The Shining City on the hill: Eniskilllen, Massachusetts, and Rome

Columbanus

In 1630, the Puritan colonist of the Massachusetts Bay colony, John Winthorp, used the image of the “City on a  vision of purpose and destiny – which he believed would fail or thrive before the eyes of the world.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

His idea was that this new colony would, like the “civilia” of the ancient world, be a beacon of order and justice; a light in the wilderness. Its allure lies in the visibility of the image and the security it suggests. The “City on the Hill” is a shining bastion and a permanent presence.

In North Africa, 410 AD, St Augustine of Hippo gazed across the Mediterranean and contemplated the fate of the ancient capital of Rome which had been sacked by the Visigoth king, Alaric. It was an earth shattering event which would hasten the disintegration of the Roman Empire and it caused a great schism of faith in the Chrtistian world.

Augustine addressed this great schismatic moment in his treatise, The City of God. He postulated that, Rome, the “City of the World”, failed because it failed to seek to emulate the “City of God”.

Winthorp’s vision was to instate the ideal of St. Augustine¹s spiritual City of God in a city of the world.

The sacking of Rome has been likened to the diming of light, and the following millennium has been called the Dark Ages. Learning would all but vanish; as the Roman poet, Horace, prophetically wrote “you may drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she will always return”.The walled town became the redoubt of learning and the term civilised grew out of the recognition that law was only applied within the walls of the cities “the civilia”.

In Ireland, at precisely the time that the Roman world was teetering on collapse, the opposite was happening and in the wild places a love of letters blossomed. 100 years after Augustine and 2000 miles from Hippo, the Celtic monks lived out the vision of Augustine¹s City of God, paradoxically, by seeking God in the wilderness.

These monks would reinvigorate the European world or learning and bring the gospel and the world of letters back to the wilderness beyond the city walls. 200 years after the fall of Rome, an Irish monk, Columbanus founded the Abbey of Bobbio and its famous library. Amazingly he did this at the age of 74, and it was the last in a string of great monasteries he founded.

Almost 1000 years after Colombanus an Irish poet witnessing the fall of another civilisation, also recalled the image of the City on the Hill.  Teig Dall Ó Huiginn (1550-91) was a poet of the Gaelic order who chronicled the tribal politics of 16th C. Ireland through his eulogies and panegyrics.

Praising the Gaelic chieftain of Fermanagh, Brian McUidhir, he describes Eniskillen castle as a stronghold of the old order resisting the siege of the English conquest.

“The white walled rampart amongst the blue hillocks Fermanagh of the fortunate ramparts is the Adam’s paradise of Inisfáil”

Although Teig Dall’s poetry revealed a prescience of the coming fall of Gaelic Ireland, the thrust of his work also betrays little suspicion of the urgency of the coming disaster. As the scholar of medieval Gaelic, Eleanor Knott says: “Shadows palpable enough to us in his own poems portend no disaster to him.”

In another of his poems “The Lion and Fox” he uses the allegory of an ageing lion trying to trick the wily fox into coming into his den. The fox, seeing the tracks of all the animals entering but none leaving, declines.

Teig’s lines chime beautifully. A small selection of the stanzas of this poem illustrate this:

An feasach dhó dála an leómhain,

lá dár fóbair aindligheadh?

níor geineadh neach ré mbí a bhuidhe,

rí na n-uile ainmhidheadh.

Goiris ‘na cheann ceathra an talmhan,

tiad chuige don chéidiarraidh;

dob iomdha fan gcuireadh gcuanach

buidhean uallach éigiallaidh.

 

Translation

Does he know of the case of the lion,

once when he attempted treachery?

To no one yet born does he show gratitude,

this king of all the animals.

He summoned to him t

he quadrupeds of the earth,

they go at the first asking; many a proud,

headstrong band attended the thronged gathering.

 

That parable rings so true of the political landscape of Ireland which the English conquerors manipulated to their own purposes.

The lion and fox by Teig Dall Ó Huiggin was composed in a strict meter named Seadnadh Mor. It is a syllabic poem meaning the metre is based primarily on syllable count. It has further features of set patterns of syllable clusters and alliteration. These syllabic patterns have a lot in common with music theory and were used to devise complex time signatures by the fiddle and voice duo Preab Meadar. Seadnadh mor was composed to the words of Teig Dall’s The lion and fox. It has a 15/8 time signature

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Teig Dall perhaps suffered from that too common ailment of men of ideas; that his insights didn’t convert into a strategic outlook. Like the Roman’s, who Augustine criticised, he neglected to unify the realm of ideas with the corporeal realm in which he lived. His City of The World didn’t properly reflect his City of God.

In congruence with this Irony, his gift of far-sight didn’t help him predict his own death. Teig Dall was killed in 1591 by a vengeful chieftain who he had satirised. He should have seen it coming.

His Gaelic world had its own Visigoth sacking in 1603 at Mellifont Abbey, and the millennium long age of Celtic learning came to an end. The Celtic dark ages had arrived.

 


 

Lorcán Mac Mathúna

 

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