Here is a St. Patrick story that I told at the 2012 retreat that I led at Washington National Cathedral, one that has nothing to do with snakes or shamrocks. It provides an image of the meeting of ancient ways and the new order that I find very tender -- and quite surprising, as St. Patrick is not often described as being such a friend to the older traditions.
According to a story recorded in the 12th century, St. Patrick and his retinue are just finishing their prayers when out of the forest walk nine enormous warriors and their equally fearsome dogs. Somehow this company has survived some 150 years after the destruction of the Fianna, the warrior band led by the great hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. After Patrick flings holy water over their heads to banish the legions of demons who accompany them, the warriors sit down. So tall are they that the largest of Patrick’s companions cannot look them in the eye, even when they are seated. Patrick asks the leader his name. “I am Cailte, son of Crunnchu, son of Ronan,” the giant replies.
Then Patrick does something that caught me completely by surprise. In the most courteous way, he tells his guest that he would like to ask him a favor. Cailte assents, with equal politeness, and Patrick asks, “Could you find us a well of pure water close by, so that we might baptize the peoples of Bregia, of Meath, and of Usnach?”
Next to Patrick’s camp is a ring fort – Fionn mac Cumhaill’s own fort of Drumderg, or “Red Ridge” – a place on which Patrick had already bestowed his blessing before Cailte’s arrival. (Did Patrick know it was Fionn’s fort when he blessed it? The chronicle does not say.) Cailte rises, takes the smaller man by the hand, and walks with him toward the ramparts – a mismatched pair not unlike Aragorn and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. They enter the rath, which has lain empty for three times 50 years, and walk nine steps to the pool of Tráig Dá Ban – literally “Two Women’s Strand” – where Cailte praises the vegetation growing at its undisturbed margins and shares a poetic vision of the countryside nurtured by the spring’s crystal-clear waters:
O spring of Tráig Dá Ban,
lovely your bright cress sprigs;
since your pruning was neglected,
your brooklime has multiplied.
Trout off your banks,
wild swine in your wood recesses;
deer on the rocks for hunting,
and dappled, red-breasted fawns.
Mast on your trees' branches,
fish in your river estuary,
lovely your stalks of arum,
O green-wooded stream.
Such a touching image – the old warrior walking hand-in-hand with the saint to gather water for baptism from inside Fionn’s own fort, not far from the very pool on the River Boyne where Fionn tasted the Salmon of Wisdom!
The next day, Cailte admits to Patrick that he doesn’t know the reason why his band found its way to the saint's camp. Patrick, however, is sure that it is “so that you might submit to the Gospel of the King of Heaven and Earth, the true and glorious God”.
No profession of faith is required of the ancients. Perhaps it was sufficient that, during the previous night’s feasting, Patrick asked what kept the warriors alive through the decades, and Cailte replied with an insightful triad – “truth in our hearts, strength in our hands, and fulfillment in our tongues”.
After he and his men are baptized, the grateful Cailte bestows on Patrick a mass of red gold as long and thick as Patrick’s arm, an offering both valuable and sentimental, for it was the last gift the warrior had received from his chieftain, Fionn. We are told that the gold was used on psalters, missals, and bells – or perhaps more likely, on bell shrines like the one attributed to St. Patrick that resides in the National Museum in Dublin.
The chronicle goes on to describe Cailte’s subsequent wanderings with Patrick, during which the ancient warrior tells place-name stories that introduce the cleric to the land where he will spread the faith. Patrick, uncertain whether he should be neglecting his prayers to hear these tales, asks his guardian angels for advice. They reassure him:
Dear holy cleric, these old warriors tell you no more than a third of their stories, because their memories are faulty. Have these stories written down on poets’ tablets in refined language, so that the hearing of them will provide entertainment for the lords and commons of later times.
Patrick does so with diligence, asking the name of each place they visit and the origin of that name. He hears tale after tale of the Fianna – and of the sidhe, the beings of legend who have retreated under Ireland's hills – and asks his clerk to write down each one. It is as if he is drinking in all the wisdom embodied in the warrior age, for the sake of his holy mission and of posterity, becoming a worthy successor to Fionn mac Cumhail. Indeed, the chronicle names Patrick as the “Salmon of Sovereignty”, Sovereignty being the ancient title borne by the Land herself as she enters into a sacred relationship with those who live upon it.
[updated 17 March 2014]