Time, which spares not kings or princes, any more than other people, at length laid his heavy hand on the Seven Great Champions of Christendom, and eke on their once doughty Squires. Hard knocks in battles and tournaments, voyages by sea, and travels by land, hard fare as well as gay revellings, fights with giants, monsters, wild beasts, and evil spirits, had done their work, unnerved their once iron arms, and turned their raven or auburn locks to grey; while from their chins, instead of full bushy beards, hung down long silvery streamers of white; and those lion voices, which once had been heard high above the din of battle, and had braved kings on their thrones and giants in their dens, were now changed to weak and trembling trebles, which could scarce be heard even above the summer breeze.
First, of Saint Patrick I will tell. Laying aside his lance, and trusty sword, and armour, which he committed to the care of his ancient follower and faithful squire, Terence O'Grady, (now the father of a fine family, and settled on his own estate in Ireland, which has been handed down to his descendants from generation to generation,) he assumed the humble palmer's guise, and resolved to wander up and down the world, not, as before, to perform feats of arms, but to collect all sorts of information which might be useful to his beloved native land, where he proposed ultimately to lay his bones.
No longer was he accompanied by his faithful Terence, but solitary and alone did the aged Palmer go forth. Great as he was, many sins had he to mourn, and much had he to be sorry for.
Among the things he most regretted were the opportunities he had lost of doing good, and of gaining that knowledge which would have made him useful in his generation. However, he thought that he would make amends for his early neglect; but even the great Saint had to learn that lost opportunities in the days of our youth and strength can seldom or never be recovered when years advance with rapid strides and lay a heavy hand upon us. Thus, resting on his staff, with a scallop shell in front of his broad-brimmed hat, in russet coat and wallet at his back, the old hero set out once more on his adventurous journey.
Many strange adventures even then befell him. Often was he assailed by fierce temptations, but bravely he resisted them, as he had done his enemies of old. The laws and institutions of foreign countries were the chief objects of his inquiries. Nothing came amiss to him; he asked about everything he saw, and never seemed weary of gaining information. Even into cook-shops and kitchens he found his way; and some assert that the Irish from him learned how to cook potatoes properly, though I do not see exactly how that can be the case, seeing, as may be remembered, that potatoes came from America, and that America did not happen to be known in those days. Perhaps he, however, may have been over there unknown to the rest of the world. Others say that, at all events, he introduced the Irish-stew; but to that there seems also some little objection of the same character, as |praties| enter largely into its composition.
Then, again, that objection is overruled by those who assert that some other root or some cereal might have been used in their stead. No true Irishman, however, doubts the following fact, which is about to be described.
Travelling onwards, he at length reached a part of Africa, often much infested by serpents. He was there told of a rare and wonderful means which the inhabitants employed to get rid of the serpents. Having caught them, they tied fish-hooks to their tails. No sooner did the serpents find this incumberance attached to them, than in their rage they never failed to turn round and bite at their other extremities. In this way they invariably caught their mouths in the hooks, and thus being turned into hoops or rings, from which uncomfortable position being utterly unable to escape, they were easily caught up on long sticks and thrown over the left shoulder into the nearest lake or river, from which they were certain never again to come back.
This was only one, it must be remembered, of the many important pieces of information that blessed Saint and great man Saint Patrick picked up in his latter travels. Some say that he taught the Irish to read and write. Certain, at all events, it is that he introduced that fine and glorious weapon, the shillelagh, among them; and, moreover, taught them the use of it, for which his memory is ever to be held in due reverence, not to speak of many other reasons why he should be loved and admired by all the sons of Erin.
At length, Saint Patrick, feeling that his latter days were approaching, got back safe to Old Ireland, there firmly purposed to leave his bones. The country, at that time there can be no manner of doubt about it, was overrun with serpents, big and little, in great numbers, whose bite was so venomous, that, if a man got stung by one of them, he in a minute or less swelled up into a mountain. So the people came to Saint Patrick, -- for to whom else should they go, seeing that, of course, he was one of the wisest men in the kingdom? -- and they told him that it was their firm belief that the whole land, from north to south, would be depopulated before long if the snakes were not driven out of it. So, just then thinking of something else, he told them to take their shillelaghs and to knock the snakes on the head, and to drive them into the sea, he himself setting the example; and right lustily he laid about him, as he was wont to do in his early days, among Pagan hosts, or wild beasts, or giants, or ogres.
Suddenly, as he was attacking a monstrous serpent wriggling about before him, he recollected the way in which he had seen the snakes got rid of in Africa. So, ordering all the fish-hooks to be procured throughout Ireland to be brought to him, he had them tied on to the tails of all the serpents to be found. Instantly the serpents were turned into hoops, and calling his faithful followers, he showed them how to ring them all on their shillelaghs. This done, staggering away with them at their backs, all the serpents, and snakes, and vipers, were carried off to the sea, into which they were thrown and drowned, and from that day to this not one has ever ventured to come back to the shores of Old Ireland, and none ever will, that we may be assured.
After this great and important achievement, the pious Saint wished to retire altogether from public life. So he had a hermitage cut for himself out of a big grey moss-overgrown rock, on an island in a lake surrounded by trees, where very few people ever thought of coming to see him; but some good pious families, who lived near, used to take him fish, and other provisions, to supply his daily wants, which were, indeed, but few.
There he lived on for some years, his existence being neither very useful nor very interesting, and the puzzle was how he managed to pass his time. His hair grew longer than ever, and so did his nails; and at length it was discovered that he was with them, day after day, engaged in digging his own grave. Like the mole, working away, he turned up the earth till he had made it deep enough and long enough to suit his taste. When it was completed he laid himself down in it, weary of the world, and never rose from it again.
When the peasants came the next morning, they found the old Saint dead; so, mournfully they threw back the earth he had turned up; and many years afterwards, the exact spot being ascertained, a magnificent church was raised over it to his memory.