our cousins will have room and food for you as well as for us, and fodder for the beasts."
And so it proved. They were welcomed by the refugees' cousins who fed them milk and porridge, showed them an outhouse to sleep in and stabled the oxen.
In the morning the rain had stopped. As the travellers saw the sun rise on the fertile fields of Meath their spirits lifted; they were in what they felt was a friendly province, the domain of Finnshneachta Fleadhach of the southern Uí Néill, King of Tara. It was a hospitable province too, it seemed; their hosts had given them a fine breakfast and a sack of supplies for their onward journey. Muirchú's offer of payment had been firmly refused in gratitude for the help given to the refugees. The whole household, including field-workers and slaves, had assembled and knelt to receive Muirchú's parting blessing. Even Feidhlim was more cheerful as they continued northwards on a smoother road than in Leinster—even the oxen seemed refreshed.
Muirchú had been deep in thought for some time before he spoke.
"It's time we thought again about those notes by Cogitosus, Brother Donnchadh. Let's go through them once more—close your eyes—into the memory house … Number-one black cupboard, top shelf—what's there?"
"'Buadach Victoricus—Ultan', of course!" said Donnchadh.
They went through all the notes ending up with 'Number-three brown cupboard—second shelf from the bottom—'Death of Patrick'."
"Now," said Muirchú, "what's your overall impression of these notes?"
"Well, Father Muirchú, I think they don't give us any facts that we don't know already. Another thing—they don't ask a single question that we could answer from having read the Confessio. He doesn't ask the name of Patrick's father or the name of Patrick's birth-place, probably because he knew the names already. I think he must have read the Confessio before making those notes."
"Excellent, Donnchadh! I believe you're right. Anything else?"
"Yes, the notes mentioning Ultan mean two different things, it seems to me. Some could mean 'I must remember what Ultan told me about this'; for instance, 'Four names of Patrick—Ultan'.
Others could mean 'I must remember to ask Ultan about this'; the note reading 'Tradition of Miracles—Ultan may list and describe' would be one of those."
"You're probably right," Muirchú replied, "but it doesn't get us much further. So, Cogitosus was ahead of us on some points and on the trail of answers for others—but he intended to use Ultan as his main source. What's important for us now is to find out all we can from Ultan's writings and from people's memories of him—it seems he was old thirty years ago so we can hardly expect to meet him now!"
Shortly after this, they encountered some local men who asked where they had come from and where they were going. When they heard, they told Muirchú that the king of their túath would surely wish to greet the travellers—his house was almost on their route. Courtesy required that they agree, so Feidhlim turned the ox-cart onto the side-road that led to the royal house ("and this is kept up even better than the main road!" he said to himself). They were made welcome by the reachtaire house-steward and by the túath-king Domhnall himself, who invited them to join in the evening feast and stay the night, an offer they gratefully accepted. Muirchú arranged with the reachtaire, in return for two silver rings, that a mounted messenger would be sent to Sleaty with a message to Abbot Aodh.
"And what is the message to be?" asked the reachtaire.
"He is simply to say that we have extended our journey and will be returning like the three wise men, a week or more later than intended and—let's see—that the butter-maker is irritated but unenlightened! The abbot will understand."
"I'm glad we came here," remarked Donnchadh later on, admiring the fine joints of beef and white loaves laid out for the feast; true, there was no wine, but beakers of ale and mead were to be found all along the tables.
"A fine spread indeed," Muirchú replied, "though we'd better go easy on those drinks. And I hope Feidhlim does likewise—he has to drive again tomorrow!"
Feidhlim had been escorted off to a less formal meal with the servants and slaves.
After an hour or two of feasting, the royal poet stood and King Domhnall called for silence.
"I am about to recite," the poet announced, "a poem I have just composed in honour of our noble and generous king—and I can tell you all that it took me two days lying in the dark to create these verses!"
He launched into his composition immediately, accompanied by a harpist in the background.
"Most wonderful and distinguished descendantOf all the blood of NiallGreatest of Erin's warriorsHis feats rival the great Cú Chulainn!Every honour known to man is dueTo this masterful conquering heroThe pride of all his race.Every enemy trembles before himEvery friend is loaded down with gifts…
The poet went on in this vein for at least fifteen minutes (no doubt expecting, thought Donnchadh sourly, to end up loaded with gifts himself). By now most of his audience were politely trying to stifle yawns. Looking up the table at the grumpy, low-sized Domhnall, Muirchú was unable to associate him with the luminous hero of the poem. The applause when the poet eventually sat down seemed to contain as much relief as approval.
"Lucky Feidhlim, he didn't have to listen to that boring rubbish!" whispered Donnchadh.
Muirchú looked at him severely.
"The poem fully observed the conventions and rules governing such compositions," he said aloud. "Listening and applauding are a way of showing our gratitude for King Domhnall's generous hospitality."
A little later they found an opportunity to thank Domhnall in person. Their host asked them to pray for him to defeat all his enemies.
"We'll certainly pray for the best outcome all round," Muirchú told him, bowing. "Your hospitality to us here is most generous and most impressive."
Then the Sleaty travellers were free to go to their curtained sleeping-cubicles; not even the sounds of continuing revelry could keep them awake any longer.
As they were preparing to leave the following morning they were told that emissaries of Finnshneachta, King of Tara, had arrived and were asking for them.
"News spreads quickly here in Meath with our good roads!" said the servant who brought the message. The emissaries proved to be two well-turned out officers of Finnshneachta's household guard, who greeted Muirchú with a smart fist-to-chest salute. They said they had been sent by their master to welcome the travellers and give them safe escort to wherever they wanted to go.
"Handy enough since we don't know the way," said Donnchadh to Feidhlim, sotto voce. But the driver/bodyguard was unimpressed by the shiny shields, jewelled sword-hilts and new sandals.
"These lads seem to think they're Roman legionaries from a few centuries back," he muttered. Donnchadh hissed at him to keep quiet.
"Finnshneachta was very pleased to hear of your monastery's decision to affiliate with Armagh and is anxious to help you in any way he can," the escort leader told Muirchú. "I am to give you these."
And he handed over a large bag containing bacon, a cheese, some loaves and a flask of ale.
"Most kind of him, and our grateful thanks," Muirchú replied. "We're glad to have you with us because we don't know the way to our destination, Ardbreccan monastery, except that it's north from here."
"Ardbreccan? That's quite a distance away, up in north Meath. We know the way, of course, and we'll guide you."
It took them the rest of the day and most of the following morning to reach and cross the Slighe Asail, the Assail Road, which ran east-west from Inbhear Colptha, at the mouth of the Boyne, to Cruachan in Connacht, and formed the boundary between north and south Meath. The escort officers were riding slowly ahead of the plodding ox-cart. After a further half-hour they saw the monastery some distance off to the west, and their escort pointed out the side-road leading to it. With a flurry of smart salutes the two officers left to return to Tara, unable to conceal their delight at being able to gallop again.
"Wasn't it considerate of King Finnshneachta to send us an escort?" said Donnchadh as the ox-cart moved on. Muirchú shrugged.
"It would be nice to think so," he said, "but I had a chat with one of the officers last night, and he told me it was really the idea of the king's chief breitheamh—lawyer. It seems Finnshneachta himself is too busy planning his next campaign against the Uí Dhúnlainge to be concerned about travellers; but the breitheamh and the officers know that the Tara policy is to encourage Armagh supporters—that's us!"
The Ardbreccan monastic settlement, when they reached it, looked to be in very poor shape. Many buildings outside the enclosure were in ruins. Little cultivation and few livestock were to be seen. The protective dyke was crumbling in several places and there was no gatekeeper at the entrance. At first they thought the whole monastery was deserted. Then a very old priest, lame and leaning on a stick, came hobbling to meet them. He was, he told them, Eochaidh, abbot of Ardbreccan.
"You're welcome here, though I fear our hospitality is not what it once was." He led the travellers to the refectory where he listened to their account of their travels.
Eochaidh's voice was weak, and he had to stop from time to time when a fit of coughing took him.
"I believe I can help you with at least some of your questions," he said.
"You see, when I was a young priest, just ordained, I was present at the talks between Ultan and Cogitosus. Another young priest called Tírechán was there too; he left us long ago. But first I must tell you that our monastery has declined a great deal since then. Five years ago a dreadful plague killed most of our community—I was one of only six survivors. We managed to carry on somehow, but we couldn't mount an effective defence against a band of raiders who arrived soon after the plague had died down. They burned most of our buildings, even the orphanage that our founder St Breccan had set up—luckily it was empty at the time. We lost most of our livestock and stores, and all our gold and silver altar vessels. Now we must celebrate Mass with wooden vessels—the Mass is no worse for that, of course, but we can't give fitting honour to the Lord. There are still only fifteen of us, with some estate workers and their families, but we are rebuilding slowly—very slowly!"
The abbot broke off at this point, promising to devote all of the following day to his guests. His brother monks were trooping into the refectory for the evening meal. There would have been nothing but thin soup and porridge had Muirchú not donated enough of his own supplies to allow each monk to have some extra food. Muirchú was honoured by being asked to choose and read a passage from Scripture during the meal.
To encourage the group of harassed and undernourished men at the table, he chose the psalm beginning "The Lord is my Shepherd". In future years this moment remained vivid in his memory—the pale exhausted faces turned towards him, the flickering candles in the calm summer twilight, the farmyard noises and smells drifting in through the windows from where the cattle were stabled in the shell of what had once been the infirmary. He drew a deep breath and began in a firm resonant voice, using Irish instead of the usual Latin to make the psalm more immediate for his listeners:
"'Sé an Tiarna m'aoireNí bheidh aon ní de dhíth orm.
"That it may be so for them, Lord," his mind prayed behind the words. And in the time allowed for general conversation after the meal, it did seem that the very fact of having visitors from so far away had a cheering effect on the beleaguered congregation.
Later the abbot brought the three travellers to what was left of the monastery guest-house.
"The roof is still intact over the western part of the building," he pointed out. "There are some spare robes and blankets—rather worn I'm afraid—that you could wrap yourself in."
They were so tired by now that neither draughts, holes in the blankets nor residual smells of burnt timber could keep them awake.
Next morning they had risen, washed, and eaten some porridge in the kitchens by the time Abbot Eochaidh came from the chapel to meet them. Feidhlim had volunteered for manual work and gone to help the monks and lay tenants who were rebuilding the orphanage.
"That's one of my main concerns," Eochaidh explained. "The orphanage was started by our holy founder St Breccan, and Ultan had a great regard for it too. There are still many children orphaned by war, plague or raiding, and they need our help."
Muirchú and Donnchadh went with Eochaidh to the monastery library. It was large but its shelves were mostly empty and dusty—only a few books and loose tablets were dotted here and there.
"We lost most of our books in the raiding," the abbot told them. "These are the few we managed to rescue. This used to be a fine library in Ultan's time—he was made Librarian here when he retired from his episcopal see in the north."
The two visitors sat on a rough bench and faced the abbot across a table. A young novice waited on a stool nearby, ready to provide any service they might need.
"I'm very glad you've come and that you're doing your research," said Eochaidh, "because I think a Life of Patrick is badly needed. The times we live in certainly call for something to strengthen people's faith. Ultan was working towards it, and Cogitosus was planning something. But that was long ago, and we still haven't got a proper Life—I hope to see one before I die!"
The abbot, Muirchú thought, seemed much livelier today, reinvigorated by the prospect of helping with the work he wanted to be done.
"Now," Eochaidh went on, "you could start by telling me how much you know already about Patrick."
"Not at all as much as we need," Muirchú explained. "For a start we've both read Patrick's Confessio carefully. So we know of his father and grandfather, the name of the place where he spent his childhood (though not where it was), his kidnapping and slavery as a herdsman in Ireland (though again not where), his escape with divine help in a ship crewed by pagans (but to what country?), his rescue from starvation in answer to prayer, another brief captivity, a return to his relatives in Britain, voices calling him back to Ireland, and his journey to our island to convert the túatha. After that we have a lot about his prayer practices, his devotion to the Holy Scriptures and to the Holy Spirit, his intense desire to complete his mission of bringing people to God, his defence against some allegations that were made against him, and the fact that he travelled round a lot baptising people and using his own resources to buy safe-conduct. But as I'm sure you know, Abbot Eochaidh, there are only stray bits of information in the Confessio about the detail of his missionary time in Ireland—for instance, that some women tried to give him jewellery, and that he suffered serious attack at least once. There are hardly any place-names in the whole Confessio. It just doesn't add up to enough for a proper Life of Patrick. It's true that we have a few more bits of information. For instance, we have a copy of his letter condemning the tyrant kidnapper Coroticus, who killed some of Patrick's converts and enslaved others. And, because we belong to the Sleaty community, we know the story of our founder Fiacc, pupil of the poet Dubhthach who, reliable tradition tells us, was the only one to rise to his feet to honour Patrick when the saint went to confront King Laoghaire at Tara. And one other thing: in my home region of Cuala I've heard story-tellers relate that a church there was founded by Manntán gap-tooth, a disciple of Patrick, who lost some teeth to a stone thrown at him when the saint first arrived on mission."
Muirchú fell silent.
"Well," said Eochaidh, "what you have is a good start. Will we discuss now those notes made by Cogitosus?"
"Yes indeed," Muirchú replied. "Donnchadh, while I rest my voice for a while would you please tell Father Abbot about those notes?"
Donnchadh took up the narrative. Dipping into the memory-house in his mind, he repeated each of the notes to Eochaidh. There was a short silence while Eochaidh thought about these. Then he looked up.
"Time for me to do some explaining," he began. "I told you I was at the meeting between Ultan and Cogitosus. Well, I was also at the long talks between Ultan and his assistant Tírechán. Those went on for months. I wasn't participating—I was just the junior assistant, there to make sure they had pens, tablets, inks, food, drink—anything they might call for, just like our young friend Deaglán from the Déise over there," nodding to the blushing novice in the corner. "But I was a good listener, and I have a good memory even still, so I can tell you something about each of those notes—at least, I can make them less mysterious. But first an important fact: Ultan didn't write a Life in the real sense—he was planning one, but he died before he could write it. What he did leave was some disconnected episodes, in no particular order, making up what could be called a book—it contains material on other saints too, but that's another day's work. I'll give you that book to read—Deaglán, fetch it, would you?—and it will cover some of Cogitosus' points."
Here Eochaidh was seized by a long fit of coughing. By the time he recovered, Deaglán had found Ultan's book and placed it before the abbot.
Muirchú had been listening with all his attention. Now he remembered he was dealing with a frail old man.
"Would you prefer to rest for a while and continue our discussion later, Father Abbot?" he asked.
"Náthó, not at all!" Eochaidh told him. "I'm going to enjoy setting out information for you. You see, when I was a young man I used to track wild animals for the hunters of my túath. I could tell you everything about a distant deer or boar just from hoof prints or disturbed foliage. Now I'm tracking those long-ago talks about St Patrick through the fields and woods of my memory!"
Eochaidh put both hands on the book before him.
"I'll give you this to read when we've finished our discussion," he said.
"Now, what was the first Cogitosus point?"
Donnchadh was already in the memory-house, reaching down an imaginary tablet from the first imaginary cupboard on his left.
"It reads 'Buadach Victoricus—Ultan', Father Abbot," he announced.
"Now, as you know," Eochaidh resumed, "Patrick says in the Confessio that, when he was safely back with his relatives in Britain, he saw a vision of a man called Victoricus, like one from Ireland, bringing messages begging him to return. And he tells us too that long before that, when he was a slave in Ireland, he had a revelation and heard a voice telling him he was to travel home soon and that his ship was ready, about two hundred miles away. Now, was it Victoricus in both cases, and was Victoricus an angel or a human? That's what Ultan and Tírechán were arguing about."
"You mean Ultan and Tírechán had arguments? Wouldn't Tírechán just obey?"
Eochaidh laughed. "That was one of their mildest arguments!" he said.
"You need to understand what those two holy men were like. Ultan was a devoted, elderly, hard-working scholar, but a very obstinate one—sometimes when he got hold of an idea he was like a dog with a bone! Tírechán was younger by more than forty years, and he was completely different. He was clever, ambitious and assertive—he found obedience a very difficult virtue to practice. Tírechán was from Connacht, from Tirawley in the far north-west, by the great ocean; and he was a great supporter of his túath and of all his native region. But he was also a keen supporter of Armagh expansion. He wanted Patrick's Armagh paruchia to be spread as widely as possible. At the time I thought his ambition might have had something to do with that: Armagh was already the up-and-coming power in the Church, and I suppose he'd have liked to be on the winning side. I wonder," added Eochaidh with a twinkle in his eye, "whether you might be feeling a little of that as well?"
"Father Abbot!" said Muirchú, shocked. "I must tell you that this task is a burden imposed on me—I certainly never sought it, inexperienced as I am in such work!"
"On the other hand," murmured Donnchadh, "it won't exactly damage our careers, will it?"
"Brother Donnchadh!" Muirchú snapped "That is not the point and your remark is entirely inappropriate!"
Eochaidh had another query.
"But you're Moccu Mochtéine, aren't you? And isn't that territory in the Armagh region?"
"Yes, Father Abbot, it is—my father came from there as a refugee, fleeing from a feud, and became a master fisherman in Cuala, where I was born. So I have no real connection with the Moccu Mochtéine."
"I see," said Eochaidh. "Well, as I was saying, those two enthusiasms of Tírechán's sometimes came into conflict with each other—then he got less self-assured. We'll see that when we come to some of the later notes. As for the Victoricus question, Tírechán said it must have been an angel—he seemed to feel that would look better for Patrick's prestige. It was entirely likely, he said, that God would send an angel, even send one twice, when the conversion of Ireland was at stake. But Ultan thought Victoricus was probably a man; he argued that the Irish equivalent of Victoricus—Buadhach—would be quite a probable nickname for an Irishman, and there was a record of a man called Victoricus being consecrated bishop by Patrick. Also, no angel called Victoricus was named in the Holy Scriptures; then again, an angel could hardly be expected to give the detailed directions Patrick would need to find a particular ship two hundred miles away across hostile territory.
'But,' said Tírechán, 'an angel could have escorted him all the way!'
After a few hours of this, they agreed that Victoricus was probably an angel in human form; clearly God was sending messages through him, which is a well-recognised angelic function."
"They had a point there," said Muirchú, "so we'll feel free to refer to an angel. Donnchadh, we're putting that into the memory-house now!"
"Yes, Father Muirchú," said Donnchadh, concentrating for a moment. "Father Abbot," he went on, "the second note said 'Four Names of Patrick—Ultan'."
Eochaidh thought about this.
"Ah yes," he said finally. "Ultan said he had been told by two separate learned ollamhna that Patrick had four names at different stages of his life: Sochet in his boyhood, Cothriche or Cothirthiacus during his slavery, Magonus during his studies and Patricius after he was consecrated bishop. You'll find all that in Ultan's book. Tírechán didn't argue much about those names; they were both a bit puzzled about where 'Cothriche' could have come from. They thought perhaps it was from cethair, meaning 'four', because he could have worked for a group of four druids. I had doubts about that myself, but it wasn't my place to question it."
"We're putting the four names in our memory-house since they seem well vouched for," said Muirchú. "As for that group-of-four-owners idea, I'll talk to our own abbot about that when we're back at Sleaty—he's interested in words and their origins."
Donnchadh, eyes closed, was already storing the four names and the intention to consult Aodh in the number-one (black) cupboard, second shelf down—chest-high to himself, he noted. Snapping back to reality, he recited Cogitosus' third note: "'Those ordained with Patrick—Ultan'."
"When Cogitosus came to see us," said Eochaidh, "Ultan told him he believed that some of Patrick's companions were ordained as priests when Patrick was consecrated bishop. At that stage Ultan had no names for the companions. But later he talked to a foreign scholar who visited our monastery and spoke at length to Ultan about Patrick's life before his return to Ireland. He said he had seen records showing that two men named Auxilius and Iserninus were ordained on the day of Patrick's consecration. Tírechán wasn't too pleased about this—he always preferred to have Patrick alone in his glory—but he did accept that the evidence was solid, and they wrote the names in."
"And so will we, then," said Muirchú. "Donnchadh! Third shelf down for this."
"Done, Father Muirchú. The next item we have reads:
'Tradition of Miracles—Ultan may list and describe'."
"Yes, well," said Eochaidh, "he did so, but some time after Cogitosus' visit. Ultan had been bishop of Connor, you know, in the north. He had travelled a lot in the territories of the northern Uí Néill, the patrons of Armagh, and also among the Ulaidh and the Cruithin, as well as here in the southern Uí Néill area of Meath and Brega. In each place he'd talk to the local ollamh and annalist, poets and story-tellers too, sometimes. He'd always ask about miracles, among other things. So here at Ardbreccan, in his old age, he selected those miracles that seemed well attested and wrote them out—about a dozen of them related to Patrick. I remember that Tírechán had his own list; it was largely different—more Connacht items in his, for one thing. I think he had done some miracle-hunting on his own account, young as he was, in this part of the country as well. But Ultan's own selection is what you'll find in this book of his.
"We'll read them carefully," said Muirchú, "and we may well use them all, subject to our own abbot's approval."
"I'm getting hoarse," said Eochaidh, rising with some difficulty and hobbling around the room, "and rather stiff too. Deaglán, see if you can get Brother Cook to let you have apples and milk for four, with a little bread."
"Certainly, Father Abbot," Deaglán responded in his barely broken voice and sped off towards the kitchens.
Muirchú and Donnchadh rose and stretched. The three men walked out into warm sunshine. Birds were singing in the trees that grew here and there in the enclosure and outside.
"I'm surprised you haven't needed to cut down those trees for fuel or building materials," Muirchú remarked.
"We had to cut down all the others," Eochaidh told him, "but these ones are special. Each one is named for a person buried here to whom we want to give special honour—abbots or benefactors, for instance. That big oak over there, that's Breccán!"
Deaglán returned, carrying a large basket. He set out wooden beakers, apples, and chunks of fresh bread on the library table, filling the beakers with milk from a jug.
"You may sit down and eat with us, Deaglán," said Abbot Eochaidh, "but—what are you looking so excited about?"
"Oh, Father Abbot!" the boy burbled. "Feidhlim of Sleaty went out and caught two big salmon that he wants us all to have for dinner, and he trapped a hare too—and Brother Cook begs you to approve the salmon and give us a dispensation to eat meat in the form of hare soup, and Father Prior would like Feidhlim to stay with us always, but I don't think he will!"
Muirchú grinned. "We need Feidhlim," he said. "He's our driver and bodyguard. But he can come back some day if he likes—he's not a slave. And Father Abbot, it would be a great favour to your guests if you approved the menu?"
"I won't refuse your request then," said Eochaidh. "Deaglán, tell Brother Cook that I grant the dispensation, but that after today we're back to normal practice—meat only on Sundays and feast-days. And he can serve the salmon too!"
The boy rushed off.
When Eochaidh and his guests had finished their meal, the abbot thoughtfully waited until Deaglán had returned and eaten before resuming.
"'Question of Snakes—Ultan'—that was the next note wasn't it?" he said.
"That was a bad business! It brought the final break-up a good deal closer."
"Break-up?" queried Muirchú. "What break-up was that?"
"The break-up when Tírechán left us. You'll hear more about that later," Eochaidh explained. "Now, about the snakes. Ultan said he had met a gifted story-teller in Brega, over to the east of here near Inbhear Colptha, a man who could persuade you of anything, it seems. Anyway, this golden-tongued scéalaí convinced Ultan that Patrick performed an extraordinary miracle—that he cleared the whole island of snakes! It had to be true, according to the scéalaí, because there are now no snakes in Ireland, though there are plenty in the lands of Saxons and Franks. Ultan admitted that a learned ollamh from the same area had denied this yarn, but it seems this ollamh had a bad stutter—people used call him Scannlán stadaire, stuttering Scannlán, behind his back—and so he didn't make a good impression. Anyway, this Scannlán quoted his three times great-grandfather passing down the information that he—the ancestor—had attended an open-air sermon of Patrick's. Patrick said that baptism would drive evil from people's souls, just as God drove the snake from the Garden of Eden. Then someone who had seen snakes in other countries shouted from the back of the crowd,
'If we had snakes here, could you drive them out?'
And the holy man replied,
'If God decided to act through me in that way, I certainly could!'
So the word spread that Patrick could drive away those strange and dangerous creatures. Then some people said,
'But what's the use of that? There aren't any snakes here!'
And some supporter of Patrick, who didn't like being contradicted, replied crossly,
'Well, how do you know he hasn't driven them out already?'
Yet another bystander misheard this and exclaimed,
'Iontas na n-iontas! Wonder of wonders! He's driven out the snakes already!'
And that was the word that got around.
The scéalaí said that account was all rubbish, that the stuttering ollamh was just trying to discredit him out of jealousy, and Patrick with him. That scéalaí was so convincing that Ultan ended up believing him. This, I can tell you (and I thought it at the time), was most unlike Ultan, who was normally a hard-working, down-to-earth scholar, but anyone can have a sentimental moment, I suppose."
"Anyway, Tírechán was really shocked when he heard all this.
'Clearly the ollamh was right, stuttering or not,' he declared. 'There must never have been snakes on our island, or else we'd have heard about them in our tales of heroes and in druidic rituals—you'll have to leave it out!'
But Ultan dug his heels in, saying that if Tírechán could have heard that accomplished and learned scéalaí, he'd have believed him too.
Well, Tírechán got really angry and rushed out of the library. He was back after a few minutes with the abbot of the time in tow. That abbot was a rather short-tempered, difficult man, but Tírechán was a favourite of his.
'What's this I hear, Ultan?' the abbot was shouting. 'You're going to associate St Patrick with some snake-hunt? It's the greatest nonsense I've ever come across!'
'But, Father Abbot,' said poor Ultan, 'it's a fact that there aren't any snakes in Ireland!'
'There aren't any lions either!' shouted the furious abbot. 'I suppose he drove them out as well, did he?'
Tírechán was standing behind the abbot looking smug, and I was devoutly wishing to be somewhere else.
'Bishop you may be,' the abbot continued, 'but you're not going to make a laughing-stock of us all with your serpentine ráiméis, not in my monastery you're not!' And he stamped out.
Ultan had to give in, of course; he depended almost completely on Ardbreccan for his upkeep. You won't find any snakes in his book. The whole incident certainly didn't endear Tírechán to him, but basically Ultan was a sensible, fair-minded scholar; only a couple of days later he told me he'd been thinking it over and now believed that Tírechán had probably been right about the snakes."
"Well, Father Abbot," said Muirchú, "we're now putting a tablet inscribed 'No Snakes' on the bottom shelf of our number-one, black memory-cupboard, and perhaps we could move on to the next note, the one reading:
'Landed where? Cuala?'"
"That's the first one that doesn't mention Ultan," Eochaidh remarked, "and there's a reason for that. When Cogitosus was here he asked that question, and Ultan had no definite answer to give. The most likely places for Patrick to land when he came on his mission were Inbhear nDea in Cuala, or Inbhear Colptha at the mouth of the Boyne in Brega. But of course there were other possible landing-places too, further south in the Uí Chinnsealaigh territory, or even up north in Muirtheimhne and beyond.
Ultan thought it might be Inbhear nDea, but Tírechán, always the Uí Néill partisan, favoured Inbhear Colptha. Neither could quote any evidence, and Cogitosus went away no wiser on this point than when he came. He must have had some thought of investigating it further himself."
"So we're no wiser either," Muirchú concluded, "and we too will have to enquire further. Donnchadh, we're opening up the number-two, red cupboard now; those possible landing-places go on the top shelf with a note for further investigation."
"Let's continue then," said Eochaidh. "Your next note was 'Patrick's Owner—Ulaidh?' I believe? Well, if it doesn't confuse your memory-house too much, I'd sooner deal with that later, together with 'Visit to Foclut', because those two tricky matters are connected. For now, that would bring us to 'Question of Deer—Meath'."
"We can cope with that re-arrangement," Muirchú told him. "Donnchadh, would you put a note on the 'Patrick's Owner' shelf—second shelf down in the number-two, red cupboard—saying, 'See later compendium'. Thank you. Now, Father Abbot, you were about to speak of this 'Question of Deer'?"
"I was, Muirchú, but only to tell you I know nothing about it! All I can do is guess, and my guess is based on the fact that Meath is mentioned in Cogitosus' 'Deer' note. As far as I can recall, I didn't hear Ultan say anything about deer to Cogitosus. But the two of them did spend a short time on their own walking up and down in the open air. If deer were mentioned then, it might have been something that Ultan heard from the ollamh Scannlán who was, I think, Ultan's main source in Meath. Around then Ultan's memory was starting to fade. If there was something about deer he could easily have forgotten it afterwards; he seems to have forgotten other things Scannlán told him. Or he might just have been tired of arguing with Tírechán. Tírechán was very hostile to any idea of mixing up animals and humans—he had refused to accept a tradition, rather a doubtful one actually, that the tyrant king Coroticus had been turned into a fox to punish him for his sins. Tírechán said that sort of thing smelled of druidic totem beliefs. Either way, you'll find nothing about deer in Ultan's book."
"That'll be another note for future enquiries, then," he told Donnchadh.
"That brings us to the second cupboard, the red one, fourth shelf from the top," said Donnchadh wearily, "'Reasons why Palladius failed'."
Eochaidh leaned back.
"Muirchú, have you ever heard of Palladius?" he asked.
"Well, there's a story in Cuala that a bishop called Palladius came over from Britain but didn't stay long—that's all I know about him, if he existed at all."
"He existed alright," the abbot said, "that foreign scholar who visited us knew about him. He said Pope Celestine had sent Palladius 'as their first bishop, to the Irish who believe in Christ'."
"But Father Abbot!" Donnchadh exclaimed. "That would mean he was here before Patrick—and that there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick. Surely that can't be right?"
"I know it's upsetting, Brother Donnchadh, but that foreign scholar was very reliable and honest—and he had no reason to deceive us. I believe what he told us—it's up to Father Muirchú whether he writes it up that way or not."
An unexpected voice spoke up from the corner behind Muirchú. They all looked at Deaglán in surprise.
"May I speak, Father Abbot?" he was saying nervously.
"Yes, yes my son, you may."
"The saint I'm named after was from the Déise like me, and everyone in my túath believes he lived before St Patrick's time!"
"I believe that too," said Eochaidh. "Patrick can't have been the first British Christian enslaved here. There were Roman traders as well; some say they had a trading settlement by the River Nore—not too far from your monastery, Muirchú—and they had coastal trade depots too. So let's say there were some Christians here before Patrick, but probably not many. Palladius was sent to them, but I'm sure he'd have liked to make converts as well. Yet our visiting scholar told us that Palladius had arrived back in Britain within a year and died there. And it's clear that he left all or most of the work of conversion to his saintly successor, Patrick. As to why exactly Palladius returned so soon—discouragement, illness or hostility—well, who knows? Tírechán spoke of a tradition that Palladius was killed by the Irish, but that seemed to contradict the foreign version that Ultan had accepted."
"Another point for further enquiries," said Muirchú "Then we'll have to think how to treat this delicate matter without reducing Patrick's standing. We'll speak to Abbot Aodh about that."
"After that," Muirchú continued, "came the reference 'Where is Bannavem Taburniae?'."
"You'll recall," said Eochaidh, "that in the Confessio Patrick gives us that name for his birthplace. Cogitosus asked Ultan where it was. Ultan didn't know; he had never heard or read any other reference to the place. He thought it must be in Britain or Gaul—anyone could have guessed that much!—but more likely Britain, because Patrick mentions relatives in that country."
"Further investigation there too," said Muirchú.
"Father Abbot, I don't know about you, but I'm feeling rather tired and the afternoon is wearing on. Do you think we might adjourn until tomorrow?"
"I certainly do, Muirchú," replied Eochaidh gratefully. "In fact, it might be best if you spent tomorrow reading Ultan's book and thinking about everything we've said today."
"Very good, then, we'll continue the day after tomorrow—but we'll have to leave the day after that, or else the Sleaty community will be sending out search parties!"
Deaglán came and helped the abbot to his feet, passing him his stick, and they all walked out into the enclosure. Five or six men were still working on the orphanage building, and it was clear that substantial progress had been made since morning.
"Muirchú, that Feidhlim of yours seems to be a very effective worker," Eochaidh remarked.
"He's one of those men who can turn their hands to anything—learns fast, and concentrates on whatever he's doing."
He was still speaking when they were interrupted by a clamour out on the estate. A young monk was running towards them waving a staff.
"Mactíre! Mactíre!" he was shouting "Wolf! Wolf!"
Feidhlim was the first to react. Leaving the building site, he ran to the ox-cart and grabbed his throwing-spears. Then he seized the fleeing monk by the shoulder and turned him round.
"Lead me to him!" he growled. Recovering from their surprise, Muirchú and Donnchadh took their swords from under the sacks in the ox-cart and followed Feidhlim at their best pace. Three fields away they found a large wolf trying to corner a lamb, having killed two others. They were just in time to see Feidhlim's spear-cast pierce the animal's throat. Then he strolled over, extracted his spear and administered the final thrust.
"An old warrior has a right to a quick death!" he remarked. "Brother, you can stop hitting him with your staff now; he's dead. Those swords won't be needed either," he added, looking at the weapons Muirchú and Donnchadh were wielding clumsily; "mind you don't cut yourselves!" Muirchú hadn't run so fast for years.
"But," he gasped, trying to catch his breath, "are there more wolves? A pack? And where did he come from? I thought this area was all cleared?"
The shepherd monk pointed to the north-east.
"Over there beyond the river," he said, "you soon reach thick forest—we knew there were wolves there, but this is the first one to swim across."
"He was old and lame, and probably couldn't catch deer," Feidhlim remarked. "He'd have been a loner." Then he slung the dead wolf over his shoulders. They walked back to the enclosure, where several monks thanked Feidhlim and began to skin the carcase.
"That'll make a grand cloak for you, Feidhlim," they said.
"Give the skin to your abbot," Feidhlim told them. "I'd say he feels the cold more than I do."
Back in their draughty lodging, Donnchadh expressed some doubts about the memory-house.
"Father Muirchú, I'm afraid of forgetting some of the items we've stored—there's so much, and there's more to come."
"I may have a problem with it myself, Donnchadh. I think you'd better make notes—it's a case of special necessity, so you can use a couple of those vellum sheets we got in Kildare. But that's valuable stuff, so keep your writing small."
Dinner in the refectory that evening had an almost festive air, though it was neither a feast-day nor a Sunday. Not only was Feidhlim invited to join them, he was seated next to the Prior in a place of honour. Low murmurs of appreciation could be heard through the Scripture readings as the community tucked into their unaccustomed hare soup and salmon. During the permitted conversation time afterwards, Abbot Eochaidh invited Feidhlim to come and live in Ardbreccan "as a monk or a layman" whenever the Sleaty community felt they could manage without him—he would be given land of his own in return for services to the monastery.
"I'm grateful for the offer, Father Abbot," said Feidhlim, "and I'd hope to take it up within the next few years. But I'd come as a layman—and I might want to build a house and start a family here."
"You'd be welcome to do so, my son. There are several empty houses on the estate just needing repairs."
The following morning, Muirchú and Donnchadh walked to the library to begin their day's work. Passing the chapel they could hear the monks chanting a psalm:
"They go out, they go out full of tears With seed for the sowing."
And Muirchú thought how smoothly it would go if translated into Irish:
"Imíonn siad ag sileadh na ndeorAg iompar síl chun a scaipthe."
"That's so appropriate for their situation here," he mused aloud. "Let's hope that the end of that verse will come true for them, that they'll be 'full of joy, carrying sheaves.' Patrick might say, if he were here, that the Lord will surely be with them always, as he promised, 'even to the end of time'."
"Amen to that, Father Muirchú; they certainly have a hard struggle here. But—may I speak freely?"
"You do anyway, Donnchadh, so go ahead!"
"There's a temptation here for us, one we need to resist."
"And what temptation might that be, Donnchadh?"
"A temptation to get distracted. I think we'd both like to stay longer with these good people, helping them as much as we could. It'll be hard to leave in two days' time, but we have to remember our quest—we're not seeking building work, we're seeking Patrick!"
"We're not going to prolong our stay, Donnchadh. We both know our home community is depending on me to write the Life of Patrick, and that's what I'm going to do, be assured of that."
Entering the library they got to work immediately—Muirchú reading Ultan's book with full concentration, and Donnchadh writing out on vellum the information they had collected so far.
By midday, Muirchú had completed his third intensive reading of Ultan's Patrician episodes. Donnchadh, writing fast with no decoration or illumination, had finished his notes.
"Now," said Muirchú leaning back on his stool, "remind me of the points I need to discuss with Abbot Aodh."
Donnchadh consulted his sheet of vellum.
"Certainly, Father. Firstly, why was Patrick called Cothriche? Second, the list of miracles—you said we'd need our abbot's approval for that."
"That'll probably be for later on," Muirchú interrupted. "Aodh may want to study them."
"And, thirdly," Donnchadh resumed, "the failure of Palladius' mission. And if you want to hear what we identified for further investigation, there are three of those as well, namely 'Landed where? Cuala?', 'Question of Deer—Meath?' and 'Where is Bannavem Taburniae?'—all three geographical questions, I notice, and it looks as if we'll find more to investigate before we leave."
After a light meal in the monastery kitchens, Muirchú went to find Abbot Eochaidh and asked if he would be free that afternoon.
"Yes," said the abbot, "we'd better press ahead with our work—I don't know how much longer the Lord intends to leave me in this world!"
Back in the library, with Deaglán in attendance, Eochaidh took up the 'Tara Episode'.
"Now that Tara visit," he began, "the one witnessed by your monastery's founder Fiacc—there's an account of that in Ultan's book, as you'll have seen."
"Yes, I've just read it three times," said Muirchú; "but for such an important event it seems very short and not very clear. It tells us a certain amount, of course; we learn that Patrick had his acolyte Benignus with him, that his Easter incense annoyed King Laoghaire and his druids, that there was a trial by fire and a fight with the druids in which Patrick and Benignus miraculously came off best, and that Laoghaire refused to accept the faith—and that's pretty well all there is about the Tara visit."
"And it just isn't enough!" Donnchadh muttered.
"Ultan had hoped to find out more," Eochaidh replied, "but he fell ill and died before he could explore and assess the traditions further."
"It's more than we knew before, Father Abbot, but it's another matter we'll have to look into. Donnchadh, where does that note go in the memory house?"
"Father Muirchú, since we're putting three points back to the end, the Tara visit now goes on the bottom shelf of the number-two, red cupboard. We're putting a note with it saying 'for further investigation'. And the next point is 'Death of Patrick'."
"Here again," said Eochaidh, "the Lord didn't grant Ultan time enough to do the job in full. What there is, you'll have seen in his book; two túatha fought for custody of Patrick's body, each of them thought they had it, and the right body ended up being buried by the sea at Saul rather than at Armagh. Now that episode was the last one Ultan composed—I don't say wrote, because at that stage he was getting too ill to write—no, he dictated it, with some difficulty. He must have known a lot more than what you've read in the book; after all, he was bishop for years, not far from where Patrick died. But, as I say, he was ill and his memory was beginning to fail. At an earlier time, I do remember Ultan mentioning to Cogitosus and Tírechán that the burial place was chosen on the advice of a voice from a bush and that Patrick lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, but those points didn't get into his book; as for Patrick's life-span, there was the problem that our visiting scholar thought Patrick was only a hundred and eleven when he died—then again, we all had a feeling that those figures were just a poetic way of saying that he lived a long life. Ultan had said that there were signs and wonders at the time of Patrick's death, but towards the end of his own life he didn't seem to remember what they were. I'm afraid this is another case where you've more work to do, Muirchú."
"Indeed it is, Abbot Eochaidh. Note that please, Donnchadh."
Donnchadh was now beginning to struggle mentally with the entries for the memory-house. The abbot, a perceptive man, seemed aware of this.
"Deaglán," he called, "please find a couple of writing tablets for Brother Donnchadh! Donnchadh," he went on, "I think you've been making some notes this morning—perhaps you'd find it helpful to continue that during our talks?"
"I would indeed—thank you, Father Abbot."
"Father Muirchú," said Eochaidh, "if you wish I can allow you to take Ultan's book with you when you go—as a gift or a loan, whichever you prefer. I have the original myself, and I can think of no one who could make better use of the copy than yourself."
"I'd be deeply grateful to take it as a loan, Father Abbot."
"So be it, then! Let's turn now to the three Cogitosus notes that we're taking together —'Patrick's Owner—Ulaidh?', 'Back to the Slave-owner?' and 'Visit to Foclut'."
"Remember," Eochaidh went on, "that Patrick's Confessio nowhere tells us the location where he spent his time as a slave. He only once names a place in Ireland, and that's when he says, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. So where were 'the woods and the mountain' where he was spending every day looking after flocks? Ultan and Tírechán still hadn't resolved that question when Cogitosus was here. Tírechán was convinced that Patrick's location was in Tírechán's own province, Connacht, where there is in fact a mountain named after the saint. He claimed there were powerful and unbroken traditions to that effect, and quoted all sorts of learned men, historians and annalists—but none of them readily available for questioning. Ultan had a completely different opinion. As you know, he had been a bishop in the north for many years. He maintained that the traditions there were so strong and so widely held as to be simply unquestionable—Patrick's place of slavery had been near Slemish in the territory of the Dál nAraidhe. Deadlock! Then Ultan cleverly pointed out that anyone who questioned the Slemish belief in favour of somewhere in the far west could hardly be regarded as a supporter of the Armagh paruchia. Tírechán was shaken by this. His ambition, you'll recall, was to be a leading Armagh supporter! Finally, he said he'd go to the north himself to form an opinion—and the then abbot gave his approval.
Well, he was back within a month or so. He'd visited Slemish, listened to the ollamhna, annalists, even poets—and probably got convinced by the Armagh establishment. Anyway, he was ready now to accept the Slemish location. So that seemed to be settled.
"Then there was the question of 'Back to the Slave-owner?', as Cogitosus' notes put it. Did Patrick go back to the scene of his slavery immediately he arrived as a missionary, or not until much later? If the voices that called him in his dream were from Foclut by the western sea, why would he feel it a higher priority to go to Slemish straight away? In Tírechán's view, he probably went to Slemish at a much later stage, and then only to visit the slave-owner's children whom he had been teaching while in captivity—that last idea was a story Tírechán had picked up from some scéalaí, and I think he had doubts about it himself.
"They put that question aside and turned to the matter of Foclut—where was it? Tírechán said that any Life of Patrick would have to make it clear that Foclut was in Connacht, that province being near the western sea, as Patrick said in the Confessio. Naturally Patrick had to go there as soon as possible, in response to the voice of those who were beside the wood. No need to be too specific about that, Ultan maintained, and he was exceptionally obstinate about it; then he revealed what you might call a secret weapon.
'Many years ago,' he told Tírechán, 'on a visit to the Clonmacnoise monastery library, I read their copy of the Confessio. Imagine how surprised I was to find that text saying that the voices Patrick heard were from silva virgulti instead of silva focluti! And, when I made enquiries, what should I hear of but a place called Coill Cleithe, not very far from Slemish—and coill cleithi, Father Tírechán, is the Irish for silva virgulti, the "wattle wood"!'
"Well, Tírechán was absolutely furious. Things got so heated that the two of them couldn't stay sitting down. You should have seen them pacing around the library, arguing—Tírechán tall, thin and intense, with an incisive, cutting speaking voice, Ultan nearly as old as I am now but well able to put his views across, despite a tendency to gabble and spit when he got excited. I was really afraid they would come to blows, strange as that may seem for two holy men.
'What you say is total nonsense, Bishop Ultan!' Tírechán snapped, all deference forgotten. 'It's obvious that nowhere near Slemish is by the western sea.'
'You're being stupidly narrow-minded!' Ultan came back at him.
'Can't you see that what's east or west of you depends on where you're standing? For God's sake, if you were in the land of the Danes talking about the western sea, you'd probably mean the sea between you and the east coast of England! Patrick was a Briton, so he could well call the sea between us and Britain the western sea—it would be west of him!'
'Rubbish!' shouted Tírechán. 'He wrote the Confessio in Ireland; he says so!'
'Ah!' said Ultan smugly, 'but he was writing about an experience he had at a time when he was not in Ireland!'
Tírechán was scarlet in the face. I'd never seen him like that—he'd always been tightly self-controlled. Hoping to cool things down, I nerved myself to interrupt and ask whether they might like to take a calming break and drink some ale—which I had on call.
They ignored me. Ultan announced he was going to take the virgulti place-name, not focluti, when he got round to writing his Life of Patrick. Tírechán said this was another example of Ultan's blind, rabid, anti-western prejudice.
'You think we're all savages in Connacht, that's why you want to shut us out of everything!'
'It's you who are blinded by your exaggerated local loyalties,' Ultan told him. 'What a pity you seem incapable of seeing the broader picture.'
And he went on to widen the discussion by criticising some of Tírechán's opinions, expressed from time to time, on how the saint's Life should be written.
'Instead of a work that would edify people and help lead them to salvation,' he said, 'you seem to want a sort of travel guide and real-estate list claiming church after church for Patrick—which would be all very well if it didn't take up the vellum that should be devoted to inspirational spiritual writing, as in the Confessio itself. And, what's more, you also seem to favour getting Patrick to curse every túath you don't like, bless each one you do like, and spend far too much time west of the Shannon! Well, when I write my Life of Patrick it certainly won't be on the lines you want!'
'You can do it without me then!' Tírechán growled. 'I refuse to co-operate any longer with a stupid, prejudiced old fool like you who proposes to ignore reality and produce a misleading and distorted account. In fact, I'll write my own Life of Patrick one day, when I've made my career in the Church—and I won't write it here, either. This place is stifling me; it just doesn't offer sufficient scope for my talents. I'm now going to tell my friend the abbot all I've just told you!'
And he stormed out, pursued by Ultan's parting words:
'Good riddance then, Father Tírechán, and my sympathies to any monastery that suffers the affliction of your presence!'
"Well, that was the last I saw of Tírechán for a very long time. Next morning he was gone. Later that day the abbot arrived in the library to speak to Ultan, and very cross he was.
'We've just lost a highly talented member of our community,' he complained, 'and it's all your fault.'
'We had differences that we couldn't reconcile, Father Abbot,' Ultan told him. 'Only one of us can decide what should or shouldn't appear in this monastery's future Life of Patrick. That's my responsibility. Of course, you could lift that burden from my shoulders if you wish—but there might be hard feelings about that in Armagh.'
'I'm not lifting any burden from you,' the abbot declared, 'but I'm commanding you to work only with the copy of the Confessio we have here; and that means you'll accept silva focluti, not virgulti, as Tírechán so sensibly suggested—or if not you can live and write somewhere else!'
So Ultan had to agree to that order, which wasn't too unreasonable when you think about it; but he still had no intention of writing that Foclut was in Connacht."
Abbot Eochaidh stopped and drew breath, tired after this long account.
"So that was the famous break-up," said Muirchú thoughtfully.
"Did you ever see Tírechán again?"
"Yes, once," said Eochaidh. "Some years ago, just before the plague, he arrived here to celebrate Mass for the repose of Ultan's soul and to pray at his grave. Tírechán was a changed man, much more open and moderate. He had spent some time in the Kells area, not too far from here, became a bishop later, and moved to Connacht. He had aged a lot. He seemed to regret his tussle with Ultan: spoke highly of him, apologised for his own rudeness, and asked to copy Ultan's book—he had even brought a scribe with him. I agreed, of course. He said he'd write his own Life of Patrick as soon as he had the leisure to do it; the work of managing his diocese was very heavy, it seems."
"And did he write one?" Muirchú asked.
"Not to my knowledge. But he might be writing it now for all I know—we don't often get news from Connacht."
"But how on earth," asked Donnchadh "could two holy men ever have got into such a row?"
Muirchú turned to him and spoke from his own greater experience.
"Donnchadh," he said, "holy men are still men, and they experience stress and temptation like anyone else—the Lord may even send them extra temptations, to temper them like gold in the furnace. But now we need to apply what Abbot Eochaidh has been telling us to our own work. As to 'Back to the Slave-Owner', we may be able to find out more about when Patrick went back to Slemish, and I think we must accept Slemish as the scene of his captivity. When I start writing, I won't commit myself to a location for Foclut unless we find important new evidence—which of course we might. So that gives us two new points for further investigation. We might also have to do more research after the discussion with Abbot Aodh if he doesn't resolve all the questions we're going to raise with him. And then we'll have to connect up the information into some sort of continuous narrative."
Abbot Eochaidh rose to his feet to signal the end of the session. Leaving the library, they walked out into heavy rain. Deaglán hurried up with a leather cloak to shelter the abbot. Muirchú and Donnchadh raised their hoods. Work on the orphanage building had been suspended, but the clunk of axe on wood could be heard from a partly roofed shed; Feidhlim had decided to cut logs for the monastery fires. Donnchadh went over to him to explain that they would be leaving for Sleaty the next morning. In the entry to the stone chapel, Muirchú spoke to the abbot.
"Tell me, Father Abbot, do you have scribes here?"
"We have only one, and he has only wooden tablets to write on. All our vellum was stolen or burnt during the raid."
Muirchú called Donnchadh back.
"Brother Donnchadh, didn't we get more vellum than we expected at Kildare, due to your marketing skills with the inks?"
"Yes, we got nearly twice the usual amount."
"We could spare about a third of it, couldn't we?"
"Well—I suppose so."
"Good. Abbot Eochaidh will introduce you to his scribe. You'll give him one third of the Kildare vellum."
"Abbot Eochaidh, that's to show my appreciation of all you've done for us. And I intend to ask Abbot Aodh to let Feidhlim come here to Ardbreccan—your need of him is clearly greater than ours."
"I must thank you twice, then," said the abbot; "but the reward that pleases me most is to know that a worthy Life of Patrick is on the way."
Shortly after dawn the next day Feidhlim harnessed the oxen and loaded the travellers' possessions. The whole community had assembled to see them off. Muirchú stood up in the cart and gave them his blessing. Feidhlim promised to come back as soon as he could, and flicked his goad on the oxen's backs. As they moved out of the enclosure the rain stopped and the sun began to break through the clouds.
"Are we going by the Slighe Mhidhluachra?" Donnchadh asked.
"No, that would be too much of a detour," Muirchú explained. "That road runs down the east coast to the Liffey ford. We'll reach the ford by a more direct route, travelling south-east. Once across the Liffey we'll turn south-west, staying in the foot-hills of the mountains, then down the river Barrow to Sleaty. That way we'll skirt around Kildare territory."
After crossing the Slighe Asail they could see the Hill of Tara far off on their right.
"The king doesn't live on the hill itself," Muirchú said. "No one does."
"Is the Feis Teamhrach, the Feast of Tara, held there still?" Donnchadh asked.
"No, not for the past hundred and fifty years or so. That was a pagan festival and, even before Christianity, it was held only once in each reign."
In early afternoon they crossed the Slighe Mhór and continued in their south-easterly direction through the flat fertile lands of Meath. An hour later they had to drive off the road and wait while an unusual assembly passed by. A convoy of six loaded carts was heading north-west, followed by a large herd of cattle. Armed guards rode before and behind the procession.
"Tribute from Brega for the King of Tara," one of the herdsmen called in answer to Feidhlim's question.
By evening they had reached the little settlement on the Liffey and splashed across the hurdle-protected ford to arrive on Cuala territory. Here the road forked, the Slighe Cualann leading south-west to Leinster, while a smaller road followed the coast to the south-east.
Donnchadh was keenly interested in the terrain along their way.
"Father Muirchú, isn't Da Derga's famous hostel somewhere near here?"
Muirchú laughed. "Maybe it was, three or four hundred years ago! As far as I know it was on the River Dodder in the hills south of here but, if so, there would be nothing but ruins now. It was destroyed by a band of exiles and pirates when they killed the good King of Tara, Conaire Mór mac Eadairscéil, or so the story-tellers say."
"But how could he be a good king? Wasn't he a pagan?"
Muirchú sighed. "Donnchadh, you still have a lot to learn. It's possible to be a good pagan, but it's much harder for him than for a Christian because he hasn't the grace of baptism, the consolation of faith or the hope of salvation. There were ancient Greeks and Romans in pre-Christian times who were virtuous people—I'm sure God would somehow recognise their virtue and provide for them in the next life."
"Glad to hear that, Father, because I'd like to meet them when I die!"
"More to the point, Father Muirchú," Feidhlim intervened, "where do you want to spend the night? Not in that non-existent hostel, I suppose?"
"We'll try to do better than that!" Muirchú told him. They made enquiries, and were offered hospitality in the large house of a rich bó-aire noble, close by a royal enclosure. On the lawn outside the enclosure they saw several vehicles, including one of the rare royal-type chariots, built for speed on smooth, level land. Its aristocratic polish made the ox-cart look shabby by comparison. Muirchú helped Feidhlim to unhitch the oxen, while Donnchadh stared around.
"Feidhlim," Muirchú asked, "did you ever want to be a charioteer?"
"Náthó, not at all, Father; those bone-shakers would fall apart if they hit a stone. In fact, once, long ago, I saw one wrecked by the roadside. What's more, charioteers have only two skills: they're good drivers—I'll give them that—and they can defend themselves. But I have at least six skills: driving, fighting, building, herding, carpentry and basic metalwork—eight if you count hunting and fishing! But I have a nephew, Fionntán, eighteen years old: I've taught him all my skills and he's learned them well, but he still wants to be a charioteer."
"So why can't he?"
"Three reasons: first, there are very few openings; second, his father wasn't a charioteer; and third, his éiric honour-price isn't high enough. You have to be high-born and rich—the whole thing is a closed shop!"
"Well, Feidhlim, I know Fionntán; a fine young man! I've seen his carpentry, and it's excellent. Perhaps some day he'll be rich enough to be accepted by the charioteers. Maybe we can find him some opportunity."
"Maybe it'll happen some day, Father, but he has plenty of abilities—he'll get on in one way or another."
The bó-aire and his people gave them a warm welcome. The place was so comfortable that it made Muirchú and Donnchadh a little uneasy. Was it closer to luxury than clerics should go? Stifling their doubts, they collected mugs of ale and successfully speared good cuts of meat from the enormous cauldron.
"Just like in one of those ancient hostels!" marvelled Donnchadh.
Afterwards they slept in cushioned cubicles, oblivious to the chatter of their hosts and the other guests.
The next day was dry and bright as they pushed on into Leinster in a light westerly wind. Once they saw two deer bolt across the road and into the hills. Further on they caught a faint smell of burning and looked down across the flat land to their right. In the far distance they could see plumes of smoke against the blue sky.
"And," said Donnchadh, who had the sharpest eyes, "I think I can see birds circling, kites probably; and that would mean dead bodies, human or animal."
"Too far away to be any real danger to us," was Feidhlim's opinion; but all the same he detoured to a parallel track further east for several miles before rejoining the road.
"That could have been an Uí Dhúnlainge war-band," he said. "We'd need to keep well clear of them."
By evening they had reached Uí Bhairrche territory, and the sun was setting by the time the ox-cart finally entered the enclosure at Sleaty.
"Thanks for a safe journey, Feidhlim," said Muirchú, as they got down stiffly and unloaded their bags. It was Prior Conchadh, not Abbot Aodh, who hurried out to meet them, looking even more flustered than usual.
"Fáilte is céad, welcome back, welcome back," he panted. "The abbot is laid up with a broken leg, but I know he'd want to see you at once!"
Muirchú turned towards the infirmary.
"No, no, he's in his house, not the infirmary."
"Why not the infirmary?"
"Because they're too busy since yesterday…"
Feidhlim had gone to stable the oxen before returning to his home on the estate.
Conchadh went on talking over his shoulder as he led the way to the abbot's house.
"Four of King Fearghal's young hotheads got bored and decided to do a bit of cattle-raiding across the túath boundary—thought they'd be the heroes of a new Táin of the Uí Bhairrche, I suppose! All they managed to do was to kill one man, a high-éiricbó-aire rich farmer, unfortunately—got themselves wounded, all four of them—and fled back home. And now they're in the infirmary here—and their families are too poor to pay the éiric, so King Fearghal will have to, and he's so angry he's threatening to sell the four of them into slavery for five years as soon as they recover, so they're in no hurry to leave! But here we are."
They trooped into the abbot's house. Aodh was sitting up on his bed with his right leg, bandaged and in splints, stretched out in front of him. Father Cormac, a priest with some medical experience, was trying to persuade him to keep still.
"Fáilte, Muirchú, glad you're back! You too, Donnchadh—got your message, though it took a while to come. Go and have a meal and rest; tomorrow you can tell me everything you've found out."
"How did you break your leg, Father Abbot?" Muirchú enquired.
Aodh only growled and Father Cormac answered for him.
"Rushing around trying to get four injured fools into the infirmary and tripping over a log, that's how he broke it!"
Aodh was a difficult patient.
"Now don't get excited, Father Abbot," said his attendant, as Muirchú and Donnchadh took their leave.
"Here's your broth, will I spoon it to you?"
"You certainly won't! I'm not totally disabled you know—I don't eat with my feet! Give the bowl here!"
During the conversation time after dinner, the two travellers had to disappoint their brothers by not describing their journey in detail.
"We're safe and uninjured as you see," said Muirchú. "Feidhlim was an excellent bodyguard and companion, and we know of no imminent danger from Kildare. We must tell the rest to our abbot tomorrow before informing anyone else."
This was readily accepted; everyone knew the abbot must have priority.
After Mass and matins next day, Muirchú and Donnchadh returned to Aodh's house.
"Are you sure I should go there too?" asked Donnchadh nervously.
"Yes, I might need your memory—and bring all the notes you wrote in Ardbreccan, as well as Ultan's book."
The abbot was looking forward to hearing their account. Donnchadh sat on a bench by the wall, while Muirchú drew a stool up to Aodh's bed.
"Let's hear it then!" said the abbot.
Muirchú described what they had done and learnt, the Cogitosus notes and the hostile prior at Kildare, the events of their journey further north, the situation at Ardbreccan, the invitation to Feidhlim and, in careful detail, what Abbot Eochaidh had told them.
Aodh listened attentively.
"You've done well—so far," he said. "You have quite a lot of information, but too many loose ends and not enough material for a proper narrative as yet. Now, there were some points you particularly wanted to discuss with me? After that I'll tell you what I think you should do next."
"Thank you, Father Abbot," said Muirchú. "The first point we wanted to raise with you is the matter of the four names Ultan gives for Patrick. No problem with the first name, Sochet: that's just a name that any British boy might have. Nor with the second and third, 'Magonus', meaning 'famous', and 'Patricius', the name we know him by. But the fourth name, 'Cothirthiacus' or 'Cothriche', is very obscure. Ultan says it was his name during his slavery because he served four households of druids, one of whom had bought him. It seems both Ultan and Tírechán tended to accept the 'four druids' meaning, but without being certain. Eochaidh was very doubtful. What do you think, Father Abbot?"
"What's your own view, Muirchú?"
"Well, to tell you the truth, I find the 'four druids' theory rather far-fetched. It's true that 'Cothirthiacus' does sound a bit like cethair, meaning four, after someone stuck a Latin ending on it. But it could be four of anything. And 'Cothriche' doesn't sound like cethair at all."
"May I make a point, Father Abbot?" Donnchadh intervened.
"Speak, my son."
"As we know, there are very few words in Irish beginning with P, and the ones I can think of, like pairrche for 'parish' and peccad for 'sin', have to do with Christianity. So maybe long ago our pagan ancestors had trouble saying names beginning with P, and if they didn't want to bother putting -us at the end of a name—we still don't!—then 'Cothriche' could be their best shot at saying 'Patricius'!"
"Very ingenious, Donnchadh," said the abbot; "but do you have any trouble saying words beginning with P?"
"No, I don't, Father Abbot."
"No, and neither do I and neither does anyone I know. And I refuse to accept that our ancestors' mouths were a different shape to ours! So your theory doesn't stand up."
"'Cothriche' sounds a little like one of our people-names,' mused Muirchú; "like 'Cruithin', for instance."
"Maybe," said Aodh, "but there's no group by that name, so it can't be that. No, we're left with the 'four druids' theory; I agree it's rather strange, but my advice to you would be to put it in your Life while attributing it clearly to Ultan's book."
The abbot shifted restlessly on his bed.
"Next," he said, "you wanted my approval for Ultan's list of miracles. If you leave me his book—that's it you have there I suppose, Donnchadh—I'll read through them. Now, you haven't yet read many Lives of Saints, Muirchú, as you said to me yourself; so let me tell you something about choosing miracles. When you put them in your narrative, your aims will be to illustrate God's action, in which we believe through faith; to strengthen that faith in the reader or listener, helping them in their journey towards everlasting joy; and to show the power of Patrick's beliefs and the driving-force of Holy Scripture in his life."
There was a short silence. Then Donnchadh spoke.
"I beg your indulgence to ask a question, Father Abbot," he said. "Of course I understand and fully accept what you've told us, but don't we have to be sure that a miracle happened exactly as described and that it couldn't just have happened naturally?"
"Donnchadh, if this is troubling you then you are right to ask," said Aodh kindly; "but it is not a problem. Our trust in Jesus and his teaching tells us that God hears our prayers and acts through nature—nothing happens in nature without God. And when you write hagiography it's not like bringing annals up to date or doing mathematics, where you have to get every detail right because the value is in the detail. Let me put it this way: you illustrate manuscripts, so tell me: did you ever paint in a blue eagle?"
"Certainly I did, Father Abbot, and red ones too!"
"And did you ever see a blue eagle?"
"Well, no … I don't think there are any."
"So were you deceiving the reader?"
"Of course not, everyone knows the convention: it's to beautify and uplift, not to reflect … Oh! I see!"
"You agree with me, Muirchú?"
"Absolutely, Father Abbot. Donnchadh and I listened to a long praise poem for a túath-king up in Meath: the poet described the king as Ireland's greatest warrior, when everyone knew quite well that he wasn't! But no one was deceived. We applauded for the metre, the rhyme, the effort of composition, as well as for the king's hospitality—we knew it was simply the way poets do praise poems!"
"Same idea, then. So when you write Patrick's miracles you'll be doing useful and beautiful illustrations more than relating bald historical facts. Of course you do have to avoid the downright silly, like that snakes business, but you know that already. I want you to read some hagiography, Muirchú—the Life of St Martin, for instance; it's in our library—remembering what I've just said. In the meantime, I'll assess Ultan's list of miracles."
"There was a third point, wasn't there?" asked Aodh.
"Yes," said Muirchú, "the reasons why Palladius' mission failed."
"Well, Muirchú, first I think we have to accept what the foreign scholar told Ultan—he was obviously a learned man with no motive for deception—that Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine 'to the Irish who believed in Christ' shortly before Patrick, and that he went back to Britain after a year or less and died there soon afterwards. Who knows—perhaps Palladius was to Patrick as John the Baptist was to Jesus? Or perhaps Palladius was quite unlike the Baptist! Anyway, there could well be someone in Cuala who could tell you why his mission failed—and it must have, if he made such a short visit."
Aodh paused to collect his thoughts.
"Now, as to what you should do next, it seems to me you have another journey before you. You need to seek reliable information in at least three places—Cuala, Inbhear Colptha in Brega, and around Slemish in what we used to call Cruithin territory, Dál nAraidhe now. Then I think you'll have done everything possible to fill the gaps in your information. It's already well after mid-summer, so you can't put off that journey too long. But you and Donnchadh need some rest first, so aim to leave in one week's time and tell me what travel arrangements you want. For that week you're absolved from all liturgical obligations except daily Mass, but as well as the reading I've suggested, I want you to study the Old and New Testaments, seeking out the parallels between Holy Scripture and the events of Patrick's life."
Aodh fell silent again. Muirchú and Donnchadh could see that he was feeling tired. They thanked him, bowed and took their leave.
They emerged blinking from the abbot's house into bright sunshine. Muirchú saw a tall, richly dressed layman leaving the school buildings and recognised a British prince who had befriended him years before.
"Custennin!" he called. The prince whirled and strode joyfully towards them.
"Ave, Muirchú!" he shouted. It was fortunate that Custennin spoke Latin fluently, for he knew little Irish and Muirchú's British was rusty from lack of practice.
"Well met!" Muirchú told him, introducing Donnchadh as his assistant.
"What are you doing here? visiting your son? I hope you're not going to take him home. He's doing very well here, first in my Latin class last time I taught them."
"Yes, this is my yearly visit. All his teachers seem pleased with him," said Custennin proudly. "He'll stay here for another few years—a prince needs languages and some learning—but then I'll have to bring him home for military training. Where I come from a prince needs that even more!"
"Come with me," Muirchú told him "you too, Donnchadh—and I'll persuade Brother Kitchener to give us some bread and ale."
In the monastery kitchens, Brother Fionn was delighted to attend to this distinguished guest. Soon they were seated on benches at a rough table with fresh bread and beakers of ale before them. Knowing that Custennin had an interest in history, Muirchú told his friend about his quest for material on St Patrick.
"Which reminds me," he added, "did you ever hear of a place called Bannavem Taburniae?"
Custennin thought about this.
"Yes," he said, "I did. I met a scholar once who spoke of your Patrick, among other topics, and he mentioned that name as the place where the saint was born."
"But did he say where it was?"
Custennin frowned. "Not exactly. I had the impression it was a long way south of my territory—in south-west Britain, I think. He did say that it's now called Ventia and that it's near the sea, that I do remember. And now that I think back on that conversation—he also told me that the saint's father was called Calpurnius and his mother was Concessa."
"Donnchadh," said Muirchú urgently, "note down 'Concessa'—we didn't know that before—also 'Ventia'!"
"Thank you, Custennin, that's very useful. By the way, since you seem to know a bit about Patrick, would you have any idea where he landed when he arrived in Ireland as a missionary?"
"No idea at all, really," replied the prince. "The two most likely places for a ship from Britain to put in would be Inbhear nDea—where I came from a few days ago—and Inbhear Colptha at the mouth of the Boyne. I can only guess that if he were coming from the far south of Britain, Inbhear nDea would be the destination; it's a good harbour and the sea-captains know it well. Inbhear Colptha has more traffic, of course, and there would probably have been a Roman trade centre there even before Patrick's time; but I'd consider Inbhear nDea more likely."
"Thanks anyway for your opinion, Custennin; we'll have to see if someone in Cuala knows more. May I ask you one other question? Do you know anything about someone called Coroticus, a commander of soldiers, who lived about two hundred years ago and enslaved some of Patrick's converts?"
"Well yes, there was a king of Strathclyde by that name—and a very bad name it was if the stories about him are true!"
"What sort of stories?"
"People say he was a sort of robber king—his subjects used to whisper that when he saw any kind of wealth it was like a fox seeing a chicken: leap and grab! Then when he suddenly collapsed and died in public, the people shouted out, 'The old fox is gone!' In their minds he had been turned into a fox, as it were."
After they had made their farewells—for Custennin was to leave shortly—Muirchú settled down in the library to begin his prescribed reading, while Donnchadh went to re-occupy his place in the scriptorium.
Two days later, Muirchú decided he should seek a further meeting with Abbot Aodh. As he crossed the enclosure, someone called his name. Looking round he saw that it was Sister Cecilia, the elderly nun who was in charge of the two Uí Bhairrche princesses. She was holding each of her charges firmly by the hand as she hobbled along.
"Father Muirchú," she said respectfully, "would you permit Princess Orla to ask you a question?"
"Yes, if it needs only a short answer, Sister. I'm on my way to call on the abbot."
"Father Muirchú," Orla asked at once, "did you see Bláthach in Kildare?"
"No, I didn't. I didn't really expect to. But the milk there was very good."
"I still miss her, Father."
"I understand that, my child; but everyone suffers some losses in life, often much worse than yours. But when I was speaking to the herdsmen yesterday, they told me another cow was just about to calve. I could ask them to let you help look after the young animal if it's a heifer. Of course Sister Cecilia would have to be with you all the time."
"Oh yes please, Father. I'd love that!"
Sister Cecilia looked rather tight-lipped.
Now the younger princess, Damhnait, joined in.
"But what about me, Father? I'd have no pet then and Orla would!"
"Well, Princess Damhnait, you must try not to be jealous—jealousy is bad. But perhaps you might be allowed to help with the second-next heifer calf on the same conditions."
Sister Cecilia looked even less pleased than before.
"Are you sure this is wise, Father Muirchú?" she asked. "We wouldn't want this cattle-minding to distract them from their studies!"
"It's a good thing for any young lady, no matter how high-born, to know something about dairy husbandry, Sister; isn't that so? Holy Brigit, for example, excelled in that regard, I believe. I have no doubt you'll be well able to ensure that their class-work doesn't suffer."
Sister Cecilia bowed silently. She knew as well as Muirchú that the two girls were well ahead of their age-group in their studies.
Muirchú inclined his head to the nun and continued on his way to the abbot's house, making a mental note to speak to the head herdsman later.
How difficult it was to deal with females, he thought…
Abbot Aodh was looking restless.
"Cormac tells me it'll be a month before I can get around! A month!"
"Healing takes time, Father Abbot," said Muirchú, trying to hide a grin, "and maybe you needed a rest."
"Easy for you to talk! Wait till you break a leg, then you'll know what it's like!"
"Yes, no doubt I will—but if I may change the subject there are a few matters I need to discuss with you."
"Alright, go ahead," said Aodh grumpily.
It might sooth the abbot, thought Muirchú, to hear some good news first.
"As you suggested," he began, "I've looked for parallels between Holy Scripture and the events of Patrick's life. For a start, he himself identifies several of them in the Confessio, and I could quote those. I found some others too. For instance, his twenty-eight days of hungry wandering through some deserted area—that was after the ship he escaped in came to land—recall the Israelites' long travels through the desert before God sent manna to feed them."
"Very good, Muirchú; you should use plenty of those comparisons. We need to show strong links back to scriptural events."
"Now, about my travel arrangements, Father Abbot. Even before our last conversation I'd come to the same conclusion as you—for further material I need to go at least to Cuala, Inbhear Colptha and Slemish. But now I must ask you—should I not also go to Armagh? They must have a lot of information about Patrick there."
"No doubt they have, Muirchú, but my answer is 'no'. I want to present a completed Life of Patrick to Abbot Séighín on my next visit to Armagh. Advance notice would give the anti-Sleaty faction an incentive to look for more ammunition against us, or else they'd pull you in and before long it would be the Life of Patrick by Muirchú of Armagh instead of Muirchú of Sleaty. Either way our monastery would suffer. Up to now, Armagh have not made full use of their Patrician material—at least not in a devotional uplift sense. Now we'll surprise them by showing that we've been able to do it independently—what with that and Fiacc's relics, we'll become an important centre of Patrician veneration!"
Muirchú had doubts about this.
"But couldn't we be accused of ignoring available information?"
"Not if you have got your material from where they must have got it originally—the learned men and keepers of tradition in the areas most closely associated with Patrick."
Muirchú felt this imposed an extra burden on him.
"Would you not think further on that point, Father Abbot?"
"No, Muirchú. I understand your hesitation, but you must accept that I know more about the political and diplomatic aspects than you do. I require your obedience in this."
Muirchú sighed. Aodh could be difficult—even unreasonable—but he had the right to invoke a binding vow, that of obedience.
"Yes, Father Abbot," he said. "I can only pray, then, that I'll be able to carry out this task even without using an important source like the Armagh records."
"And I, too, will pray for your success, Muirchú. If I didn't think you could write a worthy Vita from original sources, I wouldn't be asking you to do so!"
Muirchú turned to another subject that had been on his mind.
"During our visit to Ardbreccan," he said, "we had excellent co-operation and hospitality from Abbot Eochaidh and the rest of his community, hospitality they could ill afford. But as I told you, I could offer them little in return except a few sheets of vellum. I think we should reward them in some way. Also Feidhlim, our accomplished driver and bodyguard, has been invited to live and start a family there, with land of his own on their estate. As far as I can make out, he's thinking of marrying a Kildare girl—one with no link to the Kildare establishment, I hasten to add! Would you consider releasing him from his obligations here?"
"I've been thinking about that since you mentioned it before," Aodh told him. "I have little to do but think and pray while I'm stuck in bed! I'll ask Prior Conchadh to find out whether Feidhlim can be replaced in his tasks here without too many problems. If the answer is 'yes', he can go in, say, six weeks' time. If it's 'no', he'll have to spend up to a year training replacements."
"I'm sure he'll be most grateful, Father Abbot."
"And he can take an ox-cart and oxen to pull it—we have two other teams—or else two horses if he prefers. That'll be our gift to Ardbreccan; and Feidhlim can take a message to Abbot Eochaidh that I'll celebrate a Mass specially for him and his community."
"Excellent! I can see, Father Abbot," said Muichú mischievously, "that by giving you all this time to think, the Lord has brought good out of evil."
"Enough of that, Muirchú," the abbot growled. "Have you anything else to ask me before I have you thrown out on your holy head?"
Muirchú took the precaution of moving his stool a little further from the bed.
"I've been talking to Feidhlim's nephew Fionntán—the one who has learned all Feidhlim's skills. He has travelled a bit, too—Ossory, and the Déise, and once to Inbhear nDea in Cuala. He could drive an ox-cart to Inbhear nDea with me, Donnchadh and two bodyguards."
"Why two bodyguards?"
"One to come back with Fionntán—those are dangerous hills for a driver on his own —and one to come with Donnchadh and myself on our travels. We'd take a boat northwards along the coast."
"Seems like a lot of travellers. But," the abbot brightened, "they could bring back a load of smoked fish from the port, and maybe some wine too if there's a trading ship in. They'd have to be trustworthy lads!"
"They will be, Father Abbot. Feidhlim and I will choose them."
"Right, well, when you leave, would you ask Brother Kitchener to send me over a mug of buttermilk and an apple?"
"Certainly," said Muirchú, glad that his arrangements had been approved, "and I'm very pleased that your injury has not prevented your appetite from returning."
Muirchú bowed and took his leave.
He had a busy time for the next few days. As well as completing his reading (and getting Donnchadh to read the same texts in case he forgot something), he spoke to Prior Conchadh and secured Feidhlim's early release.
Then the two bodyguards had to be recruited. Feidhlim recommended Oscar and Oisín, twin sons of the estate blacksmith, honest and sturdy lads who had done their weapons training and were delighted with the chance to travel. Two of the injured young Uí Bhairrche men in the infirmary, now recovered, volunteered to labour without pay at the twins' tasks rather than face King Fearghal's wrath immediately. And, on the last day before departure, Muirchú remembered to tell the head herdsman about his promise to Orla and Damhnait.
Abbot Aodh was not expected to emerge from his house to see them off, not while resting a broken leg. But when they turned aside from loading the ox-cart there he was, sitting up on a stretcher, being carried by two of the strongest novices and escorted by two more. Four of the travellers knelt in the dewy grass of the enclosure to receive his blessing. The abbot gestured to Fionntán, who was already in the driver's seat holding the reins, that he should not climb down. Fionntán compromised by turning towards the abbot and bowing his head. Muirchú felt touched by the effort his abbot had made to honour their departure.
"We deeply appreciate your kindness, Father Abbot."
"I'll pray daily for the safe return of you all and the success of your mission," Aodh announced. Then he beckoned Muirchú over to his stretcher.
"Remember, old friend," he said, "that it's best to have two reliable sources for each piece of information when that's possible, or at least to try and see whether what you're told fits with what you already know. I'll expect you back a month from now—six weeks at most. You should return before autumn weather sets in. God be with you, Muirchú; Patrick surely will!"
After fording the Barrow they travelled steadily east, crossing the Slighe Cualann and continuing towards the distant hills.
"Father Muirchú," Oscar asked, "do we have to turn north now to go round the mountains by the Liffey mouth?"
The twins had only a hazy grasp of geography, never having travelled far beyond Uí Bhairrche territory.
"Would you explain, Fionntán?" Muirchú asked the young driver.
"Certainly, Father. This is the route my uncle Feidhlim showed me when I went to Inbhear nDea with him before. It would be too long to go round by the north—we'd have to spend at least two nights on the way. The road we're on takes us through passes in the southern part of the hill country—narrow in places, but quite viable in summer."
"Is the monastery at Glendalough far from here?" asked Oscar. "Are we going to spend the night there?"
"We would if we had all the time in the world," Muirchú told him. "It's a great monastery with a famous school, as Brother Donnchadh knows—he studied there. But it's out of our way; we'd have to double back to the north-west. No, we have to press on."
By now they were leaving behind the level, cleared land with its patches of forest and beginning to climb. The winding road led upwards through thick woods, with only an occasional open area for grazing, cultivation or dwellings. Now and then in such places they could see a scattering of sheep; once they passed a small flock herded together in a clearing by the road. Two young shepherd boys in tattered grey tunics stared open-mouthed, too shy to return a greeting. The ox-cart plodded steadily upwards. After several hours the road turned north-east. When the silence was broken by the distant howl of a wolf, Oscar and Oisín reached out to check that their throwing spears were near at hand.
Muirchú laughed. "No need to worry about him, lads; there's still plenty of hunting for the wolves on the high slopes. It's in winter they come down looking for a meal."
Fionntán spoke over his shoulder.
"Didn't Uncle Feidhlim kill a wolf in Ardbreccan only a few weeks ago?"
"Yes," said Donnchadh, "but that was a lame old loner that couldn't catch deer."
"I once crossed the high country much further north, where it's really mountainous," Muirchú told them. "I was alone and on foot, but the only trouble I met was the human kind!"
So far they had met few people on the road, none of them threatening—a few merchants, one or two travelling craftsmen, and a breitheamh with his retinue on his way, no doubt, to resolve some knotty legal case.
"Father Muirchú," called Fionntán, "do you want to stay the night at that farm I told you about, the one where my uncle and I stayed once? They took very little payment."
"Yes, that would be best, Fionntán. I'm sure the farm would be more comfortable than those leather tents we packed."
"Right, we should be there fairly soon—by the way, the farmer is called Ruairí, and he's been to Sleaty once and bought some tools from the twins' father."
"Was he a tall red-haired man? Yes, I remember him," said Oscar. "He and my father were swapping stories for hours."
"Donnchadh," Muirchú interrupted, "if you look up to the sky on our right you'll see a real eagle."
"I see him, Father—and," Donnchadh added solemnly, "he's neither blue nor red."
The twins looked at each other, puzzled. This must be some strange ecclesiastical code…
Later they arrived at a patch of cleared land beside the road. There was pasture with some cattle and sheep, a couple of small fields fenced for crops, a large vegetable garden and an orchard. Soon they could see a substantial dwelling with a grassy space in front. A stream ran down at one side of it, spilling across the road. On the other side a steep path led up to where a small timber-built chapel was barely visible among the trees. Dogs barked and hens scattered as Fionntán drew up the ox-cart in front of the house. Ruairí came out, greeted Fionntán warmly and told two of his sons to unhitch and feed the oxen. Fionntán introduced his passengers, but Ruairí had already guessed who Muirchú was.
"You must be the Master Scriptor of Sleaty, Father Muirchú from the Cuala coast!"
Muirchú confirmed it (my facial scar makes it easy to recognise me, he thought). Ruairí claimed to remember Oscar and Oisín too. But he was particularly delighted that Muirchú had come.
"We're sincere Christians here, Father," he said, "but we haven't seen a priest for three years, since our last pastor died in a snowdrift one winter. Would you consider saying Mass in the chapel tomorrow morning? I have custody of the altar vessels, such as they are, and I have bread and wine too."
No sooner had Muirchú agreed than three of the farmer's numerous children were sent off to inform the neighbours.
Inside the house it was warm, smoky and noisy. Children and dogs ran everywhere. A stew-pot on the fire gave off enticing, savoury smells. The travellers were served stew and bread with mugs of creamy milk. Later, Oscar and Oisín demonstrated spear and sword tricks on the lawn outside to the fascination of the older boys. Inside, Muirchú and Donnchadh produced waxed tablets, drew animals and birds, and wrote their hosts' names, captivating the wide-eyed younger children. When darkness fell, the family gathered round Fionntán as he told tales of the exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Finally, Oisín sang a lullaby in a fine tenor voice before the guests were escorted to the clean outhouse where they would spend the night. Oscar was taking his bodyguard duties seriously.
"We'll keep watch tonight," he announced. "I'll take the first watch—because I'm the eldest—then I'll wake Oisín for the second watch." The others thankfully wrapped themselves in their cloaks and slept.
When Muirchú made his way to the little chapel next morning, he was surprised to find over thirty people crammed into it, kneeling on the flagstones. They listened with rapt attention to his brief homily about love of God and love of neighbour. Some wept with joy at the consecration. After Mass they crowded round Muirchú to kiss his hands, which he allowed with some unease and embarrassment. When they were leaving, their host had to be persuaded to accept even a modest payment, saying that he had already been amply recompensed.
By now they had already passed the highest point of their journey. After travelling downhill for some hours, they rounded a bend and were confronted with a magnificent vista—the coastal plain of Cuala spread out below them, and the ocean beyond. The twins were enthralled—they had never before seen the sea. For Muirchú it was like a homecoming, a bitter-sweet one. He remembered his beloved wife who had died in the plague, and imagined the children they might have had. He thought, too, of his equally beloved father, the master-fisherman from the north, a man who could master any skill—rather like Feidhlim, he realised—and a man who shared his abilities generously and respected the formal learning that he never had a chance to acquire.
The settlement around the harbour at Inbhear nDea seemed to have grown since Muirchú had last seen it: there were several new buildings, the fishing-boats were more numerous, and two larger vessels were at anchor. Rowboats were being loaded and unloaded, and people were hurrying about on the shore. Waves slapped against the vessels' wooden sides; shrieking seagulls dipped for fish-scraps. Muirchú took deep breaths of the salty ocean air. A church stood at the top of the slope leading down to the harbour. The ox-cart halted there while Muirchú and Donnchadh went in. There they found a boy—perhaps a slave—sweeping the floor, supervised by a thin middle-aged priest who was pointing out forgotten corners. The priest greeted them curtly and enquired their business. When told, he shrugged dismissively.
"I take little interest in tradition and the past," he said. "My work here takes up all my time in the present."
He went on to deny that his church was founded by Palladius, Patrick, or Patrick's disciple Manntán.
"I don't know exactly who the founder was, but I'm sure he wasn't one of those!"
If they wanted to locate scholars dealing with tradition they should seek out the King of Leinster's officer at the harbour, who took an interest in such matters. Muirchú could see he would get nothing useful from this peevish, dissatisfied cleric who only wanted to be rid of them. But he did try to draw the priest's attention to the neglected state of Christians in the hill country, only about half a day's journey from there. "Outside my jurisdiction" was the reply, and the most the priest would offer was to mention it to the bishop on his next visit. Neither did he invite them to lodge with him. But when they reached the settlement—where some still remembered Muirchú—they were soon offered both food and lodging. Muirchú spent the rest of the day finding out about the local political and trading scene.
The following morning Muirchú sent Fionntán and the twins off to negotiate for smoked fish and wine to bring back to Sleaty. Then he and Donnchadh sought out the new building which housed the harbour controller. They identified themselves to two bodyguard/enforcers who were engaged in a board game in an outer room, and were escorted to the space curtained off for the officer. The officer's main tasks were to tax cargoes passing through the harbour and to keep his master informed of comings and goings by ship. But he confirmed that he also took an interest in Cuala history. When he heard of their research, he told them there were at least three people they should see. The first and nearest, he said, was a hermit-scholar named Seanán who lived only a few miles away along the coast to the south. After that, they should continue southwards to the house of the túath-king. There they would find two knowledgeable people, a poet called Muircheartach and a scholar by the name of Suibhne.
Outside by the shore, Muirchú came upon a familiar figure, a master-fisherman and coastal trader, Feardorcha, who had been a close friend of Muirchú's father. He was delighted to welcome Muirchú back.
"Of course I remember you," he said, "and your father too. He used to know by instinct where the best fishing was. He'd share his knowledge and we all benefited from it—he was one of us, in spite of his strange northern accent!"
Muirchú told him they wanted to visit places that had been important to Patrick in Brega, Ulaidh and beyond.
"We need to go by boat, leaving in a few days' time," he said. "We'd pay well, and I'd like to sail with someone I knew and could trust—like yourself. Would you be interested?"
Feardorcha asked a few questions—how many people? How much baggage? When did they expect to return?
When he had his answers—three; not much; four to six weeks—he named a reasonable price and agreed to take them, starting in two days' time. Pleased that the arrangement was made, Muirchú called Fionntán back with the ox-cart, and with all five aboard they headed south to visit the hermit Seanán.
Following the coast road, they arrived at a scattered cliff-top settlement and saw Seanán's small house as it had been described to them, inland a little and set in a grove of wind-blown oaks. As they drew near, they could hear voices from the house. Through the open door they saw the thin, white-haired hermit seated on a chair; he was speaking to two young boys who were looking at a tattered book open on a desk. Seanán called to them:
"Visitors are welcome, but please rest yourselves on the bench outside the door until this lesson is over."
Muirchú and Donnchadh sat in the sun to wait, while Fionntán and the twins went off to water the oxen and explore the area. Birdsong and the distant sound of the sea were soporific, but Muirchú had not forgotten their quest.
"Donnchadh," said the Master Scriptor, "let's rehearse the questions we need to ask here."
"First: where did Palladius land and why did his mission fail?
Second: where did Patrick land when he came on his mission? Was it here?
Third: the ship that Patrick escaped on, where did he go?
Fourth: is the story of Manntán true?
Fifth: anything else relevant that Seanán may know, either new to us or already known, and thus confirming the accuracy of his knowledge."
"Very good," said Muirchú. They fell silent and listened to the voices from inside the house. Seanán was giving a Scripture lesson. He would refer each pupil in turn to a particular verse of the Gospels and have him read it, gently correcting him as necessary. Then he would explain and comment on the verse. Muirchú listened, impressed. The hermit was deftly applying the Gospel message to the situations his pupils might meet in their daily lives. Soon the lesson ended. As the boys came out, they stopped to bow politely to the clerics before hurrying away. Seanán invited his visitors to enter.
Muirchú introduced himself and Donnchadh as seekers of information about Patrick and Palladius. He paused when he noticed the hermit was looking not at them, but between them. Then he saw the milky eyes and realised Seanán was blind.
"You are surprised," said the hermit, smiling. "Many people are, but when the Lord closes one door he opens another. I'm gifted with a keen memory, and I keep it exercised. Both my grandfathers had this ability too, and they passed on many traditions to me—separately, because unfortunately they didn't get on very well with each other! So ask me your questions and I'll gladly tell you what I can."
He listened carefully to what Muirchú had to say, then gave his answers.
"First, about Palladius. Both my grandfathers said he landed near here, at Inbhear nDea. He hadn't come with a specific mission to convert. The Pope, it appeared, had sent him to minister to the few Christians who were already in the region—an ancestor of mine was one. Palladius travelled around Leinster and founded a few churches, but he met a lot of opposition from druids and kings. They thought Christianity would cause difficulties with their slaves—and it often did. And of course the druids felt threatened by a new religion. The poets didn't like the idea of turning the other cheek either; it didn't lend itself to rousing epics. One of my grandfathers had been told that Palladius was an elderly man, not very forceful in character and in delicate health. My other grandfather hadn't heard that, but merely that Palladius was opposed and even attacked so that he got discouraged. Anyway, they both said he went back to Britain within twelve months and died there shortly after arriving, in the year before Patrick came."
"Your second question was about Patrick's arrival. I regard it as definite that he landed here at Inbhear nDea; neither of my grandfathers was in any doubt about that. He only stayed a few days, but during that time he talked to my ancestor, among other people. Then he set off northwards along the coast in his ship with the group of companions who had accompanied him from Britain. Now here's where my grandfathers differed; one had heard only that Patrick went to Inbhear Colptha in Brega on his way to Tara. But the other said he had been told more: that Patrick's plan was to go first to the north, to Slemish where he had been a slave, before going to Brega. This was so that he could compensate his previous master for the loss of his services and also to convert him if possible. To me that has the ring of truth because Patrick was known to be very punctilious about paying his way, so as to be in debt to no one; and he was also completely single-minded about spreading the good news of salvation."
"You ask where Patrick went when he escaped on the ship crewed by pagans. Now there I really can't help you. Nobody takes much notice of a poor young man finding a last-minute passage on a ship, not unless someone is pursuing him. And we know of no pursuit in Patrick's case. Neither do we know of anything he might have told my ancestor about the ship's destination. But as you know, most ships would be going to Britain. Also Patrick tells us in the Confessio—which I read long ago, before I lost my sight—that the voice he heard when he was a slave said he would be going to his homeland, and further on in the Confessio he speaks of Britain as his homeland. I don't know how he and his shipmates could have spent three days crossing to Britain and then travelled through a deserted area for twenty-eight days—perhaps they were delayed and blown off course by a storm and landed in some very remote region where they wandered around lost. But those are really only guesses."
"We thank you for them all the same, Father Seanán," said Muirchú. "Donnchadh, you are noting these points?"
"I certainly am, Father."
Donnchadh had indeed been scribbling away rapidly in his tiniest script, having decided that words on tablets were more reliable than the cupboards of the memory house.
"There are a few blank tablets here if you need them, my son," the hermit said kindly, turning his blind gaze towards Donnchadh.
"Now," he went on, "you had a question about Manntán. There is a church dedicated to him, and probably founded by him, some distance south of here. My grandfathers knew 'Manntán' was a nickname, though they didn't seem to know his real name. They both said he was one of those who came with Patrick, that he was involved in a row with some druids and a mob they had collected, and that he then went off with Patrick but returned years later and founded that church. Where they differed was about how he lost his teeth. One said he heard someone knocked them out with a stone during the brawl here. The other grandfather said no stones were thrown during the row and Manntán was probably gap-toothed already when he arrived. Frankly, I don't know what the truth of it is."
Muirchú made a mental note that the Manntán story was something that could be left out of his Life of Patrick: there was nothing particularly uplifting about it, and there was doubt about the central point. On the other hand the information about Palladius and Patrick had been very useful. His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two women from the settlement bringing food and drink for Seanán. They offered to supply the two visitors also, but Muirchú knew that these people were not well off and thought it best to decline. He and Donnchadh thanked the hermit again for his help and took their leave. The ox-cart and its crew were nearby. Fionntán had refilled their water-flasks from a stream; this with cheese and bread was their midday meal. Then they continued their journey southwards until they reached the túath-king's residence. This was a substantial round-house with outbuildings, protected by a high enclosing ditch. The gate-keeper admitted them at once. At the house they were met by the reachtaire, a corpulent, fussy man who made a great business of establishing their identity and the reason for their visit.
"No! No! Impossible to see the poet today!" he told them. "The king is away with the King of Leinster on a raid against the Déise, and Muircheartach is lying in a darkened house composing a victory poem for our king's return—he can't be disturbed today, and probably not tomorrow either!"
Donnchadh's enquiring mind suddenly got the better of him.
"But suppose the king is not victorious?" he asked.
The reachtaire smiled patronisingly.
"It would be too much to expect monks to understand about poetry, I suppose," he said. "If the king's victory were, let us say, less than complete, only the last two or three verses would need to be changed; they would then celebrate how the king, though let down by his allies, fought his way heroically through the enemy ranks and came home to the acclaim of his people."
"But if the king were killed?"
"That, too, would require a change only in the last few verses. They would recount how the king's severed head vowed vengeance on his enemies and how his son would avenge him."
"And how old is his son?"
"Three… but of course the king won't lose; why should he? He's never lost a battle before!"
"Has he ever been in a battle before?"
Muirchú decided to intervene before the reachtaire became too irritated to be helpful.
"Since Muircheartach is unavailable we would like, if possible, to speak with the scholar Suibhne?"
"Yes, yes, I'll see if that can be arranged," said the reachtaire, hurrying off and leaving them standing there. And there they stood for almost half an hour while servants bustled around, dogs were chased out and slaves swept the floor and laid down fresh rushes. Finally, the reachtaire reappeared.
"Well, well, he's a very busy man, the scholar—yes, yes, always working—but he'll see you now for a short time. Mind now, a short time!" And he led them through a passage to where Suibhne rose from his desk to greet them cordially. He was a serious-looking, youngish man with sharp features, his dark hair streaked with grey.
"We've been told your time is limited," said Muirchú, "so we'll try not to take up too much of it."
"Is that what the reachtaire told you? Well, it's nonsense; take as long as you need. That man's an idiot. First, tell me about yourselves."
Muirchú performed the introductions, explained that they were seeking information on Patrick and Palladius, and listed their specific questions.
"Yes," said Suibhne, "I see." Then he spent a silent moment collecting his thoughts.
"I'm sure you'll want to know the sources for my knowledge of those matters," he went on. "Any good researcher would. So I should explain that about a hundred and eighty years ago annals began to be kept in this territory. The túath-king of the time was an enthusiast for history and learning, it seems. He commissioned a set of annals from the monks of our local monastery. He told his ollamh—my long-ago predecessor—to keep him informed about the progress of the work. All sorts of events were recorded, including some from before the annals were begun—some guesswork there, I think! There were references to raids, wars, deaths of kings and abbots, plagues, comets, eclipses, even whales dying on beaches, everything the annalists down the years thought particularly notable. I'm keeping in touch with current work on the annals, of course. But three years ago there was a disaster. A novice knocked over a lamp and panicked, a fire started and the only two copies of the annals were burnt. So part of my work is helping the monks to reconstruct as much as we can from memory and from some rescued pieces of scorched vellum. That's my main source; but as a scholar I'm aware, too, of the more reliable traditions held by other scholars I have contacts with."
"What a noble task!" exclaimed Donnchadh, "reconstructing the facts of the past."
"Not as noble as you think, perhaps," said Suibhne, smiling; "rather humdrum, really. I've heard a good description of it from our bishop here, a very devout and intelligent man. He saw those facts as being like stone flags on the floor or the surface of roads—something to keep your feet clean and stop you sinking too deep into the mud of ignorance as you travel through life. But the work of those who write about the saints—as I assume you will be doing—is more significant, he said; it erects signposts pointing the way to eternal happiness, and with Holy Scripture lighting them up so that all can read them!"
"Very true and very illuminating, Suibhne," murmured Muirchú, "even if the writers of the saints' Lives may often be less worthy than the annalists. Donnchadh, please note what we've just been told."
"Already done, Father."
"Now, as to your questions," Suibhne resumed. "Palladius landed at Inbhear nDea and left again within the year. Why? Because of discouragement. Maybe illness contributed to discouraging him, we've no definite evidence on that. But the opposition he seems to have met would have been discouragement enough. It's likely, too, that he couldn't speak Irish, or only a few words, so he'd have had to preach through an interpreter—hard to do effectively. Patrick landed at Inbhear nDea also; he knew Irish well and had a mission to convert, not just to minister to the few Christians who were here already—he was full of zeal and totally confident that God would help him to do God's work. Patrick left very soon to sail north along the coast, and there's good evidence that he intended to go and see his old master in Dál nAraidhe before doubling back to Inbhear Colptha and Tara. Nobody knows where Patrick boarded the ship that carried him away from slavery—probably south of here if it really was two hundred miles from Slemish. There's no certainty either about where that ship went, but it's reasonable to believe it went to Britain. As for Manntán and the stone-throwing story, that's just a piece of unreliable folklore. There was a gap-toothed priest with that nickname in Patrick's time, but he could have lost his teeth anywhere! Those are the answers I can give you, and I wish you every success in your quest."
Clearly the interview had come to an end. Muirchú asked Suibhne if he thought they should stay on for a day to see Muircheartach the poet.
"I doubt he'll be available tomorrow either," the annalist told them. "He's been known to spend three days on a poem. Anyway, I don't think he could tell you any more than I have—though he might express it more poetically!"
On their way out, Muirchú and Donnchadh again met the reachtaire. He invited them, with a marked lack of enthusiasm, to stay the night—and seemed quite pleased when they declined.
The ox-cart awaited them outside the enclosure. As they walked towards it, Muirchú turned to his assistant.
"Donnchadh, did you think that conversation was useful?"
"Yes, Father Muirchú, although it told us little or nothing that we hadn't heard before. It was highly important because it was independent confirmation of what we heard from the hermit—and I'd say those are two highly reliable sources."
"Very good, Donnchadh, my own opinion exactly—you wouldn't like to take over my job, would you?"
"God forbid!" exclaimed Donnchadh, appalled.
"Only joking, son, only joking!"
Rejoining Fionntán, Oscar and Oisín, they retraced their route as far as the cliff-top settlement. By then it was almost dusk and a fine drizzle of rain had begun to fall. They decided to erect their leather tents and camp near the settlement for the night, buying some supplies from the local people. In the morning they resumed their journey towards Inbhear nDea. Oscar explained that at the harbour the day before he had got two offers of smoked fish in the quantities the abbot wanted. He had inspected the stores; both lots were of good quality. One was a low-priced offer but they would have to wait a week for the full quantity, while the second was a little dearer but would be ready the following day.
"Take the second one," Muirchú told him. "Abbot Aodh wouldn't want a long delay. What about the wine?"
Oscar produced two tiny flasks.
"I had these samples from the only merchant who has wine in stock at the moment," he said. "The one with the markings is a little below what I think is the usual price, the other one is half as dear again. I wouldn't know which is better."
Muirchú took the flasks and tasted wine from each. The wine from the marked flask he spat out at once. "That's really rough!" The second flask was a good deal better.
"Buy that unmarked one, Oscar, but only half the quantities we had in mind." He passed Oscar the rings and brooches he'd need for his purchases. Oisín, with Fionntán, would be the one to bring the merchandise back to Sleaty, Oscar explained. He himself—because he was the eldest and bravest, he said, winking at Donnchadh—would be the bodyguard travelling in the boat.
"Eldest by five minutes, maybe," said Oisín, laughing; "and would you care to step down so that we can test who's the bravest?"
"Enough of that, lads!" Muirchú intervened; but Donnchadh whispered to him that Oisín would really prefer to go back to Sleaty, because he had a girlfriend on the estate there.
It was well into the afternoon when the cart rattled and jolted into Inbhear nDea. There they found that Feardorcha, the boat-owner, needed the following day to complete his arrangements, but would be ready to leave at dawn on the day after. He would bring his son, Conn, already an experienced sailor, to assist him.
"I'm an experienced sailor too, you know," Muirchú told him, "even if I'm a little out of practice!"
"In your teen-age years you were, and I might even let you hold the tiller for a while. But you and Brother Donnchadh will be going off with young Oscar and leaving me to wait with the boat—I don't want to guard it on my own."
That night Feardorcha lodged Muirchú and Donnchadh at his home as well as providing feed for the oxen, while Fionntán and the twins slept in the tents. The next day they loaded the purchases for Sleaty and assembled supplies for the boat journey. Muirchú composed a message for Abbot Aodh summarising the results of their visit to Cuala; Donnchadh inscribed it on a tablet which he gave to Fionntán.
By mid-morning, Fionntán and Oisín were ready to start out on the return journey across the hills to Sleaty. Muirchú had some parting words for them.
"Be sure to tell our abbot that we're well and cheerful and about to undertake our sea-voyage—much as Patrick did, it seems! And tell him that, if he agrees, we'd like you to be back here waiting for us four weeks from today, and to wait another two weeks if necessary. If we're later than that, we'll find some other way of getting to Sleaty. In the hills keep watch in turn if you're camping out at night; the risk of bandits is low at this season, but it's best to be vigilant."
Then he gave them his blessing and he, Donnchadh and Oscar watched the ox-cart set off.
Feardorcha's vessel was not large, but it was roomier than most of the others in the harbour. It had been many years since Muirchú had last been on a boat. He stood still on the deck for a few moments after boarding, enjoying the movement of the sea and remembering his time with his father.
"My father and I were all up and down this coast," he told Feardorcha.
"And so was I," the boat-owner replied, "north well beyond Muirtheimhne and south nearly to the end of the Uí Chinnsealaigh lands—and recently too, so I know the shifting sandbanks as well as the landmarks and harbours."
He and Conn, a cheerful blond young man, hoisted the square grey sail and the boat moved towards the harbour mouth. Feardorcha took a small bronze ring from a pouch at his waist and threw it into the water. Muirchú noticed Conn blushing.
"What was that for, Feardorcha?" Muirchú asked.
"Well, I'm a good Christian, you know, but perhaps I'm a bit old-fashioned—when I'm starting out on a voyage I feel it's a time to keep everyone happy, so I give a little something to Manannán mac Lir."
"It would be more useful if you asked Patrick to intercede with God for a successful voyage—and you'd save a bronze ring!"
Out in the open sea there was a gentle swell. Small waves slapped the sides of the boat. Donnchadh and Oscar were sitting on the benches, already looking rather green.
"No, it won't be really rough," said Feardorcha, replying to a question from Oscar. "You'll soon get used to the movement of the boat. It's great sailing weather—sunshine and a steady breeze from the south."
Then he brought the prow around to head north, leaving Inbhear nDea behind.
Two days later, Fionntán and Oisín arrived back at Sleaty and were immediately summoned to the abbot's house. Their return journey had been uneventful for the most part, though Oisín had managed to spear a fox that ran across the road. He looked forward to giving the fur-skin to his girlfriend. But first Abbot Aodh had to hear about their visit to Cuala and read Muirchú's message.
"Of course you're both to go back to Inbhear nDea in four weeks' time," he confirmed. Meanwhile Brother Fionn had examined the fish and wine and pronounced both to be of good quality—"though much too expensive!" sniffed Father Treasurer. Finally, Fionntán and Oisín were released to go back to the estate, Fionntán to say goodbye to his uncle Feidhlim who was soon to leave for Ardbreccan, and Oisín to surprise a young lady with a—by now rather smelly—fox-skin.
The monastery's timeless routine continued. Abbot Aodh thought deeply about Muirchú's project and how best it could be handled. He studied Ultan's list of miracles with care. Shortly before the four weeks were up, he again dispatched the two young men with an ox-cart to Inbhear nDea.
"And you'd better stay there until they come—or until you know for sure that they're not coming," he told them, knowing that storms, pirates, outlaws or hostile clans could cause delays or worse. And in fact it was well over six weeks, almost autumn, when the gate-keeper sent a novice running to tell the abbot and the prior,
"Father Muirchú and Brother Donnchadh are in sight!"
The community gathered round to welcome the travellers. Muirchú and Donnchadh looked pale and tired. Oscar's right shoulder was bandaged and he had to be helped down from the ox-cart.
"Nothing fatal!" he assured the crowd. "Just a shallow slash from an outlaw's sword—and the outlaw's in a much worse state!"
Despite his protests, he was hurried off to the infirmary. Abbot Aodh was now getting about skilfully with his crutch. He sent Muirchú and Donnchadh off to rest until the following day, when they could tell him about their trip. By that time the abbot had decided that Prior Conchadh should also be present to hear their account. When they assembled in the library, Muirchú first remarked that their safe return had been a sign of God's favour for the project—"at Patrick's intercession, I hope," he added, "because, God knows, we're going to enough trouble for him!"
Then he launched into his account of the voyage.
"Not far from the Liffey mouth," he began, "there's an island named after Patrick. We decided to spend the first night there to find out why it was so named. There are only a few families living and farming there—it's quite a small island. But they have a tradition that Patrick did what we did—landed there on his way north. The islanders believed that Patrick had been heading directly north to the Ulaidh territory and beyond, rather than going to Brega first as we were doing. And that, Father Abbot, would confirm what we heard in Cuala. We spent only one night on the island and reached Inbhear Colptha at the Boyne mouth the next day. Fortunately Donnchadh and Oscar were over the worst of their sea-sickness by then, and I had persuaded Feardorcha and Conn to stop making jokes about it."
"There were a number of merchant ships there, as well as ships belonging to local kings, fishing boats, and one or two craft that we suspected of being pirate vessels. Feardorcha and Conn stayed on board guarding the boat, and very alert they were. The first thing I did was to enquire about the ollamh Scannlán who we'd heard about in Ardbreccan, the one Eochaidh called an stadaire, the stammerer. He had died some years before, I was told, but I got directions to where his son lived. The son was now an ollamh himself, a well-respected man of learning named Conall. His home was quite near the port, so I went there straight away with Donnchadh and Oscar. Conall received us hospitably—I was glad to find he hadn't inherited the stammer—and his wife gave us a fine meal. We wanted to hear what he knew of Patrick's Tara episode of course, but first we asked him about Cogitosus' mysterious note on 'Question of deer—Meath'. Well, Conall thought about that for a while, then he said he knew what it might be. It seems that at one point during Patrick's visit to Tara, King Laoghaire summoned the saint and his entourage to come to him from where they were camped. The king didn't mean this to be a friendly meeting—quite the opposite. He wanted them killed because of conflicts they'd had earlier. As he and his druids and guards awaited Patrick's approach, they somehow mistook the group of Christians for a herd of deer and lost the opportunity to attack them. This was regarded as a great sign from God. Conall speculated that a thick mist had drifted across the hillside, and also that King Laoghaire and his chief druid may both have been short-sighted. If so, that of course didn't make it any less a sign of the Lord's favour, since God works through nature. Anyway, Donnchadh and I were pleased that we had solved the mystery of the 'deer' reference.
"So then we asked Conall to tell us about the whole Tara episode. He gave us a much more detailed account than the one we have in Ultan's book. He seemed to have done more research since his father spoke to Ultan. Donnchadh has good notes of Conall's account which we'll give you to read, Father Abbot and Father Prior. I'll try to sum it up. Patrick reached Slane on Easter Saturday and lit the paschal fire there, in contravention of a temporary royal prohibition in honour of a pagan festival; King Laoghaire went to Slane to challenge Patrick; there was a conflict and a druid died; Patrick summoned darkness; the king's people fought among themselves; there was an earthquake; Laoghaire pretended to be ready to convert and called Patrick back to kill him, but mistook the Christians for deer; Patrick nevertheless came boldly to Tara the next day where only Dubhthach, with his young assistant Fiacc (later our patron here at Sleaty), rose to honour the saint; in a series of contests with the druids Patrick was victorious over fire and poison, and dispersed snow that the druids had caused; then Laoghaire ceased to oppose Patrick and converted, genuinely or not, through fear.
"That, roughly, was Conall's narrative, gleaned from a number of sources that he regarded as reliable. But he was quite open about some matters that still seemed doubtful. One of these was Laoghaire's conversion: some, including Conall's father, thought the king had instead made excuses for not converting. Conall himself thought that the reference to an earthquake might have been symbolic, and perhaps the snow also. Donnchadh, you had another question for Conall, do you remember?"
"Yes, Father Muirchú; I asked him wasn't it surprising there was a big pagan festival at Easter, when Samhain would have been a much more likely time? And Conall told me he thought the druids had hurriedly invented a ceremony, or revived an obsolete one, when they heard Patrick was coming. After all, they knew what a threat Christianity posed to them; they'd already been issuing dire warnings and prophecies about it. They might have had long notice of Patrick's arrival—perhaps from British sympathisers—because according to Conall it was quite a big festival, attended by nobles, craftsmen and fortune-tellers, as well as druids. Then again, we know that tradition can go astray in two hundred years; perhaps a hastily arranged festival was confused with a traditional one. But I suppose we'll never have any certainty about that question of the pagan festival."
"Thank you, Donnchadh," Muirchú resumed. He had taken the opportunity to clear his throat and drink some water.
"Before leaving Conall, we rather hesitantly mentioned the question of snakes. You'll recall that that was Cogitosus' other Brega note. Well, Conall just laughed and said no one took that seriously, except maybe as a tale for young children. If we liked we could ask a knowledgeable scéalaí about it; the one Ultan met—known as Béilbhinn, Sweetmouth—had died years before, but his successor and nephew lived in a settlement not too far to the west; he was a knowledgeable and sensible man, unlike his late uncle! As it happened, I stayed with Conall longer than I expected. I fell and twisted my ankle on leaving the house and had to be carried back in; couldn't walk for days. You know how it is from your own experience, Father Abbot—very frustrating!"
"A lot more so for me than for you," growled Aodh. "Two days is nothing! Get on with your story, and I'll have something to say about that Tara business when you're finished."
"So then," Muirchú continued, "I sent Donnchadh on ahead with Oscar to interview the present scéalaí, Lorcán by name. Explain how it went, Donnchadh."
"Yes, certainly. Father Abbot, Father Prior, Oscar and I hired horses and rode west for a couple of hours to reach Lorcán's settlement."
"You were pretty sore when you arrived, I'll bet," said Aodh, amused.
"Oscar wasn't, he often rides horses. But as for me, I hadn't done so for years and 'sore' hardly expresses it! I could hardly walk at first when I got down. Anyway, we found we had arrived at a very prosperous-looking riverside settlement: fat cattle grazing nearby, fish-traps and a water-mill in the river, strong protective rampart on the land side. Inside there was a fine house with a number of smaller dwellings round it. The big house was Lorcán's home, and he seemed glad to receive us. I saw he had a desk and writing materials, unlike most scéalaithe; wood-carving tools too, and some beautiful carvings he'd done himself. He was the head of the settlement, though still fairly young, and…"
"Would you ever get to the point, Donnchadh!" Conchadh intervened. "We don't need a coloured picture of this Lorcán—what did he tell you?"
"I'm almost there, Father Prior," Donnchadh replied calmly. "The wood-carving has some relevance because he gave us a present of a very expressive statuette of Patrick, which we have here for you. Also, Father Muirchú has told me that the character of the narrator often illuminates the narrative."
"That's my view, yes," said Muirchú.
"Right," Abbot Aodh intervened, "let's get on with it."
Donnchadh took up his account again.
"Lorcán was learned, versatile and precise. He was rich for his age too, which gave him leisure to pursue an interest in history in parallel with his activities as a story-teller. He spoke very frankly about his uncle and predecessor, the man known as Béilbhinn.
'My uncle had a mischievous character,' he said. 'He had extraordinary powers of persuasion—he'd fix his eyes on you and convince you of nearly anything. There was nothing he liked better than taking some misunderstood incident and making people believe it was a piece of history. That's what he did with the story you speak of, the story of Patrick and the snakes. Of course any sensible person would stop believing it after being free of Béilbhinn's influence for a while, as you tell me was the case with Bishop Ultan. No real scholar will ever take it seriously enough to write down; but an exciting tale like that could float around among the people for hundreds of years. Béilbhinn was very good, too, at persuading wealthy people to supply him with generous gifts. He hoped to raise his éiric honour-price and thus his social standing by becoming a brughaidh hosteller, but he died before he could do that. He used both his riches and his persuasive powers to convince me that I should succeed him as a scéalaí, though at the time I'd have preferred to be a warrior. He had no children, you see; never got a wife. I think women saw through him more easily than men! But I have to say, he was a kind person and a gifted story-teller in spite of his flaws.'
"We asked Lorcán about the Tara episode and he gave us an account that differed from Conall's only in some small details—names of druids, for instance, and exact cause of death of the druid who died (Lorcán said he fell or was thrown onto a rock). I asked whether he thought we should seek out further learned sources in Brega. His opinion was that no one in the area could tell us more than he and Conall had. So after thanking Lorcán, Oscar and I travelled back to Conall's house near Inbhear Colptha; for the last part of the journey I walked, leading the horse! We found that, by God's grace, Father Muirchú was recovering and the boat was safe. I wrote up my notes. Oscar took over guard duty on the boat for a while to allow Feardorcha and Conn time to enjoy some drinks and pleasant company ashore. The next day we sailed north."
"Thanks, Donnchadh," said Muirchú. "I'll take it from there. We set a north-east course towards the great inlet in the Ulaidh territory, the one with a very narrow mouth. It's almost like a little inland sea, and from the north end of it Bangor monastery is quite a short journey. We were lucky again to have a strong south-west wind behind us, though it was veering round a bit. I could see that Feardorcha was looking worried.
'Is it because the sky is darkening?' I asked him. It was only early afternoon, and we were about opposite Muirtheimhne.
'Not just that,' he said. 'It's bad to show the ill-omened left side of our boat to all the populated places to the west of us!'
That obviously couldn't be avoided, I told him; but Donnchadh and I then said prayers to avert any misfortune. The wind got stronger again towards the end of the day: there were some rainy squalls, and we were being tossed around a good deal. Donnchadh and Oscar were too busy bailing out water to feel sea-sick. Even the old sailors, such as myself, felt quite relieved when Feardorcha skilfully steered us into the great inlet where the waters were much calmer.
"We landed for the night at a small settlement near the shore and spoke to a few men of learning who lived in the vicinity. When we mentioned our interest in Patrick, they told us of some well-supported local traditions about him. The main one was that Patrick and his companions had also landed there and been befriended by a man named Díochú. This Díochú was a 'virtuous pagan' who was converted to Christianity and looked after their boat while they went further north. Then, when Patrick and his companions returned, they spent several days travelling around Díochú's territory, preaching and baptising. Donnchadh's notes have more detail on all this. In the morning we sailed—or rowed at times, because the wind had dropped—until we reached the northern end of the inlet. We left our boat there, well guarded by Feardorcha and Conn, while I pushed on to Bangor monastery with Donnchadh and Oscar.
"I think you, Father Abbot, have been to Bangor, but it was my first time seeing it. I found it very impressive in its learning, piety and material strength. Hospitable, too: my opposite number there, the Master Scriptor, arranged a guide and a horse-drawn cart for us to visit Slemish mountain and the areas around it. The guide was a quiet, competent monk who got us safely through the rather disturbed border country between Ulaidh and Dál nAraidhe on both the outward and return journeys. That those areas, and especially Slemish, were closely associated with Patrick was a certainty for everyone at Bangor and beyond. At Slemish a cross has been erected at the place where Patrick is said to have stopped on his return. There's also a mark in the rock that local people say is the footprint of Patrick's intimate, the angelic Victoricus. Many go there to pray, and it seems their prayers are often granted. After our visit there, and having made our enquiries, we returned to Bangor, and from there to our boat; it was safe and sound, thanks to the protection of God and Patrick—as well as Feardorcha's and Conn's vigilance, of course!"
"So that was your itinerary," said Aodh, "plus a bit of holy sight-seeing. Now, who did you talk to and what did you find out?"
"Here again I'm going to give you a summary as I did for the Tara episode. Donnchadh has detailed notes which we can leave with you. By the way, Donnchadh, your notes are all clear and legible, aren't they?"
"They certainly are, Father Muirchú!" said Donnchadh indignantly. "You saw me writing them up every night. I was putting my rough notes of the day in fully readable form—I might even say in elegant form, if modesty permitted!"
"Well you've won that battle against modesty anyway," said Prior Conchadh. "We'll be looking forward to reading those wonderful notes!"
"Alright, alright," said the abbot wearily. "Proceed, Muirchú."
"Very good, Father Abbot. You'll remember that three of Cogitosus' notes were for investigation up north: Patrick's owner, Patrick's possible return visit to him, and Patrick's death. We discussed these questions and more with several people. The three most important were the Master Scriptor at Bangor, a scholar/historian at the house of a túath-king in Ulaidh, and a scholarly breitheamh living near Slemish. There were few enough differences between their accounts, and those mostly on details. An interesting thing was that both of the first two I've mentioned had read the material on Patrick in the Armagh library—much of what they told us seemed to be based on that."
The abbot looked up sharply.
"Did they ask you why you weren't going to Armagh?"
"They did, Father Abbot."
"And what did you tell them?"
"I told them our abbot had given us strict instructions about the timing and itinerary of our—pilgrimage, I called it—and we had to obey, of course. And that was no lie!"
"No, Muirchú, I suppose not."
"Well, as to Patrick's owner: they all said he was a local king. I mentioned that Ultan's book had spoken of him as a druid—one of four druids, apparently—but our informants were rather vague about that. They all said the king's family was a druidic one and that there were several brothers; but was Patrick's owner a practising druid himself? They weren't sure. But his name was definitely Miliucc, and he was definitely a king. That brings us to the question of whether Patrick returned to Miliucc directly from Inbhear nDea."
Abbot Aodh stood up and announced that he was going to walk up and down the library because he was getting stiff.
"But I'm still listening," he said, "so go on with your story."
"All our informants," Muirchú continued, "agreed that Patrick had gone straight to Miliucc from Díochú's territory, his first landfall in Ulaidh. Those who had read the Armagh material thought he had already been in Tara and other places well before that, whereas the one who hadn't read it believed, as we do, that he had come directly from Inbhear nDea with only an overnight stop at the island named after him. The Master Scriptor at Bangor had an idea—one that had come up already in the Ultan-Tírechán discussions—that Patrick was eager to see Miliucc's children: Patrick may have taught them on the quiet, perhaps even converted them, while he was a slave. It ocurred to me to wonder, Father Abbot, whether, if the voices Patrick heard calling him were from silva virgulti instead of silva focluti (as Ultan saw in the Clonmacnoise copy of the Confessio), the voices could have been those of Miliucc's children. But none of our informants had any such idea; they only seemed to recognise the silva foclutireading, and assumed the wood was in Connacht."
"You'd better assume that too," Aodh intervened. "That other idea of yours is too speculative, I'd say."
"Our informants believed," Muirchú went on, "that the motive for the visit was what we'd heard in Cuala—to convert Miliucc, but also to compensate him financially for the loss of his slave years before, in line with custom and practice. In the event, Patrick didn't have that opportunity. When he approached Miliucc's house, he saw it was burning. The fire had been started by Miliucc himself and he had died—by suicide they thought—in the flames. He probably assumed the Christians would take revenge on him, seize his property, try to convert him forcibly—no one knows for sure."
Muirchú stopped as he noticed a whispered conversation starting up at the door of the library. Two strangers had entered. They were being discreetly ushered out by Brother Librarian who had been successfully effacing himself up to now. The strangers disappeared, and Aodh called
"What's that about?"
The Librarian hurried over.
"Two young scholars from Clonmacnoise who want to consult some of our books, Father Abbot," he said. "I sent them off to wait in the guest-house until you've finished here."
"We've an hour or two to go yet, I'd say," the abbot told him. Muirchú nodded agreement.
"Please go and tell them in the guest-house to give the visitors a good meal with ale, with the abbot's greetings, and I'll greet them in person later."
The Librarian went off to deliver this message, and Muirchú took up his narrative again.
"Now we come to Patrick's death. We heard—and noted down—quite a lot about this from our three main contacts. I'll give you the outline. Patrick was back in the north after years of missionary work in Leinster and Connacht. He fell ill there and knew—informed by an angel, we were told—that he would die soon. Knowing this, he arranged to be brought to Armagh. But another angelic message, from Victoricus via a burning bush, said he should go to Saul, not Armagh, to meet his end (of course those two places were in rival territories). So his bearers turned east. Donnchadh and I, discussing this afterwards, thought that the first as well as the second message might have been from Patrick's old friend Victoricus, the 'angel in human form' as it were. Anyway, the narrative went on to relate that Patrick died at Saul, in Ulaidh territory, after seeking, and no doubt obtaining, certain favours from God. Those included a promise that Patrick's 'pre-eminence' would be in Armagh (meaning that he and his successors would be its patrons), that on Judgement Day Patrick would judge the souls of all the Irish, and that divine mercy would be granted to Díochú's descendants. Then for a time the skies were unnaturally bright, and angels were heard chanting as they kept vigil around Patrick's body. After that the body was put into an ox-cart (following a third angelic message), and the oxen were turned loose to go where they would. They stopped at Downpatrick, which is Patrick's burial place. There were two attempts by the Uí Néill to seize the body by force. Both failed, one because of a flood between the rival armies, the other because the Uí Néill got the wrong body and subsequently lost it in a river."
"I must stop for a while, Father Abbot," he said. "I'm losing my voice. But first I must mention that in our spoken account to you, we've stuck closely to the Cogitosus points. We heard much else too, especially about the miracles and other events associated with Patrick in his travels around the country. Donnchadh has those on separate tablets."
Donnchadh produced them from his bag and passed them to Aodh, keeping them apart from his other tablets already on the table.
Now Prior Conchadh was tugging at the abbot's sleeve and whispering to him.
"Yes, yes, Conchadh," said Aodh. "I have other work to do today," he announced, "and I must also speak to those visitors from Clonmacnoise. And I'm going to need some time to read all those notes of yours, Brother Donnchadh. Muirchú, we'll assemble again at mid-day tomorrow, here in the library."
Rain rattled on the roof as they rose to go. At the door they looked out into a heavy downpour. Brother Librarian came with two leather cloaks which he gave to the abbot and the prior. He turned to Muirchú and Donnchadh.
"Sorry, Master Scriptor, I only have two."
"Quite alright, Brother," replied Muirchú philosophically. He and Donnchadh raised their hoods and plunged out into the rain, Muirchú to his own house, Donnchadh to the scriptorium.
"Thanks, Brother," called Aodh as he set out for the guest-house. "We'll send these back when the rain eases off."
The following morning, Muirchú said Mass shortly after dawn. Having breakfasted, he went over to the school. He hadn't taken a Latin class there for over six weeks—too long, he thought; they'll be forgetting what I taught them. But he was pleasantly surprised. The children had been expecting him. They stood as he came in and chanted joyfully, "Ave, Pater Muirchú!" They had kept up their Latin—another monk had given some lessons. The two Uí Bhairrche princesses were still ahead of the rest.
The British boy, Cynnin son of Custennin, was also doing well. Muirchú noticed that he was sitting beside the lone Saxon pupil with no sign of enmity between them. Also, the Cuala and Leinster boys were no longer clustered in their separate factions. The teachers, he thought, must have worked out a reconciliation after the regettable incident of the fighting choir. The children were eager to hear about his travels and he told them as much as time allowed. Looking at the twenty-five alert, intelligent children before him, he realised afresh what a worthwhile activity this school was—learning not only to understand Latin, but also to honour God, love his people, and respect his creation. This group, at least, would not add to the scars of cruelty and brutality that disfigured the world.
As soon as Muirchú left the school he paid a short visit to the scriptorium. There he found Donnchadh helping the young scribe Flann to make a sketch, later to be illuminated, of the Flight into Egypt.
"This is his third attempt, Father Muirchú," said Donnchadh, who was struggling to be patient. "In the first one St Joseph was wearing a sword, and in the second there were no haloes."
"Master Scriptor," said Flann plaintively, "wouldn't St Joseph need a sword for protection on a journey like that?"
"No, my son, he was a carpenter, not a warrior. He'd have had a staff."
"Well, I'm sure this sketch will be suitable."
Muirchú bent over the sketch. He pointed to one feature of it, then raised an eyebrow. Donnchadh looked too, then exploded.
"For God's sake, Flann! The ass doesn't get a halo!"
"If you're certain about that, I'll do it again without that halo," said Flann solemnly, "but I do hope you're not going to use any bad language, Brother Donnchadh, because I'd hate to be the cause of you getting a penance."
The other scribes grinned. Everyone knew the penance for bad language was two days on bread and water.
"It would take more than you to make me use bad language!"
"Calm down, everybody," Muirchú intervened. "Everything seems in order except that misplaced halo, Flann, so I'm sure your fourth sketch will satisfy Brother Donnchadh."
Muirchú left them and went outside. The rain had stopped. He walked up and down in the enclosure. The school and the scriptorium had been brief distractions from his task. In his mind he tried to put together the elements of an introduction for his Life of Patrick. By now he almost felt that he knew the saint personally, with his driving missionary zeal, his devotion to Holy Scripture, his tough honesty, his flashes of kindness and protectiveness towards his converts and others, his modesty about his personal qualities. As far as Muirchú knew, no one had done a full and coherent Life of the saint before, though several scholars had attempted it. His work was bound to attract criticism from various quarters, Kildare and the anti-Sleaty faction in Armagh foremost among them. Abbot Aodh himself might be dissatisfied. It would be rather like being in a boat on a rough sea with wind and waves slapping at you, he thought, remembering his recent experience. He must dedicate the work to his abbot, put it under God's protection, and admit that his own knowledge and research were less than perfect. These thoughts were still in his mind when he and Donnchadh returned to the library at mid-day and sat at the table facing Abbot Aodh and Prior Conchadh.
Aodh had Donnchadh's notes spread out before him.
"Brother Donnchadh, I find your notes excellent in content, order and legibility," he said. "I might even call them elegant," he added, with a twinkle in his eye. "Wouldn't you agree, Conchadh?"
"I suppose so, Father Abbot," said Conchadh grudgingly.
Donnchadh blushed red. Members of the Sleaty community were seldom known to praise each other. The abbot went on. "Muirchú, you now have more than enough material to write the Life of Patrick. Apart from the saint's own writings, you have the various episodes in Ultan's book, which I'm giving back to you now; it includes the information given to Ultan by that foreign scholar about Patrick's activities between his escape and his return. Then you have Donnchadh's very thorough notes of what you were told in Ardbreccan, Cuala, Brega and in the north, plus the information supplied by our British friend Custennin. And you've got rid of some bits of folklore that seem unfounded and not even uplifting. I'll tell you how I feel you could put all that to the best use. First, the Tara episode is central—the turning-point of Ireland's conversion. You need to heighten the drama and illuminate the fiery conflict between paganism and Christianity, ending in the victory of the cross. Make it really immediate and vivid to the reader—or the listener, because this will surely be read aloud. Screw up the tension, name the druids, use the deer episode. Remember, you are honouring Patrick, illuminating and illustrating, not just marking down a bald list of facts.
"Now, I've had a good look at the miracles and other episodes of Patrick's travels around Ireland, both in Donnchadh's notes and in Ultan's book. The choice of which to use I leave largely to you. But I saw one that could well be left out: the account of a man a hundred and twenty feet tall being brought back from the dead. These notions of gigantism are too closely associated with pagan legend, I believe. On the other hand you have several episodes that illustrate Patrick's virtues, and you should certainly use those. His rescue of a fawn from his followers who were going to kill it—that symbolises his kindness. Again, he simply says something like 'so be it' when someone gives him a valuable cauldron, and repeats 'so be it' when the donor changes his mind and takes it back; that's an example of his detachment from possessions. When he lit up the night to help a distressed charioteer find his straying horses, it showed the saint's helpfulness to others. I also saw a few episodes that could be used as a warning to wrongdoers. For instance, there is the death of the pirate and slaver Coroticus following his condemnation by Patrick—the business of Coroticus being turned into a fox could be let stand, I think, as a piece of illumination.
"Something I've mentioned before as a sort of diplomatic requirement—your work needs to provide support for Armagh's jurisdiction. The story of the repentant bandit Mac Cuill is useful for that purpose: it's Patrick who imposes on him the penance of being set adrift in a boat, leading eventually to Mac Cuill ending up as a bishop in the Isle of Man. The episode of Patrick going to die at Saul instead of Armagh is awkward, but it must already be in the Armagh Patrician material because your northern informants were basing themselves largely on that. You can't just leave it out—it seems too well supported—but you might counterbalance it by referring to Patrick as bishop of Ireland, and stressing his link with Armagh.
"Now a point that's very important to our monastery: be sure not to forget to mention our founder Fiacc's connection with Patrick during the Tara episode, and that we have his relics here at Sleaty. Also—I mentioned this before, but I stress it again now—use all the scriptural parallels you can find, for instance by comparing King Laoghaire and his druids to the pagan Babylonians."
Donnchadh spoke up.
"May I ask a question here, Father Abbot? I know those scriptural references are intended to honour Patrick, but don't they have another purpose too?"
"They do indeed, my son. What would you think it is?"
"I think it's to illustrate that God's action in the world isn't just a matter of once-off events, but that it's a continuing process. For instance the skies opened for Stephen, the first martyr, so that he saw heaven before he was stoned to death, and again, as we were told, for Patrick's disciple Benignus."
"Yes, Donnchadh, that is indeed the second reason."
"So, Muirchú," the abbot continued, "let me sum up my final advice to you: uplift, illuminate, honour the saint, help your community, support Armagh! I—and all of us—will be very appreciative if you can do all that. As to the timing, we're now well into autumn. I want you to start at once, and finish by Imbolc, St Brigit's day, or shortly after. I know that doesn't give you as long as you might like. But you'll get every support, including relief from liturgical requirements and other duties—you need only ask. Why the time-pressure? Well, partly because of some news I got yesterday. You saw those two visitors from Clonmacnoise? They told me that two monks of their community returned recently from a visit to Connacht where they met Bishop Tírechán. He's quite old now and will be retiring next summer. And here's the most interesting part. He has announced his intention of travelling to Armagh in the summer. There he will start writing his own Life of Patrick! It seems Tírechán is most concerned that some monasteries have been falling away from Armagh's jurisdiction. So he says that most of his account will be devoted to listing the foundations that Patrick or his disciples established, so as to copperfasten Armagh's claim on them—exactly the kind of travel-guide approach that Ultan so disliked long ago, as Abbot Eochaidh told you. Now, it's important to us here that your completed work is both earlier and better than Tírechán's. It'll be better alright—I'd say that's already clear—but earlier? You see, I'll be going to Armagh in the spring, by Bealtaine, May Day, at the latest. My purpose will be to surprise Abbot Séighín and the rest of them by laying on the table what will be the first complete, coherent and uplifting Life of their own patron saint—produced here at Sleaty by our gifted Master Scriptor! That will stop our Armagh opponents in their tracks; I'm quite looking forward to it. And now all that remains for me to say is beannacht Dé ar an obair! God bless the task!"
"I'll do my very best, Father Abbot," Muirchú replied, somewhat overcome.
"Excuse me, Father Abbot," Conchadh intervened, "we'll need at least two copies for the library here if you're bringing the original to Armagh."
"Very true, Conchadh. Muirchú, can you arrange for copies to be made in the scriptorium of each part as soon as it's finalised? The scribes' other work can be postponed as necessary."
"Certainly I can, Father Abbot."
The meeting was over. Muirchú and Donnchadh left the library, their heads full of the abbot's requirements.
Now Muirchú sat in the scriptorium, his head bowed, remembering all the events that had led him to this moment, the moment when he must begin to write. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up.
"Master Scriptor," Donnchadh whispered, "you are now probably the best qualified person in all Ireland to write Patrick's Life. We all know that, and we have complete confidence in you. But it's difficult for you to write in a crowded room like this. May I have the scribes move the desk to your own house?" Muirchú nodded. Ten minutes later the desk stood in his house, carefully positioned to take best advantage of the daylight. Donnchadh was arranging extra writing materials on a separate table.
"Ha!" he said suddenly, "a scriptural parallel!"
"You've thought of a new one?" Muirchú asked him.
"No, Father Muirchú, I'm looking at one!"
He pointed at the sky. There, arching over the monastery and its estate, hung a shimmering rainbow.
"God's covenant with Noah and with you!" Donnchadh exclaimed.
"But, Donnchadh, there's been no flood here."
"Ah, but the covenant with you is different: you give Patrick your best efforts, and God will see to it that your work stands the test of time!"
Muirchú looked at him. Was this just Donnchadh being helpful, or could it be that an angel, like Victoricus Buadhach, was speaking through him? Either way, he thought, it was encouraging. He took up his pen and began to write.
Quoniam quidem, mi domine Aido, multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem… "Considering, my Lord Aodh, that many have attempted to write this story coherently…"