On Holy Saturday St. Patrick arrived at Slane, where he caused a tent to be erected, and lighted the paschal fire at nightfall, preparatory to the celebration of the Easter festival. The princes and chieftains of Meath were, at the same time, assembled at Tara, where King Laeghaire was holding a great pagan festival. The object of this meeting has been disputed, some authorities saying that it was convoked to celebrate the Beltinne, or fire of Bal or Baal; others, that the king was commemorating his own birthday. On the festival of Beltinne it was forbidden to light any fire until a flame was visible from the top of Tara Hill. Laeghaire was indignant that this regulation should have been infringed; and probably the representation of his druids regarding the mission of the great apostle, did not tend to allay his wrath. Determined to examine himself into the intention of these bold strangers, he set forth, accompanied, by his bards and attendants, to the place where the sacred fire had been kindled, and ordered the apostle to be brought before him strictly commanding, at the same time, that no respect should be shown to him.
Notwithstanding the king’s command, Erc, the son of Dego, rose up to salute him, obtained the grace of conversion, and was subsequently promoted to the episcopate. The result of this interview was the appointment of a public discussion, to take place the next day at Tara, between St. Patrick and the pagan bards.
[Illustration: St. Patrick going to Tara.]
It was Easter Sunday—a day ever memorable for this event in the annals of Erinn. Laeghaire and his court sat in state to receive the ambassador of the Eternal King. Treacherous preparations had been made, and it was anticipated that Patrick and his companions would scarcely reach Tara alive. The saint was aware of the machinations of his enemies; but life was of no value to him, save as a means of performing the great work assigned him, and the success of that work was in the safe keeping of Another. The old writers love to dwell on the meek dignity of the apostle during this day of trial and triumph. He set forth with his companions, from where he had encamped, in solemn procession, singing a hymn of invocation which he had composed, in the Irish tongue, for the occasion, and which is still preserved, and well authenticated. He was clothed as usual, in white robes; but he wore his mitre, and carried in his hand the Staff of Jesus. Eight priests attended him, robed also in white, and his youthful convert, Benignus, the son of Seschnan.
Thus, great in the arms of meekness and prayer, did the Christian hosts calmly face the array of pagan pomp and pride. Again the monarch had commanded that no honour should be paid to the saint, and again he was disobeyed. His own chief poet and druid, Dubtach, rose up instantly on the entrance of the strangers, and saluted the venerable apostle with affection and respect. The Christian doctrine was then explained by St. Patrick to his wondering audience, and such impression made, that although Laeghaire lived and died an obstinate pagan, he nevertheless permitted the saint to preach where and when he would, and to receive all who might come to him for instruction or holy baptism.