[from W Ralph Hall Caine Isle of Man]
THE idea that Christianity was adopted in Man as early as the fifth century is based on evidence that would barely sustain one of our most improbable folk-tales.
Hardly less mythical are all the stories relating to St. Patrick, whose name is preserved on the island in many ways. Two churches are dedicated to his memory.
Then, there is the so-called cromlech, which may be an old tomb, but which popular imagination has linked to a great personality, and is always known as St. Patrick's Chair. From this central and elevated position, which will be found about a mile to the south from the old parish church of Marown, St. Patrick is supposed to have given the people of Man his last blessing on leaving the island.
Lonan and Rushen have been identified as names of disciples. By tradition and links such as these it has been gravely urged that Patrick must inevitably have been our first Bishop; that he visited our island on his way to Ireland ; that he extirpated from our midst all reptiles, fulfilling a like service to the Irish on his arrival in their midst; and that he left us in the spiritual charge of St. Germanus, who was another of his disciples.
There is no indubitable evidence that the patron saint of Ireland ever visited Man at all; but there is, none the less, much to show that his influence, if not direct and personal, was none the less close and intimate, and that when his name was given to that rocky headland, entirely surrounded by the sea, lying off Peel Hill, on which the Cathedral of Man was ultimately to be erected, it was given by the priests to some early sanctuary as a mark of profound veneration for the pious head of their Order.
Patrick's biography was not the work of a contemporary. It was compiled long after his death, when every incident of the preacher's career was enshrined in such a halo of sanctity and mystery that no hesitation was felt in attributing to him even supernatural powers. The conversion, for instance, of a wicked man named MacCoole, of Ulster, who figures in all Manx histories, was effected by Patrick, we are told, ' by means of a miracle.'
Then, we are informed that at Patrick's behest MacCoole went out on the sea in a coracle of one hide, leaving wind and tide to carry him whithersoever it was the Divine will he should be borne to serve and work.
MacCoole's presence in our midst seems to have brought us another visitor from Ireland, Brigit, destined in later years to take the vows and achieve distinguished rank in the religious life of her own country.
A woman never travels far without a reason, says the sage. What, then, was the object of Brigit's journey? She would be a young woman of twenty-three at the time of Patrick's death, and it is presumed she made her journey about that time. Was the inducement MacCoole the saint, or was it, womanlike, MacCoole the sinner?
All the record now left us is that Brigit came hither; that, whatever the original purpose of her journey, she fulfilled an intention that is deductively attributed to her by a chronicle written long after her death-that of taking the veil at the hands of MacCoole. Local tradition attributes to her the foundation of a nunnery near Douglas. A parish also bears her name. In Ireland her religious establishments are numbered by the score.
The Christian faith as then enunciated, no less than the government of the Church and the social life of the clergy, was widely dissimilar in Patrick's day to that by which it was succeeded. There seems to have been also an effort on the part of Patrick to fit the organization of the Church to the Celtic tribal customs of the people among whom it was established.
All were Bishops, founders of churches, and they observed ' one Mass, one celebration,' and, after the manner of the Druids, ` one tonsure from ear to ear.'
The Bishops seem to. have been pursued by a problem as old as the world. Only a woman understands a woman, it is said. The Bishops, no less than other men, claimed opportunities for a study of so absorbing a subject!
The good men appear to have had doubts of the exact status of woman in the sacred hierarchy. They distrusted their inclinations without defining the cause; so `they rejected not the services and society of women.'
But the sixth century was not half through before a new Order prevailed. There were fewer Bishops and more Presbyters, and these formed a secular clergy, who ` refused the services of women' and separated them from the monasteries. Side by side with the secular clergy there arose another Order of men, who sought to serve God by much prayer and fasting, by mortification of the flesh and studied aloofness from all society, whether of men or of women. The assumption is that in Man this Order found a favoured retreat.
Among the helpers of St. Brigit was one St. Finian, who established the monastic school at Clonard, at which St. Columba was educated. St. Columba is reported to have founded 300 churches in Ireland alone and prior to the monastic settlement at Iona. The evidence of a Columban church in Man shows probability, but it is by no means conclusive.
The whole story has an academic, rather than a practical, interest when we review the facts from a later standpoint. In Ireland seeds of dissension were sown over the controversy regarding the date for the observance of Easter. It is difficult for us to realize that the celebration of the anniversaries of Christ's birth and death and resurrection formed no part of the ritual of the early Church, and that when the resurrection was recognized as a great festival, the Church in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries was torn asunder by the acrimonious discussion of the proper date.
In the sixth century the Christian Church observed the anniversary of Christ's resurrection as early as March 21 and as late as April 26. In England in the seventh century members of the same household could be found celebrating Eastertide and Palm Sunday concurrently.
Bede gives evidence of the bitter anger to which the controversy gave rise. When the King of Northumbria was called in to arbitrate upon this singular dispute he was solemnly warned by Bishop Wilfred against giving heed to the specious pleas of Bishop Coleman, his adversary. ' This is a momentous issue,' exclaimed the future St. Wilfred, pointing his finger menacingly at the King, ` on which may depend whether your Majesty will spend eternity in hell or in heaven.'
No wonder that the King, despite his admitted leanings the other way, was impressed by so severe a caution, and gave his decision accordingly. But the controversy was not silenced; it crops up again and again down to the eighth century. The decree of Pius I. notwithstanding, the crucifixion of Christ was not fixed on a Friday, and the resurrection for the following Sunday, until the Council of Nice. 6-2
The special interest in this discussion that belongs to our present narrative is in part due to the disastrous effect it exercised upon the essential life, no less than the harmony, of the Church in Ireland. In the South of Ireland authority was in closer touch and sooner recognized; but in the North, with which the Church in Man was in keener sympathy and to which it was more readily responsive, the Roman time was not established among the Celtic communities of the Columban persuasion till about 700, or later.
Into the midst of a people thrown into bewilderment by so extraordinary a discussion came the conquering hosts of Scandinavia, bringing with them the very name of Easter, the Goddess of Spring.
In Ireland, as in other kingdoms, the pagan Norsemen bore down every obstacle to their rule, and yet never wholly dominated the consciences of the people settled at long distances from the seaboard. But Man was an easier conquest to a valiant race of sea-dogs, brave even to defiance, who seemed born to rule men with a mastery no less complete than that of the angry waves over whose crest they so proudly sailed. Every obstacle they swept from their path, and established themselves as the indisputable masters of our island.
The Celtic Church, not too sure of itself, and weakened by dissension within and the pressure of authority from without, disappeared before the Viking hosts, and by the middle of the ninth century we had the unique spectacle of a people of Christian birth or ancestry celebrating Eastertide with high carnival, and yet attaching to the observance no higher significance than that of the opening of spring.