A Solid World of Light

Holy Ireland

Patrick devoted the last thirty years of his life—from, roughly, his late forties to his late seventies—to his warrior children, that they might “seize the everlasting kingdoms” with all the energy and intensity they had lately devoted to killing and enslaving one another and seizing one another’s kingdoms. When he used that phrase in his open letter to the British Christians, he was echoing the mysterious saying of Jesus, which seems almost to have been uttered with the Irish in mind: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”* In the Gospel story, the passionate, the outsized, the out-of-control have a better shot at seizing heaven than the contained, the calculating, and those of whom this world approves. Patrick, indeed, seems to have been attracted to the same kinds of oddball, off-center personalities that attracted Jesus, and this attraction alone makes him unusual in the history of churchmen.

This thirty-year span of Patrick’s mission in the middle of the fifth century encompasses a period of change so rapid and extreme that Europe will never see its like again. By 461, the likely year of Patrick’s death, the Roman Empire is careening in chaos, barely fifteen years away from the death of the last western emperor. The accelerated change is, at this point, so dramatic we should not be surprised that the eyes of historians have been riveted on it or that they have failed to notice a transformation just as dramatic—and even more abrupt—taking place at the empire’s periphery. For as the Roman lands went from peace to chaos, the land of Ireland was rushing even more rapidly from chaos to peace.

How did Patrick do it? We have noted already his earthiness and warmth. But these are qualities that make for a lowering of hostility and suspicion; of themselves they do not gain converts among the strong-willed. We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage—his refusal to be afraid of them—would have impressed them immediately; and, as his mission lengthened into years and came to be seen clearly as a lifetime commitment, his steadfast loyalty and supernatural generosity must have moved them deeply. For he had transmuted their pagan virtues of loyalty, courage, and generosity into the Christian equivalents of faith, hope, and charity. But, though this singular display of virtue would have made friends, it would not necessarily have won converts—at least, not among a people as stubborn as the Irish.

Throughout the Roman world, Christianity had accompanied Romanization. Its spread through the empire cannot be understood apart from Romanization. Just as the subject peoples had wanted to be Roman, they came quickly to understand that they wanted to be Christian, too. From the fourth century on, instruction in Christianity could even serve as a shortcut to Romanization, as joining the Episcopalians was till recently a shortcut to respectability in America. Once the emperor had conferred on Christianity its position of privilege, most Romans had little difficulty in reading this sign of the times for what it was and grasping that their own best interest lay in church membership. Though it would be cynical and ahistorical to conclude that conversions to Christianity in late antiquity were made only for the sake of political advancement or social convenience, it would be naive to imagine that Christianity swept the empire only because of its evident spiritual superiority. Certainly, the Christians of the first three centuries, whose adherence to Christianity could easily prove their death warrant, were devout and extraordinary. But from the time of Constantine, the vast majority of Christian converts were fairly superficial people. Despite Augustine’s enormous influence on subsequent history, the bland, detached, calculating Ausonius was a far more typical Christian of the late empire than was the earnest bishop of Hippo.

The Roman Empire in the early fifth century

Patrick, unable to offer worldly improvement to prospective converts, had to find a way of connecting his message to their deepest concerns. It was a challenge no one had had to face since the days when Christianity was new and women and slaves had flocked to it as a way of life that raised their status and dignity as human beings. In order to rediscover the amazing connection that Patrick made between the Gospel story and Irish life, we need to delve deeper into the consciousness of the Irish people at this singular hinge in their history.

Their consciousness—and, maybe even more important, their subconscious. For in the dreams of a people, if we can read these aright, lie their most profound fears and their most exalted aspirations. We know something of Irish dreams, for we can piece together their mythology—their collective dream-story—from the oral tales of the pre-Christian period (such as the Tain) that were subsequently written down and from the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists. Since neither the tales nor the artifacts can offer us a whole mythology—the complete Irish dream cycle—we must read these materials as if they were the fragments of a great papyrus.

It would be understatement to assert that the Irish gods were not the friendliest of figures. Actually, there are few idols that we have retrieved from barrow or bog that would not give a child nightmares and an adult the willies. No smooth-skinned, well-proportioned Apollos and Aphrodites here. Archaeological finds at Celtic sites beyond Ireland serve only to underscore the monstrousness of the Celtic pantheon, as do the few appearances of gods in the Tain. When, for instance, the warriors of Connacht bivouac on their way to Cuailnge, the druid Dubthach chants a prophecy while they eat their evening meal. The vision that he conjures up, though deliberately obscure, is of an impending battle, one that will end with “man’s meat everywhere”—a phrase that can hardly have improved the digestion of the troops. As they sleep, the war goddess “Nemain assailed them. They had no peace that night, with their sleep broken by Dubthach’s brute outcry. Groups of them started up, and many of the army remained troubled until Medb came and calmed them.”

Medb is herself a kind of goddess. Her name is a cognate of the English word mead and may be found as a root in many Indo-European languages, meaning something like “she who intoxicates”—which was probably how she reduced the troops to slumber. Insensate drunkenness was the warrior’s customary prelude to sleep.

On the night before the last battle between Connacht and Ulster, a sinister shape-changing goddess called the Morrigan spoke “in the half light between the two camps,” describing in gory detail all the horrors of the morrow. That night two war goddesses, Nemain and Badb, “called out to the men of Ireland near the field at Gairech and Irgairech, and a hundred warriors died of fright. It was a bad night for them,” concludes the storyteller with compact understatement.

So, an obscure prophecy could banish sleep that only excessive drink could restore, and a dim flickering in the twilight or a cry in the night could kill a hundred men. Beneath the bravado of this warrior society, constantly brandishing its flesh-destroying weapons, rumbles a quaking fear so acute that it can kill. The conscious indifference to death that is a hallmark of all the heroes of the Tain masks a subconscious fear of death that no public rhetoric can erase.

Patrick held out to these warrior children, in his own person, a living alternative. It is possible to be brave—to expect “every day … to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved—whatever may come my way”—and yet be a man of peace and at peace, a man without sword or desire to harm, a man in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away. He was “not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.” Patrick’s peace was no sham: it issued from his person like a fragrance. And in a damp land where people lived and slept in close proximity, everyone would have known sooner or later if Patrick’s sleep was brought on by the goddess of intoxication or broken by the goddesses of fear. Patrick slept soundly and soberly.

Just as there was in the Irish psyche a cleft between conscious bravery and unconscious fear, so we can also discern other conscious-subconscious dualities that give us excellent clues to the true temper of this race of seemingly carefree warriors. In virtually all the Irish tales, for instance, we come upon the Celtic phenomenon of shape-shifting, an effect that the Irish seem to have taken for granted as we take for granted molecular structures: this was simply the way the world was. Shape-shifting was the ability of a being to turn itself into something else, and it went far beyond the metamorphosis of the warp-spasm. We have already seen a splendid example of shape-shifting in Amhairghin’s foundation lyric: he is first an estuary, then a wave, then the pounding of the sea, then an ox,then a hawk, and so on. And though a contemporary reader might take all this as metaphor, the Irish believed that gods, druids, poets, and others in touch with the magical world could be literal shape-shifters. In The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal, to the Land of the Living, the wizard Tuan Mac Cairill, celebrates his protean life:

A hawk to-day, a boar yesterday,
Wonderful instability! …

Among herds of boars I was,
Though to-day I am among bird-flocks;
I know what will come of it:
I shall still be in another shape!

But however wonderful this instability may have seemed to the conscious Irish imagination, it had its dark side as well, for it suggested subconsciously that reality had no predictable pattern, but was arbitrary and insubstantial. There is within this worldview a terrifying personal implication: that I myself have no fixed identity but am, like the rest of reality, essentially fluid—essentially inessential. Of course, the Irish had no way of expressing such ideas directly. One needs a sense of identity before one can complain of its absence. But this wonderful and terrifying instability haunts virtually every sentence of the ancient literature.

Allied to their experience of reality’s fluidity is their understanding that the world is full of hidden traps, as if it were a forest filled with concealed pitfalls by which hunter-gods catch small animals. In another story, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, the hero Conaire, whose bird-man father was a shape-shifter, is warned against hunting birds by a bird who changes into a man and announces that he is “Nemglan, king of your father’s birds.” Nemglan tells Conaire that he must go to Tara, for he is to be high king, but that during his reign

birds shall be privileged, and this shall be your observance always: you shall not pass Tara on your right hand and Bregia on your left; you shall not hunt the crooked beasts of Cerna; and you shall not stay abroad from Tara for nine nights; and you shall not spend the night in a house from which firelight is visible outside after sunset and into which one can see from outside; and three red-haired men shall not go before you into a red-haired man’s house; and plunder shall not be taken during your reign; the visit of one woman shall not come into your house after sunset; and you shall not settle a quarrel between two of your subjects.

In short, Conaire’s reign is doomed, for there is no way he can successfully respect all these taboos. Indeed, hostile powers trigger the violation of each taboo in turn, thus precipitating Conaire’s inevitable downfall.

There is not a hero in ancient Irish literature who does not fall prey to some taboo or another—geis, the Irish called it (gessa in the plural), a word that may perhaps be translated as “observance.” We are familiar with such Iron Age observances from the land mines and booby traps of the Greek myths: Achilles’s heel, his one bit of vulnerability, is what proves fatal to him; Oedipus’s prophesied fate—that he will murder his father and sleep with his mother—turns out to be inescapable, though he does everything he can to avoid it. But in the Irish stories the traps seem to lie hidden at every crossroads, and trickster-gods lurk behind each tree. In such a world, where no one can hope to avoid disaster for long, the boy Cuchulainn’s choice of a short life and eternal fame makes perfect sense. Once more, the cold-eyed truth in the face of the Dying Gaul appears before us.

Patrick could put himself—imaginatively—in the position of the Irish. To him, no less than to them, the world is full of magic. One can invoke the elements—the lights of heaven, the waves of the sea, the birds and the animals—and these will come to one’s aid, as in the incantation of the “Breastplate.” The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind—and, therefore, does not preclude suffering—all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind’s good, teaching, succoring, and saving.

Patrick could speak convincingly of these things. He could assure you that all suffering, however dull and desperate, would come to its conclusion and would show itself to have been worthwhile. He could insist that, in the end, you too would hear the words “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home. Look, your ship is ready.” He could speak believably of the superabundance of a God who in response to humble prayer feeds his lost and wandering people with heavenly manna—and a crew of lost and starving sailors with a herd of very earthly pigs. For Patrick, as for the nineteenth-century mystical poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was also deeply influenced by Celtic sensibility,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil—

just as do the cunning little birds and charmingly complicated animals of Celtic metalwork.

The key to Patrick’s confidence—and it is the sort of ringing, rock-solid confidence on which a civilization may be built, an unmuffled confidence not heard since the Golden Ages of Greece and Rome—is in his reliance on “the Creator of Creation,” the phrase with which the “Breastplate” opens and closes. Our Father in heaven, having created all things, even things that have since become bent or gone bad, will deliver us, his children, from all evil. But our Father is not only in faraway heaven, but lives among us. For he created everything by his Word, which was with him in the beginning, which became flesh in the human Jesus, and flames out in all his creatures:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread. Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out. We have only to be quiet and listen, as Patrick learned to do during the silence of his “novitiate” as a shepherd on the slopes of Sliabh Mis.

This sense of the world as holy, as the Book of God—as a healing mystery, fraught with divine messages—could never have risen out of Greco-Roman civilization, threaded with the profound pessimism of the ancients and their Platonic suspicion of the body as unholy and the world as devoid of meaning. Even Augustine, whose synthesis of pagan and Christian attitudes is the most remarkable philosophical creation of Christianity’s first five centuries, can come nowhere near Patrick’s originality. True, Augustine’s theories on sin will haunt the Middle Ages, and cast their shadows still. But from the celebratory spirit of the “Breastplate” will spring the characteristic art and poetry of the western world—the immense symbolic power of the medieval liturgy, the smiling angels of Gothic art, the laughable demons, the sweetness of poets like Francis of Assisi (whose “Canticle of the Sun” could almost be mistaken for a Celtic poem), Dante (who spoke of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”), and Chaucer (whose “Creatour of every creature” is almost a line from the “Breastplate”). Nor did this spirit die at the close of the Middle Ages. For it remains a continuing tradition in British and Irish poetry that takes us down to the present—from the gentle visions of George Herbert and Thomas Traherne to the excited ecstasies of Gerard Manley Hopkins, from the mysticism of Joseph Plunkett—who wrote “I See His Blood upon the Rose” not in the fifth century but in the twentieth*—to the Christian druidism of Seamus Heaney, who to this day is carving out poems that might stop even Derdriu in her tracks.

In this tradition, there is a trust in the objects of sensory perception, which are seen as signposts from God. But there is also a sensuous reveling in the splendors of the created world, which would have made Roman Christians exceedingly uncomfortable. I think it likely that, had Augustine ever read the “Breastplate,” he would have sniffed heresy. Even in Patrick’s Confession and Letter, which no one disputes came from his pen, there are emphases and omissions that Augustine would have found unnerving. Where, in Patrick’s own story, is there any negative treatment of the temptations of the flesh? Aside from the ambiguous incident in which the sailors offer their nipples to be sucked, the only passages that come anywhere near the subject of sex are Patrick’s notice of the “most beautiful” Irish princess, whom he baptizes, and his horror that his female converts have been made into sex slaves by the soldiers of Coroticus. Patrick is as silent about sex as are the Gospels.

It may simply be that Patrick, in his zeal to baptize—to wash clean—Irish imagination, was not as sex-obsessed as his continental brethren and felt little need to stress these matters. Before his mission, Irish sexual arrangements were relatively improvisational. Trial “marriages” of one year, multiple partners, and homosexual relations among warriors on campaign were all more or less the order of the day. Despite Patrick’s great success in changing the warrior mores of the Irish tribes, their sexual mores altered little. Even the monasteries he established were not especially notable for their rigid devotion to the rule of chastity; and as late as the end of the twelfth century Geraldus Cambrensis reports that the kings of Clan Conaill continue to be inaugurated in the high style of their ancestors—by public copulation with a white mare.

None of this should be surprising if we assume that there were characteristic aspects of Irish culture that Patrick had taken to heart and on which he chose to build his new Christianity. These aspects would have included Irish courage, which he admired greatly, but even more would he have been impressed by the natural mysticism of the Irish, which already told them that the world was holy—all the world, not just parts of it. It was on this sturdy insight that Patrick choreographed the sacred dance of Irish sacramental life, a sacramentality not limited to the symbolic actions of the church’s liturgy but open to the whole created universe. All the world was holy, and so was all the body.

Patrick’s adventures in the Irish dreamworld must have reached their crucial moment when he faced the phenomenon of human sacrifice. All early peoples sacrificed human beings. One has only to remember Agamemnon’s sacrifice to angry Artemis of the most beautiful thing he possessed, his daughter Iphigenia. But this was a story of the Greek Iron Age, no more present to the Romanized world into which Patrick was born than public executions are to ours. For us, it is a strain to find any surviving elements of sacrifice—cut flowers, Christmas trees, vigil lights, and the Mass may be the last vestiges—but in the Roman world animal sacrifices were still offered. These were scarcely different from the animal sacrifices we read of in the Jewish scriptures, sacrifices that were still being offered in the temple as Jesus was led to Calvary and the blood of newborn lambs darkened the river that flowed through Jerusalem.

It seems that at some point in the development of every culture, human sacrifice becomes unthinkable, and animals are from then on substituted for human victims. The story of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis may constitute symbolically just such a turning point in the history of the Jews—when Abraham’s God tells him it is no longer required that he sacrifice his only son, but may substitute a ram instead. At all events, the Irish had not reached this point and were still sacrificing human beings to their gods when Patrick began his mission. They sacrificed prisoners of war to the war gods and newborns to the harvest gods. Believing that the human head was the seat of the soul, they displayed proudly the heads of their enemies in their temples and on their palisades; they even hung them from their belts as ornaments, used them as footballs in victory celebrations, and were fond of employing skull tops as ceremonial drinking bowls. They also sculpted heads—both shrunken, decapitated heads and overbearing, impassive godheads—and a favorite motif was the head of a tri-faced god, for three was their magical number, and gods and goddesses often manifested themselves as three.

Why do human beings do these things? The psychological mechanism is not far to find, since there is probably not a reader—even the most convinced atheist—who has not offered from time to time an old-fashioned quid pro quo prayer: if you let me pass this exam, I will return to church; if you make sure my wife doesn’t learn of my infidelity, I will give my next bonus to charity. The theology—the view of god—that lies behind these petitions is of an arbitrary trickster, a bad parent who can be coaxed, flattered, and manipulated. If belief in such a god is strong and primitive enough, it is easy to see how it can lead to human sacrifice: Here, take him, not me! The impassive godhead demands someone’s blood. Let it not be mine! I am not sure that some of our more inexplicable murders—the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee, the small child killed by two other children in Liverpool—are not explained best by this prehistoric impulse. Certainly, the most appalling of war crimes, such as those being perpetrated in the bloody tragedies of Bosnia and Rwanda, are human responses to this subterranean prompting. And if we study the faces of the Celtic gods, we can have no doubt that only blood could satisfy most of them.

But we delude ourselves about the complex history of religious feeling if we think that all sacrifice—human included—can be reduced to this base motive. Throughout history, different civilizations have thought very different thoughts—for example, the Greeks thought the cosmos was eternal, whereas we suspect it had a beginning; the Jewish patriarchs never thought of a soul, which was central to Greek thought. But unlike human thought, human feeling—like the human body—has not changed at all. Whatever the Irish felt, we feel. For all the terror of the Celtic cosmos and the bloodthirstiness of the Celtic gods, no human society could hold together for long if it understood sacrifice only along the lines of the savage tribe in King Kong, offering terrified beauties to the Beast.

This caricature is belied by the most direct evidence of human sacrifice that we have found to date—the prehistoric corpses of Tolland Man, Grauballe Man, and Borremose Man, dug out of Danish bogs in the 1950s, and an even more intriguing discovery recently made in a remote English bog. The Danish bodies may be Celtic; the English one—a man discovered in 1984 and dug out of the peat of Lindow Moss, an ancient bog south of Manchester—certainly is, and may even be Irish. These bodies all owe their amazing state of preservation to the chemical properties of the peat, which has leatherized the skin but left it otherwise intact, so that we can see every physical detail—even smile lines around the eyes—just as we could have in life. All the bodies were sacrificed, and all the faces are at peace. In other words, all went willingly, one might almost say happily, to their sacrificial deaths—like Isaac, trusting to the last in the goodness of the sacrificing priest and, even more important, in the goodness of the father god.

Like religion in our own day, the Irish religious impulse must have manifested itself in two very different ways. The basely religious would have been glad to sacrifice others to gods they conceived of as ravening horrors, projections of their own psyches and their own twisted lives. These we still find today among religious types who rigidly put principle before people, whose icons (within Christianity) are likely to be bland, breastless madonnas or glassy-eyed Nordic Christs. At the other pole were people like Lindow Man, who willingly died for his people. Between these poles, I’d say, stood the vast majority of Irish votaries, sometimes giving in to their baser religious instincts, sometimes inspired by the nobler ideals of their religion.

That Lindow Man was a sacrifice there can be little doubt. His hands are uncalloused, his nails beautifully manicured. Thus, he was an aristocrat, though, strangely, he cannot have been a warrior, for his body shows no evidence of the scars of battle. Indeed, leaving aside for the moment the marks of his elaborate execution, he appears to be without blemish of any kind. According to British archaeologists Anne Ross and Don Robins, he was a druid prince who had come from Ireland about A.D. 60, as the Romans were asserting their control and expunging druidism. He offered himself as a sacrifice to the gods for the defeat of the Romans. Ross and Robins even think they know his name—Lovernius, the Fox-Man. Certainly, he had dark red hair and a full beard (like a druid, unlike a bushily mustached warrior) and wore around his left forearm a circlet of fox fur, the naked man’s only adornment.

The digestive tracts of all these sacrificial victims have been analyzed to see what their last meal might tell us about their circumstances. In the Danish cases, each last meal was a disgusting potpourri, grains mixed with many other (only marginally edible) plants—a stomach-turning, prehistoric granola! The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this evidence is that the people of each of the Danish victims, enduring famine and close to starvation, were diluting their dwindling cereal supply with anything that would make it last longer. It is easy to understand a victim’s willingness to offer his life to the earth goddess so that she might deign to feed his family.

But Irish Lovernius is another matter. His esophagus was found to contain only some bits of blackened hearthcake, a rather odd last meal. Ross and Robins rightly remind us that a scorched or blackened piece of unleavened bread has long served in Celtic communities as a sign of victimhood. As late as this century, boys in remote Scottish hamlets would meet on the moors on May 1, the ancient feast of Beltaine, kindle a bonfire, and divide a cake in equal pieces corresponding to the number of boys. “They daubed charcoal over one of these until it was perfectly black, and placed all the pieces in a hat. Everyone was blindfolded, and drew out a portion. Whoever drew the black piece was the devoted person, and was figuratively sacrificed to Baal [the god of the feast of Beltaine]. He had to leap three times through the flames.” One can imagine that once upon a time the sacrifice was hardly figurative.

The most conclusive evidence that the bogmen were sacrificed is the story their bodies tell of the manner of their deaths. Each submitted himself naked to an elaborate, ritualized Triple Death. In the case of Lindow Man, for instance, his skull was flattened by three blows of an ax, his throat garroted by a thrice-knotted sinew cord, his blood emptied quickly through the precise slitting of his jugular. Here is the ancient victim of sacrifice, the offering made out of deep human need. Unblemished, raised to die, possibly firstborn, set aside, gift to the god, food of the god, balm for the people, purification, reparation for all—for sins known and unknown, intended and inadvertent. Behold god’s lamb, behold him who takes away the sins of all.

Patrick declared that such sacrifices were no longer needed. Christ had died once for all. I’d bet he quoted Paul, his model, who in his letter to the church at Philippi recited this mysterious poem about sacrifice, the oldest Christian hymn of which we have record:

Though he possessed divine estate
He was not jealous to retain
Equality with God.
He cast off his inheritance,

He took the nature of a slave
And walked as Man among men.

He emptied himself to the last
And was obedient to death—
To death upon a cross.

And, therefore, God has raised him up
And God has given him the Name-

That at the name of Jesus all
In heaven high shall bow the knee
And all the earth and depths

And every tongue of men proclaim
That Jesus Christ is LORD—
To the glory of the Father.

Yes, the Irish would have said, here is a story that answers our deepest needs—and answers them in a way so good that we could never even have dared dream of it. We can put away our knives and abandon our altars. These are no longer required. The God of the Three Faces has given us his own Son, and we are washed clean in the blood of this lamb. God does not hate us; he loves us. Greater love than this no man has than that he should lay down his life for his friends. That is what God’s Word, made flesh, did for us. From now on, we are all sacrifices—but without the shedding of blood. It is our lives, not our deaths, that this God wants. But we are to be sacrifices, for Paul adds to the hymn this advice to all: “Let this [same] mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

The Celts have left us two cups—perhaps the two most famous cups in all of history—which beautifully reveal the story of the transformation of Irish imagination from its fearful and unstable pagan origins to its baptized peace. The first cup is the Gundestrup Cauldron, found in a Danish swamp where it was thrown as a votary offering by a Celtic devotee a century or two before Christ. We know it was intended as an offering because it was newly forged and, in accordance with Celtic custom, broken into pieces before it was offered: it was never intended for normal, human use. (All sacrifices, even the communion bread, must be set aside and somehow broken, consumed, or transformed in order to be authentic. This is part of the “logic” of sacrifice.) The Cauldron is a dazzling feat of silversmithing, its panels alive with gods and warriors. Several panels refer to sacrifice, both animal and human. One panel depicts a gigantic cook-god who drops squirming humans into a vat as we might lobsters. Another, though, depicts a horned god—a figure often referred to as Cernunnos, a god found on coins from India to the British Isles—a lord of animals, surrounded by goat, deer, snake, dolphin, and other members of the animal kingdom, as well as by trefoils of plants and flowers. Against the violence of the warriors and the carnivorous, cannibal gods is set this prehistoric Saint Francis, ruling his peaceable kingdom. The image serves almost as a bridge between the angry Celtic gods, demanding sacrifice, and the Christian God, who offers himself.

The other cup is the Ardagh Chalice, found in a Limerick field and dating to the end of the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century—the same period in which the “Breastplate” reached its final form. It is the most extraordinary metalwork of the early Middle Ages, both barbaric and refined, solid and airy, bold and restrained. Like the Cauldron, it was forged for ritual, but it makes a happier statement about sacrifice, for the God to whom it is dedicated no longer demands that we nourish him and thus become one with his godhead. The transaction has been reversed: he offers himself to us as heavenly nourishment. In this new “economy,” we drink the Blood of God, and all become one by partaking of the one cup, the one destiny. The silver Cauldron was made in thanksgiving for some great favor: it was not meant to be seen by human eyes but was made for the sole delight of the swamp god. The silver Chalice, on the other hand, was meant to delight and refresh the humans who drained its mystical contents. Its elegant balance, its delicate gold filigree interlacings, its blue and ruby enamels beckoned from afar. As the communicant approached the Chalice, he could admire more fully its subtle workmanship; and as he lifted it to his lips, he would be startled to see, debossed in a band beneath the handles, the almost invisible names of the Twelve Apostles. As he drank the wine—at the very moment of communion—he would briefly upturn the base toward heaven and there would flash skyward the Chalice’s most thrilling aspect: the intricate underside of its base, meant to be seen by God alone. This secret pleasure connects the Chalice to the Cauldron and to all the pagan ancestors of the Irish. But the pagan act of pleasuring the god is now absorbed completely into the New Imagination and to all that will follow. The smith is still a “man of art,” a poet or druid, but he is no longer one of those whose evil craft and power Patrick had to protect himself against:

Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

For God’s pleasure and man’s are reunited, and earth is shot through with flashes of heaven, and the Chalice has become the druidic Christian smith’s thanksgiving, his deo gratias.

And that is how the Irish became Christians.

* The phrase “the violent bear it away” fascinated the twentieth-century Irish-American storyteller Flannery O’Connor, who used it as the title of one of her novels. O’Connor’s surname connects her to an Irish royal family descended from Conchobor (pronounced “Connor”), the prehistoric king of Ulster who was foster rather to Cuchulainn and “husband” of the unwilling Derdriu. In the western world, the antiquity of Irish lineages is exceeded only by that of the Jews.

* Plunkett, a visionary poet from a noble Irish house and lateral descendant of the Elizabethan martyr and archbishop of Armagh Oliver Plunkett, was executed by the British in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising. A very different poet, Edith Sitwell, wrote a comparable poem later in the century, “Still Falls the Rain,” in which she imagines the incessant rain during an air raid in 1940 as the mercy of Christ.

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