There is a late medieval Irish book called Tales of the Elders of Ireland which was written somewhere around the thirteenth century. It is a beautifully crafted story which seeks to give an authoritative explanation of how the old pagan ways had been baptised and brought into the Christian fold. It tells the story of Caílte, one of the last of the Fianna (a legendary band of Irish heroes from pre-Christian times) and Patrick, the apostle to the Irish. The two men learn from one another, sing the songs of their respective traditions, and travel on a journey together reciting the tales of the landscape. There is a similar story about Patrick and Oisin which you can read more about HERE.
The story begins when Caílte, with his nine friends, finds his way to Patrick who was “chanting the service of the Lord and praising the creator” in his monastery. His monastery, so the story tells us, was built on the site of the fortress of the legendary leader of the Fianna, Finn MacCumhail. When Caílte and his men arrived, Patrick sprinkled them with holy water to bless them and many demons which had been around these men for their whole lives were cast away. It is likely that these demons were understood as a symbol of the violence of the pagan heroes who, despite being virtuous in many other ways, took pride in their ability to slaughter their enemies.
Caílte and Patrick travelled all around Ireland and Caílte taught Patrick the old stories of the land, what heroic deeds had been done and what great losses had been felt. During this time, Patrick was visited by his two guardian angels who instructed him to have his poets write down all the stories which Caílte told them. They did this so that future generations (like us) could enjoy the tales of old and learn from them.
This interaction between Patrick and Caílte is not something which happened historically, but rather a literary device which is used to explain how so much of the pre-Christian past survived in the churches of Ireland. If Patrick himself, under the guidance of God’s messengers, was the one who instituted the writing down of the old stories, then it is acceptable for Christians to read them.
The first thing Patrick asks Caílte to do for him is to show him a natural spring in which he can baptise the people of Ireland. This is significant because the veneration of sacred wells is one of the things we see carried over from the pagan tradition into the Christian one. There are many sacred wells still being visited by pilgrims up until the present day. The fact that Patrick wanted to baptise people in the same sacred spring which Caílte had venerated before the arrival of Christianity, is a symbol of how pre-Christian culture could be baptised and understood in the light of Christ.
Caílte was happy to oblige Patrick and showed him a hidden spring only nine steps away from the monastery. It seems that this sacred lineage was right under their noses the whole time, hidden in plain sight. This holy well was filled with crystal clear water and it was lush with the green growth of watercress and brooklime. After revealing this hidden paradise to Patrick, Caílte recited the following poem in honour of the well.
O spring of Tráig Dá Ban Your watercress is lovely and bright Since no one has pruned you Your brooklime has grown lush There are trout in your rivers And wild pigs in your deep woods The deer on your rocks are good for hunting With their fawns, spotted and red Your trees are tall and straight There are many fish in your estuary Your arum is beautiful to behold My green forest stream It was from you that the Fían went out When Coinchenn the generous was killed When the Fían of Finn was murdered Above Maelglenn, in the morning It was from you that Fothad of feasting The sorrowful warrior who suffered Found in the east, a grave for himself When at the battle of Clárach he died Blaí arrived here where the spring begins She was the daughter of Derg the eloquent She arrived in overwhelming tears Because of the sorrowful battle of Confaite After both dogs and men were killed When the shining warriors were injured The lament of Garad could be heard Beside this spring all night
After Caílte recited his poem to the spring, they sat down to share a feast together. Patrick summoned his bishops, priests, and psalmodists to bless the food and join them. The inclusion of psalmodists is particularly relevant to our discussion here. When Caílte found Patrick, he was chanting the sacred words of the Christian faith in the form of the liturgy. The sacredness of poetry and chanting is one of the things which the traditions of Caílte and Patrick have in common. With every story Patrick’s poets wrote down, Caílte included a poem that goes along with it. After each poem was recited Patrick responded by saying, “May victory be yours Caílte, with my blessing.” Patrick blessed the sacred poetry of the old bards and this is a symbolic way for the author of the text to bless the unbroken chain of the Irish poetic tradition.
Poetry is something sacred no matter what time or place you find yourself in. It has the power to touch the human soul and shape the course of history. I have written a few articles exploring the Celtic poetic tradition which might interest you. All of the titles in the list below are clickable and will take you to previous articles. Or, you purchase a copy of Psalter of the Birds, which opens with this story, from our books page by clicking HERE.
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