Chapter Twenty

St. Patrick of Ireland

The day after Oilill's first encounter with the serpent, the young man took up his magic sword and prepared to do battle once more. But the Druids caught sight of him marching to the field, and assembled to block his path. With the boldness of their large numbers, they challenged him to interfere. Oilill could not justly apply his sword against the Celtic priests – they were not his true enemy; and so he was forced to turn away, feeling all possible sorrow for the poor brave princess who was about to be sacrificed to a monster, all for naught.

He headed back towards the castle to admit the setback to his friend: the Bishop Padraig.

The shrouded man approached him before the entrance to the dungeons, where he offered Oilill a bundle of dense black fabric, which he produced from within the folds of his own cape. This, he made the warrior aware, was the Cloak of Darkness. Not only would it make its wearer invisible, but it would carry him to whatever place to which he set his mind. With renewed hope, Oilill accepted the cloak; hung it over his shoulders; and was instantly transported – unnoticed by all – to the side of the princess in the field at the foot of Slieve Mish.

Again the serpent came, half blind and wholly agitated by the battle of the previous day. When it spied the princess through that one remaining eye of fire, tethered alone and helpless to the dead tree, it lunged for her. Oilill sprung between them and attacked, striking its fang with the Sword of Sharpness. The serpent screamed in surprise, and, then, thrashed about, trying to find the invisible assailant.

It sniffed, and hissed when it remembered the scent of its recent foe; and it tried to smell out his position, but could not find him. Oilill leaped from place to place, never remaining still long enough for the serpent to pinpoint him. He swung his sword here and jabbed it there, trying to discover a weakness, but still found every inch of flesh to be well guarded with a thick, scaled armor.

The fight went on for hours with neither opponent gaining on the other. Eventually, the serpent grew tired, and by the time dusk drew near, it turned and slithered away.

The Druids came out to the field, astounded by the sight they had seen and unaware of the sight they had not seen. In their eyes the great serpent only lunged about at the air for hours on end and roared at nothing in particular. The council was angry that their sacrifice had not yet been taken, and declared that they would return again on the morrow.

Later, when the king was alone, Oilill appeared to him by way of removing the cloak. The king realized what Oilill must have done in the field, and professed himself grateful to the young man for defending his daughter's life, once more.

Oilill asked that, in return for the favor he had performed, the king would free Bishop Padraig from the dungeons so that they could work together to rid Antrim, and all of Eire, from the evil nathair for once and for all.

The king agreed.

On the third morning, the princess was placed back upon the dead tree to await her death. The Druids kept watch to waylay any further interference. Little did they know that Padraig, Oilill and the shrouded man had placed themselves at the far edge of the field to intercept the beast long before it could reach the maiden.

When the serpent appeared yet again, and once more slithered in the direction of Slieve Mish, the shrouded man stepped forth and removed a small harp from inside his cape. The petite instrument was wrapped in carved designs of intricate knotted patterns, gilded in the purest glow of gold, and its strings glimmered as though made from the threads of a gossamer web. He began to pluck the strands, and out came a mysterious melody, unknown to anyone in Antrim. The song floated across the fields and through the forests, enchanting any and all nathair within its reach. The legless creatures began to slink towards the maker of that fine music.

The three companions watched as the giant serpent halted in its path, as though unable to move. They began a slow retreat away from the field, and in the direction of the main road, which led out of Antrim. The nathair followed, more and more joining as they moved along, entranced by the notes of the harp.

For a day they walked; and when they set foot unto a green meadow in southern Ulster, Padraig began to notice patches of shamrocks, those small green plants that had so recently amazed him. The three companions strode through a wide covering of these shamrocks, and Padraig observed that the first of the nathair followed very warily into the patch. Upon entering, the creature slunk and writhed as though undergoing an unknown torture until it wilted away into a stick.

"My friends, look at this," the bishop called the others' attention to the wonder.

A few other nathair followed in the same fashion as the first, and ended with like consequences. At this, the others of their species began to avoid the shamrocks, going around the edges of the patch as they trailed on.

The bishop's mind spun with the implication behind this result. He knew how to keep the nathair out of this land for good. "We must scatter the shamrocks across the earth, shield the Isle in the protection of the wee plants of the Trinity."

Padraig and Oilill began to collect the shamrock blossoms, so abundant in the spring, and to harvest their seeds. As they continued, the shrouded man maintained his song, and the others dispersed the seeds along the ground.

They made their way all over Eire in this manner, a slow and tedious journey that lasted for weeks. They crossed rivers and mountains, gathering the nathair and laying down the makings of a blanket of shamrocks. Even when Padraig and Oilill stopped to rest and to eat, the shrouded man played the harp unceasingly, never breaking the enchantment.

From Ulster to Meath, Connaught to Leinster, then on to Munster, the people of the Isle watched as the three companions walked. At the end of many, many days they reached the shores of Galway Bay. Here they climbed into a small boat and rowed out to sea, still harping the music.

The nathair followed the bearers of the melody into the water, and there, they drowned in the currents.

The great serpent, however, entranced though it had been throughout the trek over Eire, would not succumb to the sea. Upon feeling the rise of the waters by that rocky shore, it shook itself from the grip of magic, and turned to flee back inland.

Padraig, Oilill and the shrouded man chased after their foe through the thick of forests, the mire of marshes, the brambles of woods and the heights of mountains, but could not overtake it until they reached the waters of what would later be called Loch Dearg in the land that would be known as Donegal. It slowed its pace upon the lakeshore, exhausted from its flight. The three men were themselves fatigued, but could not forgo the opportunity before them.

They discussed their plan of attack. Oilill claimed that he had tried every inch of the serpent, and found it impenetrable.

"But we must find a weakness somewhere. We must dispatch this monster that feeds on the people of Eire," Padraig asserted.

After a few moments' thought, the bishop's own statement led him to an idea. He observed to his friends that, perhaps, it was impenetrable from the outside, but might it not be vulnerable from within? A flash of shock and understanding passed between them before the others could agree. Killing the beast from within did seem the probable course of action.

Oilill volunteered for the job and stepped towards the resting monster, but Padraig refused to let him go any further. The bishop declared that his friend had done so much already. He could not let Oilill risk his life yet again while Padraig stood back and watched. He was the one who had pledged his promise to the king to rid Antrim of the nathair, and so he must take the responsibility on himself.

Oilill could not relinquish to him the Sword of Sharpness, for it would not obey the other man's hands, but he gave Padraig the dagger from within his sheath, and then, stood back in agitation as his brave friend confronted the lying beast.

The serpent watched him approach and hissed in suspicion, but Padraig did not even put up a fight when it snapped its jaw at him. If a serpent could grin, this one's smile would have stretched across the shoreline at the sight of the prey that did not run in horror. When next it bared its fangs, it was to snatch the bishop up into its hot, dank mouth. Padraig allowed himself to be swallowed whole, dagger and all, down and down through the serpent's long gullet.

Several minutes passed as Oilill waited for Padraig to take action from within the belly of the serpent. He grew frustrated and impatient as the beast laid motionless by the lake, no sign of turmoil, no evidence of attack. At long last, the warrior could restrain himself no more. He charged towards the beast. The serpent raised his giant head at the sight of the oncoming assault, and poised its maw to thrust forth and slug down a second man.

Just as Oilill came within range of its bite, the serpent's eye went wide, and it spewed out a sound of complete agony and disbelief. Twisting its head in shock, the creature spun around to see its own scales being ripped open from within, a mass pushing out of its flesh.

Coated in blood and unknown fluids Bishop Padraig pulled his head and arms from within of the serpent's body. As he attempted to free his legs from the oozing wound, the serpent riled in misery. He could not dislodge himself before the beast flung its body into the lake. Once in the water, it slid along the surface, not drowning as the other snakes had done, but gliding between the waves, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. Padraig was dragged right along with it, still working his legs out of the serpent's bowls.

Blood gushed from the wound in such quantities that it soon spread across the waves and turned the lake red. The serpent headed towards an island in the water, where it beached itself on the shore.

It did not rest for long, however, and Padraig's left leg was still not liberated when it rushed up the short strand to the orifice of a cave, the floor of which plummeted rapidly beneath the earth. The serpent began to descend, hauling the bishop along by that tangled leg.

Deeper and deeper they plunged, until the great beast reached the edge of a chasm that fell into immeasurable darkness. There it threw itself over the side, and pulled the brave bishop in its dive.

But Padraig would not join the serpent in its fall. He grabbed onto a jagged rock that jutted out from the cliff face, and clung to it with all the might he had left. His foot ripped away from the serpent's body with an audible pop, and left him dangling over the brink.

By the time Padraig pulled himself back up over the cliff's edge and dragged his body back to the surface of the cave, cold and wet with the creature's blood, Oilill and the shrouded man managed to row their way to the island. They offered him aid and set up camp.

For three days they rested on the island's shore. Padraig recounted for his friends the events that transpired between him and the serpent, and what sights he encountered within the depths of the cave. The Christian bishop avowed that it must be the realm of Purgatory down there beneath the earth, and the chasm was surely the Gateway into Hell.

The fourth morning after they vanquished the giant serpent,the three friends journeyed back to Antrim. At the border of the kingdom, the shrouded man hid away the magical harp and the Cloak of Darkness within the folds of his cape and disappeared. When Padraig questioned him about this, Oilill told him that their mysterious companion had set out to return the items to their rightful owners.

It was on the seventh day after the defeat of the nathair when Bishop Padraig and Oilill walked into Castle Antrim and stood before the king. They were welcomed with much warmth by the lord and his daughter. The news had spread rapidly of their success in purging Eire of the serpentine plague, and they were declared grand champions of the Isle.

The Druid councilors presented less than pleased rejoinders over the return of the heroes, their own methods of ridding the land of the nathair having been thwarted, and the promise of the bishop's new religion now threatening their hold on the king. Padraig knew he was to have a long struggle to complete his task of converting Eire to Christianity, but he now had the king of Antrim on his side, as well as the benefit of the snake legend.

As for Oilill, both the king and the princess were grateful to him, and wanted to reward him for his bravery. The king extended the hero a place of honor in his council.

"I thank thee, my lord," Oilill responded upon the offer, "but I confess, I have no intention of remaining in Antrim. It is my wish to settle once more within the homestead of my family near a small village called Sligo in the land of Connacht. If I may, however, I will make one request of thee."

"Yes, noble warrior, thou need only ask it of me," the king replied.

"I ask thee for the hand of thy daughter in marriage – if she so desires."

Both men turned to her, and saw the bright smile upon her face. That was indication enough for the maiden's father of her wishes. The king was sorry to lose both the advantage of an advisor and the company of his daughter at once, but he granted the young man's request.

Oilill returned to the birthplace of his mother, a secluded farm under the shadow of Benbulben. There, he and his princess reestablished the farm and raised a small family. Now and again, the household received a shrouded visitor, who they always welcomed into their home with great warmth. Their lives were quiet, peaceful and happy; and their generations carried on in much the same way, flourishing for centuries in the land of Sligo. Gradually, they became known amongst their neighbors as Mac Giolla Padraig – the servants of Padraig.

And over time, the name evolved to become McGillpatrick.